May 8, 2020
Thanks to Dylan O’Hara, a 2020 Fellow in Ideas, for today’s post.
In Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community, Monica Perales writes a new history of borderland life, chronicling the lives and memories of Chicano El Pasoans working at and living near The American Smelting and Mining Company (ASARCO). In compiling an urban history of El Paso around ASARCO, Perales reveals new insights about the struggles, successes, and resistances of smelter workers and their families. As smelter workers, Mexican-American labor organizers lobbied for better pay, safer working conditions, and more affordable goods at the ASARCO company store. In their community downstream from the ASARCO plant, El Bajo, Mexican and Mexican American teachers, priests, mothers, and older sisters founded schools and churches, held tutoring sessions, and offered women’s refining lessons. These El Bajo community members fostered intimate community relations and a tight-knit network of friends and families that eventually came to fight against racial segregation in El Paso and against ASARCO’s abuses. Both as a collective and as individuals, El Bajo’s community members both built and fought for the rights of their neighborhood. As a gifted writer, Perales brings El Bajo to life, bringing us into a vivid reconstruction of life on the US-Mexico border.
Adding complexity to this urban history of the segregation of El Bajo was ASARCO’s toxic groundwater runoff. Contamination from the ASARCO plant both negatively effected El Paso’s air quality and ecologically devastated El Bajo, which lay at the bottom of a hill below the ASARCO plant. ASARCO’s violation of the 1967 Air Safety Code caused the plant to shut down, in an effort to stave off environmental damage in El Paso. But the solution to ecological damage did not always align with El Bajo’s community wishes. At the same time that the neighborhood suffered from the effects of blatant environmental racism, esmeltianos did not condone the closing of ASARCO or the subsequent destruction of their neighborhood. El Bajo community members sought different solutions, ones that would preserve their smelter jobs, their home, and their collectivity.
As an homage to the power and beauty of memory, Smeltertown confronts the El Bajo residents’ memories of their home. Perales’ oral histories round out the aching beauty of El Paso and its landscape, as well as El Bajo’s hardships. As such, Smeltertown deeply considers the origins of community memories alongside the history of ASARCO. The result is Perales’ wonderful consideration of the endless interplay between lived experience, nostalgia, and collective memory. Thus, at the same time that ASARCO defined and dictated racial segregation and struggle in El Paso, El Bajo’s Mexican community members created their own group identity, their own home, and their own set of fond memories. It is those memories and experiences Perales does justice to.
Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community by Monica Perales (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010)
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