I first visited Ciudad Juárez and El Paso, twin boom-or-bust towns along the Río Grande or Río Bravo, in 2004 to facilitate the writing of my novel The Pancho Villa Underground Railroad. Juárez had become famous for the murder of hundreds (now thousands) of women. I expected to see women paralyzed by fear, reticent to talk to or look at men they didn’t know. This I had seen in U.S. college towns where a serial rapist was on the loose. But it was not the case in Juárez. To this day the streets are not deserted at night as they are in border towns like Reynosa and Matamoros because of crime, nor much less are they deserted in the day time, as in El Paso, not because of fear, in this case, but due to sun belt sprawl, to an extreme culture of automobile use that makes pedestrians a rarity. On Friday, I took the new street car from downtown to the university. On the way there I was one of three passengers; on the way back I was the only one.
As my generalizations and stereotypes up to this point demonstrate, I am not an expert on Juárez. I’m just somebody who has visited the area about five times, two of which were in the last six months, and who has lived for many years in other parts of Mexico and the U.S. The first time I crossed from Juárez to El Paso, and once I had passed the area of old buildings and stores that cater to Mexicans who re-sell merchandise, an area where English is not really spoken, I saw what Mexican novelist José Agustín meant when he published Ciudades desiertas (though he was not speaking of El Paso): the general lack of street life in the U.S. that makes Latin Americans wonder “¿Dónde está la gente?/Where are the people?” On this visit, when I got to the Mother’s Day protest in the Plaza San Jacinto, I learned more: that the city fathers decided that this, the town square for the Mexican city and later the Anglo-Texan city, was too Mexican. And so they took measures to empty it. But could El Paso exist without Mexicans? They make up over 80 per cent of the population. Tens of thousands of Juárez residents stand in line to cross every day to go to work or school. El Paso has hosted Mexican refugees of the revolutionary and the reactionary forces: Pancho Villa waited in El Paso for conditions to improve so he could invade Ciudad Juárez. Members of the Creel and Terrazas families, the oligarchy of Chihuahua, watched in horror from the terrace of the Hotel Paso del Norte as the tragedy (for their fortunes) unfolded. Mariano Azuela wrote Los de abajo, novel of the revolution, from a tenement near the border.
At the protest (against the separation of immigrant children from their adult fellow travelers) there were never more than fifty people at any given time. The speakers and performers represented the diversity of El Paso and Juárez. Nancy Green spoke of how she was born in El Paso but has gone to live in Juárez twice. The first time was because her mother was Mexican and her father was black, and in the 1950s that was illegal. (Similarly, Langston Hughes wrote about the “invisible line” across which he and other black people could buy a beer in Juárez and drink it next to white people who would not do so in Texas.)
The movement to oppose the U.S. policy of separating children (mostly Honduran, Guatemalan, and Salvadoran) from their families developed when the phenomenon became widely known in the summer of 2018. U.S. and Mexican media spread the word that in a “remote locale” in “far west Texas”, Tornillo, this was occurring. A quick look at a map revealed what people in El Paso already knew: Tornillo is on the fringe of this metropolitan area. On the U.S. side, it’s very sparsely populated; on the Mexican side, it’s so dangerous that informal bus drivers, no angels themselves, have refused to go in recent years. Opposition developed in the form of an encampment organized, to the chagrin of some women of color in the El Paso area, by a white man from outside the region. The pressure was enough to push the U.S. to close the outsourced center and move the bulk of the child warehousing operation to Homestead, Florida.
But the Coalition to End Child Detention-El Paso and other participants in the Mother’s Day protest noted that another tent facility exists in El Paso in the Hondo Pass area and joined with two retired professors from universities in Arizona and New Mexico, Cordelia Candelaria and Barbara M. Reed, to effect a sit-in and pray-in immediately after the rally. In the flyer they distributed, they stressed that “This facility holds families and is considered temporary. This means it is able to operate outside of Flores requirements and there is no limit to how long migrants can be detained. THIS IS CHILD DETENTION.”
Of my ten closest friends in the city of Chihuahua, at least three have experienced the murder of someone close: a husband, a son, and a cousin. Two of these murders occurred in Juárez. Most of these cases occurred after 2012, when the crisis of murders “merely” of women gave way to what they call “the period of extreme violence”. Meanwhile, the murder of women ceased to be a phenomenon specific to Juárez and became generalized throughout Mexico, the rest of Latin America, and indigenous communities in the U.S. and Canada. One night in 2012 or 2013, before I knew of the three cases I have mentioned, while visiting the city of Chihuahua and working on my novel, I left one bar and headed toward another that someone had recommended. My route took me through one of those areas that looks fine in the day time but… The next day I saw a headline in one newspaper. (Other papers had been paid by the government not to print such news.) Seven people, men and women, murdered at the Bar Mojave. I had been walking through the area and could have stuck my head in that bar as easily as any other. The clerk at the Hotel San Juan told me that one of the hotel guests was one of those killed. I worked as a teacher in Minneapolis during the 1990s, when the homicide rate was highest. And before that, during most of my life, I never went a year without someone I knew having killed or been killed. One day at North High, a student group hung some big sheets of paper on the wall and invited people to write about their memories of people who had been killed. The sheets were full within ten minutes and they put up more. Obviously I had to reflect about how my students were more exposed to this than I was. And I had to marvel about how students were taking more steps than administration or staff in the face of this problem. And now I have to wonder how many of the homages would be to victims of police violence if we did the same exercise today. I moved to Mexico in 2000 and for a few years I still believed that the U.S. was more violent than Mexico. And I still believe, with Martin Luther King, that the U.S. is the number one “purveyor of violence” in the world.
