Life in Smeltertown, it's better than you'd think: UH professor's award-winningbook shatters myths of company town
Smelting, the process by which metal is extracted from ore, is a dirty business . . . quite literally. And for nearly a century, Smeltertown was the hub of the industry in the southwestern United States.
Dismantled by the early 1970s after a series of high-profile environmental lawsuits, the El Paso-area company town built by the American Smelting and Refining Company (ASARCO) remains only in the stories and memories of its former residents, most of whom are well into their nineties.
Through newspapers, photographs, and personal interviews, historian Monica Perales brings the community back to life in Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community, which just received the prestigious Kenneth Jackson Award from the Urban History Association.
"My family is from Smeltertown," Perales, an El Paso native and professor at the University of Houston, tells CultureMap. "It was a place I'd always known, but never seen. Family stories always circulated about the community, which was closed around the time I was born."
Built on the banks of the Rio Grande, Smeltertown housed generations of workers involved in the mining industry — from the laborers in small adobe houses to the engineers and managers in Smelter Terrace. In its heyday during the 1930s, the town was home to almost 5,000 citizens, who forged a fondly-remembered community within a grueling and often racially-divided factory system.
"This was a very personal project for me," Perales says. "Not only was I trying to learn about the place historically, but I was also trying to understand my own background."
Concentrating on the lives of ethnic Mexican workers, she unearths an unique history of working-class life often buried by the boom-and-bust tales of American West.
"Not only was I trying to learn about the place historically, but I was also trying to understand my own background," Perales says.
Former Smeltertown residents shared vivid stories of work in the smelter: the sounds, the lava-like melted slag, the extreme temperatures.
"This was all done manually," Perlaes says. "The heat was so high, people would become ill and dehydrated."
When Perales began the project in the 1990s, several former Smeltertown residents could recall memories of the Mexican Revolution in the 1910s.
"The smelter's right on the edge of the Rio Grande. There were encampments just across the river, literally a stone's throw away," she says.
While the laborers themselves didn't own the property, most only paid several dollars a month to rent their houses. The same family might live in the same home for decades.
"For most of the people living there," Perales says, "they had a firm sense of ownership and a sense of place.
"To those of us who never knew it, we might have a hard time understanding how people could have such nice memories of living in a company town or living in the shadows of a smokestack.
"Consistently, however, what came to the fore were these extremely positive narratives about life in Smeltertown. It's a testament to the kind of community and support structure they built for themselves in light of the challenges they experienced living there."