Let’s get one thing out of the way: no, my husband has not been stationed in El Paso, so we’ve never lived there as a military family. My dad was stationed there four times; when he met my mom (an El Paso native) in the early 80s, once more during the Gulf War when I was little, and twice again when I was out of the house and married, from 2008-2010, and from 2013-2014. It was my great-grandfather’s first Army assignment.
So why am I writing about surviving and thriving in El Paso, Texas? For the simple reasons that my family is from El Paso, my husband and I love visiting, and my parents loved being stationed there. An Army brat who could claim any number of places to be “from,” I love El Paso so much that when my husband had to write a short bio for his change of command ceremony, I told him to say that he was married to the ‘former Maggie MacFarland of El Paso, Texas.’ I love El Paso so much that when we had to cater the same event, we took a cue from my roots on the border and went with a taco truck.
My husband’s first visit was when we were newly married. It was his first taste of what came to be known in our little family as “Mexican Christmas,” and is pretty much how we’ve celebrated every Christmas since–with tamales, tequila, and posole. With his family hailing from South Dakota and Georgia, it was all pretty new to him. Now, if you see a guy with blonde hair and blue eyes wearing a guayabera and patiently explaining to people that you don’t eat the corn husk on the tamale, that guy is probably my husband.
But it wasn’t just Mexican food that won him over. As a service member, he was very impressed by Fort Bliss itself. Freedom Crossing at Fort Bliss is a far cry from the PXs I grew up with. It could rival any upscale outdoor shopping mall because it has a splash pad, a cigar bar, Chipotle, Texas Roadhouse, and lots more. Freedom Crossing also hosts Fridays at the Fire concert series in front of the outdoor fireplace. Exchanges are getting nicer at installations across the board, but Freedom Crossing remains the gold standard in my opinion. From a military standpoint, Fort Bliss has essentially transformed itself from a small backwater to, as it says on its website, the home to “the Army’s flagship for home station training.” The total size of Fort Bliss is larger than the state of Rhode Island.
A frequent charge against El Paso is that it is isolated, and that its proximity to Juarez, Mexico makes it unsafe. Allow me to lean forward, push my glasses up on the bridge of my nose, and lay some facts on you. The FBI discourages using its Unified Crime Reporting statistics to rank the overall safety of different places, so you can take the bold claim that El Paso is the safest city of its size in the country with a grain of salt. That said, when Politifact Texas investigated that claim, here is what they found when they compared El Paso to 10 similarly sized cities with similar crime statistics:
Among the cities across 10 types of crime reported to the FBI, El Paso had the lowest rates of violent crime, murder, robbery, burglary, and motor vehicle theft. El Paso had the second-lowest incidence of aggravated assault; property crime; arson; and larceny-theft.
I don’t know about you, but in my experience, that’s about as good as you’re likely to find in an Army town.
As for the charge of isolation, El Paso is admittedly the only game in town as far as nearby major urban centers go. But it is also home to El Paso International Airport (which is pretty nice), University of Texas at El Paso (my mother’s alma mater), and some outstanding museums. Various music and cultural festivals also take place annually.
Then there’s my favorite thing to do…go to an El Paso Chihuahuas game. The El Paso Chihuahuas are a minor league baseball team, and a feeder team for the San Diego Padres. Their mascot, Chico the Chihuahua, is ubiquitous, and their stadium has something for everyone. I went with my then-one-year-old, and she had a blast in the lawn seating. The lawn seating is pretty much what it sounds like, so you don’t have to worry about keeping little ones comfortable or seated in stadium chairs. It’s right next to Chico’s Playground, a play area that features a playground, a splash pad and inflatables, all while the game’s going on. Various theme nights at the stadium make it lots of fun, and it hosts various suites where groups can book events.
El Paso is also home to the Sun Bowl, which last year featured the Stanford Cardinals and the North Carolina Tar Heels. Sun Bowl Stadium affords a great view of the mountains, and attending the annual Sun Bowl game could easily become a fun holiday tradition. UTEP also now plays Army West Point in football, and although this year they will be playing at West Point, don’t miss your next chance to take in the fun and excitement of an Army football game at the beautiful Sun Bowl Stadium.
Finally, there’s the food. If you like Mexican food (and who doesn’t) you’re right where you need to be in El Paso. Los Bandidos de Carlos & Mickey’s has a location right off post from Fort Bliss, and was voted El Paso’s best margarita. Chico’s Tacos is an El Paso institution with an almost cult-like devotion.
If you find yourself with orders to Fort Bliss and are freaking out about moving to the desert, I hope you’ll remember some of the things I’ve laid out here. You might not love everything because that’s literally impossible, but once you’re there you will have to admit that there is definitely more to the area than the stereotypes suggest.
Have you been stationed at Fort Bliss or in El Paso? What tips would you share?
Posted by Maggie Phillips, military spouse and NMFA Volunteer