Before Flint, Before East Chicago, There Was Smeltertown

After a 1970s CDC study showed that the mostly Mexican-American population of this Texas town had dangerously high blood lead levels, its buildings were demolished and its residents were booted.

The air was polluted for three miles in any direction from the Asarco smelter plant, which was near the U.S.–Mexican border in El Paso, Texas.

Danny Lyon, May 1972, U.S. National Archives

The Smelter Cemetery sits high atop a desert arroyo between Interstate 10 and the Mexican border in El Paso. Its wind-worn wooden crosses are almost all that remain of a community that sprang up more than a century ago next to an Asarco lead smelter on the banks of the Rio Grande.

The stone-pile graves bear testament to the history of this place called Smeltertown. At one time it was a village of more than 2,500 people, most of them Mexican immigrants who built their lives on company land in the shadow of the smelter’s smokestacks that would poison their air, their land, and their children. And almost as soon as the contamination became known in the 1970s, the community of Smeltertown was erased: its buildings demolished, its people forced out.

Now, the men and women who lived and worked in Smeltertown, their children, and their children’s children reunite each year. Many still live in El Paso, in neighborhoods that cropped up as Smeltertown was torn down. Others travel from California, the East Coast, and abroad. They come together to reweave the social fabric of Smeltertown by sharing memories and retelling stories they all know by heart. They celebrate their old hometown despite the dangers it posed to their families.

Seminal research done on Smeltertown in the 1970s by the Centers for Disease Control found that 62 percent of children 10 and under living within one mile of the smelter had blood lead levels considered to be “evidence of undue lead absorption.” The residents of Smeltertown would be the first American community to face the grim prospect of lead exposure and its consequences—but they wouldn’t be the last. The communities of Flint, Michigan, the West Calumet Housing Complex in East Chicago, Indiana, and the schools in Newark, New Jersey, are just three of the most recent examples. But the CDC estimates that at least half a million children in the United States have elevated blood lead levels—and many of them may not even know it.

A Company Town

The American Smelting and Refining Company owned a smelter in El Paso that, starting in 1910, refined hundreds of thousands of tons of lead and copper harvested from its mines in Mexico. It did so with the help of “an army of Mexican contract workers,” according to University of Houston associate professor of history Monica Perales in her book Smeltertown: Making and Remembering a Southwest Border Community.

Mexican workers who labored in Asarco mines began migrating north, lured by that new operation on the U.S. side of the border. Many settled on company land below the foothills of Mt. Cristo Rey. In the early years of the 20th century, Smeltertown lay outside El Paso city limits, a few miles from the city’s downtown. Divided into an upper section, El Alto, where the Anglo managers lived, and a lower section, El Bajo, where the Mexican workers lived, Smeltertown had its own post office, butcher shop, bakery, cantinas, a theater, San José Catholic parish, a YMCA, a public elementary school, and the Smelter Vocational School.

A home in Smeltertown, April 27, 1957

University of Texas at El Paso Library Special Collections Department, Cassola Studio Photographs, PH 041

Smeltertown was a quintessential company town, in which the company could be both benefactor and tyrant. Former residents say Asarco paid well, better than many other employers of the working class. And yet poverty in Smeltertown could be extreme. Residents built and invested in their homes, but the company owned the land; few families could afford cars; many relied on outhouses into the 1960s. “As in other single-industry towns, Smeltertown’s residents fashioned their own way of life in the world the company made, one marked by inequality, racial segregation, and corporate paternalism,” Perales writes. The community would flourish for 70 years under the plumes of the smelter’s twin smokestacks, ignorant of the pervasive danger.

“A Silent Poison”

In March 1971, a team of Epidemic Intelligence Service officers from the CDC arrived to investigate lead exposure connected to the Asarco smelter.

Dr. Bernard Rosenblum, the El Paso City–County health commissioner, had called the CDC after his department discovered that Asarco was discharging large quantities of lead and other metallic wastes into the air. Between 1969 and 1971, the smelter’s stacks had spewed more than 1,000 tons of lead, 560 tons of zinc, 12 tons of cadmium, and 1.2 tons of arsenic into the atmosphere. Soil studies showed the highest concentrations of lead and other metals in surface soil closest to the smelter—essentially, in Smeltertown. The city of El Paso was suing Asarco on the basis of those findings alone, but Rosenblum wanted to know more. He was worried about the health of the kids. (OnEarth made several attempts to reach Asarco and its parent company, Grupo Mexico, for comment without success.)  

Smeltertown children on the way to school in a horse-drawn wagon, El Paso, ca. 1900

El Paso Historical Society

The CDC team, led by a 29-year-old pediatrician named Philip Landrigan, began to explore a subject about which precious little was known: lead toxicity, especially its effects on children. Landrigan, now a pediatrician and epidemiologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York, says, “The notion that lead could be toxic at lower levels was extremely new at that time. Up until 1970 and continuing for years, people believed you didn’t have to worry about lead unless it was so high that it made a child seriously sick. The whole idea that lead in the body could be a silent poison was a new concept.”

