The wispy clouds looked like someone had gently brushed them across a blue canvas as I made my walk, Sunday morning; cold hands found their way to denim front pockets thanks to the slight chill. But inside me was a burning anxiety, a sensation mixed with excitement and fear I haven’t felt since 2008.
That was the last time I stepped foot in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, the sister city to my hometown of El Paso, Texas on the US-Mexican border. That was when people were getting slaughtered on the streets of the city. It’s when I saw a convoy of Mexican Federales (Mexican federal agents) armed with machine guns race by me along the road en route to investigate a killing that occurred about a block away in broad daylight. I’ll never forget how the victim’s car had more bullet holes in it than a block of Swiss cheese.
Over time the killings increased, as rival drug cartels continued to fight over the city, one of the most important drug entry points into the United States. As a result, more blood was spilt here than in Iraq. Various publications deemed Juarez as the most dangerous place in the world. And they were right. According to a Mexican nonprofit, Citizens Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, there were 400 killings per 100,000 residents reported between 2008 and 2010.
Last week, this same nonprofit officially removed Cd. Juarez from their list of the world’s most dangerous cities. And slowly, more and more people from the U.S. side of the border are making their way back to a place that holds so many memories, so many familial ties, some of which were broken a part or forever changed because of the bloodshed.
As I wrote in 2012:
As a kid growing up we’d often here stories about Juarez, the kind you could hear in front of your parents and the kind you only wanted to hear with your friends… As young teenagers we yearned to hear about our older brother’s stories of partying on “The Strip,” “Drink and Drown,” slow cops, fast women, and the smooth-talking taxi drivers that promised to take you to see the fabled donkey show.
But Juarez wasn’t always about partying. Again, from 2012:
Cross any point of entry into Mexico and you’re crossing into your own personal history, stepping right along the footsteps of your own culture.
So on Super Bowl Sunday 2016, I decided to cross once more. All I wanted was to take a picture. I wanted to hear the sounds of the streets, smell the aroma of street food and feel that excitement mixed with anxiety I once felt as a kid in high school, crossing the bridge with friends the way generations of kids did before us.
I paid my 50 cents at the Santa Fe Bridge and made my way up, my confidence growing with every step forward. Still very early in the morning, the traffic was light. Border agents from both sides of the border had their heads on a swivel, observing movement from people walking on either side of the bridge, cars heading in either direction, vendors selling candy and seeds.
As I set foot on Mexican soil, a sense of familiarity covered me like a blanket as taxi drivers asked me if I needed a lift, shop owners swept their front walks, readying for a busy day of foot traffic. I passed familiar places, like the Kentucky Club (a place that claims to have invented the Margarita), the Tequila Derby and the Mariachi Bar.
Memories began to flow; there’s me standing in line and hoping the bouncer would let me in at “The Derby” (they rarely did) or whether my fake ID from a photo place called Happy’s worked at Superior, another bar people liked to frequent.
I walked passed a life-sized Pope Francis cardboard, set up in anticipation of the pontiff’s visit here on February 17, and to the foot of the Juarez Cathedral, where Sunday mass could be heard from speakers in the courtyard.
I kept walking, taking it all in, passing shops, small restaurants, grocery stores selling fresh produce – numerous street corners featured men and women peeling husks of corn – friendly passersby and the occasional honk of a bus or car.
On my way back to El Paso I saw something that stuck with me – a poor, elderly man selling seeds and snacks from an old cafeteria tray that he was holding on one hand like a pizza eagerly rushed to assist a woman dragging a wheeled suitcase up the bridge. He walked with her until they reached the very top. This was the closest the man could get to the United States without drawing the ire of U.S. Customs agents and far enough up the bridge to where the woman could coast downhill with more ease.
In that moment I saw a subtle sense of humanity that often gets overlooked when politicians talk about securing our borders. In their efforts to play on people’s fears, they forget that there is a human aspect in all of this, whether it’s a person’s origin or religion.
Having been away from such a dangerous city the last 8 years, I can certainly understand the concerns that people would have with respect to security and safety. I also feel that it is incumbent upon us to always remember the human aspect in how we make our decisions, how we frame our arguments and ultimately how we decide to vote.
I thought about Donald Trump’s campaign “promise” to build a wall (“…and I will make Mexico pay for that wall.”) and I couldn’t help but shake my head and think about how backwards we’d be heading. Was it not Ronald Reagan that once challenged Mikhail Gorbachev to tear down another wall?
Now we want to build them?
When I got home that morning I joked with my wife that I ventured into Mexico with criminals, rapists and “a few good people, I guess.” She was happy that I took the plunge and crossed over; she was relieved that I made it home ok.
I knew that it wasn’t going to take another 8 years for me to go back across the bridge. I knew that this incredible place, where so many of my friends are from, is finding its heartbeat again; it’s getting its spirit back, finding its mojo and not only rebuilding its infrastructure but its identity, too.
The new book, Summer Son/hijo del verano, will be published by Floricanto Press in early 2016. Follow me on Twitter @phillipdcortez