Editorial: “What´s In a Name? The Anxiety of Identity on the Borderlands” by James Starling

James Starling is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy at the University of Texas Pan-American in Edinburg, Texas. He has also served as a lecturer at the University of Texas-El Paso and New Mexico State University. Starling graduated with a PhD in Borderlands History from the UTEP in 2012, where he completed his dissertation, “The Bonds of a Common Faith: Catholicism, Marriage and the Making of Borders in Nineteenth-Century Paso del Norte,” under the direction of Cheryl Martin. Starling’s research interests include family life, religion, and gender in the colonial and nineteenth-century Borderlands, and his next work will be a study of interfaith and interethnic marriage in Paso del Norte and South Texas during the U.S.-Mexico War.

“What´s In a Name? The Anxiety of Identity on the Borderlands”

In recent times, the naming of two very different entities, a minor league baseball team and a new university, provoked spirited discussions over identity in two Texas Borderlands communities, El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley.[1] In both places, arguments over names reveal some of the anxieties over identity and image that many residents of the region express during this time of heated anti-immigrant rhetoric and debates over the future demographic landscape of the United States.

In 2012, El Paso’s city government arrived at a deal with Mountain Star Group and the owners of the Tucson Padres, a Triple-A Minor League Baseball franchise affiliated with the San Diego team of the same name, to bring professional baseball to downtown El Paso. This deal has been fraught with political controversy on many grounds. El Paso’s existing independent minor league baseball team, the El Paso Diablos, immediately lost their value, leaving their owners, the indigenous Tigua people of Ysleta del Sur, with a devalued property after years of investment. The Mountain Star Group and the city government deemed the Diablos’ home field, Cohen Stadium in Northeast El Paso, to be unacceptable for use by the new team, despite the fact that the stadium was built in the early 1990s and received recent upgrades. Furthermore, the decision to demolish El Paso’s thirty-year-old city hall to create a space for the new ballpark provoked voter anger. Popular opposition to the deal was a factor in a major political upset in El Paso’s recent mayoral election. Steve Ortega, a city councilman who has been among the proponents of the new ballpark and a larger agenda of downtown redevelopment, lost his bid to become mayor by a two-to-one margin against political outsider Oscar Leeser.

The investors who brought the new team to El Paso sought to engender popular support with a campaign to rename the former Tucson Padres. After receiving submissions on a website and promoting discussions on social media outlets, the Mountain Star Group announced five finalist names.

  1. Desert Gators, an homage to the historic presence of live alligators in San Jacinto Plaza in Downtown El Paso; a past honored in Luis Jiménez’s Los Lagartos sculpture which, until recent “redevelopment,” was the plaza’s centerpiece.
  2. The Sun Dogs, a name that refers to the branding of El Paso as “The Sun City.”
  3. The Buckaroos, a word derived from the Spanish word vaquero that alludes to the ranching heritage of the larger region around El Paso.
  4. The Chihuahuas, which has a double meaning in the area as the name of a toy dog breed and the Mexican state that is adjacent to El Paso.
  5. The Aardvarks, an African mammal with no clear historical or cultural relevance to the El Paso area.

The Mountain Star Group invited the public to vote on the name through a website. However, the investors quietly pointed out that public feedback simply would inform their decision making process. On October 23, 2013, the team owners finally revealed the name of the new team as the “El Paso Chihuahuas.”

Immediately, many El Pasoans registered disapproval. For some, the mascot carried unfortunate associations with Taco Bell’s “Yo Quiero Taco Bell” advertising campaign that employed a Spanish-accented “talking” Chihuahua. Others in the community objected on the grounds that the name reminded outsiders of El Paso’s Mexican-American majority or proximity to, Mexico.[2] One commenter stated that “Chihuahua is a state in Mexico,” and that El Pasoans struggle to remind other Texans that they are indeed part of the same state. Indeed, in matters ranging from its prevailing English and Spanish dialects to its time zone, the city decidedly stands apart from much of Texas. For some El Pasoans, this is a source of shame not a point of distinction. Another respondent to the announcement of the team name opined that the mascot is a “sign of racial ignorance,” adding, “I live in Arlington, Texas, where the Texas Rangers are. That’s a real name.”

Sadly, the real Texas Rangers’ history with Mexican Americans does little to inspire genuine love for that brand among those who know of the murderous deeds of los rinches. However, the point that the El Paso Chihuahua’s name was inappropriate, offensive, and an assault on El Paso’s identity was widely expressed. And while some expressed unease over a name that might belittle or demean Mexican Americans, some opponents of the new name disapproved of a name that may remind outsiders of El Paso’s historic ties to its southern neighbor. Ramón Rentería, a columnist in the El Paso Times, summed up this indignation as an angry cry of “this is America, not Mexico.[3]

The naming of El Paso’s baseball team might also reveal differing sets of expectations between the owners and many in the community. The Mountain Star Group asserted that minor league baseball names are generally “fun” and “family friendly.” As General Manager Brad Taylor explained, “We are proud to present a progressive logo and brand that captures the fun of Minor League Baseball and represents the passion and fierce loyalty for which El Pasoans are known.”[4] Certainly, there are many other examples of minor league baseball teams with decidedly absurd names. However, to many El Pasoans, the sacrifices involved in relocating this team; including the demolition of a modern city hall building, the devaluation of a sports venue in northeast El Paso, and the financial losses of the Tigua Pueblo make such a trivial approach to the name appear particularly offensive.

