Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Loss of Juárez

I am back in El Paso with Laura and the kids, having just been in El Paso two weeks ago for the Juntos Art and Literature Festival.  The kids have spring break at their schools, and we needed a break from New York City.

We visited the Centennial Museum at UTEP, which was closed for César Chávez Day, but the Chihuahuan Desert Garden, around the museum, was open.  We spent a leisurely hour or so marveling at the variety of cacti, giant carpenter bees, and yellow-and-black butterflies of the garden.  The peace of the garden’s nooks, El Fortin, and other hideouts amid the flowers and sun refreshed us unlike anything in recent memory.

But as we drove back to Ysleta on the Border Highway a sense of sadness overtook me.  My kids, for two years, have been clamoring to go to Mexico.  My wife and I have said no, because of the rampant violence in Juárez.  Today we settled for stopping on the shoulder of the freeway, just after the Bridge of the Americas and on top of the Yarbrough overpass, for pictures of Mexico and the infamous border fence my children have studied in school.

The violence and the wall have separated us; it is no compensation to look at Juárez from afar; I wish my children could know the Juárez I knew as child.  But I will never willingly put them in harm’s way.

What others who have not lived on the border may not understand is how close El Paso and Juárez were and are even today.  Close culturally.  Many with families in both cities.  Close in so many ways.  When I was in high school in El Paso, my family always --and I mean every Sunday-- had a family dinner in Juárez at one of my parents' favorite restaurants: Villa Del Mar, La Fogata, La Central, Tortas Nico, and Taqueria La Pila.

It was going back in time, to the city where my father and mother met and were married.  But it was also to experience another set of rules and values, to a mysterious country with more bookstores than I ever saw in El Paso, to tortas and open-air mercados, to primos who would drop everything to show me their horses, and even to my first funeral- the open casket is still vivid in my mind.  A young boy, the son of a friend of my parents, had been run over by a car.  Juárez for me was primal and vivid; it was my history.  I thought I understood it instinctually, even spiritually, and that’s just when it baffled me the most.  After graduating from Harvard, I spent a year in Mexico City to get my fill of this labyrinth of a country.

On Monday just before we came to El Paso, I was trying to explain this to friends in Boston, at a Passover seder.  How Juárez was closer to El Paso, than New York City was to New Jersey.  How people went to lunch in Juárez and were able to return to the United States in a couple of hours.  How we used to go to Waterfil over the Zaragoza International Bridge (on the outskirts of Juárez) for Easter picnics, clinking cases of sodas, or groceries we couldn’t find in Ysleta.  Yes, it was that close, in the most trivial and profound ways, and we took it for granted.

Two years ago that world changed.  Two years ago an unprecedented orgy of drug violence exploded in Juárez.  Two years ago we lost Juárez, as a place to show our kids where their abuelitos came from, and in so many other ways.  It is a deeply felt loss for many of us in El Paso.

I am tired of pointing out that the voracious drug habits of the United States and the millions of dollars of American guns illegally exported to Mexico are root causes of the drug violence.  Not to mention a corrupt local police force in Mexico, and an ineffective national government.  For the moment, the hypocrisy, the idiocy, and the cheapness of life are too much to bear.

I just miss Juárez.  It was never a joke for me, as it was for some of my Anglo friends and not a few of my Chicano friends from El Paso.  It was a portal to another world that felt at once deeply familiar and strangely fascinating.  When will this nightmare end?

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Texas Board of Ignorance

I left Texas to educate myself.  At Harvard College, one of my greatest shocks was how little I knew about my heritage and Mexican history.  I was born and lived in Ysleta, less than half a mile from the Zaragoza International Bridge, yet I knew nothing about where I was from.  So I spent four years at Harvard College studying Latin America with visionary teachers like Peter Smith and Terry Karl; I learned Mexican history from John Womack.

I imagined one day life would be different for a young and eager high school student from Ysleta, one who was proud to be an American citizen yet who also wanted to know more about his roots.  But the recent vote on textbook standards from the Texas Board of Education shows that Texas is going backward, not forward.  Close-mindedness is winning.  Ignorance is trumpeted.  Isolation and indoctrination are the new watchwords for those afraid of a changing world.

To recap: last week, the Texas Board of Education, led by a conservative majority, voted to call into question concepts like the separation of church and state and the American Revolution as a secular revolt.  The majority voted to emphasize the political contributions of Phyllis Schlafly, while minimizing Thomas Jefferson, apparently too democratic for their tastes.  In fact, the United States, according to these conservative activists, should not be studied as a ‘democracy’ anymore, but as a ‘constitutionally-based republic.’  Guess who decides what’s in the Constitution?  Previously this conservative majority had attacked the historical contributions of César Chávez and Thurgood Marshall.

This is what happens when people hunker down.  When your state is becoming too Mexican-American and African-American, when you feel you are being left behind, when perhaps you see the day when you will not be the majority anymore, then you retrench and attempt to rewrite history.  But what happened to thinking?  What happened to understanding that many Latinos, including my mother, hold deeply conservative values, yet simply do not want to be mistreated or disrespected?  What happened to studying the fact that the Constitution counted a slave as two-thirds of a person, while also being a unique founding document that created checks and balances between branches of government to control their powers?  Why can’t we study the failures of our history as well as our triumphs, and still appreciate that we live in a great country?

