Women in El Paso History

Artist: Christina Apodaca
Address: 1316 Noble St, El Paso, TX 79902

 

Women have been essential in the development and reproduction of our history. Without women, history, and life ceases. Unfortunately, historians and the population at large often dismiss the important contributions of women. In this short history of women in El Paso, we will attempt to recover some of the lesser-known women who have greatly contributed to the founding and expansion of our culture and politics that make the El Paso borderlands unique. Contrary to popular belief, women have been important agents in the development of our region. From pre-historic times, using archeological evidence of women’s labor, without which our ancestors would have never survived past the winter months, and during historical times, throughout the social-political changes brought about by the changing of our borderland’s flags: from Spain, Mexico, Texas, to the USA – women have been of the forefront of historical changes.

 

Some notable (but mostly unknown) El Paso Women are the following:

 

TeresaTeresita” Urrea (curandera) – The “Joan of Arc of Mexico,” “The Saint of Cabora.” Teresa Urrea was the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Mexican landowner, Don Tomas de Urrea, and a fifteen-year-old Tehueco Indian girl, Cayetana Chavez. Born in Ocorini, Sinaloa, on October 15, 1873, Teresita (as she was dearly called) became a folk heroine from her teenage years until her death on January 11, 1906, not just for the community along the US-Mexico border, but for Native people such as the Yaqui and the Mayo as well. In fact, those seeking Teresita for her miraculous cures spanned all kinds of socioeconomic and racial backgrounds: from local Mexicans, Mexican Americans, Mexicans from Chihuahua and Sonora, as well as local Euro-Americans.[1] Known not just for her miracle work as a curandera, but Teresita was also a feminist and revolutionary.[2] Her role as a curandera allowed Teresita to defy rigid gender roles of her time.[3] Her supernatural powers were legitimized by her usual 1,200 followers who would camp wherever she would go waiting for her healing hands.[4] Following a couple of rebellions attributed to her name, Teresita was ordered into exile by then-Mexican President Porfirio Diaz in 1892. They first lived in the border town of Nogales, Arizona, then in 1895, she moved to Solomonville, AZ, and then landed in El Paso in 1897. In El Paso, she resided on the corner of Oregon and Third Street. After surviving at least three different assassination attempts in El Paso, Teresita was forced to move with her father to Clifton, Arizona, away from the volatile border area.[5]  Teresita died on January 11th, 1906.

 

Maud Durlin Sullivan (librarian) – Born in Janesville, Wisconsin in December 1870. Came to El Paso in 1908 (moved to the Mogollon Mountains from 1912-1917; came back to El Paso in April 1917 and died in El Paso on December 28, 1943). Under her direction, the EL Paso Public Library (downtown) was recognized by the Carnegie Institute as one of the country’s greatest (out of 35,000 libraries countrywide).[6] In 1919, the library had 17,453 volumes; ten years later, it had 36,842 volumes, and by 1940, it had 112,290 books and pamphlets.[7] Sullivan built the library’s excellent mining reference section, which has been used by engineers from throughout the southwest. She taught herself Spanish so she could personally pick books in Spanish (which, at the time of her return to El Paso in 1917, the library had next to zero), but at the time of her death in 1943, the library had more than 2,000 volumes in Spanish. She established a working relationship with the Chief of the Ministry of Education, Department of Libraries, from Mexico, Mr. Rafael Meliodoro Valle, and Rene d’Harnoncourt, wherein she was able to acquire many of these Spanish volumes.[8] She also built up the library’s widely respected Southwest Collection, which at the time of her death included 3,481 volumes on southwestern history. She was sent to Spain by the Carnegie Foundation to represent them in the International Relations Committee of Libraries and Bibliography. Without the work that Mrs. Sullivan did for El Paso’s Public Library, El Paso, as a premier destination for studying US Southwest history, arts, and literature would never have been possible.

 

Berenice Love Wiggins (poet) – Berenice Love Wiggins was one of the first African American female poets to be published in Texas. Born in Austin, TX in 1897 but raised in El Paso, Wiggins self-published her first book of poetry, Tuneful Tales, in 1925. Writing with the same intent of the Harlem Renaissance – wherein writers and artists gave voice, passion, and direction to black Americans who sought a desperate respite from racism by building their own sense of a unique community. Wiggins, however, was writing from distant lands: El Paso. Thus, Wiggins, represented how the Harlem Renaissance was not limited by geography, but was rather rich and mobile in spirit.[9] As the late Dr. Maceo C. Daily succinctly said: “In exploring human motives and activities in the Southwest, Wiggins largely eschewed the folkloric frontier history and emphasis on explores, adventures, gunfighters, and military personnel, to write about the ordinary black community or, to use her words, ‘wheresover [her] people chanced to dwell.’”[10] Unfortunately, we do not know much about Wiggins after she left El Paso for Los Angeles during the 1930s.[11] It seems Wiggins simply vanished into history.

