Sasabe and El Paso Border Towns: History, Street Art, and Tolerance — Page 2
By Sherry Shahan



border control

The one-gas pump town has a post office, elementary school, and a general store that sells everything from lighter fluid and leather skirts to wooden apples and tequila. I bought a "Where in the hell is Sasabe" t-shirt.

The store was built in 1920 by Carlos Escalante and has been operated by the family ever since. Great-granddaughter Deborah Grider is the third generation to run the business. Aside from customers whose parents and grandparents have always lived in Sasabe, about 95 percent come from across the border. They cross each day to work, riding bicycles, after showing their Border Crossing Card (BCC), a document allowing entry into the U.S. by Mexican citizens.

Back at the ranch, the adobe buildings continued to sun themselves in history, pastel-colored rectangular blocks holding strong for decades. I jotted notes in an Adirondack chair in the shade of a knobby eucalyptus tree. When the wind blew and the leaves danced just so I could see the downy feathers of owl chicks in a high nest.

The Street Art of El Paso, Texas

It was a far-heave from Sasabe, AZ to El Paso via I-10, about 5 hours by car. That's when I attempted to memorize all 14 stanzas in Marty Robbins' woe-some ballad "El Paso." Out in the West Texas town of El Paso I fell in love with a Mexican girl...

When outsiders think of El Paso, they often envision Tex-Mex dishes, tequila, tall hats, custom boots. That isn't necessarily incorrect. They really do say "y'all" with enthusiasm and hang Lone Star flags from balconies.

I chose a hotel in downtown in part because I wanted to be within a mile of "Sister City" Juárez. The area also has a sizeable concentration of street art. Murals portray history and cultural pride: images of community leaders, religious figures, and symbols of struggle.

el paso street art

I gravitated toward pieces that reflected cross-border cultural connections, such as Animo Sin Fronteras (Spirit Without Borders) by El Mac, using his signature technique of aerosol and graffiti-style fatcaps. The mural praises Melchor Flores's fight to find answers to his son's abduction by police in Nuevo Leòn in 2009. The muscle-flexing portrait represents strength and struggles in the battle for justice in Texas border towns.

El Paso artist Jesus Pano Mendoza painted a monster mural (30-by-60 feet) on the adjacent brick wall. The Boxing Hall of Fame features the city's greatest boxing figures, including Oscar De La Hoya, holder of 6 world titles and Olympic Gold Medalist in 1992.

de la hoya muralThe mural was created on the side of the old DeSoto Hotel (circa 1905), which is in urgent need of renovation. The new owners may even tear it down. "The Mural has survived 16 years in the very hot sun," Mendoza wrote. "It's an important piece of art for this community . . . an icon that our city needs."

One of the oldest murals is in a nearby alley above a dumpster and gang of gas meters. Four artists painted the geometric Aztec patterns in 1975: Arturo Avalos, Gabriel Ortega, Pablo Schaffino, and Pascual Ramirez. The mural has long been a symbol of pride for the area, a nod to El Paso's ties to indigenous people and Mexico.

Most murals have a clear fighting spirit; all have a story to tell. Each one elicited a visceral response, even if I didn't fully understand its meaning. That's the difference between art and reportage: the proximity of emotion.

The static Texas heat ripened me. In California we called it earthquake weather. I paused for a churro, as warm as the bleeding sun, adopting the slower pace of locals, and recalled Gloria Steinem's quote from My Life on the Road, "We are so different, yet so much the same."

Crossing the Border Officially

This time I walked into Mexico by way of an official border, amazed by the clog of cars and pedestrian traffic, both entering and leaving. How did the thousands of people crossing each day—primarily workers and students—deal with it? Clenched expressions said they didn't have a choice. I understood their frustration and worry over Trump's threats to close all southern borders and kill commerce on both sides.

On the bridge that links the two countries, vendors wound among vehicles hawking car mats, kitschy aprons, and Dia de Muertos masks. Concertina wire curved round and round, like a flesh-eating serpent.

crossing the borderNo one asked to see my passport. I paid $.25 to cross on foot.

Once in Juárez I was pulled down the sidewalk by music—accordions, snare drums, and traditional guitarróns. Shops, restaurants, and bars appeared so relaxed, striking chunks of color greeting passersby.

I lusted over the soft awe of gilt-edged figurines, wondering how I could transport them home, and pondered curious choices of street food: bacon-wrapped hot dogs, bags of gourmet popcorn, roasted corn on a stick, and ubiquitous taco carts. The smells were real, palatable.

I did my best to communicate, gesturing in an odd game of charades. People smiled and nodded. I squatted next to a blanket where a boy who looked to be about 10 pointed at chestnut castanets and sandals made from Yucca fibers. I bought a mango from a decaying basket.

According to a clerk at my hotel, the World Famous Kentucky Club and Grill (circa 1920) originated the margarita. I knew I had to try one. It was potent but simple: tequila, lime juice, and Cointreau. Always on the rocks, never blended. The bar gained notoriety in the early 20s when "Scarface" Al Capone dropped in to knock a few back. In those days the club was strictly men only. A tile trough running along the base of the bar let patrons relieve themselves without getting up.

To re-cross the border I dropped a quarter and dime in a turnstile and entered the Immigration building, passport in hand. As the sun bowed out I thought about barrio artists Los Dos (Ramon and Christian Cardenas) who were asked by the El Paso Museum of History, "What does it mean to be an American in El Paso?"

Their answer, "America is a continent, not just a country...you most likely have family in another part of the world and that you have a yearning, love and pride for your culture. It means you bring this to the space you inhabit and you make it more diverse and culturally rich."


Sherry ShahanSherry Shahan's Alaskan-based adventure novels include Ice Island and Frozen Stiff. Her travel articles and photographs have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Christian Science Monitor, Backpacker, Country Living and many other magazines and newspapers. See more at SherryShahan.com.

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Related Features:
Worshiping Mixed Mexico: Rebirth, Resurrection and Sacred Spaces - Lydia Carey
Mount Whitney or Die - Sherry Shahan
A Bridge on the Border in Central America - Molly Beer
The Most Porous Border - Tim Brookes


See other Mexico travel stories from the archives


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