Mexican American Identity
The El Paso Case
Author’s note: The concepts of Mexican American Identity discussed here are primarily taken from a 1973 presentation made by UTEP professor Ellwyn Stoddard. See primary source note below for more information.
Likely one of the most confusing aspects about the discussion of racism in the United States is the conflating of racism, ethnicity and nationality with discrimination. To argue that El Paso’s Hispanic’s are discriminated against or that racism exists in the city is difficult because defining El Pasoans as Hispanics does not fully define the uniqueness of the fronterizos that make up the region’s population. Some have questioned Beto O’Rourke’s use of his nickname, Beto, as pandering to Latino voters. Beto O’Rourke may be pandering to Latino voters, but he is not doing so with his life-long nickname. The use of “Beto” reflects a cultural identity that can best be described as a fronterizo (borderlander), one that does not define the El Paso identity. A fronterizo can best be defined as an individual who is as comfortable in Cd. Juárez as in El Paso, two countries but one culture. However, El Paso and Cd. Juárez are not the only two communities on the southern border. The El Paso identity, although fronterizo, remains unique in America. But can we define it?
On the surface, the Cd. Juárez/El Paso region represents two cultures united by proximity although the communities are divided. A fronterizo is a unique culture defined by two cities in two countries co-dependent on each other. Unlike other border cities, Cd. Juárez and El Paso are not only sister cities, one in México and the other in the United States, but both were born from one city - Paso del Norte - divided into two because of geopolitical circumstances but keeping their cultural identity as one.
El Paso, Texas was born as El Paso del Norte under Spanish rule in 1659. Paso del Norte is present day Cd. Juárez. Paso del Norte existed on both sides of the Rio Bravo (Rio Grande) when México won its independence from Spain. After the Mexican-American War (1846-1848), Paso del Norte was divided into two cities - Paso del Norte and Franklin - existing in two countries but the familial, business and cultural ties remained strong within the two communities. In 1850, Simeon Hart and his wealthy Mexican father-in-law established Hart’s molino, what would later become Hart’s Mill. From here, El Paso was born. 
Unfortunately, although culturally united, political pressures, both local and national on both sides of the border, have created an artificial division between both communities. Some readers may not see the unique culture uniting Juarenses and El Pasoans because of decades old biases. However, one need not look further than understanding that there is no other cultural identity in America or México that can be compared to the one in El Paso and Cd. Juárez.
Complicating matters when defining an El Pasoan is nationality. Americans and Mexicans are the largest ethnic group in El Paso. But how does one define racism and discrimination when Latinos dominate the city. Discrimination is the prejudicial treatment of individuals based on many factors, such as social-economic status, education, age, sex and many other human attributes. None of those attributes can be applied to El Pasoans as they encompass all the attributes typically associated with discrimination. Thus the question is, how do you define an El Pasoan when addressing disparity among the population? Before addressing this, we should first attempt to define what the Mexican American identity is.
In 1973, UTEP professor Ellwyn Stoddard, presented a paper where he investigated the “background of Mexican American identity”. Stoddard argued that Mexican Americans are a “complex” combination of seven key historical events.
According to Stoddard, the Mexican American minority is an “ethnic category” made up of “diverse social classes, varied historical backgrounds and heterogenous blends of genetic and cultural legacies”. Stoddard goes on to explain that there is no cohesive Mexican American. He explains this by quoting from a 1966 Fernando Peñalosa and Edward C. McDonagh article; Social Mobility in a Mexican-American Community:
“Existentially there is no Mexican American community as such, nor is there such a ‘thing’ as Mexican American culture. The group is fragmented socially, culturally, ideologically, and organizationally.”
It is this 1966 definition that explains why there are Mexican Americans across the country that can support the xenophobic immigration policies of both Donald J. Trump and Greg Abbott, although they target the Mexicans that are the ancestors of the Mexican Americans today.
Mexican Americans are not a homogenous group of people but the tendency among the news media and political observers is to treat Mexican Americans are one identity. It is because of this erroneous narrative that arises the fundamental misunderstanding the Latinos and Mexican Americans are “the Latino vote” that is only one election away.
There is no such thing as “the Latino vote”. Although political pundits like to argue that Latinos overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party, the 2016 elections and 2020 elections prove this assertion to be wrong. Trump grew his Latino base in 2020 from the Latinos that supported him in 2016. Between a quarter to a third of American Latinos have voted for Republicans over the last 50 years. 
A recent Wall Street Journal poll reported that if Joe Biden and Donald Trump were to run in 2024, Hispanic voters “would be evenly split” in casting their votes for both.  Yet, the misinformed notion that Democrats would be favored by “the Latino vote” persists to this day.
Just like there is no reliable Latino vote there is also no reliable Mexican American vote. This brings us back to defining what a Mexican American is.
Ellwyn Stoddard argues that the Mexican American identity has evolved by who has defined the Mexican American, Anglos. Stoddard defines seven “contemporary images” of Mexican Americans as the definitions that have been applied to the Mexican American community by outsiders.
The first is the “1848 (Anglo)” image, where Mexican Americans are defined by the Anglo majority. According to Stoddard, this view of Mexican Americans was “bestowed by Anglo majority” which defined the Mexican American as “a race of conquered people” who were “allowed to live in the United States and become citizens if and when they learn to become WASP middle class Americans”. This is demonstrated by the “assimilation” rhetoric across America and by the attempts to make English the official language of the country.
The second identity, according to Stoddard, is the “Spanish” ancestry where “lighter-skinned” Mexican Americans tried to group themselves together to “avoid the stigma attached” to their darker-skinned brethren. This is evident across many parts of New Mexico.
The third Mexican American identity defined by Stoddard is “La Raza”. La Raza, according to Stoddard, is “a glorification of the mestizo”. Mestizos are people that are “superior” to both the Caucasian and Indigenous “pure stocks” of people because they take on the attributes of both. Many Mexicans in México, both institutionally and personally ascribe themselves as mestizos. In America, La Raza manifested itself as an attempt to create a culture around a people who felt alienated from their ancestral home as well as in their new home.
The fourth identity defined by Stoddard is the “Indian,” the identity selected by certain Mexican Americans “who wish to throw off the racist stigma attached to dark skin color” by claiming “an affinity” to Indian ancestors and culture. This identity manifested itself during the controversies of The Equestrian statue near the airport.
The fifth version, “1848 (Mexican) is the reverse of the 1848 (Anglo) where the Mexican American identity began with the Mexican American War. In this version, some of today’s Mexican Americans argue that their identity grew from the border crossing them. They are neither Mexican nor American but Mexican Americans that are U.S. citizens but retain their Mexican heritage.
The “Chicano” is the sixth version of the Mexican American according to Stoddard. The Chicano is a “militant” identity that is a “self-imposed” label that offers “a greater degree of self-determination”. It shows an “increased independence from Anglo” imposition of the definition of what it is to be a Mexican American.
The final identity is the “Children of Aztlán”. This Mexican American identity attaches the “pre-Aztec traditions” to the identity of the Mexican American Hispanics. This too is a militant identity that creates a new identity that is neither American nor Mexican, but a mythical interpretation of the rise of a new Aztec Empire for Mexican Americans.
As readers likely know, history is written by the victors. In this case, the Mexican American identity was born out of the Mexican American War where many Mexicans found themselves on the United States side of the border after the war. Consequently, they were no longer Mexican and were not Americans either. The Mexican contemporary identity is a stereotype created by the Anglo victors of the Mexican American War. It is from here that the erroneous identity that both leads to confusion over the term “Mexican” in narratives and the illusive “Latino Vote” emerges from.
In the United States, the term “Mexican” is most often misused to define America’s Hispanics. Whether they are Spanish Hispanics with over 500 years of history in the United States, several generations of American citizens with Hispanic ethnicity or documented and undocumented Spanish-speaking immigrants, both recent and long-term, the term has been used to marginalize those that are not part of the Anglo majority of the country.
Thus, the term “Mexican” wrongly defines a population comprised of Latinos from several countries and Americans with Hispanic blood in them. It is from here that the Latino diaspora has been forced to define itself. There exists several years of research that explains how Anglos have come to marginalize America’s Hispanics through laws, language and labels applied to Latinos over the years. As such, for the purposes of this discussion we must accept that Anglos have been marginalizing Hispanics in America for centuries. This is true for El Paso as well.
As Stoddard shows in his research, “the American Heritage is equated with the verbal ideal of equality for all,” but in practice, the “melting pot” is anything but. Stoddard writes that Americans have been segregating along ethnic, religious and racial groups for generations.
Unlike other immigrants, Mexicans have long been a part of the landscape, along with the Native Americans well before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. This complicates the narrative for the Anglo majority as it forces them to reinvent the national narrative to fit the mold of a White-centric America many of them demand.
Forced to assert their identity over the everchanging rewriting of their identity, America’s Hispanics have had to reassert their identity throughout America’s history. This is even more complicated for Mexican Americans because of their centuries-old presence that continuously grows in the country through birthrate and immigration that changes the country’s demographics each year. While undergoing changes as each generation’s identity is changed by external pressures, and an Anglo minority intent on marginalizing the Hispanic identity, the Mexican American identity continues to evolve. Although it may seem that the El Paso identity is tied to the Mexican American identity, there is another factor at play on the border that needs to be discussed. It is nationality.
The El Paso Identity
The Mexican American search for identity has obvious influence in defining El Pasoans. But in addition to the pressures over identity that Mexican Americans face, El Pasoans have an additional pressure that is unique to the community - a dangerous border.
As part of the Anglo narrative of the marginalization of those that do not fit the WASP model, the border has been defined as a “dangerous” place throughout American history. However, unlike other U.S.-México border communities, El Paso and Cd. Juárez have proximity to deal with.
