Sunday, February 26, 2017

Life is Too Short to be Afraid: Ciudad Juárez, Mexico Pt. I



(La vida es muy corta para tener miedo - Life is too short to be afraid.)

Juárez, I had a dream today
The children danced, as the guitars played
And all the violence up and slipped away
Goodnight, Juárez, Goodnight - Tom Russell "Goodnight Juárez"

Tom Russell recorded Goodnight Juárez in the fall of 2010, and by the end of that year 3,111 people would be murdered in a city of about 1.4 million. Ciudad Juárez was already coming to be widely known as the Murder Capital of the World and tourism from the north, for many decades so lively, if admittedly often bacchanalian, had effectively ceased in the few years since cartel activity had begun to spike in 2007.

However, 2010 would represent the bloody peak of brutality and, by 2015, there were just over 300 homicides. While it can’t be said that the violence has up and slipped away--and 2016 did see an uptick in killings--Ciudad Juárez is not the place it was several years ago. Yet most of the world hasn’t heard that, or at least doesn’t believe it, which makes Juárez an utterly fascinating, enchanting, and still, at times, sobering city to visit now.



(Groceries - The Shrapnel.)

This story starts when, while visiting El Paso in 2013, I ran into a man setting the old clock in San Jacinto Plaza. He told me that he’d given walking tours of Juárez for years and was thinking it was finally safe enough to resume them. On a subsequent visit I tried to see if the tours were being offered and, sure enough, there was a webpage touting guided trips to downtown Juárez. “Entertaining! Educational! Fun!” the ad read. And, in the biggest, boldest letters: “SAFE!” That was more than good enough for me. Sadly, it would take another couple years to get myself back again to actually take a tour, but in that time Juárez’s reputation for violence seemed to change almost not at all, even as the death toll continued to decrease.

As it turned out, Rich Wright, who has been running these tours, was not the man I met in the plaza. But he’s been going to Juárez his entire life, including during the years of greatest bloodshed, and, with a mutual acquaintance or two in the Minneapolis music scene of the ‘90’s, I couldn’t have asked for anyone more simpatico. Did I mention my Spanish is hardly serviceable?



(Taqueria el Tropíco.)

We paid our 50 cents to cross the Paso del Norte International Bridge and off we went, stopping to note a spray-painted marker on a train bridge below. This was for Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, a 15-year-old shot there by the U.S. Border Patrol in 2010. A case to decide whether his family can sue is now at the U.S. Supreme Court, and the scrawled “Sergio” was an immediate reminder that battles do continue to rage, even if in 2017 some of the fiercest may be fought in hushed courtrooms and the shadowed halls of government.

Once in Juárez, our first stop was Ignacio Mariscal Street, long known as the infamous red-light district, La Mariscal. Rich pointed to an open plaza temporarily filled with brightly-colored amusement park equipment and recalled it lined with ancient bars, a scene now hard to imagine. The demolition is part of a widespread government effort to destroy the haunts of the cartels and generally clean things up, a process which has seen many historic babies going out with the druggy bathwater.



(Amusement of a less traditional sort at La Mariscal.)

Stunning murals covered many of the walls surrounding the plaza, but just before noon on a Friday the amusements were quiet and the plaza itself deserted. So we crossed the walkway to a neighborhood that had not yet been subject to razing or revitalization, which pleased me greatly as among the abandoned buildings was the former home of a brothel called White Lake. It was immortalized in Cormac McCarthy’s “Cities of the Plain,” if moved to a somewhat fictionalized location in the city. Nearby a man lay in a crumbling, concrete doorway sleeping, only his feet protruding into the gathering daylight.



(Former location of White Lake brothel.)

The next stop was the Museo de la Revolución en la Frontera, a wonderful museum housed in the grand old customs building. Tracing the turbulent history of Mexico through the early years of the 20th century, it depicts the frequently harrowing tales of men of great and sometimes dubious intent such as Porfirio Díaz, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Pascual Oruzco, many of which were photographed in the very same building that now describes their legacy.



(Museo de la Revolución en la Frontera.)

While much has changed in Juárez, some things have not, and just past noon we found ourselves in Buen Tiempo on Vicente Guerrero, a bar operating continuously since the early 1920’s and thus now the oldest in Juárez, if only barely. With lime-colored walls and No Fumar signs that were hardly being taken as even a remote suggestion, the tequila came in chipped votive candle holders with little crosses on the bottoms and the Indio was cold. People I didn’t know asked me questions I couldn’t always understand and earnestly shook my hand. It all seemed right and proper. From there we headed to Mercado Cuahtemoc and then upstairs for a less liquid lunch. The chips and salsa verde were delicious, as were the chile relleno burritos. At this point, since entering the Buen Tiempo, we probably hadn’t spent 15 Yankee dollars between the two of us.



(El Buen Tiempo, the oldest bar in Juárez.)

The afternoon ended with the obligatory stop at the Kentucky Club, said to be the place where the margarita was invented. Once the haunt of the likes of Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, and Steve McQueen, the Kentucky Club bills itself as world famous and is sometimes referred to as the oldest bar in Juárez. However, it seems that much that is reportedly true about the Kentucky Club may not be quite so and, in fact, the current building is not the original circa-1920 bar. That one was on Dieciseis, over by the train tracks, and not as close to the border. The margarita was good, no doubt about that, but I was perhaps more impressed by the $2.25 price tag.

After giving away whatever coins we had left to people gathered around the bridge, we paid our four pesos to get back to America with plans to return the following day for a “less-structured” tour, part of a lucrative syndication package City of Dust has worked out with El Chuqueño, Rich Wright’s excellent blog on El Paso, its environs, and desert living in general. Details of that second trip across the border will be coming up next.



(Los perros de Juárez.)

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