"Chicano writers from El Paso are the most progressive, open-minded, far-reaching, and inclusive writers of them all."

Octavio Romano

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Smeltertown and a Book we Missed for May: Recovering the Hispanic History of Texas


We missed one for May, so make sure to check out this new book. Since it is edited my Monica Perales, history professor at the University of Houston and UTEP graduate, we might as well mention her forthcoming book on Smeltertown this coming fall.

Arte Publico Press will release Recovering the Hispanic History of Texas (Arte Publico Press May 31, 2010 ISBN-10: 1558855912) edited by Monica Perales and Raul A. Ramos.

This book includes eight essays examining the dominant narrative of Texas history and seek to establish a record that includes both Mexican men and women, groups whose voices have been notably absent from the history books.

Finding documents that reflect the experiences of those outside of the mainstream culture is difficult, since historical archives tend to contain materials produced by the privileged and governing classes of society. The contributing scholars make a case for expanding the notion of archives to include alternative sources.

By utilizing oral histories, Spanish-language writings and periodicals, folklore, photographs, and other personal materials, it becomes possible to recreate a history that includes a significant part of the state's population, the Mexican community that lived in the area long before its absorption into the United States.

These articles, originally presented as part of the Hispanic History of Texas Project's first conference held in conjunction with the Texas State Historical Association's annual conference in 2008, primarily explore themes within the field of Chicano/a Studies.

Divided into three sections, Creating Social Landscapes, Racialized Identities, and Unearthing Voices, the pieces cover issues as diverse as the Mexican-American Presbyterian community, the female voice in the history of the Texas borderlands, and Tejano roots on the Louisiana-Texas border in the 18th and 19th centuries.

In their introduction, editors Perales and Ramos write that the scholars, in their exploration of the state's history, go beyond the standard categories of immigration, assimilation, and the nation state. Instead, they forge new paths into historical territories by exploring gender and sexuality, migration, transnationalism, and globalization.


For those of you not from El Paso...let me take a step back, those of you from El Paso and not from El Paso, Smeltertown was a town near the ASARCO smelter right on the border on the Rio Grande. There are various "Smeltertowns" all over the United States. We are refering to the one that was near El Paso.

                                         Smeltertown, El Bajo

Most of Smeltertown as since been torn down with exception of La Calavera. Know as "La Smelta," "La esmelta," "La sali," "Sal si puedes," it was made up of "el bajo," "La Calavera" which still exists, lo de "arriba," and the Smeltertown Cemetary.

                                            Entrance sign to La Calavera off Executive Blvd. 
                                                        and Paisano. Photo from

                                              Map of La Calavera. Hwy 85 is Paisano Drive. San Marcos Dr. off Exe-
                                                         cutive Center Blvd. is La Calavera
La Calavera is just off of Executive Blvd. If you turn onto Executive from Paisano Drive, the entrance San Marcos Dr., where the above sign use to be, is to the immediate right. 

                                                          Arial photo of La Calavera from

                                           Two photos above from the Altman Collection, 
                                                         El Paso Public Library

Buena Vista
                                            Map above of Buena Vista. The River
                                            below is the Rio Grande and Sunland Park,
                                            New Mexico

Closely associated with Smeltertown is the enclave of Buena Vista near the "bridge to nowhere" near across I-10 from Sunland Park Mall.

Say you are driving east on I-10, pass the Sunland Park exit and look right (south). You'll see a playground right after an overpass. That overpass is the famous bridge to nowhere, which I heard was constructed by mistake. There, you'll see Buena Vista.
A few years ago when I put a a call for person who lived in some particular barrios of El Paso, I received several calls complaining that I did not include Smeltertown. I told these callers, many of them Smelta former residents, that a good book on the subject has already been done. 

The Cemetery
Rich Wright has an essay "Smeltertown Cemetery" that was published on The Newpapertree regarding the Smelter Cemetary. It also has some good photographs. There is also a KTSM story on the Smeltertown Cemetery Clean Up.

I remember an El Paso Times issues that had Jose Antonio Burciaga posing at this cemetery. I think he had some family buried there.

Old and New books on Smeltertown

I was referring to Monica Perales thesis, Smeltertown: A Biography of a Mexican Community (2003) and her M.S. thesis Between the burro and the smelter : the formation of Mexican American community and identity, Smeltertown, TX, 1915-1945 (1996). There is also a self-published book Smeltertown (2004)  by historian Fred Morales, however, as with most of Morales work, his sources are not given. Nevertheless, Morales' self-published book is a good read if you are looking for a non-academic read.

Carlos Flores also had a short story called "Smeltertown" that was published in Pieces of the Heart: New Chicano Fiction, edited by Gary Soto on Chronicle Books (1993). Jose Antonio Burciaga also has an short story called "Mando, La Luz, and Esmelta" in his famous Drink Cultura: Chicanismo book.

Here's the good news, Monica Perales will be releasing Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community  
(The University of North Carolina Press September 2, 2010 ISBN-10 080787146X).

Book Description
Company town. Blighted community. Beloved home. Nestled on the banks of the Rio Grande, at the heart of a railroad, mining, and smelting empire, Smeltertown--La Esmelda, as its residents called it--was home to generations of ethnic Mexicans who labored at the American Smelting and Refining Company in El Paso, Texas.

Using newspapers, personal archives, photographs, employee records, parish newsletters, and interviews with former residents, including her own relatives, Monica Perales unearths the history of this forgotten community. 

Spanning almost a century, Smeltertown traces the birth, growth, and ultimate demise of a working class community in the largest U.S. city on the Mexican border and places ethnic Mexicans at the center of transnational capitalism and the making of the urban West. 

Perales shows that Smeltertown was composed of multiple real and imagined social worlds created by the company, the church, the schools, and the residents themselves. Within these dynamic social worlds, residents forged permanence and meaning in the shadow of the smelter's giant smokestacks. Smeltertown provides insight into how people and places invent and reinvent themselves and illuminates a vibrant community grappling with its own sense of itself and its place in history and collective memory.


No comments: