In writing Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community, University of Houston assistant professor of history Monica Perales, tells the important story of how the Southwest border community shaped or made the lives of those who lived and worked there before it was ultimately leveled for lead contamination four decades ago.
Perales, a former El Paso resident with family ties to Smeltertown, used newspaper clippings, employee records from ASARCO, parish newsletters, and oral history in putting the book together. In focusing on the people of Smeltertown, it joins David Romo’s Ringside Seat to Revolution in creating an ever emerging historiography of El Paso from the bottom up.
The book begins with an ironic introduction as Smeltertown’s existence is threatened by a new environmental consciousness of the early 1970s with the ushering in of Earth Day and the Environmental Protection Agency. ASARCO’s decades-long polluting of the area with lead caused many children to have unhealthy levels of it in their blood.
As a result, angry residents gathered at the local Catholic Church in March 1972, demanding answers to their suspicions that lead contamination was a ruse to uproot Smeltertown. After the introduction, Perales goes on to describe ASARCO’s role in El Paso within a larger context of international capitalist commerce and the migrant labor force from Mexico it attracted—turning the city into a copper capital of the Southwest by the 1930s.
As ASARCO began operations and La Esmelda grew, it was divided into two sections: El Alto where the Anglo managers and supervisors lived and El Bajo where Mexican families lived in substandard conditions. The separation between the two was so vast in many dimensions that my mother—who grew up there—recalls never even knowing of El Alto’s existence.
Read the rest of the review in the October edition of Zmagazine available at your local bookstore or by clicking the link below.