Landrigan and the CDC team first looked at whether environmental contamination would be reflected in human blood lead levels over three months. The results were startling: Although they found no cases of overt lead poisoning, 43 percent of people in all age groups and 62 percent of children 10 and under living within one mile of the smelter had blood lead levels of at least 40 micrograms per deciliter. That’s eight times the level at which the CDC recommends a full-fledged public health response today.

Landrigan quickly followed up with a second study in Smeltertown in 1972, examining the health consequences of lead exposure in children. The CDC team administered IQ tests and a finger-tapping test of physical reflexes to the Smeltertown kids with elevated blood levels; a control group of children with blood lead levels below 40 micrograms per deciliter was also tested. The study found that children with elevated blood lead levels tested as many as seven points lower on the IQ test than the control group; they also showed much slower reaction times on the physical reflexes test.

Surface soil lead levels and survey areas in El Paso, 1972

Courtesy of Dr. Philip Landigran, Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai

Lead Effects

Cecilia Flores Marquez’s three youngest children, aged two to five back in 1971, tested positive for elevated blood lead levels during Landrigan’s study.

“I was very scared,” says Flores Marquez, now 71. “I didn’t know anything about lead, the level, the percentages. I remember that the city started having meetings with the people around there and they wanted us to go and check the kids because of lead. The city knew something was wrong. But they should have done that a long time before.”

This is what scientists now know: Lead in the air or in dust, paint, or fumes can work its way into the human body. In children, lead can permanently damage the brain and nervous system. It can slow a child’s growth and development. It can cause learning, hearing, speech, and behavior problems. Studies—the Smeltertown study being among the first—have linked early-childhood lead exposure to reduced IQ, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, juvenile delinquency, and criminal behavior, according to the CDC.

Landrigan notes that the consequences of early-childhood lead exposure can be moderated by educational enrichment, something that may not be readily available in poor communities with fewer opportunities and resources.

“I saw Flint and East Chicago as just another chapter in the long-running tragedy of American children’s exposure to lead,” he says. “I’m convinced one of the reasons our society has allowed it to go on is because the effects disproportionately fall on poor and minority children. In Smeltertown, people were almost universally immigrants from Mexico.”

Taking the Blame

Asarco fought hard against the notion that the elevated blood lead levels in Smeltertown had anything to do with the smelter, or that lead exposure was harming children’s development, according to Perales.

The company claimed that elevated blood lead levels were caused by lead paint and gasoline emissions. It commissioned its own parallel study of the health effects in children and found no evidence of IQ loss. But the findings by the health department and Landrigan’s CDC team contradicted the company’s. The closer to the smelter the sample, the higher the concentrations of lead in the air, dust, and soil; human blood levels mimicked that pattern. And Landrigan’s findings on the children’s IQ and physical reflexes were irrefutable.

So Asarco decided to settle the litigation with the city. The judgment and injunction called for the company to pay fines of $680,500 for 88 specific pollution violations and install $750,000 of additional emission-control equipment. The company agreed to pay all medical expenses for the 134 children being treated for lead exposure—some with chelation therapy, which rids the body of toxins in the bloodstream—for at least 30 months, according to a report by the New York Times in 1972. (It is worth noting that despite their groundbreaking nature, the study findings received little national attention at the time; that Times story was the lone article that the newspaper wrote about Smeltertown.)

As part of the settlement, the city and Asarco decided Smeltertown would be demolished, its residents forced to relocate. In October 1972, according to Perales—not two years after the lead studies began—eviction notices went out to all Smeltertown residents ordering them to clear out of their homes by January 1.

Everything that made up Smeltertown—every home and shop—would be bulldozed. Everything but the smelter itself, which would run for another 26 years.

Tight-Knit Comunidad

To truly understand how the discovery of lead, and the decision to demolish the town, affected the people of Smeltertown, one must first understand how much the place meant to them. For many generations, Smeltertown had provided all the charms of small-town life: a seemingly safe place to raise children, where everyone knew their neighbors, practically everything was within walking distance, and all the men could find a good-paying job at the smelter.

Mechanical department workers at Asarco, November 16, 1950

Courtesy David O. Garcia

The way Smeltertown residents tell it, says Rubén Escandon, life in Smeltertown was “so simple, so pure.” Escandon has been collecting oral histories about the town for years from his own relatives and others as a member of the committee that protects Mt. Cristo Rey and the giant white cross Smeltertown residents erected at its peak.

“Everybody knew everybody,” says Escandon, who was born in 1965 in the satellite community of La Calavera, or Skull Canyon, near the Smelter Cemetery. “A lot of the families that were there, they would say, ‘Had it not been for Asarco and the high-paying jobs and what we had, you know the kids would have never amounted to much.’”

Gabe Flores, born and raised in Smeltertown in the 1940s and ’50s, remembers that the local señoras would pay him a few coins to walk hot lunches of caldo de res (beef stew), tacos, and fresh corn tortillas up the hill to the smelter men, who would be black with soot. When times were lean, Flores recalls, neighbors would borrow from each other: a little food, money, whatever was needed.

