The Government and the Governed

El Paso is culturally unique. There is no other place in the world like El Paso.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey is a rich illustration of El Paso’s singularity.

According to the ACS’ Selected Characteristics of the Native and Foreign-Born Populations, 68.5 % of El Paso’s population speak a language other than English at home, and 29.9% speak English less than very well. Yet all of El Paso’s government is conducted in English.

Another indication of El Paso’s unique culture is that I couldn’t find the table Selected Characteristics of the Native and Foreign-Born Populations for other cities, like Tucson and Albuquerque, though the chart does exist for the U.S.

That’s not just a linguistic gap. That language barrier represents a cultural gap. What percentage of the City of El Paso’s top echelon staff speak Spanish? What percentage of them have been to a Mexican wedding, or a tardeada? Do you suppose bilingualism is a requirement for those $100,000 a year carpetbaggers?

City government doesn’t reflect the values of the citizens, but it’s not their fault. They don’t know what they don’t know. Human nature leads us to believe that everyone else is just like us. The bureaucrats at City Hall think that everyone will like what they like. Hence, trolleys. Water parks.

They don’t value libraries, so the close the libraries, and cram the Mexican American Cultural Center into the downtown library. They ‘re not operating out of maliciousness. They’re operating out of incompetence.

Empathy isn’t in the bureaucratic toolbox, and it’s in short supply on City Council. City government and our shadow leaders are building a city that they would like, not one that serves the needs of the majority of the citizens.

Maybe we should conduct our City Council meetings in Spanish, with English translators available. I bet that would get some people’s knickers in a knot.

In the U.S., 11.4% of the population 25 years old and older didn’t graduate from high school. In El Paso that number is 18.8%. For the 73,867 naturalized citizens in El Paso, that number is 27.6%, and for the 60,633 foreign born non-citizens, more than half, 50.6%, have no high school diploma of GED.

Sure that skews the data, but lots of those people who didn’t graduate from high school are skilled tradesmen. Some are skilled craftsmen. That’s an exploitable resource, for people for whom exploitation isn’t a bad word. It shouldn’t be. One man’s exploitation is another man’s gainful employment.

The principle guiding El Paso’s economic development plan is that we shouldn’t pitch El Paso as a low wage town, but those numbers drag down the salaries of the more educated workforce.

To close the wage gap between El Paso and the rest of the United States, we need to address our educational attainment gap, and cramming all those non-native Spanish speakers into English language schools isn’t going to achieve that goal. We need to meet them where they’re at.

But high school diplomas or GEDs aren’t enough. Hell, they’re nothing. People don’t need certificates. They need educations. El Paso needs a robust 21st century alternative education program. As an employer, would you rather have an employee with a board certified pedigree, or someone who knows how to do his job? I’ve always been perplexed by employers who prefer an MBA over someone who has run his own business for years. If you want an education, open a small business. You’ll get an MBA’s worth of education in nine months, if you last that long.

(You may notice that the City of El Paso consistently hires people who have demonstrated competency at the theoretical level. Actual accomplishment means nothing in a bureaucracy. In fact, the upper level bureaucrats view it as a threat. Remember, the San Jacinto Plaza redo cost the City of El Paso $6 million dollars. If you’d let competent trades/craftsmen do the job, we could have pulled it off for $2 or $3 million and the contractors would have put a million dollars in their pockets.)

Another marked difference between El Paso and the rest of the United States is the distribution of occupation categories. In the U.S., 39.9% of the workforce works in management, business, science, and arts occupations, i.e., white collar jobs. In El Paso, that number is 32.4%. In El Paso, 22.8% of the workforce work in service occupations, and in the U.S. 17.7% of the workforce is slinging burgers and doing nails and the like. Surprisingly, the percentages of the workforce dedicated to actual production, transportation, and material moving are actually close: 13.2% for the U.S., and 13.0% for El Paso. I bet we trade a chunk of production for logistics, vis-à-vis the nation.