 

Margaret “Mago” Gandara (muralist) – Born February 8, 1929, Mago was known for her monumental mosaic murals throughout El Paso and Juarez. Her first monumental mural commission was with the construction of El Paso Community College’s main campus at Valle Verde. This mural would take from 1973 to 1978 to complete.The title, “Time and Sand,” was derived from Mago’s reflections on the infinite grains of sand that make up the Chihuahuan desert with the concept of eternity. In her early days, no one thought of her as an artist. As Mago jokingly stated in her diaries, she was “artistica… but not an artist.”[12] In the fall of 1946, Mago signed up for Urbici Soler’s life drawing class and immediately became one of his favorite students. Mago was inspired by Soler’s knowledge of the human form, which would later be a leitmotif in her mural work. Soler instilled in Mago the idea of a true artist as an individual who is creative, disciplined, and open to new possibilities.[13] After graduating from UTEP in 1949 with a BFA in fine arts and education, Mago was hired as an art teacher at Bowie High School. She then moved to Chicago for a brief time to study art, came back to El Paso and began to pursue her career as a muralist full-time. Mago Gandara was not just a muralist, she was also an activist and feminist, always attempting to expand people’s consciousness in both El Paso and Juárez, MX. Her studios in both cities attest to the fronteriza lifestyle most of us living on the border embody. Mago even had an unfortunate encounter with sicarios in her studio in Juárez (Studio Cui) and was forced into exile back to El Paso.[14] Nonetheless, and up until her very last days, Mago continued to make art and inspire those around her. Mago died peacefully and surrounded by loved ones in her studio/home in El Paso on February 18th, 2017.

Tracing the biographies of these four women (Teresa Urrea, Maud D. Sullivan, Berenice L. Wiggins, and Margarita “Mago” Gandara) who made a great impact on the history of El Paso demonstrates how important women were (and still are) for our El Paso border region and beyond.

 

History of Women in El Paso by Cristina Apodaca

 

 

Bibliography
Primary Sources:

Maud Sullivan Papers, MS423, UTEP C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections

Rentería, Ramon “Muralista huyó de Juárez a causa de la violencia” El Paso y Más. August 27, 2011

Victor Mendoza Photograph Collection (PH031), UTEP C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections

 

Secondary Sources:

Daily, Maceo C. “Introduction” in Wheresoever My People Chance to Dwell: Oral Histories with African American Women of El Paso. Baltimore: Imprint Edition, 2000

Daily, Maceo C. “Introduction” in Tuneful Tales: In the Remote Desert of 1925 El Paso Bloomed a bit of the Harlem Renaissance. Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2002

Esquinca, Maria “Terea Urrea: The Mexican Joan of Arc” Latino USA, https://www.latinousa.org/2021/11/05/teresaurrea/

Holden, William Curry. Teresita. Owing Mills, MA: Stemmer House, 1978

Kohout, Martin Donell “Sullivan, Maud Durlin,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed March 13, 2024, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/sullivan-maud-durlin

Lea Jr., Tom. “Maud Durlin Sullivan, 1872-1944: Pioneer Southwestern Librarian. Printed by Carl Hertzog of El Paso for the Class of 1962, School of Library Service: University of California, Los Angeles, 1962

Perales, Marian. “Curandera and Folk Saint” Latina Legacies: Identity, Biography, and Community. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005

Romo, David Ringside Seat to the Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893-1923. El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press, 2017

Vargas, George. Mago Gandara: A Woman Muralist on the Border. Center for Inter-American and Border Studies- Border Perspectives – No. 13, August 1995: El Paso: University of Texas at El Paso

[1] Marian Perales, “Curandera and Folk Saint” Latina Legacies: Identity, Biography, and Community (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005),108

[2] William Curry Holden, Teresita (Owing Mills, MA: Stemmer House, 1978). Also see, Maria Esquinca, “Terea Urrea: The Mexican Joan of Arc” Latino USA, https://www.latinousa.org/2021/11/05/teresaurrea/. Also see, Victor Mendoza Photograph Collection (PH031), UTEP Special Collections

[3] Marian Perales, “Curandera and Folk Saint”, 100

[4] Maria Esquinca, “Teresa Urrea.”

[5] Frances Mayhugh Holden, “Urrea, Teresa,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed March 13, 2024, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/urrea-teresa.  Also see, David Romo, Ringside Seat to the Revolution: An Underground Cultural History of El Paso and Juárez: 1893-1923 (El Paso: Cinco Puntos Press, 2017), 21.

[6] MS423 Maud Sullivan Papers, Box 1, UTEP Special Collections; Also see Betty Mary Goetting, “Maud Durlin Sullivan” in MS423 Maud Sullivan Papers, Box 1. Tom Lea Jr., “Maud Durlin Sullivan, 1872-1944: Pioneer Southwestern Librarian (Printed by Carl Hertzog of El Paso for the Class of 1962, School of Library Service: University of California, Los Angeles, 1962).

[7] Martin Donell Kohout, “Sullivan, Maud Durlin,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed March 13, 2024, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/sullivan-maud-durlin.

[8] Ibid, Box 2, Letter from Mrs. Maud Sullivan to Mr. Rafael Meliodoro Valle, July 17, 1930. Letter from Richard F. Burges to Mrs. Maud D. Sullivan, March 11, 1927.

[9] Maceo C. Daily, “Introduction” in Tuneful Tales: In the Remote Desert of 1925 El Paso Bloomed a bit of the Harlem Renaissance (Lubbock, TX: Texas Tech University Press, 2002), vii

[10] Ibid, vii-viii

[11] Maceo C. Daily, “Introduction” in Wheresoever My People Chance to Dwell: Oral Histories with African American Women of El Paso (Baltimore: Imprint Edition, 2000), xi

[12] Quoted in George Vargas, Mago Gandara: A Woman Muralist on the Border (Center for Inter-American and Border Studies- Border Perspectives – No. 13, August 1995: El Paso: University of Texas at El Paso), 10

[13] Ibid, 12

[14] Ramon Rentería, “Muralista huyó de Juárez a causa de la violencia” El Paso y Más (August 27, 2011)