Latino Studies El Paso
Monica Perales, Sandra I. Enríquez
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 January 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 21 January 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199913701-0109


El Paso, Texas, is the epicenter of the largest international border metroplex in the Western Hemisphere. With a population of nearly 675,000, El Paso is the nineteenth largest city in the United States and the sixth largest in Texas. Throughout its history, El Paso has been a Hispanic city by virtue of its location on the US-Mexico border, and the majority of its Latino population is of Mexican heritage. In 2010, the US Census reported that 80.7 percent of the population was Latino. Located on the banks of the Rio Grande River at the natural pass between the rugged mountain ranges that cut across the Chihuahuan Desert, the region has historically served as a center for trade and commerce. For centuries prior to European settlement, Native American peoples forged trade routes across the region. The first Spanish expedition made its way into the region in 1581, and in 1598 Juan de Oñate claimed the area that would become El Paso for Spain in nearby San Elizario, placing it at the center of an empire that stretched from Mexico into the northern frontiers of present-day New Mexico. Franciscan missionaries established the Missión Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de los Mansos del Paso del Norte in 1659 (today, Ciudad Juárez). By the end of the 17th century, the area constituted a critical post on the Camino Real between Chihuahua and Santa Fe. After Mexican independence in 1820, Paso del Norte remained an important commercial center notable for its size and its prominence as the seat of political and economic power in the region. American business interests soon turned their attention to Paso del Norte. During the US war with Mexico, American troops captured Paso del Norte, and, following the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the region was divided politically but remained culturally and economically entwined. Incorporated in 1873, El Paso began to take on the characteristics of an “American” town, and the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1881 transformed El Paso into a bustling city. While its bicultural history has set El Paso apart, the process of bridging national and cultural identities has not always been easy. The consolidation of economic and political power led to the dislocation of the city’s Mexican population and increasing social, educational, and residential segregation in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. However, Mexican El Pasoans were by no means small players in the formation of the vibrant border city. They created their own community institutions, political organizations, and business districts, and they contributed countless hours of labor to the functioning of the city, as many of the following readings will show.

General Overviews

A number of studies recount the history of El Paso and its economic, cultural, and political development as a modern border city. Although some works lack full consideration of the role of Mexican El Pasoans, they provide a foundation for understanding El Paso in both history and popular memory. Sonnichsen 1968 offers an engaging chronicle of the El Paso/Ciudad Juárez region, from the arrival of Spanish expeditions in the 16th century through the Mexican Revolution. It provides a broad discussion of major events and personalities from the early Spanish settlements to the arrival of the Americans in the mid-19th century, but it gives little attention to the lives of everyday Mexican El Pasoans. It is a study that illustrates a long dominant depiction of El Paso that privileges its romanticized Spanish origins and Anglo-American entrepreneurial spirit. Situating study in the Boltonian Borderlands tradition, Timmons 1990 covers similar historical ground, but it offers a more robust examination of El Paso’s transition from a settlement in the Spanish borderlands, through the Mexican period, to its reinvention as an American frontier town and modern border city. It provides an excellent overview of the city’s growth and does a better job than most general overviews of incorporating ethnic Mexicans into the making of El Paso. Leon C. Metz is one of the city’s most prolific and popular local historians. A writer, lecturer, and radio personality, he is regarded locally as an authority on all things El Paso, and he has written numerous books about western personalities from El Paso and southern New Mexico. Of his many publications, Metz 1993 offers a useful timeline of major and minor events in El Paso history that can serve as a helpful guide for researchers, students, and the general reader. While many of these works overemphasize El Paso’s Spanish past and Anglo-American city founders and events, Chicano scholars in the 1970s and 1980s began to rewrite El Paso’s history, providing a closer study of the city’s majority ethnic Mexican population. García 1981 is the first book-length study of the Mexicans of El Paso from the 1880s to the 1920s. Tracing Mexican lives in El Paso’s labor market, businesses, schools, politics, and segregated neighborhoods, the author also proposes a way of understanding the border culture forged within the city. While Martínez 1978 explores El Paso’s sister city, Ciudad Juárez, it highlights the historical ties and enduring interdependency of the two cities.

  • García, Mario T. Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880–1920. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1981.

    The first study of Mexicans in El Paso that remains a foundational text. By examining immigration, labor, housing, education, the economy, and city politics, García shed light on the racial, class, and cultural divisions that arose in the development of El Paso in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. In addition to rich detail of Mexican life, discussion of the creation and meaning of border culture among ethnic Mexicans.

  • Martínez, Oscar J. Border Boom Town: Ciudad Juárez since 1848. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978.

    A social and economic study of El Paso’s sister city, Ciudad Juárez, highlighting the city’s industrialization, immigration, and migration from other Mexican regions. Although focused on Ciudad Juárez, Martínez highlights the historical connections and interdependency of the two border cities.

  • Metz, Leon. El Paso Chronicles: A Record of Historical Events in El Paso, Texas. El Paso, TX: Mangan, 1993.

    A representative sample of the work of one of the most prolific and well-known local historians. Provides a timeline of major events in El Paso history. Tends to focus more on Anglo American events and figures, but useful for researchers and students.

  • Sonnichsen, C. L. Pass of the North: Four Centuries on the Rio Grande. Vol. 1, 1529–1917. El Paso: Texas Western, 1968.

    Chronicles the history of the region from Spanish colonization to the Mexican Revolution. Tends toward the celebratory, and sometimes uncritical, view of noble Spanish conquistadores and rugged Anglo-American pioneers. Representative of an earlier generation of scholarship on El Paso.

  • Timmons, W. H. El Paso: A Borderlands History. El Paso: Texas Western, 1990.

    Known as “Mr. History” for his efforts to commemorate El Paso’s 400th anniversary, Timmons offers a narrative history of the city of El Paso from precolonial times to the 20th century. Provides thorough and more analytical coverage, connects El Paso to national and global histories. Some discussion of Mexicans, as well as other groups, including African Americans, Syrians, and Asians.

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