The Texas Observer OCT. 13, 1967 A Journal of Free Voices A Window to The South 25c El Paso’s ‘Other America’ El Paso No one had expected this big a turnout. Quickly, extra folding chairs were snapped open and set out on the floor of the Sacred Heart gymnasium in South El Paso. On stage at the microphone Dr. William Fisher, the first speaker of the evening, was trying to present a survey of American educationtelling what the Puritans did, and how many Nobel Prize winners come from land grant colleges but his voice was lost in the noise of treading feet and banging chairs. Up front the settled listeners who had arrived on time kept looking around at the South El Pasoans who had waited outside and were now filing in to take seats in the back. Other panelists kept sipping from their water glasses, looking competent and knowing. Occasionally boys in polo shirts and tennis shoes wandered inside the gym to see what was going on before angling off into the rest room. Finally, with the late corners seated, the chairs silenced, everyone on stage and in the . audience settled back for A Dialogue at the Grass Roots. Unfortunately, there wasn’t any. Earlier this year a conference on education, sponsored by the sociology department of the University of Texas at series of seminars on problems of South El Paso. The first two seminars, one on housing, one on income and occupations had followed the pattern of having a panel of professionals alternate with a panel of South El Paso residents in an attempt to focus attention on the needs of the people in the South Side. According to Dr. Clark Knowlton, chairman of the sociology department, the initial conferences were relatively successful because the people from South El Paso felt they were involved in what went on. The education conference, lasting two nights, was not sucessful. Most of the South El Pasoans who attended the first night drifted out at the break and did not return; they did not bother to show up at all the second night. The symposium might as well have been held at the UTEP campus on the west side of town. For even though the educators had come to the heart of the south side for the purpose of being where The People were, most of them did not make contact. Andy Mares, youth work coordinator for the El The writer is an Obs,erver contributing editor who lives in El Paso. This is the first of two reports on South El Paso. Paso juvenile delinquency program, was an exception: he was effective in presenting the conditions which young MexicanAmericans face in South El Paso; and Dr. Ralph Segalman, UTEP professor of sociology. was also able to reach The People. But for the most part it was a matter of self-communication: Professional talk Elroy Bode ing to professional; program heads and educators talking to public school teachers and sociology majors out in the audience. In some instances there was no communication at all. Dr. John Sharp, UTEP modern languages professor, read off his speech so hurriedly and indistinctly that few, if any, understood what he had to say. Each hour of the symposium was divided generally into 50 minutes of speeches, ten minutes of audience reaction. Most of the panelists gave the impression ‘that they regarded the questions from the audience as loaded or hostile or at least unconstructive; thus they seemed more interested in defending their programs or positions than in coming to grips with problems. Yet it was only when questions were being asked that the conference seemed to, be getting somewhere: serious, troubled people were trying to bring out into the open the fears and desires and angers of those who live in South El Paso. But the ten-minute reaction periods were never long enough. Discussion was always stopped just when it was becoming fruitful. After observing two nights of this sort of thingof watching dutiful, well-intentioned men talk out past the basketball net into the stillness of the gym and into the emptiness of the meetingDr. Knowlton gave vent to his sense of despair. He walked over to the microphone and declared the education conference to be a failure. “The people of South El Paso aren’t here,” he told the group. He said that the middle-class panelists had simply talked themselves out of an audience. Some of his colleagues looked startled at his blunt assessment of their efforts; some looked angry. But most of those who had sat for the full six hours of the conference seemed to agree with him. E L PASO AND Juarez have ‘a combined total population of 700,000. South El Paso, the oldest part of the city, is a mile-square area lying between the El Paso downtown business district and the border. About 30,000 peopleprimarily Mexican-Americans, of whom 85% are Catholiclive there in varying conditions of poverty. Some of them were born in Mexico, but most of them have lived in South El Paso all their lives. Living conditions in many parts of South El Paso are very bad, and have been bad for years. In June, 1964, the Slum Council of the Mayor’s Citizens Advisory Council presented a survey of conditions to Mayor Judson Williams and the city council. Here are some of the facts brought out in the survey about the tenements: 69.6% of the tenements needed minor repairs; both major and minor repairs \(compared to an estimated 10% for the rest of the 94.7% of the tenements had poor or inadequate electrical installations; 86.0%of the tenements needed major repairs to . their plumbing systems; 70.4% of the family units in the tenements did not have bathing facilities \(tub or showThe average income per adult was listed at $20.86 per week; The average rent per month was $25.21. Among the reasons listed in the report why South El Paso was in such condition were: disinterested absentee ownership; -lack of public interest; lack of marketable skills of the people living in the area; competition with Juarez residents who cross the border to work for the lowest possible wages. The report made 15 recommendations, among which were: establish a city, county, or state minimum wage; subsidize landlords who make required improvements on their property; adopt a local housing code; support a vocational training school for the training of slum residents in Skills that would provide for increased earning power. Most of the recommendations made in the report have never been acted on by Mayor Williams and the council. AFEW OF THE owners have threatened to evict their tenants and convert their tenements into warehouses if an attempt is ever made to force them to make improvements. Some of the owners contend that they actually do not make any money out of their tenement property. \(Oscar B. White, a member of the City Charter Commission, has said publicly that tenement owners do indeed most of
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