El Paso at the turn of the 1970s was blindingly bright. Even as I think of it now, my eyes start to squint at the memory: the relentless desert sun, the rows of white brick houses lined with white cement walkways and surrounded by white gravel yards.
They were matched by our white patio out back, the one with the small circular burn marks in the cement, a souvenir from the fireworks the neighborhood dads set off during Fourth of July parties.
Walking to the community playground, we’d pass the occasional cactus or spiky shrub, but shade was definitely in short supply. If a dust storm came through—and they often did—tumbleweeds would blow down the streets and sidewalks like a cliché. You didn’t get wet in an El Paso storm; you got grit in your eyes.
The playground itself was no oasis of greenery either, but who cared? There was a red-white-and-blue jungle gym shaped like a rocket, and metal swings shaped like birds.
The city seemed exotic even to a three-year-old. I knew this wasn’t typical. Checking your shoes and the bathtub for scorpions wasn’t what the average kid in America was doing. Looking out in the distance and seeing Mexico just over the river—this was different.
Outside our neighborhood, I was mostly a passenger. My favorite vantage point was the black leather back seat of Mrs. S’s cool, white Mustang. I was transfixed by my best friend’s mother, with her stick-straight, glossy hair parted perfectly down the middle, and her patterned ponchos of burnt orange, mustard and beige, their fringe dancing across the waist of her faded bell bottom jeans. In the rearview mirror, I’d catch her eyes smiling back at me through wide-framed sunglasses, a vain attempt to shield out the desert brightness.
Every Sunday morning my father and I would glide through the winding, prickly landscape in the family station wagon, off to pick up my brother and sister from Sunday school as he taught me to read the street signs along the way: Dawn Drive. Mesa. Southwind. Sunland.
On Sunday nights another ritual: We’d pass over the river to Juarez for a dinner of chile rellenos and tacos, my mother holding tightly onto my hand as we clicked our way up the crowded streets filled with music and candy and toys and chatter, both familiar and foreign all at once. Heading back to Texas with a full belly, I’d peer out the window as the soldier at the end of the hulking bridge peered back in, always asking the same question:
“What country are you a citizen of?”
When we moved to Shreveport, Louisiana, we moved from this world of whites and browns to one of blues and greens. We left behind the few, tiny one-and-a-half-year-old trees in our yard for towering pines and impressionistic oaks.
Dust storms were gone, replaced by thunderstorms and tornados, and the refreshing payoff of honeysuckle and puffy hydrangeas spreading across the spongy turf. We said good-bye to gravel and hello to bermuda. And I said adios to Sesame Street’s Spanish foreign language segments and bonjour to the Count reciting the numbers in French.
I was four. Cuatro. Quatre.
Because El Paso lies in the foothills of the Rockies, mountains weave their way through the city. Near our old neighborhood, there was a particular mountain that always served as my landmark for approaching home. It was topped with a rock formation that reminded me of a turtle.
When we returned to the city fifteen years later on a visit, it was so strange to come upon that mountain again. After so many years had past, it was almost as if I might have dreamed it up. Trees had grown. Playgrounds had moved past the space race. My friends had graduated and left the desert behind. Swaths of grass even covered a few lawns.
But there was the mountain, with the turtle on it, still pointing the way to the old neighborhood.
Marla Lepore was born in Texas, grew up in Shreveport, LA, and received a BA in English from Tulane University in New Orleans. Now based out of Nashville, she’s a writer, editor, and communications consultant who pays the bills by making other people sound like themselves (only better). You can find her online at www.marlaink.com and follow her @marlaink on Twitter. In person, you’ll usually find her covered in dog and/or cat hair.