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El Paso's Chinatown

Posted by Carry Beverly ( on December 24, 2002 at 11:26:11:

In April 1983, the city of El Paso contracted the Cultural Resources Management Division at New Mexico State University to research the historical and Archeological resources in an area scheduled for urban redevelopment. It quickly became apparent that the downtown area to be impacted was in the center of the oldest and most historic sections of El Paso. The two volume report by NMSU team, entitled Beneath The Border City, is an intriguing resource for genealogists and historians alike. It reveals the integration of several major cultures that influenced the life cycles of El Paso.

Volume I of Beneath The Border City documents the scientific recovery of archeological and historical data for the first two sites explored - the block now occupied by the Paso del Norte Hotel. Volume II is dedicated to a third excavation site, the parking lot adjacent to the historic Cortez Hotel. At this third site, archeologists uncovered a little-known community once occupied by the residents of El Paso's Chinatown.

The three major ethnic populations at the time - Mexican, Anglo and Chinese - in intimate proximity of each other is a watermark of urban living. The bits and pieces of old El Paso, recovered from beneath the border city, inform us of the daily lives of ordinary people whose names we often mindlessly collect and record in our family group sheets.

The day to day lives of our ancesters can help us to better understand our genealogical mission, help us sharpen our research skills, become more accurate in our accounts, and provide important clues to patterns of early lifehoods. Ultimately we can, in the process, learn about ourselves too.

Little is known of the early Chinese in the El Paso. In fact, in all of Texas, there is scarce documentation of the overseas Chinese experience. They left few personal records. Many official immigration and the railroad records were destroyed in the San Francisco's 1906 earthquake and fire. Non-Chinese accounts are often distorted and biased.

El Paso's Chinatown flourished from 1881 through 1915. This community slowly developed economic self-sufficiency and stability with the operation of several Chinese laundries. They strengthened their ethnic identity and separation. Then, by the early 20th century, their day to day lives began to change in response to changes in the larger El Paso community and across the US. They began to lose some of their uniqueness and started assimilating into the larger population. The Mexican and Anglo Populations who lived and worked within the same few city blocks with the Chinese followed much the same pattern. Initially, they maintained separate identities. Inevitably, they found themselves transformed into yet a different cultural group. No one in El Paso's early urban center remained unchanged. Today, our district border culture remains neither truly Mexican nor American.

Before the Chinese arrived, The Pass was largely an outer southwestern settlement influenced by visiting traders, armies and a few wealthy Anglo men. Gradually contact with the outside world increased. Mail service started in 1849. Stagecoach services - the Jackass line in 1857 and Butterfield - Overland in 1858 - helped open the west. The Gadsden Purchase of 1853 would eventually have a tremendous effect because it removed obstacles to building the east-west railroad some thirty years later. The Civil War had greater social and economic impact on El Paso. The majority of early El Paso residents were Confederate sympathisers who fled the area when Union troops arrived. The 1870s were marked by economic stagnation and social disorder. As late as 1880, only 100 Anglos remained at The Pass including Anson Mills, James Magoffin, Frank White and Benjamin Coons.

The archeological sites of Beneath The Border City reveal a slightly different picture. These events had little impact on the lives of the area's residents who had tightly knitted social and economic interactions. The small community neighborhoods bounded by a few city blocks retained their population characteristics and features.

The historic fabric of "border culture" guaranteed good relations between Mexican and Anglo residents. This remarkable characteristic is the subject of much scholarly work and discussion. Good relations have endured the likes of the Mexican - American War with the resulting military occupation, the Treaty of Guadaloupe Hidalgo which moved the international boundary, the effects of the Civil War, The Gadsden Purchase and the railroads. It's difficult to explain - it's called "border culture".

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