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Texas Myth Alive Today III

 

Good morning. I’m very, very pleased to be here, and I thank Pat for inviting me to participate. You’re probably going to get a greater dose of El Paso this morning than you’ve ever had at this meeting, and I thank you for that, too.

I happened to be thinking about this meeting and my participation in it as I was driving from El Paso to Alamogordo, New Mexico, some weeks ago. And just on the outskirts of El Paso, there’s a restaurant that’s called the Edge of Texas. And that came as kind of an inspiration to me for what I considered to be the theme of my remarks, which I guess I would call “Life at the Edge.”

The edge that I’m talking about, of course, is both physical in terms of where El Paso is located, but it’s also psychological and attitudinal. There’s an awful lot about living on the border that makes people there different, makes us think differently, makes us somehow respond in different ways to what the rest of the state might be thinking or doing.

Now, Charles talked some about this, but I want to embellish it a little bit. But before I do that, I should tell you that I am a relative newcomer to the border. Everyone else who’s spoken this morning, I noted, was native Texan, and I am not. I grew up in St. Louis, and I’ve only been living on the border for thirty years, so I confess that I still have a lot of border living and learning to do!

But I think that my “newcomer’s” eyes might afford me a vantage point that some of the rest of my fellow border residents might not have, and so I hope that my perceptions might be interesting to you.

            When I arrived in El Paso in 1971, I certainly sensed that it was a different world from the Texas that I had known while living here in Austin—and in San Antonio—for ten years. First, El Paso’s obvious physical distance from the rest of the state became clear to me as I drove across West Texas in July with my potted plants in the back seat drooping from exhaustion. I began to understand that El Paso really was equidistant between Houston and San Diego.

Now, halfway to San Diego is really far, and a lot of my friends from out of state, and even some within the state, don’t realize just how far. We’re in another time zone—the Mountain Standard time zone. And Betty Sue reminded me of something important: We are on a different electric grid. We are distant from the rest of the state.

El Paso’s physical appearance is also very different. We have mountains. The city is at 4,000 feet elevation. We have a mountain range in the center of the city called the Franklin Mountains. That mountain is unusual for most Texans, including the wife of the first dean of the Texas School of Mines, which was our earlier incarnation before even Texas Western College. We’ve had a lot of names—I think that may have something to do with the Texas myth of staying out of trouble by changing your identity!

In any case, we were the Texas School of Mines and Metallurgy, and the wife of the first dean read the April 1914 issue of the National Geographic magazine, in which there appeared a photo essay of the kingdom of Bhutan in the Himalayan Mountains. As she looked out at the El Paso terrain, she decided that the Franklin Mountains looked just like those Himalayas, and so to this day, since 1917, when the first building was built on our campus, all of our buildings are in the style of the temples of Bhutan. I suppose you might say that our mountains are the Texas Himalayas! But, I’m getting away from my major topic here.

Most importantly, there has been and continues to be a clear difference in attitude among people who live in El Paso, a sense of isolation from the rest of the state, and probably worst of all, a sense of resignation and helplessness that we’re not able to do much about that isolation.

Now, I did a little survey in preparation for these remarks, and I talked to a number of El Pasoans about the Texas myth and where the border and El Paso might fit in all of that. And most of the people I spoke with about this topic told me that the border was ignored or forgotten in the Texas myth. It’s just not there, they said.

There were others who argued that the border was looked at, thought about, and ultimately rejected as unworthy of consideration for inclusion in any kind of Texas myth. Either way, the bottom line is that many people on the border, at least in the El Paso area, don’t feel a part of the Texas myth.

There are even jokes in El Paso about seceding from Texas. Whenever we don’t like something that happens elsewhere in the state, we talk about becoming the largest city in New Mexico. Now, no matter that we’re fighting ferociously with New Mexico over water and a whole bunch of other issues, we nonetheless feel that we should have an option.

A third group of people that I talked with in my survey said that if the border is a part of the Texas myth, we are its dark side, and I think the bishop referred to that earlier. If we think about the border as part of Texas, we think about all the negatives of the border. We think about undocumented aliens. We think about drugs. We think about public health and environmental issues. It’s our back door. It’s our back yard. It’s the area that doesn’t really reflect what Texas wants to be.

All of this reminded me then of UTEP in 1971. When I arrived there, there was another kind of myth. We had bumper stickers in El Paso that said, “UTEP: Harvard on the Border.” Now, that’s amusing, but there’s also a certain pathos in it. There’s a certain desire to be something that you’re not, to turn your back on your surroundings, to isolate yourself, to be an ivory tower, to be something that you couldn’t possibly be, or shouldn’t want to be. But that was an attitude that prevailed throughout the campus.

Now, most of the time when you talked to people about that, they would point to all of the liabilities in our community, the many liabilities that we faced. Our location on the border was one. Our student demographics were another. We had liabilities everywhere.

What we have attempted to do during the past decade—and now I’m flipping from the dark side to the bright and hopeful side of all this—what we tried to do was say to ourselves, Who are we as an institution? Whom do we serve as an institution of higher education in El Paso, Texas? Who are our constituents, and how can we be authentic in meeting the needs of this population? How can we shift from the myth of being Harvard on the Border to being an institution that responds to the needs of its region and recognizes the importance of the work that it does in this region? How can we do that?

So we took a hard look at ourselves in the mirror. We identified all of our liabilities, and then we flipped them over and converted them into assets. And every single liability became an asset in our quest to become the best UTEP we could ever be—to be authentic, to recognize whom we served, and to make a determination that we would serve that population in the best possible way.

And what’s interesting about that is that UTEP has enjoyed far greater success in our authentic mode than we could have ever done trying to emulate a model that didn’t fit.

Now, what I’d suggest to you today is that UTEP’s effort at authenticity can really serve as a model for what I would argue Texas should do. It’s a little late, but it was late for UTEP in 1971, too. We can make up for lost time.

I’d argue that Texas can’t any longer cling to the myth that we have held for a long time in this state; the myth that ignores or rejects people, regions of the state; the myth that underestimates its strengths, its diversity—its diversity of geographic regions, its diversity of people. Texas would be stronger today if in our myth we included the people who live along the border, the people that Charles talked about.

Texas would be stronger today if we recognize that with the demographic changes that are underway, by the year 2030, 42 percent of the population is projected to be Hispanic. That’s up from 29 percent in 1998. Forty-two percent Hispanic, 43 percent Anglo. That’s what’s projected for 2030.

          There’s a huge challenge to educate, to prepare, and to integrate the talent of that population into what all of us believe must be Texas’s future. Frankly, we can’t afford not to. It’s too big, too undereducated, and it’s going to be a huge burden if we don’t change the way we think about it. And as has been pointed out repeatedly this morning, it’s how we think about it that will determine what we will do about it. That myth—that myth that we hold will determine how we behave.

And so what I would say to you is don’t underestimate the border region. Don’t think about it in the negative way that the media and others so often portray it. There is huge potential there, huge talent, human capital that is just waiting to be developed. It is phenomenal what that population can do for this state if we allow it to develop in the way that it must for all of us to be successful. We can’t afford to contemplate not developing that population.

As Texas moves into the next millennium, we’ll either continue to ignore the potential of the border region while its presence forces itself on us, or we will choose to capitalize on the opportunities that it presents. With globalization, the border can no longer be considered our back door. It’s become our front door. It’s our front entrance to the new global marketplace.

We can change our Texas myth, and the Texas myth of the twenty-first century will be far richer, far more complex, and far more meaningful and satisfying to all Texans.

Thank you.