El Paso nor Cd. Juárez can survive without the other. Although this is true for other border communities, El Paso and Cd. Juárez are not just connected by history, tradition, language and culture but the two cities literally emerged from one - Paso del Norte. Not only were they one city at one time, but both remain literally a stones-throw away from each other - culturally and economically tied together. It is this reality that makes defining the El Paso identity complicated.
El Paso is largely Hispanic, mostly Mexican America. As such, the identity of Mexican Americans in America influences the El Paso identity. But there is more. El Pasoans cannot simply be El Pasoans. Juarenses cannot simply be Juarenses, although both communities like to pretend they are separate communities in a connected region.
Simply labeling the region’s inhabitants as fronterizos also misses the mark because there are other communities along the U.S.-México border that have fronterizos as well.
This brings us back to our starting point, how to define an El Pasoan.
It is not possible under the existing model imposed by the Anglo colonists that have spent generations doing their best to marginalize and stigmatize Mexican Americans, and by extension El Pasoans. Beto O’Rourke and Veronica Escobar are El Pasoans. But so is Paul Foster’s wife, Alejandra de la Vega and telecom owner Miguel Fernandez.
Trying to define El Pasoans as El Pasoans is the reason there exists the disconnect between community issues such as immigration or the destruction of Segundo Barrio by certain El Pasoans. By all accounts, Veronica Escobar is a national proponent of immigration reform and asylum seekers at the border.
And yet she is married to an immigration judge appointed by the Trump Administration that has been called one of the worst immigration judges for asylum seekers in America. The only way to explain this dichotomy is to understand that El Pasoans simply cannot be defined as an El Pasoan identity, just like Mexican Americans are not one identity.
This is also why Beto O’Rourke can epitomize an El Pasoan while, for a time, supporting the Glass Beach Study that marginalized poor Americans of Mexican descent on negative stereotypes direct from the playbook of Anglos marginalizing Mexican Americans throughout history. This reality also explains how industrialists like Alejandra de la Vega can work towards the de-Mexicanization of El Paso’s Segundo Barrio for economic development.
More important is that that Miguel Fernandez and Alejandra de la Vega add a new element to the definition of an El Pasoan. Both are likely dual nationals, holding citizenship in both México and the United States and are at least bilingual in English and Spanish.
Thus, an El Pasoan is no longer simply an American of Mexican descent.
At this point and after understanding this we can no longer argue for an El Pasoan identity as it has evolved towards a regional identity. It is also the reason that many individuals are working behind the scenes developing an economic strategy model around regionalism. To understand this one need not look further than the economic models that are forecasting economic activity encompassing Texas, New Mexico and Chihuahua. UTEP has called this strategy The Paso del Norte Region. The economic model being proposed includes El Paso, Las Cruces, and Cd. Juárez. This initiative is being funded by Woody Hunt’s Hunt Institute for Global Competitiveness. Although it is touted as the model for the future, it is nothing more than the articulation of the economic model that has existed since Hart’s Mill - a community divided by an international border and a river economically interdependent on each other.
Hart’s Mill, owned by an American and a Mexican served the United States Army for many years. Clearly citizenship is and was not impacting the regional economy for the multi-national business industrialists. As it was at Hart’s Mill it remains today in the ongoing public policy debate raging in El Paso.
Once we understand that regionalism is the model we can see Segundo Barrio, the freeway expansion and other issues currently facing the community in a different light. Thinking regionally brings into greater focus the different players setting the community’s public policy agenda and its narrative.
Ellwyn Stoddard concluded his essay on the Mexican American identity as “a timeless evolutionary process”. Stoddard quotes Luis Miguel Valdez as framing the identity crisis as an ongoing crisis that “has been our way of life for the last five centuries”.
Like the Mexican American identity crisis, El Pasoans have been having the same identity crisis just as long, but unlike the rest of the Mexican Americans, El Pasoans are dealing with an important element that further defines them - the dual national that is part of the El Paso narrative.
Studdard recognized this in the 1980’s when he argued that El Pasoans are comprised of a “third culture,” one that is “neither American nor Mexican”.  Although mostly accurate, his definition assumes that El Pasoans both recognize and accept this identity. Stoddard’s definition assumes inclusiveness which does not exist in some of El Paso’s Hispanic population when it comes to the Mexican nationals in their midst.
Ellwyn R. Stoddard, Professor of Sociology, University of Texas at El Paso, “Mexican American Identity, A Multicultural Legacy,” Paper presented at the Southwestern Sociological Association annual meeting, Dallas, Texas, March 22, 1973.
1. Geraldo L. Cadava, “There’s No such Thing as ‘The Latino Vote’, why can’t Americans see that?,” The Atlantic, February 14, 2022.
2. Rachel Feit, Heather Stettler and Cherise Bell, “El Paso del Norte: A Cultural Landscape History of the Oñate Crossing on the Camino Real de Tierra Adentro 1598-1983, Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, Texas, U.S.A.,” National Park Service, National Trails Intermountain Region, August 2018.
3. Tim Madigan, “Rush hour on the Rio Grande,” Fort Worth Telegram, July 12, 1987.