Alligators Tied to Desert El Paso's Identity

El Paso city representative Steve Ortega, District 7,  poses for a portrait in San Jacinto Plaza, also known to previous generations of El Pasoans as Plaza de los Lagartos, on September 19, 2011.
El Paso city representative Steve Ortega, District 7, poses for a portrait in San Jacinto Plaza, also known to previous generations of El Pasoans as Plaza de los Lagartos, on September 19, 2011.

EL PASO — Ask El Paso oldtimers about their fondest memories of downtown, and they will almost certainly mention the alligators.

“I was fascinated to see them out,” said Bill Moody, a state district judge who was 7 when his family arrived in El Paso in 1957. “They weren’t doing a lot. Alligators are not real runners or anything.”

From 1889 to 1965, a small congregation of alligators inhabited an oasis in the middle of this desert city. San Jacinto Plaza was filled with thick grass, Chinese elms and a large pond with fish, turtles and alligators.

“I never wondered what they were doing there,” said Sebastian Martinez, 72, a retired teacher. “It was a unique thing to have here in El Paso.”

Now, though, the plaza — known as Plaza de los Lagartos, or Plaza of the Alligators — is a sea of concrete with a few islands of grass and primarily serves as a waiting area for working class El Pasoans and Juarenses catching the bus to work. As this border city works to remake its downtown into the bustling hub it once was, an inevitable question arises: Should the city bring back live alligators?

Alligators are not indigenous to the Chihuahuan Desert, and their long history here has been a bit of a mystery. Trish Long, a librarian at the El Paso Times, dug through the newspaper’s archives to sort out how and when they arrived.

In a March 9, 1889, article, the park commissioner, Sam Ecker, said he expected a friend to “send him a young live alligator to slash around and occasionally take in a bad boy.”

In July 1889, the newspaper reported that a crowd gathered at the plaza to watch the new young alligator “disport himself in foreign waters.”

Over the years, Long said, more alligators were donated, including Jack and Jill, a pair who arrived in a cigar box from Louisiana.

In 1953, the newspaper reported that pranksters from Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso) took an alligator named Oscar from the pond and left him in a professor’s office.

Having alligators in the plaza, it turned out, was more dangerous for the animals than for the “bad boys,” Long said. Only a low banister separated the alligators from passers-by, who would hurl rocks at the animals and burn them with cigarettes to try to get them to move.

In 1965, shortly after the deaths of two gators named Chama and Zal — a reference to the Chamizal border agreement — the remaining reptiles were moved to the zoo.

In 1972, the city brought the alligators back with a plastic shield, but that lasted only a couple of years before they were taken back to the zoo, Long said.

City Councilman Steve Ortega has been leading efforts to restore the plaza. But preserving the memory of the alligators has stirred heated debate.

When the discussion began, Ortega said, some groups lobbied to bring back live gators. He liked that idea, but city officials discovered it would cost about $800,000 each year to house them safely.

The fiberglass statue in the park that pays homage to the alligators is badly weathered from the harsh desert sun. Ortega said the city was working on a plan to keep the statue but move it to a shadier spot.

Miguel Juarez, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Texas at El Paso, said the statue embodied a cultural memory that he and other El Pasoans were fighting to keep alive.

“The alligators are ingrained in people’s memories,” he said. “It’s a sense of pride for people; it’s our identity.”

 

Untitled from TJ Karam on Vimeo.

Video courtesy Steve Ortega and Lisa Degliantoni via http://bringbackthealligators.blogspot.com/

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