Autoethnographic Essay on Identity and Community

by Sharon Cornet

April 16, 2007, Urban Anthropology – Dr. G.G. Nunez


            It seems easier to define El Paso with many words than to reflect on the many ways the city’s qualities have defined me.  It’s not even the city, per se,

as a geographic area, or a population, or a culture that has made its mark in my life.  There is a subtle lure about it, like the gentle cool breeze of the desert

on a summers evening.  In the city there are concrete sidewalks and brick and plastered buildings, which act as a heat sink as the hot sun shines into its mass

– only to release the heat at night, producing a warmer breeze than the cooler, thinner, and cleaner air of the desert, which is away from the noise and light

pollution.  My memories are of my youth in the city of northeast El Paso, but also of camping outside of the city, going to Hueco Tanks State Park for church

picnics on Sunday afternoons, climbing the rocks and seeking out huge crevices in between the rounded and weathered boulders.  Sunsets over the Franklin

Mountains and silhouettes of huge yucca cacti, standing at attention like soldiers carrying swords, are what permeate my being when I think of El Paso. 

There are also memories of walking the 2 blocks to Fannin Elementary School from first through fifth grades.  The friends I had were few, but close.  I do remember the one time my friend Tammy and I decided to skip school together (5th grade).   We packed our lunches in brown paper bags that day, and hid underneath the bridges in the ditches that served as full-to-the-brim manmade arroyos when it rained.  One of these ditches ran the length of the neighborhood, parallel to our street, but behind the back wall of our house.  After a heavy rain would subside my entire family (parents, brothers, and I) would go out by my playhouse and watch the runoff water rushing by while the light scattered dimly underneath dark, heavy clouds.  I loved the smell of the freshly wet dirt in El Paso.  It is a smell that is unique to this area.  My backyard playhouse was made out of 2x4’s, shaped into an oblong frame, with a single “roof” of sagging plywood.  This side-less “box” was stuffed into the far corner of the backyard so that the corner area of the rock wall itself could serve as two “walls” of the playhouse.  It was my dad’s version of a playhouse, in the saving-money-kind-of-style.  It worked, although I wished I had a playhouse like the spoiled rich neighbor girl (her dad was in the Army, stationed there at Ft. Bliss) – one of those fancy little Mexican style playhouses with actual walls, windows, a mini-porch, and walls made of little thin slats of boards, all painted bright white.  Now that was a house, I thought!  I longed to have my own house one day.

Now the day Tammy and I decided to skip school was obviously not a day to hide out in my homemade playhouse.  The ditch bridge shelter would have to suffice.  We ate lunch down there, with the old plastic bags and boxes, old shoes, tumbleweeds, and other items lurking underneath.  We talked about the other bridge way up north of the school, and how we would like to see it.  There was talk about ghosts living under that bridge, and the thought of being there gave me the willies!  Not because of the ghosts as much as the rumor about them being the ghosts of kids that had been murdered under that bridge!  We decided it would be best not to go there, just in case it was actually true… too dangerous, we thought.  The next day, however, upon returning to school, the teacher asked why Tammy and I (who were in the same class) had not been in school the day before.  I mumbled that I had been out sick, so the teacher, Mrs. Nava (I used to think her name sounded like lava, which was my favorite kind of rock) asked for the note from my parents.   I didn’t have one.  The teacher said, “You weren’t out sick, were you,” figuring out that we had BOTH been “sick” on the same exact day.  I just sat there, with a dumb look on my face, unable to lie.   I started crying.  My guilty conscience had won out over my ability to fake my way through it, or out of it.  Tammy and I were officially in trouble, and she yelled at me on our walk home once school was over.  She thought I should have lied anyway and said we forgot the note and would get one to her the next day.  I hadn’t thought of forging my parents’ signatures… it simply wasn’t an option in my mind.  I got one of those “lectures” from my parents and the belt from my dad once I got home, since the school called my parents.  I don’t remember what happened to Tammy.  She didn’t like me too much after that, and even pretended to say sorry and be my friend again later, only to get in front of her house and punch me in the stomach, running inside her house after calling me a baby for crying (in reality my eyes watered up as I gasped for air since she had hit me in the solar plexus).

Tammy was a come-and-go friend, but my real and truly best friend was Bernadette.   Her parents were Mexican-American and she had two sisters, an older one who was mean, and a younger one who was fun to play with.   We all loved to play house, baseball in the street, and ride our bikes all over the neighborhood, especially up to the 7-Eleven store to buy 3-cent candies, or to the public swimming pool at Veteran’s Park on summer days.  Bernadette was a daredevil.  We would get plastic and metal milk crates that my parents had, plus some shelving boards, set them up strategically and cover them all with huge pieces of cardboard.  Then Bernadette would get in one of the crates (set on top of the highest crate) and we would pull her down the slope of the “roller coaster” until she reached the bottom.  Sometimes she would wipe out, and then get up and do it again.  I didn’t like to ride as much because they would always make me fall out and hurt myself.  I liked controlling the ride, and giving others the fun of riding instead.  I didn’t make them fall as much as they would when I rode.  We also got the crates and had magic shows, sitting in one crate while covering our head with the other crate.  I was the magician, and Bernadette was the “woman” who would get the stick “swords” pushed into her and then come out alive, standing up for her applause at the end of the show!  We played adventurous games, and the backyard and climbing trees were our world.  We hid in bush tunnels, made tents out of blankets (where I kissed a half-Korean boy named Tommie – it was my very first kiss at age 8), used the garden hose to demark the line of a “cliff edge” on an imaginary mountain, would play circus routines on the monkey bars on my hand-me-down play set (given to me by a black family from church – they were great fun to play with too, and I had a secret crush on the oldest boy).  We would play a host of other imaginative games together too, especially with some of the other neighbor kids, many who were not just Mexican-American, but some were from Mexico (would didn’t speak English), or “mixed” kids whose military dads married Korean or other foreign women.

