See Two Countries and Three States From This Soaring El Paso Gondola

Originally published on Texas Highways, March 2018

On the western edge of Texas, you’ll find the only place in the state that provides a bird’s-eye view of 7,000 square miles spanning three states and two countries. And though some people opt to hike to the top of 5,632-foot Ranger Peak in Franklin Mountains State Park, I prefer to ride in one of the bright orange cable cars of the Wyler Aerial Tramway.

The trip starts with a drive up the side of the eastern face of the Franklin Mountains to the tramway’s base station—about 1,000 feet above El Paso—where visitors can see the machinery that stops, rotates, and reverses the cars on their cables. As a park ranger holds open the gondola door, the car sways slightly as each passenger steps inside. With a light swing, the gondola starts and we’re on our way.

The tramway climbs more than 900 feet in elevation during the four-minute ride, occasionally gliding over canyons 200 feet deep. Below, the mountainside falls away as the cable car ascends, whisking passengers above rocky outcroppings, where Chihuahuan Desert flora like sotol and lechuguilla speckle the jagged brown slopes. On the rare days when it rains in the Sun City, water snakes down the mountain and collects in crevices protected from the desert sun. The pools draw various critters, and tramway riders sometimes spot mule deer, squirrels, and hawks. 

As the gondola climbs, two red-and-white communication towers at the top of Ranger Peak grow larger. This uniquely El Pasoan attraction traces its roots to those towers. Local news station KTSM Radio built the tramway in 1959 to service the construction of a transmitter antenna and service platform on Ranger Peak. 

“They built a tramway since there is no road to go up the mountain,” Park Ranger Diana Moy explains. “It was going to be the easier way to transport both equipment and technicians to come and work on the towers. So the tramway was never intended to be a public attraction. But because of the view at the top, they decided to open it to the public.”

Broadcasting businessman Karl O. Wyler Sr., who oversaw the construction of the tramway, opened the ride to visitors in 1960 as the El Paso Aerial Tramway, making it the first public tramway in Texas and only the third in the nation. In 1986, the tramway closed to the public but remained in use by tower workers and technicians. As part of his will, Wyler donated the tramway and the nearly 200 acres surrounding it to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. The state accepted the donation in 1997, and after considerable renovations, the tramway reopened to the public in 2001 as Wyler Aerial Tramway.

A massive cable—1 3/8 inches thick and 2,600 feet long—delivers our gondola to the Ranger Peak mountaintop station with a soft bump. As we step into the mountain air, I notice the summit is significantly windier than the base. On the west side of the summit, where there are no mountains blocking the wind, the gusts are even stronger. The summit is also cooler. On warm days, the 5- to 10-degree temperature drop is a welcome relief from the desert heat. But visitors should be prepared during the fall and winter, when the windy cold can be a teeth-chattering, hair-tousling surprise. 

The tramway’s four-minute ascent climbs more than 900 feet to the 5,632-foot summit of Ranger Peak.

On the viewing platform—looking out from the southernmost tip of the Rocky Mountains—informative signs in English and Spanish interpret the 360-degree view with markers outlining various landmarks like Fort Bliss and El Paso International Airport. 

Interstate 10 runs through the middle of El Paso before its thin line seemingly disappears to the east. From this distance, the Rio Grande looks more like a dirt road than a concrete riverbed. Across the border in Juárez, the nearly 200-foot tall monument La Equis—a massive X shape—might be easy to overlook if not for its bright red paint that stands out against the desert surroundings. From the peak, it’s difficult to distinguish where the United States ends and Mexico begins—fitting, as for part of their history, El Paso and Juárez were one settlement known as El Paso del Norte. Today, three international bridges connect the two cities, and depending on the day, the Ranger Peak view reveals lengthy cross-border traffic backups. 

Ranger Peak also overlooks El Paso, where buildings more than a century old anchor a downtown rich in both historic charm and bustling cultural energy. Among the historic and modern buildings, a green dot signals a relatively new addition to the skyline: Southwest University Park, home of the Triple-A El Paso Chihuahuas minor league baseball team, opened in 2014. The stadium nestles so tightly within the downtown streets that during the season, you can drive behind the outfield and catch a glimpse of the ball game. 

Ranger Peak’s offerings also include benches for relaxing, powerful telescopes that cost 25 cents to operate, and a small gift shop with snacks, T-shirts, hats, and other tramway souvenirs. The park built the shop around one of the communication tower’s base legs—evidence that Wyler Aerial Tramway wasn’t originally intended for public use. 

Thankfully, Mr. Wyler and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department saw the benefit of opening this view to the public. And yet, Moy says that every weekend at least one passenger panics while inside the gondola as it’s suspended above the mountainside. Park rangers do their best to calm any nervous guests. “We just try to distract them,” Moy says, “talk to them about something else.” Those squeamish of heights may find comfort in knowing the view from Ranger Peak makes those few anxious minutes well worth the ride. 


A History of Latino and Mexican Boxing

Originally published on

For at least a generation, boxing’s cultural impact has declined in the United States. Seemingly everyone involved with the sport—from promoters to fans—has offered opinions about how to restore boxing to the mass popularity it last enjoyed when Mike Tyson was a household name. One line of thinking holds that boxing’s popularity rests with its heavyweight division. Another claims that boxing’s popularity would return as soon as a boxer from the United States won a heavyweight championship from the Europeans who have controlled that division in recent years. But, when Deontay Wilder, a 6’7,” wild-swinging, power-puncher from Alabama, won a title in January 2015, the sport did not revive as predicted. Lost in the urge to resuscitate boxing is the fact that the sport is popular, just not in the demographic with which marketers are primarily concerned, the white middle-class. Boxing in the United States has become a mostly Mexican sport. This change has been unfolding for more than a century.

