Crossroad of Cultures and Traditions
Explore the El Paso museums!
Sep 13, 2019 at 8:00 AM in Things to Do
Located at the far western corner of Texas in the Chihuahuan Desert on the Rio Grande River, El Paso is distinguished by its proximity to New Mexico and Mexico and also as being one of the most important cities of the lone star state. Although El Paso County was founded in 1850, El Paso proper has roots dating back to the sixteenth century. As the Spaniards approached the Rio Grande from the south, they viewed two mountain ranges rising out of the desert with a deep chasm between. They named this site El Paso del Norte, which means the Pass of the North. It served as the future location of two border cities—Ciudad Juárez on the south or right bank of the Rio Grande, and El Paso, Texas, on the opposite side of the river. Today El Paso, Texas is the largest of the U.S./Mexico border cities. Indeed, it’s situated at the base of the Franklin Mountains and below a narrow pass where the Rio Grande spills out from the southernmost spines of the Rocky Mountains.
Here’s an interesting fun fact: Since 1989, people have begun to celebrate a day of Thanksgiving to commemorate the Spanish explorer Juan de Oñate’s arrival in today’s El Paso on April 30, 1598. Most history books say that the first Thanksgiving was held between the pilgrims and Native Americans in 1621 in what is today Plymouth, Massachusetts, but it seems as though the El Pasoans have a leg up on that distinction.
The town grew slowly up until 1881 when four railways arrived. After that, El Paso was established as a major crossroad for foreign and domestic trade. It still is today and it’s also a point of intersection for many major highways. It’s a tourist gateway to Juárez, the most important city of Chihuahua, Mexico, a portal that swings both ways, since Mexicans often come over to El Paso to shop and have fun just as Americans are known to take jaunts over the border.
Spanish language, culture and tradition distinguish El Paso and it’s exactly that that makes a trip here so special. From the old adobe buildings in the town center to the abundance of fabulous Mexican food restaurants, a visit here is almost like going to Mexico. Yet El Paso is also a buzzing American metropolis and it’s this beautiful marriage of the U.S. and Mexico that renders the city so unique.
Go to the El Paso Museum of History and the El Paso Museum of Art to develop a better understanding of the history of El Paso and how it became such a melting pot of Spanish-American culture. The former traces 400 years on the border through a variety of media. The latter presents a magnificent collection of Southwestern and local art made from the thirteenth to the twenty-first century. What a great way to embrace El Paso’s Mexican, European and American roots!
A visit to the Ysleta Mission is also highly recommended. Built in 1682 in classic adobe style, this white-washed church is the oldest continuously operating parish in Texas. Like so many old churches, it underwent many changes over the ages and even survived a fire in 1907 that caused massive damage. Fortunately it was rebuilt and in 1972 added to the National Register of Historic Places. The church hosts a three-day event the second weekend in July that ranks as one of the best festivals in El Paso.
The El Paso Museum of Archeology also stands out for both its exhibits as well as its nature trails, which feature more than 250 varieties of Chihuahuan Desert plants. Depending on the weather, you can also delight in visiting their Indian Garden and other outdoor exhibits. (Note that although the temperatures can reach triple digits in El Paso, it doesn’t feel as hot as other big cities such as Houston or Dallas, since the humidity is so low. In the winter, it can be sunny and dry and quite pleasant.) Inside the museum, you can travel back some 14,000 years to see how American Indians lived. From Paleo-Indian hunters of the Ice Age to their modern descendants, exhibits show how these early inhabitants survived throughout the centuries. Leave time for their Museum Store that sells a colorful collection of authentic Native American art–including jewelry and ceramics– as wells as books, postcards, toys and more.
When in El Paso, you have to stop and wonder how it was when white men (and women!) first settled here. Thankfully the Magoffin Home State Historic Site conjures up lots of great images of how life was back in the day. Visit this pioneer family’s 1875 adobe house and garden. It’s also on the National Register of Historic Places and it’s beautiful.
Dazzle yourself with a show at the historic Plaza Theater, a gem of a theater that hosts Broadway shows as well as a variety of other theatrical and musical events. Opened in 1930, this magnificent venue fortunately escaped the wrecking ball and underwent a spectacular restoration. No wonder the El Paso Symphony Orchestra has made it its home. Know, however, that the symphony also plays at the Abraham Chavez Theater, known simply as the Chavez Theater, a 2,500-seat concert hall adjacent to the Williams Convention Center. Best of all:From the outside, it resembles a sombrero. Don’t you love a note of humor in architecture and design?
Many of El Paso’s historic buildings and establishments continue to be restored to their original splendor. The more-than one-hundred-year-old Camino Real Hotel is currently being buffed and polished for a spring 2020 opening. It is being renamed the Hotel Paso Del Norte and promises to be as grand as it was when it first opened. It’s a Texas landmark where people have been gathering beneath the stained glass dome in their lobby since 1912. It sounds like it will be a great place to go for a frosty margarita. Cheers!