Committee on Environment, Geography and Urbanization

Division of Social Sciences, The University of Chicago

Issue 6 | Winter 2024

The Mayor’s Old House in El Paso, Texas

Story and Map by Eli Wizevich

In the summer I lived in the mayor’s old house in El Paso, Texas. I was working at the El Paso Times and renting a room in an old mansion in the Rio Grande Historic District for $26 a night.

Henry Trost, an architect of the Southwest, built the house for Tom Lea, Jr., the one-term mayor of El Paso between 1915 – 1917. Those were the strained years of the Mexican Revolution, especially along the border. When Pancho Villa briefly invaded Columbus, New Mexico, Lea threatened to arrest him if he ever brought his rabble closer to El Paso. Villa put a bounty on Lea’s head. The mayor had police escort his children to school and keep an eye on the house until things simmered down. The children stayed in their hardwood rooms, and no danger ever came.

I arrived at what was left of the Lea home 106 years later. My dad and I drove across most of the country, 2500 miles from Connecticut to El Paso, where the streets were filled with sand, washed down off the dry hills on the rare evenings when monsoon rains reached deep into the Chihuahuan Desert. One of my new roommates came out to unlock the padlock chaining up the fence around the yard. She barely spoke, and I fixated on a simple decal of the Virgin Mary on a minivan across the street, mourning a murder in cursive Spanish script. Dessie, the house’s plain cartoon of a pitbull, howled at me and licked my calves. Livers, her homemade dog food, simmered in a saucepan and filled the mayor’s old house with sourness. I was on the edge of the United States and felt like it.

A few colleagues at the paper were interested about the history of the house where I was living and told me to talk with Adair Margo, once a humanities bigwig in the George W. Bush administration, the former First Lady of El Paso, and now retired and eager to talk about local history and art. I called her one afternoon, and she invited me out to her house, which she advertised as a piece of history itself.

She and her husband Dee (the other former mayor) lived in a new house designed to look like an old one in a gated community on the West Side, the more affluent slice of El Paso that follows the Franklin Mountains up to the New Mexico state line. We drank Topo Chico—“the best fizzy water, so fizzy you can leave it open for hours” —poured over finely crushed ice and admired the high walls of the living room, covered in art she accrued as a gallery owner. Among her prized possessions was a pencil portrait of herself by Tom Lea III, son of Mayor Lea, who grew up in the house where I was living.

Tom Lea, the youngest, became famous for his New Deal murals in courthouses of the southwest and his illustrations for Life magazine of Marines fighting in the Pacific with hollow, traumatized eyes. Adair had recorded and published Lea’s oral history and founded the Tom Lea Institute to promote his art and the novels he wrote. The Bushes, still close friends with the Margos, loved Lea’s anti-war art, Adair told me, and even hung one of his paintings in the Oval Office.

“He makes art about life,” she said, thumbing through a book of Lea’s work at an exhibition she curated at the National World War II Museum in New Orleans. “I don’t like art about art. I’ve been through all that.” She paused on a painting of a Marine whose face was in the process of being shredded into a very red deluge by a Japanese bullet during the Battle of Peleliu. “He really saw all that.”

Above all the art in the Margo house were the dark wooden beams of the high ceiling, commissioned and hand-carved in the exact, intricate style of the old Misión de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, a few miles south of us in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico. “I’ll take you to the Mission to see the originals,” Adair offered. “And you can meet Jose Mario. He’s an opera singer and he will sing for us.” I was very confused about all this, but my editor, another friend of the Margos, had advised me not to squander such opportunities. He also gave me the morning off.

A week later Adair picked me up outside the newsroom in a very white, very large, very American SUV to drive into Mexico. We crossed the Stanton Street Bridge over a concrete channel of shallow brown water that’s called the Rio Grande, paid a few coins to the Mexican border guards, and promptly became very lost in a web of thin one-way streets and alleyways in Juárez. At one point, she drove us into a major intersection with no lanes, came to a complete stop in the middle, and started backing up. She didn’t show any signs of panic, which was the opposite of reassuring, because in some situations you’re supposed to show signs of panic.

She didn’t trust my effort to guide us to the Mission with Google Maps and instead called the opera singer to ask for directions. Predictably, he didn’t know where we were either, and she couldn’t communicate our location to him. Eventually we both trusted Google Maps, which took us down more thin streets and into the marketplace where we just barely wedged past trucks and motorbikes and men running very quickly in front of cars with arms full of fruit. At a particularly tight impasse, Adair asked me to hop out and direct traffic. She had asked me so calmly, so reasonably, like asking me to pass her a bottle of Topo Chico, that I stepped out of the car without protest and did just that—directed traffic in the middle of the road, in the middle of the market. Surprisingly, a man in a pickup truck laden with crates of onions followed my waving hand and backed up. Adair thanked him in Spanish flat with an American accent, and we went to a parking garage across from the main plaza downtown.

