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Retaking Public Space

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Rosa Gutierrez waits patiently as she sells old movie posters from a shaded stand under the gaze of the Benito Juarez Monument in downtown Ciudad Juarez.  A young woman asks if the seller has anything bearing the mugs of Mexican silver screen legends Pedro Infante or Cantinflas.

Reluctantly, Gutierrez tells the disappointed customer that she has run out of posters featuring the two stars. The reporter then asks if there happens to be a sample on hand of “Los Olividados,” Luis Bunuel’s classic 1950 film about young delinquents in Mexico City that was recently rescreened up the Camino Real in Albuquerque.

Again, Gutierrez says no. “Everyone wants that. Everyone looks for it,” she says. A petite and older woman, Gutierrez counts five months selling the pictorial relics of Mexico’s Golden Age of Cinema at the Juarez Monument, or the Bazar Cultural del “Monu”, as the event is called in Juaritos slang.

For a little less than two bucks, Gutierrez offers posters of Antonio Aguilar, Maria Felix, El Santo, and many other stars from a different age. “A lot of people appreciate the memories,” she muses.

The memory merchant is among dozens of vendors who gather at the Juarez Monument and surrounding park every Sunday.  At a glance, the sprawling scene resembles any other Mexican outdoor market.  But a first impression could not be more off-base.

Visitors will quickly spot handcrafted jewelry and original paintings, but they also might be surprised to behold offbeat antiques like the old Mobil sign lettered before the energy giant got even bigger with the Exxon merger or a rusty gas pump that looks like it was rescued from a lost desert road.  Of special note are the music and sounds for sale: delivered in vinyl, eight track and even reel-to-reel.  Mexican musical giants loom large, but so do the luminaries of jazz, rock and blues.

In fact the Juarez Monument Bazaar first began in 1998 as an informal exchange of long-play records, says Pablo Montalvo, Juarez Monument Cultural Bazaar co-founder and coordinator.

“That’s what we initially intended, but we didn’t think it would last so many years,” Montalvo tells Frontera NorteSur. After several years, the expanding bazaar was displaced to nearby side streets when a municipal government decided to remodel the monument and park grounds, Montalvo adds. Then came the so-called narco war, a succession of slaughters like the 2010 Villas de Salvarcar Massacre, citizen protests and rhetoric from then-President Felipe Calderon on reclaiming public space.

Subsequently, and on their own initiative, Montalvo and friends decided to put the president’s words into practice. “We retook the park four years ago. Calderon came and talked about retaking public space, so then we came to the park again,” he recalls. “The downtown is stigmatized by violence, prostitution and disappeared women, and nobody wanted to come. But since we’ve been here, people come. It was the rescue of public space.”

Located astride Vicente Guerrero Avenue, the Benito Juarez Monument Cultural Bazaar is in one of the border city’s nerve centers. Dozens of loud city buses whisk passengers to outlying working class neighborhoods, or colonias, from the site. Only a block of two away, cut-rate intercity buses carry people to and from the interior cities of the Republic.

Nowadays, Sunday at the monument is part artist’s market, part soapbox, part entertainment complex, part musical showcase, and part therapy session. It is also a journey into the pre-digital age, a place where shoppers can find old film cameras and seemingly ancient but still useful home tools from the anthropological past.

Jugglers practice their skills as a class of capoeira, the Brazilian martial art-dance gets underway to drum beats. Massage therapists run their fingers on clients’ backs while a local group, Luna e geo, tunes up. The pop-rock band is among many local combos that entertain the public here each weekend. A trio of lumbering municipal cops, weighted down with sub-machine guns and pistols, looks decidedly from another planet.

Visitors can also learn about bicycle repair, play chess or checkers and engage in a ping pong match. In short, the Juarez Monument Cultural Bazaar is a visit to the historic yet future global village. Families abound, with Montalvo calculating that on good days about a thousand people show up- an estimate that actually might be an undercount judging from the turn-out on a recent Sunday.

