Where I Went:
San Ysleta Mission, Socorro Mission, San Elizario Historic District
El Paso is not at the top of most tourists’ radars. While it doesn’t boast many major attractions, it certainly holds many relatively-secret, “low-key” attractions. One such attraction is the El Paso Mission Trail, a series of three old Spanish churches along the Rio Grande just downriver of town. Each town is within 2 miles of the border. To see all three is probably a half-day excursion.
The best way to reach the missions is by car, although there apparently is a bus that runs between the three.
The first mission-and the closest to El Paso- is the Ysleta Mission. Founded in 1682, it is the oldest of the three and is the oldest church in Texas. For comparison- the oldest California mission, San Diego de Alcama, was founded in 1769. The mission was unfortunately closed on Sundays- church services are held in a new church at the other end of the parking lot. I still got to walk around the exterior.
Today, the Yselta Mission is overshadowed by the Speaking Rock Entertainment Center, one only three true casinos in all of Texas (there are workarounds including cruises to international waters and racetrack betting facilities). The casino happens to be located right next to the Mission-the two facilities form the bulk of the tribal reservation of the Ysleta Del Sur Puebloan people. Therefore, the tribe now has a guard outside the parking lot asking where people are visiting to ensure that the Mission parking lot isn’t overrun by casino patrons.
Since it was there, I decided to also visit the casino (after moving my car to the gigantic casino parking lot). It looked just like an average Indian casino- nothing amazing but not dingy. I happened to visit on a day when the Dallas Cowboys were playing a game. In addition to the crowds of people around the slot machines, there were probably 100 people crowded around the bar watching the Cowboys and cheering very loudly at every play. When they scored a touchdown, the cocktail waitresses threw t-shirts out to the crowd, causing a mild frenzy. Casinos are not my thing and after 15 minutes, I had seen enough and was ready to move on.
The next mission, Socorro, was three miles down the road from Ysleta. After nearly missing the narrow turn off, I found my way into the busy parking lot. Like Ysleta, the church services were held in a different building. However, this mission was open!
Socorro was also founded in 1682, although the current building was only built in 1840. The plain white façade was quite austere and reflected a lot of sunlight right into my eyes.
The wooden interior of the church was simple but beautiful and well-preserved. The lady running the gift shop spoke no English so I had to chance at asking for any history of the place other than what was on the historical plaques outside.
As I left, church had just gotten out. I asked a few people to take my picture in front of the church. Four times, the people couldn’t speak English and refused my request. Finally on the fifth time, the lady obliged- although she didn’t speak any English either. Using my broken Spanish, I convinced her to take my picture, but it turned out poorly due to the strong light of the sun.
Continuing south for 7 miles, I ended up in the town of San Elizario. This town was quite different from the others. Rather than a single mission building surrounded by a modern town, San Elizario had a cool historic district. Most of the historic structures had art galleries. Additionally, the National Park Service runs a museum, there is a small locally run museum containing a jail cell that Billy the Kid broke into and there is a shrine to US military veterans.
Today happened to be the town’s monthly art walk. Every gallery was open and they had a stage with a Mexican singer singing traditional Mexican ballads. She was amazing! They also had a bar selling $1.50 beers.
At the far end of the tiny town was the church. This church was different than the other two: it was newer (built in 1877), built by Americans (not Spanish) and much larger. Unlike the other two missions, this was a presidio chapel (meaning it was built for soldiers).
Church was still going on and the priest was speaking in Spanish. The place was busy. It turned out that today was the saint (Saint Elizario)’s feast day which explained the crowd.
Outside the church, the locals set up a small carnival for the feast day. The main focal point was a stage with a huge Bud Light banner right in front of the church as if Budweiser’s marketing team was saying “Jesus- sponsored by Bud Light”.
In front of the stage, there were probably 25 food vendors selling exclusively Mexican food. I ordered elote-Mexican street corn with spices. The lady had to run across the courtyard to find someone who could speak English with me to explain what was in the elote. I was shocked by how few people here spoke English- my guess is that most younger people can speak English but the older people cannot. Spanish is clearly the lingua franca.
Eventually, groups of youths started performing on the stage. First a group of traditional Mexican drummers, then a mariachi group. At that point, it was time to head back to the airport.
To me, these mission towns felt like the most foreign place I had ever been to in the United States. San Elizario was by far my favorite but it was cool seeing all three and drawing comparisons between them.
If you like authentic Mexican culture and old building, but are unable to or do not want to go to Mexico, the Mission trail is a great alternative. I really thought the whole El Paso/Juarez region was interesting- the culture clash between the Mexican culture and the cowboy/military culture is apparent. If you’re looking for something different, I would highly recommend a visit to the El Paso region and specifically the Mission Trail.