If there is a place more mythologized in the American heart than the South, it is certainly the West. Like our own Southern stories, tales of cowboys and shoot-outs, explorations and ghost towns, lend the region a dreamy sheen of legend. It comes as no surprise that the place where these two collide, our western extremity, is home to a town of mythological magnitude. El Paso, Texas, is the westernmost point of this region we call the South. Like most things in Texas, this city is big, and it’s got enough stories and grit to fill every corner of its old streets.
Spanish for “The Pass,” El Paso got its start in 1659 when Fray Garcia de San Francisco established Our Lady of Guadalupe Mission of El Paso del Norte. The bustling, Spanish-infused city grew like ivy around the mission. The growing hub lay somewhere between the hazy lines dividing Mexico and America, its boundaries following the path of the Rio Grande, until 1850. The Compromise of 1850, in an act that disregarded the natural lay of the land and the history of the city, moved the border of Texas to follow the 32nd parallel, essentially severing the city into two halves: Mexican and American. What exists today is the El Paso-Juarez region (Juarez, Chihuahua making up the Mexican portion of the metropolis), which comprises the largest binational and bilingual population in the entire Western hemisphere.
After the secession of the territory by Mexico, the American population of El Paso began to increase. Combine that with the transient societies of the post-Civil-War South and the explosion of the railroad industry, and it’s easy to see how El Paso matured quickly from mission to boomtown through the second half of the nineteenth century. But the growth of the locals didn’t necessarily inspire positive changes; the influx of wild newcomers garnered the city a well-earned reputation for danger.
Without a stringent or well-established law system, violence, prostitution, and gambling flourished, earning El Paso the nickname the Six Shooter Capital. Bullets flew haphazardly in bar fights and brawls. One notable shootout took place on April 14, 1881, the Four Dead in Five Seconds Gunfight. Following a controversial court decision regarding the murder of two vaqueros, or Mexican cowboys, insults began to fill the air of a local tavern. Guns were drawn, but not fast enough: Marshal Dallas Stroudenmore had killed three of the four men who lay dead in the streets following the five-second shootout, his twin .44-caliber Colt revolvers smoking.
Violence only increased with the Mexican Revolution in 1910. Fleeing war and death, countless Mexican refugees fled to El Paso. A new middle class arose in the city, made up of displaced Mexicans making the most of their exclusion from home, but other, less fortunate refugees resorted to brutality. Angry displaced militants brought the violence of the Revolution with them. They drafted the Plan de San Diego with intentions of killing off the Anglo population in Texas, but before the plan could gain traction, the rebels behind it were hunted down and killed by Texas Rangers. The long-term political effects were tremendous, the two populations distrustful of one another, with the traditional white population dominating politics for decades.
The violence and corruption of El Paso was not destined to last forever. As the settlement of the West calmed, so did El Paso, its former trades like laundering and prostitution replaced with mining and legitimate business. With the introduction and establishment of several military bases in the region, crime dwindled, leaving the city almost squeaky-clean and free of its embarrassing past. In fact, El Paso has even been named the safest large city in America for four consecutive years. With an ironically unsullied modern environment, El Paso provides a sound upbringing for its children and the list of famous notables with El Paso origins is impressive and includes the likes of famous author Cormac McCarthy and Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks (Fleetwood Mac even played their first concert in El Paso).
Today, El Paso is a vibrant Texan town. The city is absolutely brimming with attractions, like museums of art and archaeology and magnificent gardens, and nearly every weekend you can find an event to attend in the city limits. It hosts festivals and gatherings of national magnitude, like the Sun Bowl (the second oldest bowl game in the country), the Southwestern International PRCA Rodeo (the city’s original sporting event), the Amigo Airsho (one of the best air shows in the US), and the Fiesta de las Flores (which celebrates the Hispanic heritage of El Paso). Whether you’re a resident or a visitor, El Paso has an attraction for everyone. And if museums, fairs, and festivals don’t interest you, sidle up to a bar and grab a margarita—the eponymous drink was invented in this very city.
El Paso embodies a very special Southern trait: the ability to change. Once a brutal boomtown, the city transformed itself into the family-friendly epicenter for the Southwest. Stories of shootouts and manhunts give the city’s history flair, but those stories certainly don’t define it today. Outsiders often fault us Southerners for our obsession with our history, claiming that we’re so mired in it we can’t move forward. But as El Paso proves, we all have interesting tales to tell of our past—but we’re pretty darn content with our present, too.
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