On Aug. 6, Erica Marin began work as director of the El Paso Museum of History, and in so doing, carved out her own space in the museum’s nearly 50-year history — becoming the first El Paso native and Latina to hold the position.
As a former curator at the museum, she helped shape exhibitions like “Neighborhoods & Shared Memories: Sunset Heights” and “Low & Slow: Lowrider Culture on the Border.” Before this, she curated for Las Cruces Museums and El Paso’s Purple Gallery.
El Paso Matters spoke with Marin earlier this month about her plans for the museum and her own personal history. The interview has been edited for length and style.
El Paso Matters: What are some of your first memories and experiences with museums?
Marin: I’ve always loved museums. When you’re a working-class kid and your dad’s a bit of an intellectual, he makes sure that you get to see as many free exhibitions (as possible), whether it’s here or in Juárez. Or if we traveled into Mexico, he’d always make sure to take me to museums. Later on, my dad confessed that he did it all for me, and that he’d learned to like them because he’d take me, not necessarily because it was his (kind of thing). But he actually really enjoys them now. My dad is a great support. He loves to come to all the exhibitions.
In El Paso, I grew up with my grandmother living in Central close to where the old Museum of Art used to be. I spent a great deal of my childhood in that museum, just walking the galleries. My grandmother would say, “OK, go get some candy,” (and) she’d give me money. And then I’d go to the museum and I’d walk around. I was incredibly impacted by the (European) Kress Collection. I loved it as a kid, and I love it now. So (of all) my first recollections of museums, the first one will always be the Museum of Art when it was on Montana.
El Paso Matters: Before you got into history, you made art. Can you tell us about your artwork?
Marin: For a long time, I had worked in marketing and PR, and then in my early 30s, I started drawing and painting and soon discovered that there was a lot to say. Both my parents were part of the Chicano civil rights movement here in El Paso and I grew up very much plugged into that world. I come from a social justice background and so a lot of my art is informed by that. It’s informed by identity and memory — my place as a Chicana, Mexicana-Americana, fronteriza.
So that was really important to say through art, but after I finished my first undergraduate degree (in fine arts/museum conservation at New Mexico State University) and went to graduate school (at the University of Texas at El Paso), I decided history would be the best place because I wanted my art to have more context. I wanted to be able to know exactly what I was saying and that what I was saying was actually rooted in facts, and not in any ideas that I might have conceived that were not based on anything real.
El Paso Matters: I’d love to hear more about your parents and the movements that they were involved in. What was it like for you as a child to witness this part of El Paso’s history firsthand?
Marin: Well as a kid you’re just wondering when your parents will not be dragging you to all these juntas and rallies and demonstrations and organizing meetings. You just want to play with your friends, right? You just want to be at home watching cartoons. But one thing that I felt was very important is that ever since I can remember they told me I was Chicana. You would think it would be a problem when people say, “You’re this, you’re that.” But it really was just an immense sense of pride. They taught me what Chicana meant by always taking me back to Segundo Barrio, by showing me where my father grew up. My mother grew up in the Jefferson High School area. I was born in Segundo.
My parents met because they were part of an organization called Mexican American Youth Association, MAYA. And they worked on fair housing in Segundo. They did the first hot-lunch program for the elderly in Segundo Barrio. And then with their friends and their compañeros, they got together and they talked about the different needs within the community. And that broke off into many things … the work at La Fe clinic, housing justice, La Mujer Obrera. My mom was actually one of the founders of La Mujer Obrera, and their first full-time employee.
El Paso Matters: As the first director at the El Paso Museum of History who’s Latina and an El Paso native, how do you hope to bring your perspective and background to that role?
Marin: First of all, I’m super honored and excited. Being a first is indeed an honor. And it’s also a very large responsibility, because you know what that means to you, as a brown woman, as a self-identified Chicana. You know that your charge is big. You have a whole community to look at and they’re waiting for you to do the real work. And the real work is access, and for them to see themselves in the stories that we share here.
That’s important also to continue to shape stories and narratives that are not otherwise heard about. We know about the building of El Paso. We know about railroads, which, yes — we will continue to talk about all these things. We know that there were certain people who were key to building the city into a thriving little metropolis in the early 1900s. But there were other people, the people that we don’t talk about, who were even more important because they were the backbone of that building. I want to talk about Chinese labor, I want to talk about the African American experience here in El Paso. I want to talk about so many things that I think will really round out and give a whole lot of context to how we view history as a community.
El Paso Matters: What do you want El Pasoans to learn about their history through your work?
Marin: Get people interested in history, primarily. And the only way you do that is to get people to connect. And how do you get them to connect? You inspire them to look into their own history. Your history and your experience, wherever you come from, is just as valid as any important architect or important banker.
And learning to excavate that history as individuals, that’s what I would love to see. Where everybody says: “Hey, you know what? I have a history too. I have this photograph. My grandmother came from Veracruz and she lived in Juárez, and now we live here.” (I’d like) for them to excavate their own histories and to treasure and take care of those histories.
El Paso Matters: Can you tell us more about some of the exhibitions you helped create at the Museum of History?
Marin: Before this appointment, I was a curator for the museum. So, the exhibitions are kind of my realm. Sunset Heights, that’s part of a series called Neighborhoods and Shared Memories. With that series (we want to) highlight all the historic neighborhoods. So the first installment of that was the Segundo Barrio, Chihuahuita neighborhoods. Now we have Sunset Heights. The next one will be Manhattan Heights.
That’s a really important series that we want to continue. I’ve had a few people cry when they come to the exhibit of the Sunset Heights. They’re like, “Oh, my God, that quote — that was my mom’s friend!”
There’s a lot of community outreach with these exhibitions. It was the same thing with Low and Slow. Low and Slow would not have happened without the participation of the lowrider community. They were instrumental in making it a success. Otherwise, there’s no point either. So it’s about what people are interested in, and you have to gauge their interest.
El Paso Matters: How do you hope to contribute to the museum’s legacy?
Marin: We’ve heard a lot of talk in the national conversation and in the museum world about diversity and equity and access. I want to continue that. I want to make sure that more people (can) come in and be included in that way. Because historically, POC (people of color) communities have not had the chance so much to work in museum settings.
In other words, walking the walk. Yes, you can make exhibitions about people in the Chicano movement or about the farm workers. But if you’re not including those voices, and that includes in your staffing, then you’re not really doing the work.
El Paso Matters: There’s been a lot of suffering over the past few years in El Paso. How do you think history and the exhibitions you offer can help people right now?
Marin: It’s important to know your history. Those who do not know history are doomed to repeat it, you know, that sort of thing. We have to see those moments and actually listen a little bit and take them seriously because they were real, these things happened. What were the pitfalls, what were the things that were done wrong? What worked, in many cases — the only thing that got us through times like this — was solidarity with one another and caring for one another.
El Paso Matters: Is there anything else you’d like to share with readers?
Marin: I’d just like to share that this is their museum, no matter what. We’re all inhabitants of this region, of this city. This is your museum, very much so. And you have a voice.
Cover photo: Erica Marin, the El Paso Museum of History’s first native El Pasoan director, sets out the wooden railroad toys that are part of the interactive children’s display in the railroad exhibit. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)