One conservative board member, in an interview, said the majority’s vote was “the return of American exceptionalism.”  But sadly, the conservative vote of the Texas Board of Education shows exactly the opposite.  The United States was an exceptional, historically unique country because it was pluralistic, because you had freedom of speech and freedom from a state-imposed religion, because unlike hierarchical Europe you could achieve whatever you wanted to achieve regardless of class, religion, and then later, race.  We have always been a work-in-progress; that's the root of our greatness.

The United States remains exceptional as long as we correct our mistakes, as long as we keep confronting our problems head on.  That’s what a democracy does, at least when it functions well.  The problems get aired out, confronted, and eventually fixed more or less.

But when you trumpet some weirdly nostalgic ‘America’ that never existed, without the messy conflicts, without the democratic debates, without the will of the people manifesting itself through blood and protest, what you are holding high is an ‘American absolutism.’  You are saying, in effect, stop thinking.  Stop including the newcomers, like Latinos, and stop turning them into Americans.  You are saying stop the potpourri of religions now in America; let’s all be Christians.

You are saying, without saying it, that we are not confident anymore.  We are not pluralistic anymore.  We must close shop.  We must bar the doors.  This scary new world is too much.  Let’s teach our children to hide.

The only saving grace is that I learned about the vote of the Texas Board of Education in El Paso.  At least El Paso is barely part of Texas.  I don’t have to explain myself in El Paso, and I don’t have to endure suspicious stares or seemingly polite comments about my accent in Ysleta.  As Texas becomes more like El Paso, maybe one of these days, before I die, I will feel at home in the rest of Texas too.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


I have really excellent parents.  The only problem is that they drive a new Toyota Camry, and I’m worried it will be a death trap for them.  Of course, I had them take it to the dealer, and the dealer in El Paso said their car wasn’t part of the recall.  But do I trust the dealer or Toyota?  Didn’t I just see a report of a runaway Toyota (which had been given a clean bill of health by a dealer) that had to be stopped with the help of a California highway patrolman?  The driver was so shaken up by the near catastrophe that he needed an ambulance.  I can only imagine what would happen to my elderly parents in that situation.

As our parents grow older, we worry more about them.  My father and mother are both 75-years-old.  My father Rodolfo, who has diabetes, can’t walk more than ten feet without needing to sit down or to lean on his wheeled walker.  He is still ‘there’ mentally, but his body is betraying him.  My mother Bertha has become the boss of the family, and has always possessed an incredible memory.  She is the one who drives, buys the groceries, and keeps my father’s doctor appointments, with him in tow.  Without her, I don’t know what we would do.

Luckily, my brothers live in El Paso, and so they help my parents whenever there is a true emergency.  But in reality, my parents love to be self-sufficient, are beyond intrepid, and will only ask for help as a last resort.  Having unlimited long distance on my home phone helps me keep in touch with my parents.  I am the one who alerted them to the Toyota recall during its initial weeks, who told them to get their H1N1 shots, and who helped them with their taxes.  I also invest their savings (extremely conservatively, given my parents’ preferences).

It is possible I am just bothering them, when I call them once a week.  Perhaps they would have gotten their flu shots anyway.  But I do have lengthy conversations with them about all sorts of topics, which I think sometimes changes their outlook, decisions, or practices.  It is not out of guilt that I call them, and it is not because I believe my way on such-and-such a topic is the only way.  I have a brother who generally listens to me financially, and another one who does not.  (I won’t mention who’s who.)

But this ‘family exchange of information,’ I believe, is the root of good neighborhoods and the root of strengthening communities to do better for themselves.  I think we, particularly Latinos, should do more of it.  I hear on the Upper Westside, mothers and fathers having conversations about which schools are better and why, what scholarships are available, what’s a good summer camp for kids and why, what’s a reliable money market fund, what’s the best kind of mortgage and with which bank,  and so on.

There is probably always a tendency to go it alone, to stay within yourself, to provide for your family, and not to waste time giving advice to others who might not do the same for you.  It’s true: I don’t have all the time in the world, and I’m often in a hurry with six tasks on my to-do-list for the morning.  But if I can help, if someone asks me, and if that day I can offer a practical suggestion, I’ll do it.  I’m certainly more likely to help a friend than a stranger.  And I’m certainly more likely to help someone who I think is a good character, rather than someone who seems to smile at me only when he or she wants something.

So from faraway I try to be a good son.  I simply want my parents to be safe and happy.  Today this is what my excellent parents did for me.  My publisher sent hundreds of flyers to my house, for a reading I’ll be doing in El Paso on Friday.  I won’t be arriving until late Thursday night, so my father and mother volunteered to take the package of flyers to downtown El Paso, to the El Paso Public Library, where they will be distributed by those running the Juntos Art and Literature Festival.

Of course, my parents drove to the other side of town in their Toyota Camry.  Of course, my mother found parking (miracles of miracles!) in the heavily congested area around the library.  Of course, I worried every single minute.  Until she called me on the phone (as they dodged traffic on I-10 on the way back to Ysleta!) and said the lady who picked up the flyers was very nice to them.  I need to tell them about the El Paso City Council's new ban on using cell phones while driving.