Editor’s note: I wrote this rambling, interminable narrative in 2010 after we passed through El Paso and then made our way up to New Mexico’s White Sands on our way back from the Old Settler’s Music Festival outside Austin. Since we passed through El Paso on Monday before running out of gas on Interstate 10, and since I did labor on it for quite a while, I thought I’d take the liberty to post it here in the nostalgia section of Uncle Sam’s Backyard. Somewhere there are photos and even video that go with it, but I don’t have any idea where they might be.
“And from what I can make of it, a customs inspector would be fully justified in going home each evening and murdering his wife. Even if she’s a nice wife.”
Ernie Pyle, 1939
Less than a month after Arizona rancher Robert Krentz was shot and killed on his own property, and with the border country and talk radio aflame with equal parts fear and loathing, we roll into high desert El Paso. Friday night, April 23, 2010.
We arrive on the back end of a cross-Texas marathon on I-10 from Austin, logging 570 miles by the WalMart atlas and fathomless millions of years along the geological timeline. Behind us lies the vast Cretaceous sea that endowed the lush Hill Country with its ubiquitous limestone outcroppings. Back there, a Texas oasis blooms where roadside medians teem with a dazzling tableau of bluebonnets and paintbrush.
Here, 10 hours later and 500 million years earlier, we’re high up yet dwarfed by the Paleozoic and Precambrian rock that overlapped through the millennia to form of the Franklin Mountains that form the city’s backdrop.
Night falls as we approach El Paso, tucked in a high desert valley between the Franklin Mountains and the Juarez Mountains across the border. While we were doing the trans-Texas two-step, over in Arizona the state legislature was busy passing SB 1070, Gov. Jan Brewer’s swift response to the fear engendered by Krentz’s murder. If it becomes the law, police will be invested with the authority and responsibility to ferret out the illegal immigrant from the legal immigrant.
Seventy years ago, this border was quiet, indolent like a lazy summer afternoon of margaritas and tacos. It was so tame here Pyle could makes jokes, suggesting the “deadly, ludicrous monotony” border cops had to put up with was enough to justify a homicidal rage or two. Old-time border cops, it seemed, had little to occupy their time but question an endless parade of pilgrims about what they picked up in Mexico.
Long gone is the murderous tedium, supplanted by real-life skullduggery. Border cops, and they are legion, have more on their minds nowadays than blankets from Juarez and tequila from Tijuana. A sinister gallery of rogues haunts the border lands, at least in the popular imagination.
They’re a motley lot, drug smugglers, people smugglers and everyday people crossing illegally in search of better lives.
In the vanishing light, shadowy gringo terrors are evoked by the dark noun “Juarez.” Fed by epicurean portions of ignorance, they tie our thoughts in enfeebling knots. You grow up in the suburbs, you live your entire life in leafy, soft-bellied comfort, you become easy pickings for stereotype-mongering politicos and alarm-ringing media types.
“Don’t drive into Mexico!” Becky says as we wander El Paso, trying to get our bearings. I’m pretty sure this is not possible, to cross a heavily armed international border by accident, in a car, without documentation. Not now, in 2010, not unless you’re in good with Chapo Guzman.
Yet I’m a little worried it could happen, too. It is dark, after all, and dark floods the reptilian brain with ancient, primal terrors. Dark sends reason scurrying to the shadows.
Yet there is an undeniable touch of evil in the air. A quick break to sample Internet headlines for Juarez: “Twelve killed in Juarez since Friday afternoon (this posted on a Saturday)” “Juárez: Forensic investigator was among 11 slain Thursday”
“Juarez, Murder Capital of the World”
Welcome to El Paso, little sister city to the murder capital of the world. Just across the international border, a world gone loco.
At least outwardly, Juarez thrived as a manufacturing center in the early days of NAFTA. Low wages lured global corporations here to strike it richer still in the fields of limitless opportunity for easy profit. Like the girls who came from the countryside to work in the textile mills of Lowell, Mass., in the 19th century, young Mexican girls came, they still come, in droves to work in the maquiladoras of Juarez.
By the mid-1990s, Juarez had earned the ugly nickname “the capital of murdered women.” Now it’s the murder capital of the world, period. You’ve come a long way, Juarez.
The Sinaloa drug cartel, headed by Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, has reached the top of the Mexican drug-trafficking charts. The Mexican government, under the auspices of the Merida Initiative, receives about half a billion dollars of yearly aid from the United States to prosecute its drug war. While the government fights the drug war, the bodies pile higher and higher and Juarez dies a grisly death. The Sinaloas are waging a devastating war against their top rival, the Juarez cartel.
In 2009, El Chapo made No. 41 on Forbes’ most powerful list. The numbers are staggering. This from the El Paso Times, May 8, 2010: “An average of eight people are killed every day in the border city considered to be the epicenter of Mexico’s drug cartel violence.” Nearly 900 people have been killed in Juárez this year, and more than 5,100 have been killed since 2008.
A disclaimer: A lot of journalists, dashing types who win Pulitzers and cover themselves in laurels of literary glory, lust to be where the action is.
With the boots on the ground. Where the blood flows.