Jose Mario Sanchez Soledad, the opera singer, and his adult son, David, were sitting in the pews of the dark Mission when we came in from the east with the sunlight. Inside was dark and cool against the heat. The Mission was founded in 1659 when Ciudad Juárez was still called El Paso del Norte. Benito Juárez, the president of Mexico in the mid-19th century, was not born yet and had never visited the town. There was no border yet to distinguish the El Paso del Norte on one side of the Rio Grande from the other. For Spanish explorers, it was just a pass between mountains on the way north through the desert. Missions in new Spanish towns were usually built directly across from the municipal palace—a spatial representation of the intimacy between the Catholic Church and the state. But this transient town with only a handful of citizens had no government worth housing, and so the eastern door still let in unobstructed sunlight over the low buildings of modern Ciudad Juárez and the dry, brown mountains.

We introduced ourselves quietly because of an ongoing Catholic ceremony. Worshippers in baseball caps and overalls circled between their seats and a life size effigy of Jesus, lying down in a glass case, with a patchy, reddish wig and beard and an askew crown of thorns.

“Protestants think plainly about happiness and faith,” Jose Mario said. “But we think about suffering and fear. If we believe in God through happiness and love, that is good. But we have a fear, a fear of God, and we suffer, and we know we suffer. Jesus suffered. He was resurrected. But he also died.”

“Whenever we were whining, my father used to say, ‘Kids need to suffer’,” Adair chimed in. “And now kids are so spoiled.” She shook her head. “They are!” The opera singer and his son and I were quiet.

Outside the Mission, migrants were queuing under the shade of little plastic canopies. They were waiting to get inside the food kitchen in the basement, in the last Mexican city before the United States. A very thin Venezuelan man holding a curly haired baby with a crown of spit around her mouth came up to us. “Her mother has hypertension, and her foot is bleeding, and she is on the street without shelter or food,” the man told our group in very calm Spanish. Adair gave him as much money as she could find in her purse and suggested going back to the car to get more. Jose Mario looked smug. “I always tell them two things,” he said. “You didn’t have the guts to stand up against your own government. And how many laws have you broken on the way here? Huh! They have no ground with me.” “Bush had a good plan for immigration,” Adair added. “We have no sovereignty now.” The Venezuelan man and the opera singer and his son and I were quiet.

We had coffee and lunch at La Nueva Central, an old, bustling café founded in the 1930s by a young Cantonese man whose father sent him to Mexico to avoid war with the Japanese. Jose Mario ordered orange chicken for me without my knowledge. His son drank a warm coffee in a tall glass. Adair ate papaya cubes and took some of my chicken but barely touched it. The three of them talked about art. The opera singer had taken his son, a budding painter, to Europe to see the great museums. “My son told me this, and I’ll never forget this,” Jose Mario said. Across from me, the son looked uncomfortable as the subject of conversation. “He said, ‘Now I know I have something to learn from the old masters!’”

“Very true!” Adair said and patted the son on his shoulder. They talked more about the old masters, about tradition and shallow things. “Art takes time and depth,” the opera singer concluded on behalf of the group. “It’s something you have to work at. That’s the root of it.

I’d had enough art for the day. I had admired the beams of the Mission, hewn from the hard wood of the Organ Mountains, and although the opera singer never sang for us, it was time for me and Adair to go back to the mayors’ houses.

Adair couldn’t drive me into the US because her big, white, American SUV had a reentry pass I wasn’t included on. She dropped me a few blocks from the pedestrian bridge back to El Paso. I walked past the shops on the Mexican side of the border, nearly all dentists and optometrists for Americans seeking cheap medical care, and bars, which served a similar function during Prohibition. I waited in line on the bridge back to America for an hour, declared the pastry I bought at the Chinese-Mexican restaurant to border control, and then walked back to my car at the newsroom, past the cheap clothing stores on the American side, past the racks of Dickies workpants and 99-cent baseball caps imported from Mexico that say things like When All Else Fails… READ The Instructions (meaning the Bible), and past the Greyhound station where a bus driver was smoking in the shade of a tree. His bus was on its way from Los Angeles to Dallas, and I was on my way back to the Mayor’s old house.