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?