Bernadette’s parents broke up around 1980, and I remember that she only lived at her house across the street on occasional weekends after that.  I always thought her mom was mean, and she spoke in Spanish a lot so I really didn’t understand everything she said, which didn’t help.   Bernadette’s dad had a new girlfriend named “Candy” who dressed up in high heels, skimpy revealing dresses, and thick make-up so that she looked as fake as candy was sweet.  Bernadette whispered, “Don’t tell my mom cuz it will make her mad!”  I thought that Candy (or some other woman like her) was the reason why her parents probably broke up.   I was glad my parents didn’t get a divorce.  My mom, although bossy (I thought), was also very loving and protective.  My dad was a pastor of a church so I felt confident that they didn’t believe in such things like divorce.  I was even asked by a kids how many times my parents had had sex… I thought about it for a minute, thinking about my two brothers and me, and said, “Well… at least 3 times!”   Sex wasn’t something we talked about at home.  I felt like my parents were too spiritual to talk about that!  We had church meetings EVERY Sunday in the basement of a larger church building in the central part of town.  Although we had a lot of friends from different backgrounds, our household was typical of any other Anglo family.  I just knew that my best friend was Mexican, but it wasn’t something that mattered.  We were very close, and she eventually moved to L.A., California, and when I was 11 yrs old, I moved to Crystal River, Florida.  We didn’t talk on the phone much after that, and eventually lost touch, until a few years ago when I found her little sister online and got to finally talk with Bernadette.  She had two kids, and was still a daredevil, and loved wild parties, but still had a heart of gold.  I still wonder if I will ever see her again.

When I was 17 I moved back to El Paso from Florida.  I got a job as a waitress at the local Village Inn (having a letter of recommendation from my job at the Village Inn in Florida).  I remember driving to work one afternoon, passing by Hanks High school on Montwood on the east side of town – the kids my age were crossing the street, all dressed up in whatever the local fads were, and acted carefree, and laughed a lot.  My life was more serious, I thought, and I felt that although I had lost the teen part of my childhood, I had gained something more – a sense of responsibility, because not only did I have a job, but I had a baby boy, and a husband, a car of my own, and all the bills that come with living that lifestyle.  None of these kids, I thought, knew what that really meant.  I was living the life of an adult, and I preferred it that way.  I had independence while they had rules and curfews.  Thinking about that, though, did make me realize that I had never finished high school, and that I needed to get my GED from El Paso Community College.  I worked on that soon thereafter, and began attending college.  When my son was 5 yrs old, I got divorced and moved to Nebraska.   It wouldn’t be until I was in my mid-thirties before I would attend college again.

My third time to live in El Paso was when I was 29 yrs old.  By this time I had gotten married again, and had two more children.   My oldest son was 12, my youngest son 4, and my daughter was barely 2 yrs old.  We moved into the little “in-law’s” apartment attached to my parents’ adobe house out east of El Paso.  Family was the reason I kept moving to El Paso so many times.  I always made friends wherever I went, and always wound up leaving them behind when I moved away, but I still keep in touch with my few best friends that I had gained over the years, despite us all living in different parts of the country now.  Because I was a preacher’s kid (known as a P.K.) while growing up I was used to traveling around a lot, staying overnight in the houses of strangers, and seeing new places, and meeting tons of strangers… so moving from one area of the country to another wasn’t something that bothered me either.  I rather liked to travel, in fact.  El Paso, though, by this time, had become “home.”  It is the place I call my own.  It is the place where my family (including my brothers) keeps coming back to.  I’ve lived here, if you add all the years together, a total of 19 yrs.  I still enjoy northeast El Paso, and still wonder where the bridge is that had the ghosts underneath it.  I occasionally drive by my old house (plus another house we lived in, in a neighborhood close by, when I was 4 & 5 yrs old), and my old elementary school, thinking about the memories of growing up there.  I particularly like the purple shade of the mountain that hits northeast El Paso before any other part of the city, on those really hot summer evenings at sunset.  The granite rocks on the Franklin mountains turn from pink to red, and the storms bring more rain there than in other parts of the city as well (at least it seems that way to me). 

My current house location is out near Hueco Tanks, far east of the city (at the next set of mountains) although I don’t climb the rocks there much anymore.  Occasionally we’ll take the kids there to picnic and hike, like in the old days, and sometimes we still go camping out in the desert near or outside of El Paso.  When I see a horned toad (we called them “horny toads”), or smell the clean aroma of greasewood after an August thunderstorm (love that deep rolling thunder!), I remember that I am home.   When I walk in the blazing hot sun of this dry desert, or listen to the polka-style Mexican music beating loudly at a nearby party in my neighborhood, or when I taste a simple flour tortilla, heated until it has all the little black spots on it (warm and fresh, perhaps with butter melted on it, or rolled up into a burrito con frijoles y queso)… I know that I am home.