Tuesday, March 15, 2016

What to expect from this unraveling in El Paso, Texas

500 W. Overland, former site of Hicks-Ponder Co.

This blog's future takes will include items about El Paso's hidden history, local politics, not-so-local politics, and other meanderings. A memoir ought to reflect the winding course of life as it unfolds. It is in essence a testimony because it is unfiltered.

Most of my life took place in downtown El Paso, between West Overland at Paisano and Campbell at Mills. Although I traveled and lived away from El Paso for several years, in other cities and countries, I kept returning. Something kept bringing me back.

Ironically, my role in the formal workplace began in 1971 in the same building that housed the El Paso Times, the company I retired from in 2016. It is the same red brick structure that formerly housed the Hicks-Ponder Company. Back in 1971, Hicks-Ponder also occupied the annex building across the street from 500 West Overland, the annex where I also worked in 1972.

According to court documents related to a labor dispute, Hicks-Ponder manufactured and distributed men's slacks and had about 750 workers, "mainly female machine operators."

"The greater part of these women are poorly educated and circumstanced Mexican nationals with limited use of the English language who commute on a daily basis across the border to the factory," according to the court document.

"This plant has been the object of attempts at unionization for (15) years by Amalgamated Clothing Workers of America. The respondent is openly and without dispute hostile to unions and so far has succeeded in resisting unionization." http://law.justia.com/cases/federal/appellate-courts/F2/458/19/182564/

My personal experience with the firm was a positive one. The company had Anglo and African-American employees as well, and teens like myself who were just out of high school. I recall a teen who was tall and athletic "Sabrina," whose father worked at the factory. Shortly after I began working there, other workers pointed out a handsome fellow named "Mario," and said he was about to get married.

Another young man at the plant, whose name I don't recall, wore hippie beads around his neck and read during breaks from the book "Siddhartha" by Herman Hesse (in Spanish). It happens to be one of my favorite books of all time, one that influenced me greatly.

A slightly older woman, who lived in Juarez, said she came from a middle class family and worked in El Paso to earn more (in dollars), and that her boyfriend's skin was as "white as milk." Everyone who worked there was nice, including our supervisors. After a year on the line, I went across the street to work in the offices at the annex.

At one point, I was asked to testify in a labor-related matter involving plant employees. I had no clue what was going on, and I only recall answering a question about whether an employee was allowed to eat a burrito during a break, or something along those lines. I believe that Thomas A. Spieczny, a veteran labor lawyer, was involved in the proceeding.

It was at the Hicks-Ponder building that a co-worker was the first (and last) person to offer me a marijuana joint. I was surprised at the casual approach with which this was done.

It was my first brush with the drug trade, which has operated along the border for a long, long time.

Payday meant clearing about $45 a week, buying a new dress at the former Lerner's store or from other nearby shops, and taking home a bag filled with pastries from the old Queen Anne bakery on North Oregon, around the corner from the old Coney Island hot dog eatery.

I used the bus for two years to get to and from work. The downtown plaza was full of colorful characters, as well as hustlers and shysters. Hot pants were the "in" fashion for young women back then. On one particular day, a certain man kept approaching young women at the park to ask them if they were interested in starring in a pornographic movie.

The downtown public library became my haven during that time. I met many interesting people there, and ready a great many books, magazines and other publications. At the time, the Jesus Movement was also in the wings in El Paso.


Sunday, March 13, 2016

Self-esteem in El Paso, Texas

El Paso Museum of History map of the city.

This is a picture of a map hanging in the El Paso Museum of History that shows how El Paso, Texas, saw itself in the past. Things seemed to changed after World War II. Old-timers say East Texas politicians kept the city on the border at bay. Over time, fewer resources were allocated to this region, and more formidable companies began a gradual but definite departure from the zone. El Paso could have become a Phoenix, Arizona, before Phoenix was Phoenix, a real economic powerhouse. El Paso had more going for it in its beginnings as a modern metropolis than many other U.S. cities. A medical specialist who is from another state commented to me once that "there used to be money" in El Paso. He could tell this from the quality of the construction and architecture of older buildings. As you moved farther away from the central part of El Paso, out into the early suburbs, less money was spent on the design and construction of new homes and other buildings. His observations were accurate.
Map of the city in 1925 at the Museum of History.

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