EL PASO — In 2009, Xochitl Rodriguez, a multitalented performer from a middle-class El Paso neighborhood, was Bhutan’s first-ever invited artist in residence. After leaving South Asia, she served another residency in Kansas City.
But Rodriguez, 28, eventually did what many native El Pasoans do not: She came home, planted roots and is giving the West Texas desert a taste of what she went away to discover. She left for Austin right after high school. Now she is the director of the applied integrative program here at La Fe Preparatory, a small school just blocks from the Mexican border.
El Paso was once one of America’s leading exporters of youth. In the 1990s, among cities El Paso’s size, only Gary, Ind., lost more 19- to 30-year-olds to emigration, according to a study by former state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh, a Democrat and fifth-generation El Pasoan.
Gradually, returns like Rodriguez’s are becoming more common. Indeed, many of the new businesses contributing to El Paso’s improving quality of life are the creation of expatriates coming home to the border.
“The seeds of my dedication to community were already there,” Rodriguez said. “I just didn’t know it.”
For many young El Pasoans, the search for upward mobility has meant leaving town. The city’s average household income and high school graduation rates are below the state’s. And 21.9 percent of the population over 25 has at least a bachelor’s degree, compared with 26.1 percent for the state, according to U.S. census figures. Many of the most ambitious young people have left for college in Austin or beyond.
El Paso continues to be one of the state’s fast-growing regions, but educators and philanthropists constantly battle a brain drain. In 2010, the University of Texas at El Paso received what was then its largest donation, $5 million from the Hunt Family Foundation. About $4 million was earmarked for a research and development institute designed to make El Paso more competitive.
The recent shift is largely anecdotal but palpable: Young El Paso natives are returning home as new jobs and a burgeoning restaurant and nightlife scene makes the city more hospitable.
For Rodriguez, it was about giving back. She had opportunities many young people here would never have, she said, and she wanted to bring them home to the city’s youth.
But there is something else. Alfred Campos, 37, said there are not as many reasons for today’s El Paso youth to do what he did in 1993: join a band, buy an old van and tour across the country before landing in Europe.
Between stops in Germany, Poland and the Czech Republic, he came home to visit, he said — and eventually decided to come back. Two months ago, he opened Monarch, a bar nestled between the city’s downtown and west side.
“I got to see El Paso transitioning,” Campos said. “I would come back and see places opening. I’d see all these young people, but they weren’t getting married or talking about getting married right away. All these things were different. There’s no reason not to be in El Paso anymore.”
Norberto Portillo fled for San Antonio after high school, finding his way to culinary school in Scottsdale, Ariz. He lived in Portland, Ore., for several years before coming home and opening Tabla, a tapas restaurant and cigar bar blocks from the border and within walking distance of El Paso’s government, arts and entertainment districts.
The menu lacks the standard border fare of Mexican food combination plates or fried food baskets. Instead, it features dishes like duck breast and gnocchi. On a recent weekday evening, a jazz trio — not a mariachi band — was performing.
Portillo said that when young El Pasoans come home, they are more driven and want to make an impact.
“Getting a taste of moving away gets them out of their own comfort zone,” he said. “There is some pretty good talent here, and people are embracing it. If anything, I have come to embrace the city for what it is.”