Can El Paso be a Model for Healing?

“I don’t consider them immigrants. I consider them my friendly neighbors,” said Larry Baldwin, a former American military officer and teacher referring to the Mexican immigrants in El Paso, Texas. Many other Americans living in El Paso expressed the same sentiment. If healthy coexistence between Americans and immigrants can be found in El Paso, why can’t it be fostered in the rest of the country?

El Paso is located on the Rio Grande, across from the Mexican city of Juarez, which is one of the most violent in the world. In 2015, El Paso had a population of 679,000, which makes it the 19th most populous city in the U.S. Hispanics and Latinos (mainly Mexican) account for almost 81 percent of the population. In spite of its significant majority of Mexicans in the city, the city consistently ranks among the safest in the U.S.

This doesn’t stop President Donald Trump from taking the slightest opportunity to portray Mexican and Central American immigrants pejoratively. Perhaps he is trying to play down the failures of his administration to promote policies that favor most Americans. The result is an atmosphere of hate and distrust that has poisoned the political dialogue in this country, while attacks on people’s rights and quality of life continue unimpeded. According to the annual statement of the agency, the number of hate crimes reported to the FBI increased 17 percent in 2017 from the previous year.

On November 2017, Annie Proulx depicted the situation in the U.S. in her acceptance speech as a winner of the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. She said, “We don’t live in the best of all possible worlds. This is a Kafkaesque time. The television sparkles with images of despicable political louts and sexual harassment reports. We cannot look away from the pictures of furious elements, hurricanes and fires, from the repetitive crowd murders by gunmen burning with rage. We are made more anxious by flickering threats of nuclear war. We observe social media’s manipulation of a credulous population, a population dividing into bitter tribal cultures.”

Despite this pessimism, life in El Paso follows a predictable rhythm of tranquility. There are many explanations for the absence of violence in El Paso, its large Mexican population notwithstanding. There is a heavy concentration of law enforcement officials and agencies in the city and a fear of the death penalty. Most believe that Mexican immigrants are law-abiding, respectful citizens who come to El Paso to work and to progress.

Deborah Svedman, a retired high school teacher, told me that her best students were always Mexican children. She tells me that on occasion she has had to deal with very violent students in her class. I asked her how she handled it. “There is no secret,” she said, “I treated them with consideration and respect and they responded in the same way.”

There is an assumption that while the social and cultural divide is clearly marked in Mexico, upward social and economic mobility is easier in the U.S., and this is what prompts many Mexicans (and also Central Americans) to come to the U.S. in search of opportunities. These are the same reasons that immigrants from all over the world (myself included) came to the U.S.: to work and progress in a country of unparalleled opportunities.

Immigrants continue to make significant contributions to this country’s progress, but the anti-immigrant rhetoric reaches new heights almost every day incited by President Trump’s diatribe against Mexican and Central American immigrants.

I am now in Morelia, a city in the state of Michoacán, in central México, where I stand before a statue of Melchor Ocampo, a 19th Mexican statesman. I read words that he left for posterity (translated from Spanish):

It is by talking to each other

not by killing each other

that we will end up

understanding each other.

That is what I saw in El Paso, a respect for the “other”. These could also be the guiding words that lead us into recapturing an atmosphere of civility and respect in the U.S. They are words that can lead us to heal as a society, at a time of profound distress.

Dr. Cesar Chelala is a co-winner of the 1979 Overseas Press Club of America award for the article “Missing or Disappeared in Argentina: The Desperate Search for Thousands of Abducted Victims.”