Not me. If I think of myself as a journalist at all, it’s as a nonviolent journalist. In other words, a coward.
And now, at 47, I’m a coward with a wife riding shotgun and a 2-year-old son directing this Greek chorus of ridiculousness from his child seat in the rear. Don’t get me wrong; I love and admire a ballsy foreign correspondent, a la Robert Fisk. But when I think of the hazards inherent in such a life, I’m reminded of what one of my favorite philosophers, the estimable David Brent, had to say on a different subject:
“You know that old thing, ‘live fast, die young?’ Not my way. Live fast, sure, live too bloody fast sometimes; but die young? Die old. That’s the way – not orthodox, I don’t live by ‘the rules.’ ”
And while I prefer to think of myself as progressive and open-minded, the ball-shrinking uncertainties of the road tend to leave me vulnerable to a xenophobic malaise. It’s a curious phenomenon of life on the road: Everything you think you revile, your road alter ego embraces with a guilty gusto.
Hate the spreading corporate oligarchy? The triumph of Walmart culture? The goddamn everywhereness of McDonald’s and Starbucks and Subway?
Wander a thousand miles from home, and the next thing you know you’re stalking the aisles of Walmart in Ruidoso Downs, N.M., surfing the web at a McDonald’s in El Paso, ordering dinner at a Subway in Price, Utah. Funny where the weary traveler finds comfort.
And this is how we find ourselves beneath those yellowy arches, safe as in a mother’s bosom – billions served, untold millions driven to obesity – avail ourselves of the free wifi, and deputize Hotwire to book us a room at the El Paso Hyatt.
A pretty good deal, roughly $70 including taxes, but it will be the most expensive night on the trip. It’s not really our kinda place. Real glasses, rosewood furniture, ornate ice bucket, spa-quality soap. And check out that flat-screen TV.
And so we make it through a night of mid-level luxury without being killed or kidnapped by border-crossing banditos, and I awake and steel myself for a run to the border. The gringo fear persists, and the gut turns with paroxysms of prenatal vulnerability:
Juarez is the murder capital of the western hemisphere. Juarez is the murder capital of the world. Juarez is the most dangerous place in the world that is not in a declared war zone. Juarez is a war zone.
The fact that we’re in El Paso, not Juarez, provides scant solace. El Paso, one of America’s safest cities. As of December 2007, El Paso ranked as the second safest city in the nation among cities with populations of 500,000 or greater.
Reason is a patsy, a bum, a first-round fall guy for the for the formidable gut. The mere proximity of murder and mayhem is palpable. On a recent Saturday, in broad daylight, an American couple was found riddled with bullets in a Toyota SUV bearing Texas plates.
She worked at the U.S. embassy. They were leaving a child’s birthday party. Their baby was found alive. In his car seat. Screaming. I climb into the Kia, try not to think about gangland murders, and drive slowly, diffidently, ruefully, toward downtown El Paso.
It helps little to understand that this country’s always been no country for old men. Before the Sinaloas came the Apaches, the Conquistadors. Pancho Villa, and after him came Black Jack Pershing. Men killed and mutilated, women and children enslaved.
With the safety of Taco Cabana and Albertson’s at my back, poverty rising in the windshield, I drive tepidly, as if any moment I will take a wrong turn at Albuquerque and wind up in Mexico. The rented Kia found riddled with bullets.
I will become one more overwrought symbol of a bloated, blundering and baleful federal government bent on destroying American values once and for all. Glenn Beck will speak my name with rising indignation, then weep spastically. A fate worse than death indeed.
I turn off Paisano Street and find parking on Oregon, adjacent to Sacred Heart, El Paso’s first Catholic church. Its 117-year-old brick turret towers over the impoverished Segundo Barrio, with a fine view of old El Paso del Norte.
I didn’t think about practical needs. You know, like parking. I scrape together enough change for 30 minutes, feed the meter, then walk two or three blocks to the border. When I get there, on the safe side of the Santa Fe International Bridge, I find nothing more dangerous than a gaggle of people bearing placards of protest, not arms. They demand a boycott of all things Arizona.
The cops are here, too, conveniently enough. Were police to engage demonstrators in a friendly tug of war, you’d have a hard time handicapping the outcome. The numbers look pretty even. Naturally I sympathize with the protesters, but I don’t get too close to them, because guilt by association can be perilous.
A Hispanic cop consults a Latino fellow who seems to be in charge of the protest. The cop gestures with a definitive air. Within a minute, the protest is broken up.
The in-charge fellow is Guillermo Glenn, a sixty-something activist with the dignified bearing of a Mexican-American Omar Sharif. Wire-rim glasses, masculine fu manchu, and a deft hand with the gendarmes, all bespeak a sober experience with such matters.
I try to get his attention with a weak line about the cops outnumbering the protesters. “Usually there’s more,” he says. And I wait as he does a TV interview.
“We think this is a very racist law,” Glenn says into an oversized lens. “We never thought a state in the United States would take these actions. How can a state legislate a law based on tyranny? That is going totally counter to the constitution. There’s no way they’re going to be able to train the police to see who’s legal and who’s not.”
