Barbies and Barrios

El Paso County building, one of the emblematic buildings in the commercial area of downtown El Paso. (Cheryl Howard/

El Paso County building, one of the emblematic buildings in the commercial area of downtown El Paso. (Cheryl Howard/

Teaching and Learning and Caring Blog

EL PASO – Years ago, even in small towns across America, there were “good” neighborhoods and “bad” neighborhoods. Living “across the tracks” always meant you lived on the poor side of town. In reality, everyone lives across the tracks; it just depends on your reference point, and people in power seem to be able to make the rules and the reference points.

El Paso County building, one of the emblematic buildings in the commercial area of downtown El Paso. (Cheryl Howard/

El Paso County building, one of the emblematic buildings in the commercial area of downtown El Paso. (Cheryl Howard/

Sociologists know this as residential segregation. Banks knew it (and may still) as “redlining.” Cops know it as where trouble is likely to happen. BMW dealerships know they need to put their businesses in particular locations. Poverty and ethnicity are often linked, even in a place like El Paso where more than 80% of the population calls themselves Hispanic. Pablo Vila, a former colleague of mine, noted that a synonym for poverty in El Paso was Segundo Barrio; no one ever says Second Ward, even Anglos.

A few years ago, one of my students brought in a series of satirical cartoons about new Barbies from different parts of El Paso. The cartoons originally appeared, to the best of my knowledge, in Newspaper Tree in January, 2008. Here’s a sampling of the texts, accompanied by pictures of the Barbies with some of her accessories. Westside Barbie is a princess who can only be purchased at Sunland Park Mall. She comes with or without a facelift and tummy tuck. Lower Valley Barbie can only be purchased after dark and in cash. She comes with a 9 mm. handgun and has been recently paroled. Montana Barbie wears Wranglers too small and has a Tweety bird tattoo. Eastside Barbie comes with either a BMW or an H2, her own Starbucks cup, credit card, and country club membership. There were Barbies for Chaparral and Central as well. You get the idea, you get the stereotypes.

Chaparral, officially New Mexico, is considered as an extension of El Paso. (Cheryl Howard/

Chaparral, officially New Mexico, is considered as part of the greater El Paso area by many. (Cheryl Howard/

Not too long after that, there was a Facebook quiz that circulated around town. Depending on your answers to a few questions you were declared to belong in a particular part of El Paso. My answers indicated I was from the barrio and my daughter was from the lower valley while, in reality, we both live in Sunset Heights near UTEP and downtown El Paso. It is a diverse neighborhood that most residents are proud to call their “hood.” For a long time, I was content to stay in my own small circuit of places that were no more than a mile or so from where I lived: work, grocery and drug stores, doctors, credit union. Every once in a while I would pick someone up from the airport, visit a friend, go to a mall or some place outside my little world. The good news is that I rarely had to put gas in the car, but the bad news is that I didn’t get a taste of other neighborhoods. I couldn’t claim all of El Paso as mine. It wasn’t because I was afraid. (Reread a couple of my previous blogs, “Dressed for Success” or “Coming out of the Closet” if you think this might possibly be the case.) Sunset Heights is neither a gated community, nor particularly well-heeled. The 50 cent guy comes to my door begging about once a month.

Bowen Ranch at the edge of Texas. (Chery Howard/

Bowen Ranch at the edge of Texas. (Chery Howard/

We humans always seem to need to define an “us” and a “them” even if that kind of thinking is not useful, even harmful. I guess if you stay in your own little part of the world, it is easier to believe stereotypes about other parts of the world, country, state, or city. People who don’t know El Paso think it is dangerous because it is so close to México, people in El Paso think certain parts of El Paso and all of México is dangerous, and up until a few years ago, people in Cd. Juárez thought they were safer than they would be in Mexico City. We are back to reference points and stereotypes again.

Just as Barbies and Kens are awful models of actual women and men, stereotypes are a poor substitute for real knowledge of people and places. But first, you have to go there. Since retiring, I have made it a point to explore new places and new parts of town. If we let the geography of freeways, rivers and mountains and railroad tracks divide us, then we will not have the awareness or the energy left to deal with larger issues that affect all of us. Somos fronterizos.

WordPress' goblin hide this picture for last week's blog. (Cheryl Howard/

WordPress' goblin hide this picture for last week's blog. Click to enlarge. (Cheryl Howard/

In my family, Thursdays are adventure days. I would love for readers from every part of the city to tell me what hidden treasures await me in their neighborhoods and tell other readers how to get there. Thursdays come every week now, not just once in a while.


The answer to last week’s test question is:  The test photo was not posted so there can be no answer to a test not given.  I hope we will post it here this week and also that you won’t be fooled by the red herring (in this case white) brick fireplace that was misidentified as a Corn fireplace.  I will give the answer next week.

5 thoughts on “Barbies and Barrios

  1. The original post can be found at It is the January 17, 2008 issue.

  2. Stereotypes and reference points are defaults set in our minds when we have nothing else to fill that void or blank reference point, when first meeting someone from across town in El Paso.

    My sophomore year at UT, two girls one from “La Jeff,” to use a reference poin, and one from Canutillo made an ugly face at me when I said I was from Bowie, or “La Bowie.”

    Unfortunately, some of these labels and reference points never leave us no made what we experience in life, and no matter how far we move from the borderland. Not an excuse but this is my interpretation of “a” truth based on my observations and experiences. Thoughts?

    Because we are stigmatized and or fixated on labels, reference points, and stereotypes life’s experiences cannot teach people otherwise, if they refuse to see what’s beyond those railroad tracks or what’s on the other side of the mountain.

  3. Hahaaaa, just yesterday evening we were cycling through Copenhagen’s ‘other side of the tracks’, surrounded by adult cinemas and sex shops. In our own ‘other side of the tracks’ in Utrecht, we have a Turkish hairdresser, a Morrocan teahouse and a huge Chinese grocery just around the corner. Also a truly local pub. Yet, when we tell people where we live they always refer to the new yuppy houses, the cool new restaurant or the fact that we’re so close to the train station.

  4. – wasn’t finished –
    They never know that the Turkish haidresser is the best place to get your eyebrows done, or that the Chinese sells the best and cheapest cilantro – as well as goose tongues, by the way. So.
    Next Thursday, be really adventurous and come visit: we’ll think of a really cool programme for you!

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