Nearly 800 miles downstream along the Rio Grande, a similar debate over the name of an institution has emerged. In late 2012, the University of Texas system began a plan to merge its two campuses in the Rio Grande Valley and establish a medical school as part of a new university that would serve a large and historically underserved borderlands community. The University of Texas at Brownsville and the University of Texas-Pan American, in Edinburg Texas, are in the process of forming a single institution of higher learning by 2015. This merger is to result in the creation of a bilingual and bicultural university that serves an international community of over three million people.

The creation of the new university includes the process of creating a new name and logo as well as a new mascot for the university’s teams and activities. In November 2013, the UT system released five possible names for the new campus.[5]

  1. UT South, reflecting the geographical location of the new university.
  2. UT for the Americas, a nod to the history of Pan-Americanism in the region’s institutions.
  3. UT las Américas, a name that even more directly acknowledges the new university’s position at the borderlands of the United States and Latin America.
  4. UT International, reflecting the aspiration of a transnational future for the university.
  5. UT Rio Grande Valley, which ties the institution to the region that the university serves.[6]

Some of the proposed names unleashed a stream of negative comment on social media, in particular, “UT for the Americas,” and “UT las Américas.” Some of the comments in the Rio Grande Valley expressed a desire to gain the approval of fellow Texans who, presumably, frown on such overt expressions of binationalism. One respondent asked, “Who are you targeting with this name? People outside the US? This name will not resonate with prospective students from other parts of Texas. Do not over think this: the name should be UT-RGV.” Many simply demanded the university name be entirely in English, as a name with Spanish words would “demean” the university; an anxiety presumably not shared by students at institutions such as Valparaiso University, Florida State University, or the University of California, Los Angeles.

One comment that reflected this anger toward the name was, “I think the only people who want it to be named Las Americas are people from Mexico. People who grow up in the valley aren’t going to want to go to some school with a name like Las Americas, they’re going to be embarrassed. “Hey which college do you go to?” They’re going to have to hang their head down and murmur out of the side of their mouth “UT Las Americas. That’s just a dumb name.” Such observations reveal both a desire to distance the university from Mexico and Latin America, as well as a degree of ignorance of the meaning of “Americas;” a willful ignorance with deep roots. Names such as Pan-American and “Las Américas” force estadounidenses to come to terms with the fact that “America” is not a single nation; and “America” is not theirs alone. To paraphrase Rubén Dario, there is also the America “that has Indian blood and prays and speaks in Spanish.”[7] This inability to come to terms with the “other” America, even in a border community as steeped in Mexican culture as the Rio Grande Valley, poses a major barrier toward fostering a truly binational and bicultural learning environment in the region.

As with the example of El Paso’s minor league team name, the discussion of the new name for the University of Texas branch in South Texas reveals community anxieties over identity and the image that many residents of the borderlands aspire to project to the rest of the United States. Names that remind outsiders of links to Mexico or the larger Americas often meet with vocal community disapproval. Unfortunately, much of the resulting protest toward these names – even names as problematic as the “Chihuahuas” – furthers this sense of marginalization among the people who call the border home. In place of criticizing pervasive anti-Mexican stereotypes in the mass media and denouncing those in positions of authority who engage in hateful rhetoric against Mexican Americans and Mexicans, all too many residents of the Borderlands, including Mexican Americans, react to real and perceived slights by denigrating their own heritage and insulting their closest neighbors through traditional and social media outlets in a vain effort to win mainstream acceptance.

[1] I would like to express his gratitude to Alan Gerardo Padilla Aguilar for his discussion of the debate on the name of the Rio Grande Valley’s new university, and his commitment to include the voices of community members who cannot express their opinions on the new institution’s name and identity through social media and in campus forums.

[2] Bill Knight, “Ay Chihuahua! El Paso Triple-A Baseball Team Gets its New Nickname,” El Paso Times October 23, 2013, accessed November 21, 2013, http://www.elpasotimes.com/latestnews/ci_24363605/el-paso-triple-baseball-team-named-chihuahuas. The cited comments are from the social media feedback that appeared in this article and are not the opinions of the author of the newspaper article.

[3] Ramón Rentería, “Get used to it, Chihuahuas are Aquí to Stay,” El Paso Times, October 27, 2013, accessed November 21, 201, http://www.elpasotimes.com/news/ci_24395811/renteria-column.

[4] “El Paso Chihuahuas Introduced as City’s New Triple-A Team,” Minor League Baseball, accessed November 21, 2013, http://www.milb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20131022&content_id=63228586&fext=.jsp&vkey=pr_t4904&sid=t4904.

[5] “Project South Texas” University of Texas System, accessed November 21, 2013, http://www.utsystem.edu/news/topics/project-south-texas.

[6] Melissa Montoya, “UT Floats Names for New RGV University,” McAllen Monitor, November 12, 2013, accessed November 21, 2013, http://www.themonitor.com/news/local/article_1abf2bf8-4b4a-11e3-870b-001a4bcf6878.html.

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One thought on “Editorial: “What´s In a Name? The Anxiety of Identity on the Borderlands” by James Starling

  1. Pingback: What’s in a name? The anxiety of identity in the borderlands | The GroundUp

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