This morning I had one of those rare moments, reveries really, when I was back in El Paso. Perhaps it’s because today is Halloween, or because I am working on Jane Street family anecdotes, threshing the chaff from tiny story-seeds. I recalled sitting in Dr. John O. West’s American folklore class at the University of Texas of El Paso. Such a perfect mesh of courses—part history and part English. Well, not exactly factual history, but more like searching out El Paso lore, deciphering the spinning from the historical context. This course probably benefited me more than my nine hours of Shakespeare did in the long run. If Dr. West were still alive, I would hug his neck! I fell in love with collecting American oral history.
I collected all sorts of local stories for this class, some superstitions, quite common in a border town such as El Paso, as well as personal narratives about past events including Pancho Villa’s various forays into El Paso and Juarez. The UTEP campus sits just above the Rio Grande, not far from where Villa attacked US forces and a dense Mexican American neighborhood existed, where family narratives are rich with information and detail. I could imagine Villa’s battles, just below my classroom in the Liberal Arts building, where bullets, losing velocity, rolled off old roofs near where I parked my car, before hiking through sand dunes to the campus; where a secret, decaying wooden door, also below an old house near campus, with a tortuga (turtle) painted on it, when opened, took smugglers and gun runners under the river between Juarez and El Paso.
I had been a guest of honor, along with golfer Lee Trevino, singer Bobby Goldsboro, and the governor of Chihuahua in the Juarez mayor’s reception room in 1971, a year before I took West’s course. There were bullet holes peppered all over the ancient adobe city buildings still. Later, when we tore down an old adobe barn on a property my parents owned, we found shell casings mired in the clay. These tangible experiences enhanced my collection of old narratives and their descriptions of the Mexican Revolution. I also had learned that the seeds of truth in some tales were buried so deeply that the lore and superstitions surrounding them were made up in order to keep the curious from learning the truth.
That brings me to la bruja de Calle Piedmont, or the witch on (of) Piedmont Street.
When I was a teenager in El Paso, Texas, I recall excitement at lunch one day, as some upperclassmen recounted their experiences of the night before, trying to get close to an infamous “haunted house” we all knew about. In fact, no matter which of the thirteen high schools one attended in El Paso in 1967, everyone knew of this house. On one side of Franklin Mountain, in an old neighborhood that I now understand was the 3000 block of Piedmont Street, supposedly lived this ancient hag in an ancient adobe, a formidable witch who practiced Satanic arts. She allegedly had no electricity and lit up the house by candlelight each evening, enhancing her black magic within. These boys had lived to tell their stories, though one claimed that the witch came at him with a butcher knife when he brazenly stepped on her porch and looked through the window! Whispers between classes and at lunch further developed this story, and it was decided that my group of friends should try the same thing—that is, try to touch the Witch-on-Piedmont-Street’s house, even ring her doorbell, if she had one.
That Friday night, six of us loaded into what I recall was an old rambler, certainly not quick but safe with our bodies crammed within. All were boys except for my best friend and I who knew better than to go on such a fool’s errand, including driving on Scenic Drive over the mountain to the west side of El Paso. We were northeast El Paso kids, mainly military brats who could find plenty to do near our 1950s box houses and a shell-strewn military range. There we felt fairly safe. But this was crazy.
I recall the boys knew where to drive in the dark neighborhood near Piedmont Street. We rolled up to a “T” where our street dead-ended and Piedmont Street loomed before us and parked dead center in the street. It was pitch-black, my eyes blind to the infamous house and any details of other homes on either side of us. No street lights, no moon or stars to break the black nothingness. No, we had not been drinking, but our adrenaline was pumping with fear and excitement. I knew I was NOT going to touch her house, but I wanted to see if the witch really would come out as the boys approached. My girlfriend and I, like two-peas-in-a-pod, snuggled against each other, crouching and giggling with nervousness, behind the others.
BOOM! BOOM! The sound of a shotgun blasted twice. I couldn’t make my legs move fast enough before we dove behind what must have been an arborvitae bush, so dense it was. My friend crowded underneath its branches with me, and I felt my bladder lose control. Humiliating. At about the same time, the rambler began reversing back down the street, all four doors wide open, with screams of “Get in! Get in!” reverberating in the old mountainside neighborhood. We ran, jumped into the moving vehicle, and tried to slam the doors shut as we heard yet another BOOM! Miraculously, no one fell out.
At the bottom of the hill awaited El Paso’s finest, his patrol car’s light revolving red and blue. “Are you ok?” the officer asked. Incredibly no one had been hit. And while we indignantly wanted to point fingers at the witch uphill, we were more afraid of being hauled off to jail and having to call our parents. I recall sitting in my wet pants, realizing that beyond my “accident” possibly having been witnessed by boys who would tell all at school the next day, I would probably be grounded “for life,” as I had been several times before. Stupid, stupid.
“Do you realize how dangerous your stunt was?” demanded the cop. Indeed, we did.
“Last night, two boys had to be taken to Thomason (hospital) to have buckshot taken out of their butts! You were lucky. Her daughter lives down the street, and she reported you as soon as she saw your taillights. She also warned her mother that you were on your way. You kids need to stop harassing the old lady!”
With that, we were let go.
The bruja had a daughter? I remember letting that fact sink in. She was human, after all, and I began to feel both pity and curiosity for her. In 2005, an El Paso newspaper picked up the story of the haunted house on Piedmont Street. A married couple had disappeared from the residence in the 1950s, and some believed that they had been murdered and buried beneath the floorboards of the house. The disappearances had widespread publicity and much speculation, from espionage to murder to UFO abductions. The house became known for its ghosts. An old city patrolman later complained that he “would get a hundred calls…all these kids would stop by the house because they thought the house was haunted, and they would scare this poor old lady who (once) lived there.”
So, we kids had made a crime scene, its particulars long forgotten, part of El Paso’s folklore. No witch, but a morbid story for certain.
I was teaching English to a bunch of El Paso freshmen seventeen years later. I assigned them to collect various types of El Paso folklore. One student Billy, whose father was a UTEP quarterback years before I was at UTEP myself, shared the witch-on-Piedmont-Street story. After all, his father claimed to have been up to the house and seen the old lady in person. Young Billy excitedly shared that the witch still inhabited Piedmont Street, and that he, too, would touch her door. I smiled at him as I told him my story too.