Monday, October 11, 2010
JUAREZ DOESN'T STOP AT THE BORDER
I was invited to give a lecture and a reading at Truman State University. It wasn’t easy to get there from El Paso. I took a plane from El Paso to Dallas, then another plane from Dallas to St. Louis. Then I took a small plane on Cape Air from St. Louis to Kirksville, Missouri. From the small plane I could see the Missouri landscape—miles and miles of farmland, the earth sweet and green and tamed.
On my return to El Paso, I looked out the window as we were beginning our descent. I saw miles and miles of valleys and desert mountains glowing in the evening light. For a blessed second, the earth was haloed in light.
There is a purity to the desert landscape—even today—perhaps because is still lays beyond our insatiable, destroying grasp.
I’m grateful to live in a land that cannot be tamed.
Today, I am posting the lecture I delivered at Truman State University on Thursday, October 7. The title of my lecture was, “Juarez Doesn’t Stop at the Border.” Because the lecture is a little long to post all at once, I am dividing it into three parts. I will post Part II tomorrow and Part III the day after that.
Juárez Doesn’t Stop at the Border
When I was a boy, my father used to take me and my three brothers to Juárez to get our haircuts. I loved those trips from our farm to Juarez on Saturday afternoons. The memories of those days continue to run through my brain like wild children running through the rain. I loved the smells and the sounds, the crooked Spanish and the crooked English, the refusal to sanitize the environment. I loved the taxi drivers leaning on their cars, the markets, the smell of tacos being prepared in front of you in small stands. I loved watching the men and the women who worked those stands, loved their busy, expert hands. I loved the smell of fresh corn tortillas and freshly chopped cilantro.
I loved the crowded streets and the traffic and it seemed to me that there was music blaring from every direction—not only from radios, but from street musicians. I loved the vendors selling Mexican candy and cigarettes and trinkets. I loved staring at the images of Jesus and our Lady of Guadalupe in the art that was being hocked for a good price. I loved the smell of Mexican leather and wondered what it would be like to own a pair of Mexican boots. I loved the men who shined shoes and who seemed to be versions of my father. I was lost in a sea of moustaches. From the vantage point of my boyhood eyes, everything seemed beautifully loud and fantastically alive and miraculously uncensored. I suppose I felt myself to live in a censored world. I lived on a farm where everything was quiet. The fields of cotton were well ordered—even if our family life was not.
But Juarez was something else entirely. The rules were different there—that was obvious enough to me, though my boys’ mind couldn’t quite grasp the specifics. In my eyes, Juarez was a city that was supremely alive. It was a city that lay beyond my imagination. Only the plaza in El Paso with its famed alligators rivaled its carnivalesque environment.
Of course there was the problem of poverty. There were always beggars on the streets. But poverty didn’t frighten me. Why would it? Poverty was a familiar enough reality. We had an outhouse on our farm and a pipe that brought cold water into our three room adobe house. That lone pipe was what passed for plumbing. But even as a boy, I already understood that despite our poverty, I lived in a wealthy country. Our black and white television showed us glimpses of that wealth. Beautiful Maybelline women and handsome Aqua Velva Men. I instinctively understood all of the undercurrents without having the language to explain those undercurrents. No one had to tell me I lived in a wealthy nation. No one had to tell me that that the poor of Juarez were far poorer than I was. That knowledge was always there, has always stayed with me, has remained the foundation of my intellectual and emotional formation.
This is where I first learned about borders: in this boyhood crossing over a bridge. One second I was in the United States and one second later, I was in Mexico. I read the sign that told me I was entering into another country. I stared at the two flags that waved above me, the flags never touching. I wondered if the American eagle was that much different than the Mexican eagle. Maybe all eagles were the same. I didn’t know. And I was afraid to ask. Boys understand that their questions are impertinent.
But I knew what I felt. It was both exhilarating and confusing to cross the border. Here I was, in another country. The line was imaginary. It was not something visible to the human eye. But it was essential that I believe that the line was real. I understood this. I was expected to accept this. Mexico was Mexico. The United States was the United States. There was a border that irrevocably differentiated and separated us. This was an article of faith. It was God who had drawn the line. God did not make mistakes with his pen. I was a good Catholic boy. It was my job to believe. And so I believed.
When my brothers and my father and I crossed the bridge into Mexico, there were boys below who made cones made of newspaper, cones to catch the coins that the pedestrian crossers tossed down to them. I loved watching those boys and I have always kept their images as if they were a painting that that I’d hung in a museum in my head. I wondered about them, wondered what it would be like to be them. Perhaps they represented a kind of poverty I would never know. But I also think they represented a kind of freedom I longed for.
