If you haven’t figured it out by now, I have a passion for history. In fact, that’s part of the reason I was drawn to journalism. Newspapers, it’s been said, record “the first draft of history.”
In 1879, the founder of this newspaper, Russell Kistler, did more than just write the “first draft.” He also made history. Unfortunately, part of his legacy can be found in the divisions that helped define Las Vegas.
Kistler brought his Optic operation into Las Vegas with the railroad, and set up shop in the new and rapidly developing East Las Vegas.
Last week, Jesus Lopez, who writes a weekly history column for the Optic, offered up a searing quote from Kistler, which pretty much defines his influence. “East Las Vegas,” Kistler said, “is an American town and will be governed by Americans only.”
West Las Vegas, in Kistler’s way of thinking, was not an American town, even though it had been part of the Union for a good three decades at that point. To Kistler, its residents were still Mexicans, and he made no effort to integrate the developing new town with the well-established old town across the Gallinas River.
The result is evident to this day, though the dividing lines aren’t always so clear anymore.
I’m not proud of the fact that I run a newspaper that played such a key role in establishing such divisions, but neither do I shy away from recognizing it. Actually, I think it’s a good example of how history sometimes hits a sore spot.
If you are deeply rooted in the west side of Las Vegas, it may be easy to resent the fact that Anglo-Americans came in a mile to the east and immediately began to take over the economy, the schools, the land and even the press (although, for years, the Optic was in a stiff competition with westside newspapers such as the Las Vegas Gazette). Indeed, there are understandable reasons for resentments to linger on the west side of town.
On the other hand, Anglos must recognize the injustices that followed in the wake of their descendants’ arrival on the railroad. It’s a part of our history that we can’t overlook, and to downplay it for the sake of making ourselves feel more comfortable is an injustice in and of itself.
That said, I think we need to recognize history as an explanation rather than a burden. It’s how we got here, but it’s not where we’re going. Put another way, we have to be able to move beyond old injustices, or else they will continue to haunt us.
This community is capable of overcoming its divisions. It did exactly that in 1970, when East and West consolidated into a single Las Vegas. And through the years we’ve united in other ways too. But, as our two separate school districts demonstrate, we’ve still got a long way to go.
Sometimes, I think that where there is no division, Las Vegas finds a way to create one. Maybe that’s the burden of our past.
Tom McDonald is the Optic’s editor and publisher. He may be reached at 505-425-6796 or email@example.com.