I’m sitting in an old folks home in El Paso, Texas. My grandma lives here, and since I wasn’t able to make it for her 90th birthday earlier this month, I came out to spend a little time with her.
We are Jews from El Paso. Yeah, most of the time when I say that people react the way you probably just did “Jews from El Paso? I didn’t know they made Jews in El Paso.” Well they do, just not many of them
The population of El Paso is about 683,000 and growing while the Jewish community is about 5,000 and shrinking. But my grandma was born here, as was my mom, my brother, my aunt and uncle, and many of my cousins. Very few of my family members still live here but every year 40 or 50 people come into town for Passover. We call it El Passover (I’m rather proud of making that one up) and one of our traditions is having chili con queso. We’re not exactly orthodox.
Sitting in our lefty perch in the Bay Area, it’s often hard to think of anything east of Oakland as being liberal. We gaze out toward where the sun rises and myopically lament that other than pit stops like Austin, Chicago, Madison and Detroit, it’s nothing but red until you reach the East Coast. Thankfully we’re wrong and frankly, we’ve got to get out of our bubble a little more often.
Looking at the voter map of Texas there’s surprisingly more blue spots than you’d expect. Most of south Texas went blue in 2016, as did counties with major cities like Houston, San Antonio and Dallas. So did El Paso. It’s actually been a Democratic stronghold for a long time. In fact, Beto O’Rourke — the current darling of the left — is from El Paso and represents the city in the House.
It’s heartwarming to be in Texas and see so many “Beto for Senate” signs on peoples’ front lawns. But the thing that makes El Paso both charming and unexpected is that it’s more like Northern Mexico than it is like the rest of Texas. More than 80 percent of the population is Latino, which explains why, especially with all the current immigration bull we’re enduring, this is a Blue town.
My grandma has lived here her entire life. Her father was a dairy farmer, and when my grandfather married into the family after World Ward II he became a dairy farmer too. My grandma’s 90 years of El Paso stories are fascinating, from her parents coming from Lithuania and starting a little goat farm, to her father bringing Jewish boys home from Fort Bliss to meet his three daughters, to seeing El Paso grow from a small border town to a bustling city. Ninety years is a long time.
That’s why I needed to get out and see her. Unfortunately after being very healthy for most of her life, dementia has really begun to set in. She’ll ask the same question five times in 10 minutes and it’s becoming hard for her to visit unfamiliar environments. I want to find out as much about her and our family and El Paso as I can before it’s too late. Honestly, it might even be so now.
It’s funny, even though I was born and raised in California and San Francisco is my home, I think of El Paso as my ancestral homeland. It’s the place where my people come from. The fact that a handful of Jews escaping pogroms and anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe landed in El Paso of all places, is remarkable (I’ll have to save that whole story for another time). When my grandmother and a couple other cousins are no longer here I don’t know if or when I’ll come back.
That said, I will always love seeing people raise their eyebrows when I say that my family are Jews from El Paso.
Stuart Schuffman, aka Broke-Ass Stuart, is a travel writer, TV host and poet. Follow him at BrokeAssStuart.com and join his awesome mailing list to stay up on the work he’s doing: http://bit.ly/BrokeAssList. Broke-Ass City runs Thursdays in the Examiner.