By Adriana M. Chávez
El Paso Times
[ Underground mazes, Chinese immigration reportedly linked ]
Some think they cross the border as part of an elaborate illegal immigration plan, others think they once housed Chinese opium dens and all those who dare enter them without permission are cursed to meet an early death.
Historians and residents near at least two underground "tunnels" or dens in Central El Paso have been perplexed for years about the origins of the dens, but historians agree that it's a slight possibility that they lead into Mexico.
Chihuahuita resident Beatrice Gomez, 77, has lived in her home on Canal Road her entire life, but discovered the den underneath her home about 30 years ago. Gomez said she has always been too scared to explore the den's depths, but told the story of a cousin of hers who dared set foot into the den's dark, concrete walls.
"He asked me if he could take a look and I told him he could go in to see what was in there and where it led to, and I remember that it smelled," Gomez said in Spanish. "When he came out he was scared. I didn't see anything behind him. It was too dark, but he looked so scared, and a week later he died, I don't know why."
Gomez has since sealed the den's entrance with a concrete slab and moved a storage shed on top of it.
Local historian Fred Morales said he's familiar with the den underneath Gomez's house and doesn't believe that Gomez's cousin's death had anything to do with having entered the den.
"It's just a basement. There are no tunnels between Juárez and El Paso," Morales said. "A lot of homes in Chihuahuita have basements that were used by Chinese bootleggers to smuggle alcohol, and (used) for the smuggling of arms during the Mexican revolution. I don't believe in curses. Those are fables and stories, like La Llorona and the chupacabra," two well-known Mexican folk tales.
Another local historian, Leon Metz, agreed with Morales.
"If (the tunnels) did go into Mexico, you would have had to dig under the river, and ordinarily that would be difficult," Metz said.
In 1972, researcher Nancy Farrar studied the city's Chinese population. The study seems to support claims that the underground passages were built for Chinese immigration.
In her study, "The Chinese In El Paso," published by the University of Texas at El Paso's Texas Western Press, Farrar said the city's Chinatown, which was located in a section bordered by Mills, Stanton, El Paso and Fourth streets, featured opium and gambling dens along with legitimate businesses such as markets, restaurants and laundries.
The city's most famous tunnel is beneath The Turtle House apartment building at 516 Corto Way in Sunset Heights. Many Turtle House residents said they've cautiously ventured through the maze of rooms beneath the building, but haven't walked through the rooms long enough to see where the maze ends.
However, Doug Yost, president of the Sunset Heights Neighborhood Association, said the rooms may have more to do with drainage rather than any illegal activities.
"The theory or the legend is that they were smuggling tunnels for the Chinese, but no one in their right mind would dig a tunnel through Sunset Heights," Yost said. "Personally, I think it's just natural drainage through the rock like you see at Carlsbad Caverns."
Chinese in El Paso
•On May 19, 1881, about 1,200 Chinese laborers came into the city after the arrival of the railroad.
•To ease homesickness, Chinese business owners opened restaurants, stores and laundries.
•The new businesses created a Chinatown, which stretched from Mills, Fourth, Stanton and El Paso streets.
•Opium dens and gambling houses also became popular among residents.
•As the railroad lines were completed, most Chinese workers moved to other U.S. cities or returned to China.
•In 1983, Chinese artifacts, including medicine vials, pottery, cooking utensils and bird and fish bones, were found near the Cortez Hotel, which was being renovated for office space.
•Many Chinese artifacts are now on display at the Centennial Museum at the University of Texas at El Paso.