Daniel Acosta, Jr.

A Mexican Boy and his Paper Route in El Paso



Daniel Acosta, Jr. has spent his career as a scientist, professor, and administrator in academia and the federal government. He recently retired as a senior administrator from the FDA and is living in Austin, Texas. During his retirement he plans to write about his experiences with discrimination and racism while growing up in Texas and during his professional career.

To the surprise of my parents, I informed them that I would start a paper route next week.  I immediately began negotiations with my neighborhood friend, David, to buy one of his bikes; he drove a hard bargain, which resulted in the purchase of an old, ugly purple bike with flat tires—all for $5.00.  However, he graciously helped me paint the bike a cool jet-black color and advised me on the selection of two heavy-duty tires to navigate the mean streets of my paper route.  Besides the potholes and the uneven pavement of the streets, I also had to use my bike to outrun some of the bullies and gang members I encountered on my route.

Being a paperboy in El Paso in the 1960s was a tough job.  I had to learn the simple mechanics of delivering the El Paso Times to each house on my route on time and without any mishaps.  Because I had a morning route, I needed to be efficient and fast so that I would not be late to my first class in high school.  I developed the art of folding the newspapers into 12-inch squares or when I was in a hurry I rolled the papers tube-like, holding the papers tight with rubber bands.  The squares or tubes could then be organized quickly and compactly into my strong-cloth delivery bags.  Most of the week I needed only one bag to fit all of my papers, but on Sundays when the papers were thicker and much heavier I had to balance two bags crisscrossed around my shoulders as I maneuvered my bike down the streets.  As I cruised rhythmically and effortlessly from one side to another to deliver the papers to houses on each side of the street, I became very adept at throwing the papers to an open spot on the sidewalk leading to the front door.  I was proud of my feat because my customers would applaud my ability in not getting the papers wet from dew on their grass lawns.

But as all best laid plans oft go astray, I had one customer who demanded that her paper be placed on the front porch.  This request disrupted my tight time schedule by forcing me to stop my bike and run to her porch which was situated high above her lawn and which was too difficult for me to throw the paper accurately onto the porch. But one Saturday when the papers were less bulky I said the hell with it and heaved the square newspaper as hard as I could and then watched in horror out of the corner of one eye as I saw the customer start to sit on the outdoor porch lounge.  The paper was heading directly to her chest, but at the last moment the paper gently swerved and landed neatly next to her lap.  She just glared at me.  From then on I would stop the bike and hand carry the paper to her porch.

The success of my paper route as a small business depended on my ability to collect the weekly subscription money owed to me from a diverse assortment of customers, ranging from small and big families, young couples, and retired people to the many soldiers and their families who lived close to the Ft. Bliss army base.  Each Friday evening I would go house to house on my sturdy bike to collect the money.  From that weekly activity I learned much about people and life:  those who were friendly and polite; those who were kind-hearted and generous with tips; and of course those who represented the more negative aspects of day-to-day interactions with people—the deadbeats who routinely did not pay their bills on time; the racists who were very open about their views; and those who were just mean and nasty.  The worst deadbeats were military personnel, but they were also the ones who gave the biggest tips.

El Paso’s population in the 1960s, as it is today, had a large percentage of Mexican Americans and Mexican immigrants.  Most Texans, Hispanic or Anglo, know who is Mexican and who is not.  In general, the people I met had a genuine interest in me as a person.  I would often be invited into their homes as I waited for them to find coins to pay me and would offer me a cookie and a drink.  I remember fondly that one of my customers had a brother who was a priest and who would frequently be at his sister’s home during my Friday collections.  He was very unlike the priest at my church; he was so easy to talk to, and we would have lively discussions about the New York Yankees and Mickey Mantle.  Then there was the Mexican widow and her adult daughter who worked at a local bank.  Every Friday night I was offered a Mexican dinner of red enchiladas, frijoles with bacon, and pan dulce.  The daughter treated me as an adult and would tell me about her experiences working in a bank.  From time to time, some of my customers would mistake me for an Anglo because of my light skin color.  One of these customers, after ranting about those “dirty Mexicans” taking over El Paso, wanted to know my name because I was such a polite young man. This derogatory term, as is the other hateful word--“wetbacks”—are fighting words for people of Mexican heritage, just as the “N” word is for African Americans.  With the strongest Spanish accent I could muster, I smiled and said “DANNY ACOSTA”.  We never had a conversation again. 

An unexpected pleasure of being a paperboy was the opportunity to read for free the morning El Paso Times, and later when I switched routes from morning to afternoon, the El Paso Herald-Post.  I learned so much about the city as an international crossing on the Mexican-US border and about the cooperative interactions of American and Mexican citizens in the twin cities of Juarez and El Paso.  I was intrigued with the metro sections of both newspapers; I gained a better understanding of the daily life of the city—who were the civic leaders; who governed the city and county; who were successful business and professional leaders; and who were arrested and prosecuted for various crimes against society. 

From one of my customers I learned how to see both sides of a story by reading the section on Letters to the Editor.  He had a large dining room table that he used as a desk, which was completely covered with a manual typewriter, heaps of files, newspaper clippings, pens, pencils, stamps, and other office paraphernalia.  He would show me excitedly a string of letters that he had written about a local issue and the pro and con responses to his point of view from other readers.  When I had time, I would sit in his living room and intently listen to him about his ideas and opinions on a particular topic that was currently a hot issue in the city.

One day my route manager (without my knowledge) informed me that he had nominated me as a candidate for the best paperboy in El Paso.  He told me that I had the best numbers of his paperboys in recruiting new customers and that I might be selected as a finalist for the contest.  It turned out that I was one of four finalists and that I had to be interviewed by a committee of newspaper executives who would determine which paperboy would win an expense-paid trip to Spain.  I stumbled through my interview, answering the questions posed to me in monosyllable sentences and without smiling; I should have sought advice from my teachers on how to handle the interview.  I always wondered if the other white paperboy candidates were coached for their interviews.  This episode taught to be better prepared for later events in my life and career.

Sixty years later there is no such thing as a paperboy in major metropolitan cities.  Today my newspaper is delivered by a company which is contracted by the newspaper corporation to hire a free-lancer to hand carry the paper to the front door of my condo on the 15th floor, which is usually around 5 AM.  In contrast, I had to deliver my morning papers by 6:30 AM, so I could make my first class at 7:30 AM.  I have never met my delivery person because all payments are done online quickly and efficiently without any human contact.  There is no longer the opportunity for teenagers to experience the discipline and excitement of running a small business on their own and to interact with their customers on a daily basis. 

To this day, I still think that my job as a paperboy taught me the most about people—the good and the bad.  I knew that I would not be a paperboy for long but my “newspaper” experience gave me the incentive and motivation to continue my education after high school and to become an enthusiastic lifelong observer of people.

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