On August 6, Erica Marin began working as director of the El Paso History Museum and in doing so carved out her own place in the museum’s nearly 50-year history, becoming the first native of El Paso and Latina to occupy the post. .
As a former curator of the museum, she has helped shape exhibitions such as “Neighborhoods & Shared Memories: Sunset Heights” and “Low & Slow: Lowrider Culture on the Border”. Prior to that, she was a curator for Las Cruces Museums and the Purple Gallery of El Paso.
El Paso Matters spoke with Marin earlier this month about his plans for the museum and his own personal story. The interview has been edited for length and style.
El Paso Matters: What are your earliest memories and experiences with museums?
Marine : I have always liked museums. When you’re a working-class kid and your dad is a bit intellectual, he makes sure you get to see as many free exhibits (as possible), either here or in Juárez. Or if we were traveling to Mexico, he always made sure to take me to museums. Later, my dad confessed that he did everything for me, and that he learned to love them because he took me, not necessarily because it was his (sort of thing). But he really loves them now. My father is a great support. He loves to come to all the exhibitions.
In El Paso, I grew up with my grandmother living in Central near the old art museum. I spent a large part of my childhood in this museum, walking through the galleries. My grandmother would say, “Okay, go get some candy” (and) she would give me money. And then I would go to the museum and walk around. I was incredibly touched by the (European) Kress collection. I loved him when I was a kid, and I love him now. So (of all) my earliest memories of museums, the first will always be the Museum of Art when it was in Montana.
El Paso Matters: Before going down in history, you made art. Can you tell us about your creations?
Marine : For a long time I worked in marketing and public relations, then in my early thirties I started drawing and painting and soon found that there was a lot to say. Both of my parents were part of the Chicano civil rights movement here in El Paso and I grew up very connected to this world. I come from a social justice background and so a lot of my art is influenced by that. It is informed by identity and memory – my place as Chicana, Mexicana-Americana, fronteriza.
So it was very important to say it through art, but after I got my first undergraduate degree (in fine arts / museum conservation at New Mexico State University) and did some graduate school (at the University of Texas at El Paso), I decided that 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, not ideas I could have conceived that weren’t based on anything real.
El Paso Matters: I would like to know more about your parents and the movements in which they were involved. What was it like for you as a kid to witness this part of El Paso history?
Marine : Well, as a kid you just wonder when your parents won’t take you to all these juntas and gatherings and demonstrations and have meetings. You just want to play with your friends, don’t you? You just want to be home watching cartoons. But one thing that seemed very important to me was that since I can remember they told me I was Chicana. You would think it would be a problem when people say, “You are this, you are that. But it was really just a huge sense of pride. They taught me what Chicana meant by always taking me back to Segundo Barrio, showing me where my father grew up. My mom 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 carried out the first hot lunch program for the elderly in Segundo Barrio. And then with their friends and companions, they got together and they talked about the different needs within the community. And it was interrupted in many things… the work at the clinic in La Fe, the housing justice, La Mujer Obrera. My mother was actually one of the founders of La Mujer Obrera and their first full-time employee.
El Paso Matters: As the first director of the El Paso History Museum who is Latino and originally from El Paso, how do you hope to bring your perspective and experience to this role?
Marine : First of all, I am super honored and excited. Being a first is indeed an honor. And that is also a very big responsibility, because you know what it means to you, as a brunette woman, as a self-identified Chicana. You know your load is great. You have a whole community to watch and they are waiting for you to do the real work. And the real job is access, and for them to see themselves in the stories we share here.
It’s also important for continuing to shape stories and narratives that you wouldn’t hear about otherwise. We know the El Paso building. We know the railways, which, yes – we’ll keep talking about all of these things. We know there were some people who played a key role in building the city into a prosperous little metropolis in the early 1900s. But there were other people, people not talked about, who were even more important because they were the backbone of this building. I want to talk about Chinese work, 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 complement and give a lot of context to how we view history as a community.
El Paso Matters: What do you want the people of El Paso to learn about their history through your work?
Marine : Get people interested in the story, mainly. And the only way to do that is to get people to connect. And how do you get them to connect? You encourage them to look at their own story. Your history and experience, wherever you come from, is just as valid as any major architect or banker.
And learning to delve into this history as individuals is what I would like to see. Where everyone says, “Hey, you know what? I also have a story. I have this photo. My grandmother was from Veracruz and she lived in Juárez, and now we live here. (I would) like them to dig into their own stories and cherish and care for those stories.
El Paso Matters: Can you tell us more about some of the exhibits you helped create at the History Museum?
Marine : Prior to this appointment, I was the museum’s curator. So exhibitions are kind of my domain. Sunset Heights, which is part of a series called Neighborhoods and Shared Memories. With this series (we want to) highlight all the historic districts. So the first installment of that was the Segundo Barrio, the Chihuahuita neighborhoods. Now we have Sunset Heights. The next one will be Manhattan Heights.
It’s a really important series that we want to continue. I made a few people cry when they came to the Sunset Heights exhibit. They’re like, “Oh, my God, that quote – that was my mom’s friend! “
There is a lot of community outreach with these exhibits. It was the same with Low and Slow. Low and Slow would not have seen the light of day without the participation of the lowriders community. They have contributed to its success. Otherwise, it’s no use either. So it’s all about what interests people, and you have to gauge their interest.
El Paso Matters: How do you hope to contribute to the museum’s legacy?
Marine : We have heard a lot in the national conversation and in the museum world about diversity, equity and access. I want to continue this. I want to make sure that more people (can) come in and be included this way. Because historically, POC communities (people of color) have not had as much opportunity to work in museum circles.
In other words, walking walking. Yes, you can do exhibits on people from the Chicano movement or on farm workers. But if you don’t include those voices, and that includes in your endowment, then you’re not really doing the job.
El Paso Matters: There has been a lot of suffering in recent years in El Paso. How do you think the story and the exhibits you put on can help people right now?
Marine : It is important to know your story. Those who don’t 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 each other and helping each other.
El Paso Matters: Is there anything else you would like to share with the readers?
Marine : I would just like to share that this is their museum no matter what. We are all inhabitants of this region, of this city. It’s your museum, really. And you have a voice.
Cover photo: Erica Marin, the first El Pasoan-native director of the El Paso History Museum, presents the wooden railroad toys that are part of the interactive children’s exhibit in the railroad exhibit. (Corrie Boudreaux / El Paso Matters)