The Color(s) of El Paso

(Cheryl Howard/

Green. (Cheryl Howard/

Teaching and Learning and Caring Blog

EL PASO – Many years ago, one of our graduate students, Elea, wrote in her thesis: “the color of El Paso is brown.” I argued with her vehemently. She saw brown everywhere. I saw color everywhere:  purple sunsets, yellow sunflowers, blue sky, green chiles, all the colors…even in the desert. Color was vibrant and alive…in nature, in murals, in clothing, architecture and food. ‘ Yes, there were brown people; they weren’t invisible, but some of them were Chinese, Korean, Lebanese. All of us brown or browner from the sun.

Green, one of the many colors of El Paso. (Cheryl Howard/

There is a word, a word I couldn’t pronounce before listening to the Google pronouncer. I am certain, however, it is an important word for this discussion. The word is synecdoche. It is distantly related to a more common word, metaphor. The accent is on the “ec” and the last two syllables are vaguely like ducky, more like duckee. I will try to explain. It is Greek word meaning “simultaneous understanding.”  There are several ways this simultaneous understanding can be achieved.  We can use the whole to refer to only a part, or vice verse. We can use the specific to refer to the general or vice verse. For example, when I was growing up, Kleenex was the only kind of facial tissue there was so I always use Kleenex to refer to any kind of facial tissue. The last way this simultaneous understanding can be achieved is by denoting something from its container or the material it is made of, e.g. paying with plastic to mean using a credit card.

For some reason, I still think about Elea’s line and still find the usual reasons to disagree, even now. But there are days, dust storm days, drought days, and days when the diversity of the city is not apparent, that I begin to believe Elea. These are the days that our stereotypes take over, days when mediocrity seems to be the norm. We are poor (dirt poor), uneducated, don’t speak English well. El Paso is boring, it is brown, there’s nothing to do. We aren’t real Texans despite our lone star on the mountain. No one pays any attention to us, no point in speaking up. We vote democrat, if we even bother, in a republican state. Our vote doesn’t really count. Los de abajo. Withering and brown, we might as well be dead; we are not green. The earth is brown, grass doesn’t grow here. Even our river is brown; there is hardly any water in it. Some of us are not even legally brown.

Well then. Do you see what I mean? When we say the color of El Paso is brown, we are saying all these other things. We are “simultaneously” understanding that we are Mexican and poor and dusty and boring. And that is not the truth about us. There is as much diversity in México as there is in the U.S., and there is not just one way of being Mexican.

We have to stop. We are the artists; it is our painting after all. Our canvas, our city, our people, our colors. We have a fine palette to choose from. Let’s start with brown. It is a color we must embrace.  But there are many browns, from pale tan to chocolate, from brown mixed with yellows to brown mixed with red. Sometimes I like to imagine I have a job naming the colors of paints we see on the sample cards at Lowe’s and Home Depot. Imagine all the browns and the names we could give them. Then let’s resist the monochromatic limitations of our sepia painting, adding in the rainbow of colors in all their hues.  Nature will lead the way, and we need only look around us. Let’s give every color its due and its own diversity of names.

We have other choices as well. Will we use crayons, chalk, spray paint, latex, oil, watercolors, tempera, acrylics or something else? Will we sew fabrics, cook meals, make jewelry, paint pictures?  Will we color by hand or with brushes, rollers, machines? Will we color on paper, glass, wood, fabric, faces, walls, sidewalks, ceilings? Will we work alone or with others? Will we make something small or large?  Then we decide what to make. Give it dimension and texture, value and shape in addition to color.  Eat it, put it on, look at it. Smile.

I want to see Colors on Desert Walls. I want to “Chalk the Block” (October 15-16, 2011). I want to paint the town.

One thought on “The Color(s) of El Paso

  1. Delightful piece and photos, and my, does this strike a chord with me!

    Just like Cheryl, I also want to “paint the town,” which is the predominantly Mexican-American Rio Rico, Arizona.

    But my house is the only one around that is a riot of bright colors, both inside and out – not bad for an emigrant Connecticut Yankee?

    Diego Rivera would be pleased, especially with my ramada of 7 different wild and crazy colors!

    On the other hand, my M-A neighbors opt for mostly gray, beige, and white, perhaps because they are so desirous of assimilating?

    My M-A neighbor (and great friend) recently helped me re-paint a room in bright reds and yellows, and as we worked, I teased him: “So when are you going to use some of your birthright colors in your house?”

    He laughed and reminded me that I’d once ragged him about the interior of his home looking like a hospital.

    We had some red and yellow paint left over — enough for at least a few walls. And, lo and behold, a couple of days later, he asked me over for coffee in a kitchen newly accented in red.

    “Beautiful!” I said. “So where are you using the yellow?”

    “Not sure,” he replied, leading me into the dining room, one of whose walls had been just painted an orange very similar to Cheryl’s top, center photo.

    On the table were paint chips. He pointed to a rich plum color. “Be perfect for one of the walls in the living room – agree?”

    “Yes, yes, yes!” I said, feeling almost like a missionary making a convert.

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