It should come as no surprise that in El Paso, government employment constitutes a much larger segment of the workforce than in the rest of country. In the U.S., government workers are 14.0% of the workforce. In El Paso, government workers are 19.1%. Such a high percentage of government employees, and all those soldiers on Fort Bliss, insulate El Paso from economic fluctuations. Government employees get a paycheck every pay period, regardless of the dramatic contortions of the national economy.

So far.

El Paso’s unique. We should address out needs, and not try to be like anyplace else.


  1. I’ve long been a proponent of trying to educate those who aren’t educated. They get taken advantage of too easily. As far as the idea of making Spanish the semi-official language, I’m against that. We’re supposed to be helping people assimilate. As far as education goes, I was angry as Hell when many of the classes that prepared young people for the real world disappeared. Very few home ec classes, very few shop classes of any kind, and almost NO vocational classes. We went from coupon redemption centers with low paying jobs to call centers with low paying jobs. There is no REAL plan for this city. I’m pretty sure it’s just going to get worse.

  2. My only argument to this article would be that every place is unique. Whether you live on the northern border or the southern, on the east or west coast, no place is the same.
    El Paso is unique, of course, and numbers help us realize where our focus should be, but numbers, in a social science sense never give you what things should look like, only a way to see things as they are. We can say we should have better schools in El Paso, because better education gets you this and this, as in this place or that place.
    El Paso has a lot in common with communities where education is not a priority, where working class children are pushed into working class ethics and therefore working class jobs. Likewise people with advanced degrees in El Paso are not compensated for their effort and sacrifice, and in many cases, these individuals find it difficult to obtain and maintain employment.
    Because El Paso cannot retain it’s college graduates, the gap widens between the wealthy and the working class – and this will never change until our leaders stop courting low paying, non-specialist positions that require little education.

    1. Except the City of El Paso officially stopped courting low paying jobs when Ray Caballero was mayor, in 2001. We’ve had 20 years of brain drain, and stagnation.

      We need to add value where we can. We need to train the citizens we have. Like local Economic Development specialist Jerry Pacheco said in the El Paso Inc.:

      Economic development is putting into force the elements that allow for human development, one person at a time – that is my own definition.

      I think this is lost when we vie to recruit the next big deal or get a local company to expand. Sometimes, I think we go off the deep end in rushing to create new growth and to cut ribbons without contemplating how this is helping individual people.

      Economic development is harnessing the elements you have at hand to put together programs that result in jobs and investment. And economic development, like charity, starts at home. It takes people who are willing to be creative, work hard and face a multitude of detractors to make things happen.

      When you’re in a hole, stop digging. And we’re in a hole.

      1. I wouldn’t disagree.
        What are the elements that El Paso can harness do you think? What are the economic advantages that El Paso will provide the generations of El Pasoans now graduating from UTEP looking for challenges and more importantly (for better or worse) a salary that sustains them?
        It’s wonderful to think that industry could grow out of thin air, I’m hopeful that El Pasoan entrepreneurship could provide more than another call center job or part-time gig some day.
        I wonder what you consider low-paying. A number of businesses have come to our city in the last 20 years that are just that…low paying call center jobs…ADP being one of them in 2013/2014(?). What’s going to keep graduates from leaving for better pay?

        1. The people that have stayed in El Paso have stayed in spite of the low wages. They stay here because they love El Paso.

          When I lived in Austin for a couple of years in the mid-seventies, there were PhDs flipping burgers at Dirty’s, and sliding hotdogs across the counter at Mad Dog and Beans. They were there because they liked living in Austin. And they could have left for better jobs, but they liked the scene.

          That’s when Sixth Street was furniture stores, and used clothing stores, and the Armadillo World Headquarters really was the Live Music Capital of the World.

          Gradually, Austin developed, but it wouldn’t have gotten there without that important larval stage, when Austin was “cool”.