Since we became aware of the child separation policy, some of us thought that this would be the spark that would light the prairie fire, that this is how we put Trump out on the streets. And since then, it’s one outrage after another, and many of them impact directly on Juárez and El Paso: his hostile responses to the phenomenon of the Honduran caravans, for example. I know that on Saturday while I was there, a group of hundreds of Hondurans crossed the river and then walked west along the new wall till they got to where they have not kept building, in Sunland, New Mexico, where they turned themselves in to ask for a very improbable asylum. The nature of immigration “management” now is that many immigrants are in religious-based or municipal shelters where they can’t leave unless they have an appointment. So I did not see Central Americans on the streets. In fact, I see many more in Texcoco, a small city about an hour from Mexico City where they come to spend a few days or weeks because they have heard that crime and harassment are minimal.
What I did see, and this chronicle by Arturo Cano in the Mexico City newspaper La Jornada tipped me off, were hundreds of Cubans. Apparently these disproportionately white, tall, and male Cubans fly to Nicaragua, where friendly diplomatic relations make direct flights a logical possibility. They move toward and through Mexico by bus and plane, and then ask for U.S. asylum. They are filling most of the cheap hotels including, of course, the one where I stayed. According to their detractors, they are fond of yelling, of using expensive cell phones constantly, and of hanging around in hotel lobbies and corridors, never exploring Juárez. On the same block as my hotel, three blocks from the border bridge, there are an impressive number of abandoned houses, some with adobe walls visibly decaying, some with no walls left. This I have seen in other border towns also. Will gentrification come to Juárez one day as it has to Tijuana?
In the face of extreme violence and now in the face of migratory crisis, what does the local government do? Bread and circuses! And I am not entirely against that. On the pedestrian-only streets near the intersection of Avenida Juárez and Avenida Independencia, there are at least three musical or dance acts going at any given moment until nightfall, when the same is occurring in the bars. Between this and the excellent food of the state of Chihuahua, I am honestly more relaxed in Juárez than I am in Mexico City. In November I was in Juárez and I talked for a few hours with my friend Isolde from Chihuahua, six hours away. She was there to help her brother and cousin make a rap video. (One of her other cousins was the murdered one whom I have mentioned.) I told her that I have sometimes thought of moving to Chihuahua or Juárez, partly to have easier access to the U.S. She said: “Come to Chihuahua. It’s much cooler. On the other hand, people from Juárez love it. They’re fiercely loyal.” We talked about how we disagreed with a pro-immigrant event that was occurring that weekend (and every few months) at which people hold hands across the border or something like that. It struck us as too light, too charitatable, and we spoke of how to do something more bold and about the small detail of her inability, and that of other interested people, to get a U.S. visa and thus bring the war—if only artistically and propagandistically at first—over to the U.S. side. The day before Mother’s Day, there was to be another one of these hand-holding events, but the organizers cancelled it when they saw that even this was blocked by the U.S. government and Union Pacific Railroad, “owner” of some of the relevant border land. Still, I note a paradox when I listen to the El Paso organizers exhort people to leave their apathy and get more involved and, on the other hand, what they propose is praying and writing letters. Robert Jensen, recently retired journalism professor at the University of Texas-Austin, has written about how heavy protest actions that work in New York, San Francisco, or other countries may not work in the south. But…praying? What do we have to lose if we call for a march from the UT-El Paso campus to the main border bridge and from there to the detention center? Or to occupy the Federal Building? Maybe only the fifty to seventy people who showed up on Mother’s Day would come. Maybe not even all of them. Or maybe we would turn out the campus, conservative as it may be, because a large percentage of the students and workers live in Juárez and many others are just a few months or years away from that status. And maybe we would draw people in from all over Texas and New Mexico. If we fight, we may lose. If we don’t fight, we have already lost. What would John Brown do?
Every time I go to the border I discover a musical artist whom I didn’t know about and who my friends in Mexico City can’t believe that I like because the group is “tacky” or “offensive”. This time it was this fusion of early Dylan and narcocorridos, incorporating a 12-string guitar, as is common in norteña music since Ariel Camacho started doing it a few years ago.