EL PASO, Texas — Many consider them sister cities. With a combined population of more than 2 million persons, El Paso and Ciudad Juárez form one of the largest international metropolitan areas in the world.
El Paso is the 6th largest city in Texas while Ciudad Juárez has experienced a higher population growth rate than the country as a whole. Together they interact and even share citizens.
Recently though, most of what is heard about this urban area has to do with the Mexican drug cartels. Still, while Ciudad Juárez is ranked as one of the most dangerous places in the world, El Paso remains one of the safest cities in the United States. In my curiosity to find how it is that this city is viewed, I talked to five students living here but originating from different cities, states, and countries to see what they think of the Sun City.
“I am from the Northern Mariana Islands. Specifically, the island of Saipan,” said John Del Rosario. John came to Kaleen, TX at the age of 18 to meet and live with his four half siblings. He attended a local college and when he acquired enough school credits, he transferred to UTEP.
“The man who actually cleaned the carpet to my apartment when I was leaving Kaleen said it was a dirty city, but he was Hispanic, so I said, ‘Alright, well I’m gonna expect dirt now’,” said John.
Despite being the largest point of entry in the U.S./Mexico border, most people don’t know much about El Paso or Juárez before coming here. Abigail Delgado, a kinesiology major, grew up in Korea. Her father is an American stationed there by the US military. Before attending UTEP, her only knowledge of El Paso came from the infrequent visits to her grandparents who live here. “When I got here, I would only spend time with my grandparents and spend most of my time in their house or like Western Playland or something (laughs). But I knew very little really about anything really,” said Abigail.
Brenda Lepenzki was born in Juárez but moved to Reno, Nevada with her uncles at the age of 5. After moving around the country a few times, they ended up in Bossier City, Lousiana, where she attended elementary and high school. “I decided that I wanted to move to El Paso because that’s the city that borders where my family lives and I had no idea what would be in store or what I would find,” said Brenda. She moved at the age of 21 and has been here for the last couple of years.
“I was supposed to have moved here sooner, but I found out that one of my uncles had been kidnapped and so for me, I was really scared,” said Brenda. What little people do hear about this area mostly has to do with the violence and dangers of the death polluted city of Juárez. “I was thinking, ‘oh my gosh, what if I’m kidnapped’, you know. I’m a girl. I’m going to be living by myself. I’m not going to know anyone, and so I was really, ah… it was scary,” said Brenda.
Silvana Ayala came from Hermosillo, Sonora in México to UTEP in order to pursue a masters degree in Bilingual Creative Writing, a unique degree offered nowhere else in the US. “I now know more about what is going on and also problems that people face. I go to Juárez once a week because I have friends there,” said Silvana.
Although Silvana’s mom warns her against going, she still finds Juárez to be a city with much to offer. She takes care when visiting Juárez, but still visits frequently. “I go for food, for fixing my car, for sometimes watching movies, and they also come to here. Now they are coming for the nightlife here in EL Paso, so things are inverting,” said Silvana.
For as long as most can remember, Juárez has always been a city of nightlife and parties. Like Silvana pointed out though, nightlife for those in Juárez has started to shift to El Paso. Many nightclubs have closed down due to the drug cartel’s death squads.
Creative Writing student Grady Page grew up in Tacoma Park, Maryland. He first came here as part of a program that helped students travel across the US. He spent a month in El Paso working on the Obama Campaign and later decided to enroll in UTEP. “I’m glad I live as close as I do to Juárez. It just bothers me that there is so much violence over there and there is such disconnect that, you know, people who I know who were born there don’t wan to go over there. People I know who grew up there don’t want to go over there. People who live there want to live here,” said Grady.
Not everyone sees Juárez’ proximity to El Paso as intimidating though. Compared to the over 2600 reported killings in Juárez in the past year, the extremely low death rates in El Paso seem like adding a drop of water to a lake.
“This is the second or third safest city in the U.S. and, but we just happen to be living next to that city,” said John. He doesn’t feel much fear in the idea of visiting Juárez. He feels that the media has exacerbated the coverage of killings across the border from his home. “Either the border patrol is freaking incredible or it really is genuinely blown out of proportion,” said John.
Of course many could argue about just how safe El Paso actually is, but the truth remains that the current condition of Juárez affects the entire metropolitan area and all who live in it.
“I’ve been living away from my family and my culture for so long and the one time I decide that its time for a change in my life and to get more connected with my roots, in order to find my self identity, unfortunately, I can’t go see my family as easily as I would like to,” said Brenda.
Still, El Paso has become home to these students from different origins. As the city that conjoins two countries by the hip, El Paso offers a bicultural and bilingual experience that cannot be recreated elsewhere.
“Someone said, ‘You know, sometimes you don’t choose books, books choose you’. You know, I think El Paso chose me,” said John.