>>>Conversation with Nicole Ferrini
Nicole is the Chief Resilience Officer of the City of El Paso. The City of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are both active in the 100 Resilient Cities Program and work cooperatively to meet the social and environmental challenges that their respective communities face.
Q: We have been collecting stories and experiences of people on the border and we would like to gather your perspective as a city leader working with the community and built environment of El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. We are interested in the physical urban fabric — specifically on stories associated with certain sites. In terms of immigration — for example, our interest is in how the Cathedral in Juarez operated as social infrastructure at a time of crisis. How for a time it acted as critical social infrastructure for migrants. Can you share with us your stories and thoughts?
Well, this is more a personal story of mine as a native El Pasoan, rather than my role as Resilience Officer. I think what Sam said is absolutely correct — no one moment in time — even as impactful as COVID, or even the migrant influx that we had recently, or even the shooting we had — on August 3; these are major events that have occured in the last 18 months but not one of those events define us.
I think they amplify and reflect who we are as a border community and we respond as a reflection of that, in the same way that another community would respond as a reflection of their history and background and culture and all of that.
So, if I share my personal story, having been born and raised here as a little girl, I’m talking about in the 80’s. My growing up was in the 80’s — and I remember in the 80’s, a very fluid back and forth, just personally, my family, we would go over to Juarez every other weekend, you know, going to the regala — I remember just visiting my grandmother, having lunch, going shopping, walking across El Paso, and we used to go to this department store in El Paso called ‘La Cuencas?’ kind of close to where El Paso Foundation is right now, right at the corner. I remember that as a little girl. And almost being unaware that I was in another country.
And I remember as a teenager, even going to college, people would ask me have you ever travelled internationally, and I would say no — at that time I have travelled around the US and I’ve travelled around Juarez but to me — They would say, “haven’t you been to Juarez?” and I would say “oh yeah, I guess I have travelled to Juarez” — but to me it wasn’t travelling internationally, to me it was home — it was my backyard. I think — that to me was a snapshot of the urban fabric at that point in time.
So then, I grow up, I go away to college, and I study Architecture. By the time I came back to El Paso, it was about 2004 or 2005 — it was very different. It had started to tighten up. The national narrative — it wasn’t what it is now, but it had already started.
There was already this aggressive dialogue about international border crossing. By the time I came back, the fluidity of travel back and forth — not stopped but slowed, just casually. There was always, and there will always be those commuters that live in Juarez and work in El Paso and vice-versa and to them it's just the same as it has always been. For me it was different personally — so then, if you fast forward to the migrant crisis, more in for the present time, suddenly —
that physical barrier was more prominent to me.
Even though that physical barrier had been there for a long time, from a social perspective, it felt bigger and more present than it had ever been. That wall — right — the barrier, and the idea that it is more difficult to cross.
You never used to have your passport, at that time — your driver’s license was just fine.
When I came back in the early 2000’s, I had to have my passport. Now, I carry my passport.
So I just wanted to give you that personal snapshot for me of how it has changed.
I will also just share with you briefly — I realize now more than ever being involved in City Government and engaging with the Government in Juarez, which I previously was not aware of
— the stark difference, right — it is almost like the division you see when a big highway gets built, and you see the disparity of one side and the other, the “have’s” and the “have-not’s” — the “have-not’s” on our side pale in comparison to the “have-not’s” on the other side.
I heard a story yesterday, from a hospital worker in Juarez — and we were sharing on the call, everything we were doing in response to COVID — all the technology we’re using — digital laboratories, 3D printing masks — we are really all coming together, and she on the phone was practically in tears because she said it is so much worse here — we are not seeing the capacity for testing, we are not seeing the capacity for equipment, we are barely even talking about it, and frankly she was talking about how they are not reporting the cases of deaths in the same way. And so, again — it is another instance of an intervention — the intervention is COVID but the disparity is evident in how we respond based on one side versus the other and I think that’s been very interesting.
Q: Could you describe the work on resilience you have been doing in El Paso?
A resilient community is not bound or defined by any one stress or shock— we are resilient in that we sort of — absorb what’s happening, and we utilize the strength and culture — and the fabric that Sam was talking about to bounce back and maintain our strength. And so, I think that we’ve done that.
And I think that people don’t think about the violence in Juarez as the same kind of shock. When people ask me about resilience, they ask me what our climate action plan is — Isn’t climate the most critical and pressing resilience challenge? And I say, absolutely not, not for our community — I am not saying that climate is not important, please do not mistake me for saying that. It is something that we need to address, and there are a number of ways that we are. But when we look at the primary stressors and shocks that, in essence — If we look at the essence of stressors and shocks that this community has endured — they are primarily social and economic.
And in looking at that — our greatest asset (and our strategy says this) is our people. Right, it’s about how our people come together to realize something. Like Paseo de las Luces. That project — Yeah! It’s a physical project and it does a lot of things, but more than anything it represents the coming together and the celebration of two communities, right?
And so — we are talking about the civic environment and the reflection of people. Resilience is about people. That is the primary.