Frontier ferment

DEC ringside seat revolutionRingside Seat to a Revolution: An underground cultural history of El Paso and Juárez, 1893-1923
David Dorado Romo
2005, Cinco Puntos Press
293 pages, paperback

“To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability”, was how Susan Sontag eloquently described the power of photography, and in the context of the photograph as historical record it is a statement that encapsulates the experience of Ringside Seat to a Revolution.

David Dorado Romo has produced a fine work of what he describes as psycho-geography and micro-history. Set in the border towns of Mexico’s Juárez and the US’s El Paso, divided by the Rio Grande, Romo wanders through an intimate history of the final days of a time in frontier life when the impending threat of political crisis loomed in Mexico while border crossings to the US were guarded by sleepy old men stationed in a hut and crossing the bridge didn’t require a passport.

In many ways a time of great upheaval, in both Mexico and the US, Ringside Seat to a Revolution uncovers cultures in flux as insurrection on one side of the border brushes against conservative reaction on the other, creating a fertile ground for diversity in frontier life. Romo’s investigations reveal a veritable cultural renaissance in El Paso that emerges from the cultural fusion fermented by the Mexican Revolution that he details through the stories of a wide range of characters living frontier lives that span social, economic and racial divides.

Travelling through the first decades of the twentieth century, Romo tells the stories of “anarchists; poets and secret service agents… female bullfighters and jazz musicians… spies with Graflexes… pool hustlers reborn as postcard salesmen… radical feminists, arms smugglers and of course, revolutionaries…” Ever present in the book is the sense that this is a very personal story; written by a Mexican-American who grew up on both sides of the border, his desire to search back in history for marks left by generations past is powerfully embracive.

Arguably Romo’s psycho-geography gets overshadowed early on by the micro-history as his vast archival research into the lives of citizens of El Paso and Juárez follows firmly in the tradition of social history that views historical events from the bottom up, focusing on the lives of ordinary people that are overlooked in the traditional historical narrative. His success in this regard is attested to by praise given from that legend of social history, Howard Zinn, who call’s the work “people’s history at its best”.

What really sets the book apart in many ways is the inclusion of a huge array of contemporary photographs that complement every story told. Racial relations on the border are starkly contrasted in photos of African-Americans in sombreros fighting alongside Mexican revolutionaries on one hand and US soldiers posing for photos over the bodies of dead Mexican revolutionaries on the other. Indeed the graphic nature of some of the photos is painfully moving as Romo presents a set of “postcards” that capture the dying moment of three rebels being executed in Juárez, accompanied by a vivid description of their death march to the firing squad while a band played selections from a Verdi opera.

Some of the photos that Romo has uncovered display artistic beauty, especially the 1910 image of Halley’s comet shooting over El Paso, and the dust-covered man stood wearing an early oxygen mask, that stirs images of early sci-fi films, who had just tried to rescue train passengers from a blazing tunnel. Other images show how the gap in time between our own and that of a century past is barely a footstep rather than the great leap often imagined. A photo of an Anglo woman in a Gatsbian dress strikes the viewer as almost modern in its short length, and adds to the imagery that Romo evokes as he tells of merrymakers crossing the international bridge to Mexico during prohibition. And a group photo of revolutionary prisoners lined up outside a Mexican jail includes, in amongst the expected mixture of defiant and depressed looking, sombrero’d and moustachioed detainees, a long-haired man sitting casually crossed legged, with an ankle resting on the parallel knee, hands together on his lap, staring at the camera from behind sunglasses. Something in his style and demeanour sets him apart from his time and, in that moment captured by the photographer, he could be from any period of the decades that followed his death.

Perhaps it’s these photographs that help lead us back to the aspect of psycho-geography Romo aimed for. His introduction opens with his walks around the twin cities as he looks for traces of the legendary Pancho Villa in the surroundings. The reader unfamiliar with the area is a little lost as he describes the places and people around him. After working our way through the lives of people that lived in these streets in years gone by we are right there with Romo as he concludes his psycho-geographic attempts to find Villa and in doing so found others who lives touch our own in the reading of them and become part of us. As Sontag wrote, in Ringside Seat to a Revolution David Dorado Romo amply demonstrates that this participation continues long after the photograph is taken.