We always begged my father to give us pennies so we could toss them down to the poor boys. My father would reach into his pocket and give us each a penny. Poor boys tossing pennies down to even poorer boys. I always wished I had more than a penny. Maybe a nickel. Maybe a dime. But nickels and dimes were hard to come by when I was a boy.
As I grew up, Juarez held a special place in my imagination. I would think about what it would be like to be a Mexican. A real Mexican. I knew that the gringos around us thought of us as being “Mexican.” But I knew I wasn’t Mexican at all. I was ashamed because I knew the truth of it. I also felt ashamed because I wasn’t an American. Not a real one. And so I lived on that road between my father’s farm and Juarez, Mexico. At times this was all too confusing. If the world was fixed and delineated, why did I feel myself to belong to both sides of the border? I was a traitor. I was a heretic. I had to choose. But why? This was my problematic: I knew early on that I didn’t really believe in the imaginary line that someone had capriciously drawn for reasons that were beyond me. I did not wish to be separated from the people who lived across the river from me. I did not believe that because I was born in this country that I was somehow more virtuous. And yet that is what I was being taught to believe.
It always interested me how the adults around me spoke about Mexico in general and Juarez in particular. Juarez was not famous so much as it was infamous. Juarez was widely gossiped about—and most of the gossip was decidedly unflattering. Juarez was too poor, Juarez was too dirty, Juarez was lawless. You could bribe the police and sometimes had too bribe the police and they had a word for it: mordida. Yes, yes, I heard all the talk around me. Juarez was dangerous, you could lose whatever was left or your virtue there, you could lose all your money there, you could fall in love with the wrong woman there, could even lose your soul there. The devil lived in Juarez. The devil was calling your name. Juarez was enticing for all the wrong reasons and stood outside the civilizing effects of American culture, American civility, and the American legal system.
If the United States represented order, then Juarez, Mexico represented chaos. But for many residents of the border, the idea of order had its limits and a little chaos provided a necessary dose of sanity. Too much order—was that living? Perhaps the fact that Juarez flourished during American prohibition and profited from the strict alcohol laws that existed in most of Texas through the early seventies served to underscore that Juarez was a place where the worst of America’s puritanical instincts had no sway. Juarez was a cultural safety valve, it was a space of escape, a place you could visit, drink, and engage in a little sinning. The sinning may or may not have involved prostitution—an idea that both scared and interested me as a young man.
Juarez was a poor man’s Las Vegas. Who could afford to go to Las Vegas to get a quickie divorce? Who could afford to go to Acapulco? Who could afford to go to Mexico City? But everyone could afford to go to Juarez. For many of us, Juarez was the only Mexico we knew. Juarez was the only Mexico we loved.
Juarez provided a culture of nightclubs for the citizens of North America well into the nineties. As a young man, I often went to Juarez with my friends. A forty-five mile drive from Las Cruces, New Mexico to Juarez was the only thing that stood in our way from a night of freedom. We would pile in someone’s car and park in a lot on the El Paso side of the border. We would walk across to Juarez on the Santa Fe Bridge that was crowded with denizens from both sides of the border. It was exhilarating to be among the crowds. I still smile at the boy that I once was, walking across the bridge with his happy heart, ready to do a little transgressing.
I may have been too young to legally drink in New Mexico but I was not too young to sit at a bar in Juarez with my friends and order a Cuba Libre, the drink de jour of my generation. We could pretend to be adults and smoke and dance and argue about the Viet Nam war and complain about our parents and our clueless teachers and dream about the men we wanted to be. There were often fights, mostly between warring factions of American boys or American soldiers who couldn’t hold their tongues and couldn’t hold their liquor. At the sign of a fight, I always dragged my friends away. I was not about to land in a Juarez jail. A few of my friends had managed to do just that. The only solution was parental involvement. I avoided that kind of trouble for fear that my father would refuse to bail me out and teach me a lesson.
In any case, I wasn’t good with fists. Words were always my weapon of choice.
There were certain hotspots I remember, places like the Cave, The Club Hawaii, and the venerable Kentucky Club. The streets were teeming with American soldiers and American teenagers, but also teeming with the locals and with an older crowd of El Pasoans who frequented eating establishments such as Martino’s, another venerable institution where I had my first Chateau Brillion. That restaurant has recently closed due to the precarious situation Juarez currently finds itself in.
In a word, when I was young, Juarez was a big party. However “dangerous” it may have been, it was also a safe enough place for boys like me to play. More importantly, Juarez provided many of us with an alternative view of the universe. More than El Paso ever did, Juarez introduced me to the idea of “the city.” Whatever else a city was, it was supposed to be something that was breathing with energy and life. A City was supposed to make you feel alive.
(to be continued)