For El Paso Ex-Pat, Failed Override Sends a Message of Doubt and Fear in a Year of Hope and Change
by Vanessa Torres
Posted on January 15, 2009
Last night, after a near half hour of venting about city council, politics in general, 'fighting the good fight that can't be won', and the change that won't come to El Paso, I took a breath and let my boyfriend get a word in edgewise.
"Why do you care about El Paso politics anyway?" he asked.
A good question. I don't live there anymore; I live in Austin and have for years. My parents live in El Paso. Some friends, too. An ex-husband. But I only visit there once, maybe twice, a year. I'm not sure about my plans for the future and whether El Paso is a part of them. So, really, why do I care whether City Council passed that silly resolution or not?
Through most of high school and college I had the vision of 'eventually' moving home to El Paso, and finding some vague way to make a difference, to make it more like my favorite places while still keeping the best of 'home'. I wanted museums and beautiful public spaces. I wanted clubs and nightlife and pretty homes on tree lined streets, the kind of things I saw only in the 'best' neighborhoods, like Austin Heights near Loretto or The Willows in the Upper Valley. I wanted restaurants and shops built on the mountainside where our amazing sunset light would bathe tables and walkways. And life would be good. (Cue the talking bluebirds and singing chipmunks.)
I had a general idea that such places, activities and opportunities for entertainment would somehow be enjoyed by all and just 'make everything better'. But more education, work experience, and the lessons that come with failure and financial uncertainty made me think more about the El Paso that I wasn't seeing in my pretty picture. The areas of town where my parents, and their parents, had grown up and left behind had long been out of my sight line. I realized that more fundamental changes would be required to 'better' the El Paso I loved.
Yet as I embarked on a short career in the land of non-profits, and considered the realities of power and politics, I believed less and less that change truly was possible. Though watching from the sidelines, I became increasingly frustrated with the nobility, and poverty, of lost causes and the slow, incremental change that comes from back scratching and hand shake deals. I decided that true shifts in power and upward mobility, real life-altering improvements in the education system and human rights--were naive pipe dreams. Our system of government was built to perpetuate itself and whatever else it managed to do, good or bad, was incidental. I wasn't going to make a difference. No one was. I should look after my own.
So I went to work as a very happy cog in the wheel for a big corporation and I managed to hang onto my middle class status by a thread. I shrugged off the adolescent daydreams I once had and looked sideways at anyone trying to enter politics. Surely they were either egomaniacs or fools.
And then the Obama campaign entered my view. The country started talking about hope and change, and, like so many of us, I wanted to believe. He wasn't even my candidate of choice at first, but it was his campaign that moved me to act. Slowly my cynicism was chipped away and I felt connected and involved in the political process, the government, and the possibility of change. By midsummer I started dreaming about laying a foundation in my own community and trying my hand at an elected position sometime in the not so distant future. Sure politics was ugly, but did it have to be? Couldn't a politician who took the high ground, who fought the good fight, affect real change after all? With Obama's election, it seemed to be so.
When the news item about City Council's resolution last week caught my eye, I immediately thought "Bravo!" How amazing to be able to bring such a controversial topic forward for public discourse and in such a straightforward manner too. The call wasn't 'Legalize it', but rather, 'Let's talk about it.' Wasn't that just the kind of openness that a politically engaged society both created and thrived on?
Perhaps not. First came the Mayor's veto, then the media scrutiny, and finally, defeat.
Yesterday's failed veto override called all my newfound optimism into question. 'Some things shouldn't be open for discussion,' said one young man at the podium. Worse, the city's state and federal elected officials delivered a gag order from on high. Their message could have been one of support and solidarity, 'THEY are threatening to punish us, to punish you and the city, for stepping out of line, for even considering calling the status-quo into question, for exercising and encouraging free speech, discourse, and dialogue, but we say we will stand with you, still fight for you, and we will not be bullied into quiet submission.' Instead it was, 'You're going to get us all in trouble. Now shut up and sit down. Oh, and don't shoot the messenger.' Backs must be scratched. Hand shake deals have to be made.
And so the failed override matters to me, living my little life hundreds of miles away from El Paso, because I wanted to believe that we—my hometown, my state, my elected officials, my country, and my post-Obama future—were better than that. I wanted to believe that it was safe to talk about the hard decisions we face, the ideas we don't agree on. I wanted to believe in the possibility of change.
Walking to my car last night, from a show in downtown Austin, a band playing at an outdoor stage sang a variation on one of Obama's speeches, "We are the ones we've been waiting for..." I provided the next line in my head, "We are the change we seek." I want to hold onto that hope, but I'm uncertain again about what is real and what is just a dream.
Vanessa Torres is an alumna of Loretto High School and UTEP. She currently works as a web project manager and freelance writer in Austin, Texas. More of her work can be read here.
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