According to the bazaar coordinator, the project has the cooperation of the state and municipal governments and all the attendant permits. It also has some basic rules for vendors, who are not charged a fee. For example, multinational corporate and brand name goods are prohibited to sell, as are pirate and second hand products, animals, kitchenware, Chinese-made toys, cellular phones and cables.

On the other hand, music, crafts, films, books and magazines, antiques, recycled and organic materials, and traditional and educational toys are more than encouraged. In between semesters, a local English teacher reportedly tickles the local funny bones in both English and Spanish for five pesos a joke.

On the last Sunday of each month, the bazaar hosts Gratiferia, or the Free Fair,  where people are encouraged to give away things. “It’s not like getting the junk out of your home, we tell people, but giving something to somebody,” Montalva says.  A man once brought novels and t-shirts to give away and told passerby to take an item in return for a hug, he recalls with a smile.

Gathered around a canopy-covered massage table, a group of health promoters and therapists from Community Health and Well Being (SABIC), a non-profit organization dedicated to alternative medicine and community counseling, offer massages, reiki, essential oils and acupuncture a la Mexicana performed with chile seed.  SABIC’S basic treatments at the bazaar costs less than two dollars, but the workers insist no one is turned away for lack of money.

Demand for SABIC’S services is high, as many people in Ciudad Juarez are stressed out from violence, insecurity and unemployment, the promoters say. While officials feverishly promote their city as having left behind the Great Violence of 2008-2012, thousands of orphans, deep and unattended traumas from family disintegration and new episodes of violence grip civil society, they add.

Health professionals like SABIC have even noticed an uptick in heroin addiction, as individuals attempt to dull violent memories, according to promoter Isela Gomez.  And conditions in Juarez would be even worse if residents did not have the option of selling stuff on the street or at places like the bazaar. “If it weren’t for informal employment, imagine the state people would be in,” Gomez says.

“We’re an example of it here,” chuckles co-worker Maria de Jesus Cervantes. Recently, about 10 SABIC workers were laid off from their positions providing services to violence-impacted colonias when a grant from the United States Agency for International Development ran out, the women say.

On the other side of the park, Dagoberto Ramos sands his ping pong table back to shape after it was damaged in the monsoon rains. Sporting a graying beard, Ramos conveys a fun-filled but serious mission. In his view, the bazaar has a double benefit of giving the public an alternative pass time while meeting the economic needs of weekend vendors. “Everybody needs a second income,” he says.

Ramos’ goal is to open a game center with a library somewhere in the city, as a means of encouraging healthy recreation and interesting youthful non-readers in books.  “I’d like to use it as a hook in order to get young people to come and play ping pong, so they then might say, ‘Oh, by the way, I have problems in school…’”

Ramos and Montalvo agree that the Sunday bazaar has helped create a new atmosphere in a seedy section of town, and has proven to be family-friendly.

“Before, the monument was a place for delinquency, especially at night but sometimes even during the day,” Ramos says. “That doesn’t happen on Sundays at least. The bazaar has contributed to getting more (public) attention on the monument.”

Montalvo and his collaborators have even grander plans for the bazaar. As the winners of a recent ecology contest sponsored by the U.S. Consulate, the promoters plan to plant 80 new trees in the park.

To draw more people to the site, Montalvo is discussing the possibility of bringing in big-name, out-of-town acts with local musical promoters, as well as mapping out the logistics of getting small farmers from rural areas outside the city to offer fresh produce directly to consumers, in the same vein as farmers’ markets in neighboring New Mexico and El Paso, Texas.

“It’s a good concept,” he says, “but there is very little cultivation in Juarez.” According to the old school music lover, the bazaar is starting to get international notice, with magazine and television stories in El Paso under its belt and a planned presentation of the project at an upcoming October event in Berlin.

“This park is for everyone,” Montalvo underscores.

Kent Paterson writes for Frontera NorteSur

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Kent Paterson writes for Frontera NorteSur

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