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Bowie High School: Always a Bear
By Kristina Gomez, Olivia Saavedra, Gabriel Thomas Alcantar and Elvi Nieto
For 11 years, El Paso High School was the only game ― or high school ― in town. By 1927, population in the Second Ward or Segundo Barrio in South El Paso had grown so much that El Paso High became overcrowded. Rather than waiting to build a new school, officials made Bowie Grammar School into a high school almost overnight. Ninth graders began attending Bowie High School in 1927, and four girls and nine boys made up the first graduating class in January 1931.
Image caption: Bowie Grammar School became Bowie High School almost overnight in the late 1920s. Photo courtesy of El Paso County Historical Society
Ironically, Bowie Grammar School had been built in 1922 to alleviate overcrowding in the Aoy and Alamo Grammar Schools. In its new role as high school, Bowie received few alterations to accommodate high schoolers. Still, from its inception, Bowie has been dedicated to offering quality education to its students as well as opening the door of opportunity to many minority children.
Bowie Alumni Raul Garibay described the Second Ward as a neighborhood in South El Paso bordered by Texas Avenue on the north, Cotton Street on the East and the Rio Grande on the west and south. Most residents were and still are of Mexican descent. Leon Metz in Chronicles of El Paso described the area as “poor … and neglected” in the early 1900s. Very few of the houses in the area had indoor plumbing or electricity, and few residents were fluent in English.
Very much aware of the living situations of families in this area, first Bowie principal A. L. Carlton allowed students to use the school's facilities after normal hours. In a short history of the school, Garibay wrote that students could use the bath facilities and the library as well as listen to the radios in some of the rooms. For many, the school became like a second home. A bridge had to be built over the irrigation canal that divided the academic building from the football practice field and the building that served as a field house. But this first Bowie High never had its own football stadium or indoor basketball court, according to Garibay. That did not squelch the enthusiasm of the students and their families who attended the games. Garibay wrote, “The entire barrio would make the pilgrimage for those fall events. … Everybody, youngsters, mothers, grandmothers and babies wore Bowie's blue and white.” Bowie pride began early.
Principal Carlton established the comfortable atmosphere that students enjoyed. The school did have a band, a newspaper and yearbook. Carlton chose the bear as the school mascot and wrote the words to the school song, “We're Loyal to you Bowie High.” Carlton left in 1934. Despite not having an indoor basketball court or a football stadium, Bowie excelled in several sports. Just two years after its first graduates received their diplomas, Bowie won the district football champion-ship. Bowie also won regional championships over the years and boasted an Olympic athlete among its graduates. Javier Montes, a 1948 graduate, set a state record of four minutes and 25 seconds for the mile run. He was a successful athlete at Texas Western College and participated in the Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, in 1952. In 1949, the Bowie baseball team won the state championship, while the basketball team came in fourth in the state.
The first phase of a new Bowie High School, adjacent to the original building, was begun in 1940 and completed in 1941. Over 1,200 students were attending the high school at that time. As Bowie students entered the service during World War II, the halls were occupied by students from the newly created Bowie Junior High School.
In 1948, Principal Frank C. Pollitt began enforcing the 30-year old “English Only” law passed by the 35th Texas legislature in 1918. The law required all teaching to be in English only. The Mexican population of students attending Bowie began to struggle with classes due to the enforcing of the new rule. The late Ray Past, linguistics professor at UTEP, wrote in Password , the journal of the El Paso Historical Society, that the target of the legislation was German. However, its enforcement hit Spanish-speaking students the hardest because of the sheer numbers of such students in Texas.
Past wrote that the law was ineffective and contributed to the high dropout rate of Hispanics. The law was interpreted to cover the entire school, and students were punished for speaking Spanish anywhere on campus. Past wrote that students could be and were expelled from both Bowie High and El Paso High School for speaking Spanish. The law was finally repealed in 1969.
The school made history in 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson met with Mexican President Adolfo Lopez Mateos on the Bowie campus to sign the Chamizal Treaty, which finally determined the border between Mexico and the United States. A new Bowie High School was built on the land that the treaty allotted the United States, and it opened in August 1973. In addition to 105 classrooms, the school had its own library and cafeteria, a football stadium seating 8,000 and a gym seating 2,500.
With the Segundo Barrio so close to Mexico, the Border Patrol had been a clear and commanding presence in the neighborhood for years. Although residents of the area often had been stopped and questioned by agents, few complained, fearing retaliation or not being believed. Because Bowie's population was 99 percent Hispanic, it was only a matter of time before the issue of immigration came to the forefront. In the early 1990s, Bowie High School students began to be subjected to treatment similar to that of other residents of their neighborhoods. The Border Patrol began coming onto campus and patrolling the halls. Students and staff were randomly asked to produce passports, and some instances of abuse and harassment were reported. These actions angered students, parents and staff alike.
In 1992, under the leadership of then Bowie Principal Paul Strelzin, a lawsuit was filed against the Border Patrol. U. S. District Judge Lucius Bunton ruled in Bowie's favor and granted a restraining order against the Border Patrol, preventing it from carrying out unlawful search and seizure of the school's students and staff.
This suit, along with the ensuing verdict, landed Strelzin and Bowie High School on the cover of the Wall Street Journal beneath the heading: "Matter of Principle ― High School in El Paso Gives the Border Patrol A Civil Rights Lesson.”
According to Martin Luna, president of the Bowie High School Alumni Association in 1977 and 1981, the association began in 1937 but went inactive for about 30 years. In 1967, the Alumni Association worked to assure that a proposed new high school would still bear the name Bowie, despite the fact that students would come from Jefferson as well as Bowie. Many thought that the high school should have a different name. According to the book La Bowie by alumnus Elman Chapa, petitions went out and thousands of signatures were collected. An alumni chapter based in California even contributed 264 signatures. In the end, the decision was made to name the new high school Bowie.
Alumni were not successful in saving the original Bowie High School building, however. Rosa Rangel, a 1956 graduate, six-time Alumni Association President and self-appointed Bowie High and Alumni Association historian, stood outside the Sun Bowl and personally collected hundreds of signatures on a petition. The petition with a sufficient number of signatures was hand-delivered by their attorney to a judge in Austin, but the building was demolished in 1988. Rangel said they were able to save the portion bearing the school’s name and to memorialize it on campus.
Guillen Middle School, named in honor of Ambrosio Guillen, Bowie alumnus who received the Congressional Medal of Honor posthumously for his heroism in the Korean War, took over the rest of the old Bowie campus and still is an important part of south El Paso schools.
The Bowie Alumni Association is dedicated to helping current Bowie Bears fulfill their dreams and continue their education through special scholarship programs. Some 12 to 15 scholarships are given out yearly, most of which come from endowments. One of those endowments is in the name of a former teacher, Margaret Dixon. Others are in the name of alumni ― Harry Drinis, Elsa and Arturo Lightbourn, Socorro Lozano Kastrin and Carmen Contreras Peña. Desert Eagle also provides a yearly donation to the scholarship fund, and money comes in through fund raising and other donations. The association hosts different events, such as June's Hawaiian Luau Dance and October's Homecoming, throughout the year to help raise money for scholarships.
It is easy to understand where the Bowie alumni's immense pride comes from: history, tradition, spirit and dedication. Its notable graduates run the gamut from legendary NCAA basketball coach Nolan Richardson to LULAC national president Belen Robles. Artists, civic leaders, musicians and politicians have all passed through its halls. The song penned by A. L. Carlton rings true for her alumni, “We'll back you to stand, to the very last man. For we're loyal to you, Bowie High.”