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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Faculty & Staff

UH professor reveals hidden history of El Paso community in book

UH history professor Monica Perales shed light on the hidden history of a community in her new book, “Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community.”

The story of the small community in El Paso, her hometown, unveiled parts of Mexican-American culture.

Perales started researching Smeltertown for an essay in her master’s program at the University of Texas in Austin. When she realized that there was very little information on the community, she wanted to dig deeper on the topic.

“When I began to research the community, I only saw information on Anglo-Saxon CEOs of the companies,” Perales said.

The book is composed of stories of the employers and residents of Smeltertown with interviews woven in as well. Perales’ family history — her grandparents were among the many residents of La Esmelda, what residents called it — led her to more people to speak to about Smeltertown personally.

“Getting information on Smeltertown was like connecting links,” Perales said. “I spoke to one person who sent me to another person. Since there weren’t enough printed documents for me to research, I had to go straight to the source and talk to people.”

She also used company records and old newspapers for more information on the town.

The community was established in the late 1880s and thrived with culture until it was demolished in 1973. Almost 100 years of a community’s history is swept under the rug.

Perales’ book goes in depth with explanations as to why these stories aren’t told in history textbooks.

Smelter companies were the main source of income for the small population. Lawsuits were filed against them because the environmental protection agency saw the factories as a colossal source of pollution.

The companies became an even bigger issue when small children started to have traces of lead contamination in their blood. After the case was settled, jobs were lost and the government relocated families to new homes in El Paso.

“It is tragic how the people of this community had to pick up their lives that they worked so hard to build,” she said.

Perales said the workers of Smeltertown need a voice and should not be silenced.

“Smeltertown is El Paso’s worst kept secret and is easy to forget, because it is no longer there,” Perales said. “It is very important that people are aware, especially in Texas, because Smeltertown is a huge part of the history in the American West.”

Perales will read from her new book from 7 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 11 at Brazos Bookstore, located at 2421 Bissonnet St.

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