“It was all family,” he says. “Nobody was ashamed. Everybody was the same. Maybe they went through harder times and just realized they had to help each other. The fact that we would help each other, it bonded us together.”

When the city and Asarco informed residents they had to go, the backlash was fierce. Though he was only a child, Escandon remembers the protests. “There were people in the streets protesting at City Hall,” he says. “They fought it, you know. There was a chant: ‘Hell no, we won’t go.’”

In her book, Perales describes a public meeting in March 1972 that became a standoff between city officials, who were describing the subsidized low-income housing that would be made available to those who would be displaced, and the Smeltertown residents, who “resented what they saw as a politically motivated relocation project, not a response to a public health crisis.”

Perales writes: “At first glance, the responses of Smeltertown residents at that community meeting seem completely out of step with what one might expect in light of such an environmental disaster. Residents cared about the health of their children . . . [but] despite the contamination and pollution, the years of corporate intrusion into many aspects of their lives, the grueling labor, and myriad other hardships, residents held a deep attachment to Smeltertown.”

Gloria Peña, an El Paso field nurse independently contracted to help with the lead testing in Smeltertown, recognized “the deep sense of loss” residents felt at the prospect of losing their community. “This is the beauty of our language,” she told Perales, “because when you say ‘community’ it doesn’t have the same impact on us as if you say ‘comunidad.’ That is what Smeltertown had.”

With the information about the health risks of lead so new, no long-term studies available to prove the consequences of early-childhood lead exposure, and the company’s insistence that the children weren’t affected, it’s little wonder that many Smeltertown residents doubted authorities’ stated reasons for tearing down their homes and why years later they would still have questions about how the lead had affected their kids.

Dr. George Gelbach preparing a blood test for one of 500 children being tested for blood lead poisoning, March 30, 1973

El Paso Times

All three of Cecilia Flores Marquez’s children who tested for elevated blood lead levels were included in Asarco’s settlement with the city. The compensation totaled $7,000 to $15,000 when each child turned 18. Did they have health issues? Flores Marquez says, “When they were young, no. But they are having issues now.” Her youngest daughter became allergic to metal in her 30s, she says—something the doctors say could be related to the lead exposure.

There were no long-term studies of the former residents of Smeltertown to measure the health outcomes of their exposure to lead, Landrigan says. Today former residents are left guessing whether this or that disability, defect, or illness could have been caused by lead. They have no way of knowing for sure.

Keeping Smeltertown Alive

Veronica Flores Espalin wears her black hair straight to her waist, a tight leopard-print dress, and chunky emerald earrings. “What can I do for you, cousin?” she asks as Smeltertown families line up to hand her their tickets for the 35th annual Smeltertown reunion at Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino, just across the state line in New Mexico, not far from where Smeltertown stood. Families, old and young, file into the fluorescent-lit hall. More than 400 people bought tickets to this year’s August reunion. The Starline Band launches its set of oldies-but-goodies in Spanish and English with the slow-dance tune Sabor a Mi, and the floor fills with couples.

“They closed down Smeltertown the year I was born, ’73,” Flores Espalin says. “All our kids know about Smeltertown, how they lived in Smeltertown. The ticket shows you how they lived.” She points to the black-and-white photo of a dusty street stamped on the ticket. “They were all blessed, a very tight-knit community. They don’t feel sad that they lived like that. They feel sad that it got closed down.”

Smeltertown after it closed down, January 5, 1973

El Paso Times

Ironically, Asarco would run its smelter for another quarter century after bulldozing Smeltertown. “It was not until the decline of world copper prices in 1999 that the smelter halted production and the company mothballed the facility, keeping only a skeleton crew on board,” Perales writes. “Ten years later, the smelter sat silently on the bluff, atop a century’s worth of hardened black slag.”

Asarco’s towering smokestacks finally came down in 2013. Today there is almost nothing left of the company or Smeltertown but the slag-coated hillside and the graves in the Smelter Cemetery. A multiyear, multimillion-dollar project to remediate the Asarco site is expected to wrap up this year. The land—now a prime location between the University of Texas at El Paso and downtown—will be sold to the highest bidder.

At the gathering, which felt like a cross between a high-school and family reunion, families mingled around tables, grabbed drinks at the bar, lined up for beef tacos. They may no longer live in the same place, but what they have in common is their connection to a community that exists in their collective memory: a place that nurtured generations, marred by poverty and contamination, where working-class families trace their humble roots with pride, a place that still defines them.

“Mexicans historically, socially, are identified by the places they came from,” says Davíd Carrasco, a professor of anthropology at Harvard University whose grandfather founded the Smeltertown Vocational School in 1923. “It’s a mental way of finding an orientation, a sacred place, where memory is refuge in a society that doesn’t include you in its national story of manifest destiny.”

Outside the Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino, the sunset gleams on the large white cross atop Mt. Cristo Rey. The Rio Grande, where Smeltertown kids used to swim, bends around the mountain and over the Mexican border. A black iron rail bridge in the distance looks the same as it does in the black-and-white photo on the reunion ticket.

Inside, amid the noise of camaraderie and shared memories, Smeltertown comes alive.


onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

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