Smeltertown existed as a smelting industry company-community and border town in El Paso, Texas. Through her own familial connection to Smeltertown, Monica Perales “traces the formation, evolution, demise, and collective memory of one of the largest single-industry Mexican-American communities on Mexican-US side of the border.” Smeltertown, as a community, was was made up of several real and imagined social worlds that were constantly shaped by ASARCO. The community that was forged in Smeltertown served as a way of survival for its residents, allowing the influence from ASARCO to be lessened. Smeltertown tells the story of how its residents ordered their immediate socials.
Perales begins Smeltertown by tracing the development of El Paso as a
center of international commerce and immigration. Given its location, Perales asserts that El Paso almost had to serve as the location of a transnational mining and smelting company such as ASARCO. Copper and capital had transformed El Paso into an international center for railroad, mining, and smelting by the early 1900s. Political and business power brokers paved the way for the political economy of the city to foster ASARCO’s growth that would eventually establish a social and racial hierarchy within Smeltertown.
Smeltertown examines life in the barrio and the multilayered worlds created by the company and the residents against a backdrop of industrial capitalism and racial segregation. Perales “charts the contours of the web of overlapping and interwoven communities that existed in Smeltertown.” The author notes a great chasm that existed between the living conditions of the white managerial families and the families of the Mexican laborers. Also, Perales explains that the separateness extended to social places as well. The ice skating rink on the company cooling pond and the company-owned bowling alley were only used by whites living in Smeltertown. In reality, there were two company towns, one Anglo and one Mexican.
Through jobs at the smelter Mexican men began to define themselves as a permanent class of employees. Becoming a smelter man usually began with living within the community of Smeltertown with various family members. These non-transient men would eventually gain stability through seniority. Ties to family and previous generations bound smelter men to Smeltertown and ASARCO, which Perales aptly demonstrates with her own familial and generational ties to the smelter. Hard work amid dangerous working conditions also defined life as a smelter man. Smeltertown probes these two intertwining historical processes, the creation of the Mexican-worker stereotype and the proletarianization of Mexican workers, and defines life as a smelter man.
If living on the U.S. side of a border town made Smeltertown residents American, Perales looks at how they also never left their Mexican culture and customs behind. The San Jose’ de Cristo Rey Catholic parish served as a place for Esmeltianos to reimagine what it meant to be racially and culturally Mexican in an American border town. The Catholic chapel on the hill became the locus of what it meant to Mexican in a border town. Through their sense of community and the Catholic parish, Esmeltianos retained many aspects of their Mexican culture: Spanish language, Mexican patriotism, Catholicism. “Blending elements of national and ethnic pride, shared language, and a common experience with Catholicism provided a foundation on which Esmeltianos reconfigured what it meant to be Mexican in a U.S. city.”
Thanks to the company-owned education system, Smeltertown residents were provided a space for students to become involved in an American world. Perales argues that young women blended an identity combining elements from both worlds, Mexican and American. The school offered young women social, cultural, and political spaces that permitted them to challenge gendered boundaries set by their immigrant parents.
Perales also traces the demise of Smeltertown beginning with El Paso resident’s growing concern over the smelter’s emissions and their effect on the border city. Combined with those concerns and deadly lead exposure, El Paso and ASARCO decided to raze Smeltertown and relocate inhabitants to other parts of the city. “The very industrial processes that had brought it life had destroyed Smeltertown.”
Even as the image of Smeltertown changed from a source of city pride to a source of major embarrassment, Smeltertown residents defended ASARCO until the bitter end. The community that had bound so many residents together through generations, families, and friendships would be no more. However, Smeltertown’s memory lives on in the minds of its people and the Smeltertown and ASARCO reunions that are still held in El Paso.