          El Paso tried to skip that part. We went right for ready-made Cool-in-a-box with those QoL bond projects. Really, a ballpark? A big box arena? There are hundreds of cities in the U.S. with professional baseball and an arena. If economic development, and not fleecing the taxpayers, were really what the project proponents were going for, then they were going about it the wrong way.

          How do we get people, not businesses, to move here? How do we get El Pasoans to stay?

          What is El Paso’s Value Proposition?

          El Paso is unique. It’s not for everyone. We should work on our strengths, our culture, our art, our people, instead of trying to shore up our weaknesses. You shore up your weaknesses when you’re ahead in the game. Right now we’re behind.

          We tried to skip

          1. In my travels the last five years I have met people from all over the world and most of them never heard of El Paso. When they ask me what it’s like, I tell them it is a for all purposes a Mexican city on US soil – culturally; politically; economically.

            They get that. So you are right, El Paso is unique and the question for development – economic and otherwise – is that what we want? It is what it is for now, not necessarily Austin style cool.

          2. I don’t think we want to be Austin style cool. We want to be El Paso style cool. The people making the decision seem to want us to be part of the United States of Generica. For instance, City Government courts franchises. The coolest places in America don’t allow franchises. My main point is that we can’t graft success onto El Paso. We have to grow it. Trying to build El Paso to look like some other city is a mistake and a waste of resources.

    1. Some days I think I might, and some days I think I wouldn’t.

      Thanks for your encouragement.

  3. The cool cities I’ve been to usually have a few distinctives: 1) high educational attainment; 2) value urban beautification with few billboards, sign ordinances, dark sky, etc.; 3) lots of open space, i.e., the city isn’t the enemy of open space; 4) high level of citizen involvement and activism.; 5) environmentally conscious; 6) gentrification; 7) very expensive housing costs.

    I’m sure there is more but that is what I noticed.

  4. Great piece, Rich, and good discussion. Regarding the use of Spanish, and for whatever it’s worth, I felt it was necessary to learn Spanish way back in the 70’s when I began my career here, but it wasn’t until after I had moved to the Dallas area that I was actively recruited for a job that required Spanish. The fact is that while it is so important here, neither business nor public employers reward those of us who have two languages, and that has to be yet another reason for our long standing brain drain. BTW, missing from Jerry K’s analysis (above) might be 1) a world class university, and 2) more than one quality school of higher learning.

  5. This (below) is a synopsis from a series of essays Brutus let me publish on his/her blog a few years ago as I noodled out my Theory of Everything (TOE) regarding life in El Paso and urbanism in general. It seems to fit in this space now and is still evolving in my mind that is otherwise devolving with old age 🙂

    I have come to understand that there is not a one-size-fits-all philosophy or TOE for city-building but there is an organizing principle, that of focus – what is it you want to optimize, because you can’t optimize everything or you risk losing focus? An Aspen or a Carmel or a La Jolla optimizes ambience and services for tourists and wealthy residents, but not for their teachers, nurses and salon workers who cannot afford to live there. Houston optimizes opportunity – housing, employment and business -but at the cost of the environment, urban beauty, and convenience in that you have to get on a freeway for an hour to do anything. There’s no free lunch.

    So, what is El Paso trying to optimize and does it make sense in the context of its capability? To me it seems that we tell ourselves it’s all good while we go about the real agenda of trickle-up economics, i.e., optimizing wealth creation for a donor class of investors, developers and builders at the expense of average homeowners, who see little in the way of job-creation and even less tax base offset for their contribution. It’s no wonder UTEP graduates leave their home town for greener pastures elsewhere. It is why El Paso grows outwardly, but doesn’t deepen and prosper.

    If I were a dictator and could design my own capitol city, it would be on a scale somewhere between a Portland (before it was overtaken by Maoist crazies) and a Houston, combining hipster ambience, environmental consciousness, economic dynamism, diversity, affordability and opportunity for all.

    Also, fresh seafood

  6. I hope you decide to do it. You’re one of the few people in this town with a smart perspective on things. I know it didn’t go your way the last time but I think you’ll have better luck on the second try.

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