For most of its history, boxing has fluctuated between societal acceptance and rejection. Boxing provoked particular scorn during the bare-knuckle era, when most contests occurred in secrecy, out of fear of police intervention. The lower classes of society—gamblers, drunks, and brothel masters, as they were perceived by their “betters”—commonly attended. But during the late twentieth century, a change in governing rules helped boxing gain social respectability. Among the most important changes, a set of regulations—known as the Marquess of Queensberry rules—disallowed hugging and wrestling, placed three-minute limits on rounds, added a ten-second count after each knock down, and most importantly, called for gloved fists.

As boxing evolved from its Queensberry rules and the sport won new popularity, universities—including several among the ivy leagues—instituted boxing programs. Students who participated, members of the upper-class, noted the distinction between prizefighting and boxing. Prizefighting maintained its negative connotations. Conversely, especially in the era of Muscular Christianity, upper-class practitioners promoted boxing as an acceptable, even admirable sport, with the self-disciplinemanliness, and training it required. But always, they emphasized the difference between amateurs who boxed for the sake of health and prizefighters who fought to make their living.

This distinction was pivotal. Prizefighting in the United States’s populous, eastern regions was outlawed in the late nineteenth-century. As that occurred, the sport moved to the country’s western and southern regions where few laws prohibited prizefighting. With this move, prizefighting also arrived at the United States-Mexico borderland. Indeed, photographs of early prizefights along Mexico’s northern borderlands reveal them to have been fought in the middle of the desert, close to either side of the Rio Grande.

The Mexican Revolution also caused boxing to spread into Mexico. In 1914, Pancho Villa, who wished to add to his war chest, sought to stage a world title fight in Ciudad Juárez between Jack Johnson and Jess Willard. Johnson, the first African American heavyweight champion, lived in self-exile after a racially-motivated jury convicted him of violating the Mann Act. Because of his conviction, Johnson could not travel to the Mexican border town through the United States. Because Villa’s foe, Venustiano Carranza, controlled the Mexican coastlines, promoters moved the fight from Ciudad Juárez to Cuba. During his exile, Johnson lived and boxed across Latin America until the Mexican government welcomed his as a guest in 1919. Johnson lived in Mexico until 1920 when revolutionary violence forced him to surrender to United States authorities.

After the revolution, boxing’s popularity increased. The Mexican government used sports to promote the country’s stability and, implicitly, the success of its revolution. In the 1920s, Mexico took part in international sportscompetitions as a way of gaining respectability. By the mid-1930s, the first so-called “golden age” of Mexican boxing (a term, to my knowledge, coined by historian Stephen D. Allen) had begun to unfold in Mexico City. During this time, Mexican boxing made inroads in the United States, again, partly as a result of the Mexican Revolution, which led to the greatest migration of Mexicans into the United States. But not until the 1960s did the second golden age of Mexican boxing flourish, this time, in Los Angeles.

In the 1960s, the influence of Mexican boxing expanded not only into the United States but also globally. In the latter months of 1963, representatives—intent on reforming and unifying the sport—from Latin America, Asia, Europe, and the United States attended a boxing convention in Mexico City. Out of this convention came the World Boxing Council (WBC), boxing’s first global sanctioning body. And though multiple countries founded the organization, the WBC is thoroughly Mexican. Indeed, protecting Mexican boxers from boxing promoters and managers in the United States was among its stated goals.

Among Mexico’s many boxing heroes, Julio César Chávez stands out. Active from the 1980s through the early 2000s, Chávez epitomized Mexican machismo. The so-called “Mexican Style” of boxing, which emphasizes offensive aggression while paying only minimal attention to defense—did not originate with Chávez but in modern times, it is often associated with him. Chávez was, and remains, a Mexican national hero. So impactful is his legacy that when he fought Mexican Americans, fans of Mexican heritage raised questions about the Mexican ethnic authenticity of his opponents. Those questions express concern over assimilation in the United States and the point at which an immigrant can no longer be considered “Mexican.”

Besides boxing, Chávez’s popularity has inspired corridos—Mexican folk songs—about national pride. More recently, and a testament to his persistent popularity, a telenovela entitled El César was produced and based on Chávez’s life.

So popular was Chávez that he even altered the boxing calendar. A century ago in the United States, importantfights occurred on the Fourth of July. Today, the weekends of Cinco de Mayo and September 16—two Mexican holidays, even if the former is more often celebrated in the U.S.—mark boxing’s major events. Chávez popularized these Mexican holidays within the boxing world. The tradition of boxing on Mexican holidays continues with the career of Saul “Canelo” Alvarez, one of the top three most popular boxers in the world.

During Alvarez’s and other Mexican boxers’ fights, fans enthusiastically wave Mexican flags, sing in Spanish, and dress in colors denoting their national pride. Spectators, both ringside and at home, would not agree with the notion that boxing is dead. Though it is true, that boxing’s demographics have changed, the sport is very much alive. Boxing is a Latino sport and that changed has occurred over 125 years.