He’s headed for the headquarters of the Border Workers Association headquarters (Centro de los Trabajadores Agricolas Fronterizos), Ninth and Oregon streets. Tagging along, I gaze down at the sidewalk, trying to find an informed question in the cracks, then look up at the adjacent concrete wall topped by tangled coils of barbed-wire.
Glenn has business to attend to. The agricultural border workers are marching to commemorate the 17th anniversary of Cesar Chavez’s death. The token resistance to Arizona’s new immigration law is just a warmup for the big event.
He says NAFTA, more than the drug cartels, is culpable in the destruction of Juarez. Ramped-up border security has weakened the connection between the U.S. citizens north of the border with their relatives across the border.
“It’s not about nationality, it’s about culture,” he says. “We are U.S. citizens, but our origins are over there. We used to go across the border for lunch and be back in an hour. Now it takes two hours with all the additional security.”
He says all the fortune 500 companies in Juarez are sucking the infrastructure dry, leaving behind a failed state. Then he moves on.
Everything is in motion, the day turning in a kaleidoscopic swirl of imagery. Salvador “Chava” Avila is happy to step into the breach and share his thoughts. And he’s not afraid to use the ‘N’ word.
“Like in Nazi Germany, they were blaming the Jews, now they’re blaming the Mexican, the brown faces,” says Avila. “We’re just waiting for somebody, a dictator that will put the music in the peoples’ ears, and they’re going to listen to that music without thinking about the reality. “Then the people will be inside the burners.”
The drummer is drumming. The marchers are queuing. And my 30 minutes are about up. As I scurry back to the car, I run straight into Carol Ann Campbell.
She wants to know what the drumming is about. Says she’s originally from Fort Walton Beach, Fla., but home now is Segundo Barrio. She seems quite pleased to be talking to a reporter, even one with credentials as flimsy as mine. Though I wield no camera, she seems to embrace the illusion that our conversation might land her on television.
What she doesn’t know:
The reporter in question is bearing extreme ignorance.
What he doesn’t know:
- That El Paso’s Downtown Redevelopment Plan, at least in its initial incarnation, proposes to seize 30 acres of Segundo Barrio via eminent domain and turn them over to developers, who’ll turn them into big-box retail stores, strip malls and parking garages and turn 1,800 people out of doors.
- That a city councilman whose father-in-law is the billionaire developer behind plan chose not to recuse himself when the plan came up for a vote.
- That Segundo Barrio is El Paso’s oldest neighborhood.
- That he’s standing in Segundo Barrio, talking to a resident of Segundo Barrio.
It’s not that bad here, she says.
“My last ex-husband, he’s from Georgia,” she says. “He was like, “If I don’t get out of here, I’m going to die.’”
But she says the violence is not random, and life is fine on the safe side.
“If you know your history and background and do your homework, you have nothing to worry about.”
I ask her about the other side: Old El Paso del Norte and its daily round of murders.
“I’m afraid to go to the other side,” she says with a carefree smile. “I feel safe on this side.”
White fists on a red banner, under cloudless, hopelessly optimistic sky. A beautiful Saturday for a protest march. I circle the neighborhood a few times, but I have no cash and there’s nary a free parking spot. I turn to my new ally McDonald’s, right on the main drag, and with little in the way of alternatives, slide into a parking space and hope for the best.
The streets of El Paso are alive. Vendors peddle cell phones, sunglasses, hats, comforters and much, much more in open-air markets. Low-slung buildings exude old-world charm and endearing decay. It’s a beguiling archaeological cross-section, with brick and adobe in varying measures of decline.
As marchers snake their way through downtown El Paso, I‘m reminded of the irrationality of my fear. Old and young, kids and grandparents, march to the rhythms of indigenous drummers. How very dangerous.
Also: Cops, a battalion of cops, everywhere. Cops on bikes. Cops on motorcycles Cops on foot. The marchers decamp at San Jacinto Plaza, aka Plaza de los Lagartos (Alligator Park), a pretty little square lined with red bricks. Luis Jimenez’s fiberglass alligator sculpture sits at the center of the square. For decades the park featured a pond stocked with live alligators. Then bored sociopaths took to killing and maiming the hulking reptiles, forcing them to find new digs at the El Paso Zoo.
Exuberant chants fill the air with expectation. The air is alive with a welter of Spanish. Rhythmic drumming. Traditional dancers in colorful garb.
Illiterate, I understand nothing. Three refugees from a Steinbeck novel, under a heartbreaking sky of uninterrupted blue, rest against a retaining wall. Behind them, the Chase bank building reaches for the horizon, looming with a heavy-handed symbolism you have to see to excuse.
I know I should talk to them. But I’m an incurable pussy. So I procrastinate.
One of them, a cowboy-hatted gringo, is talking shit. He seems weary but sardonic, and his smile exposes a mouthful of precarious-looking teeth. They look as though they might come tumbling out any second and go skittering across the bricks, runaway molars in a recurring nightmare.
“Bullshit!” he says to the bespectacled Latino fellow next to him wielding a sign asking readers to boycott Arizona sports teams. “I can’t work in the fields anymore.This is the least I can do to support my people. The doctor told me not to work no more.”
There’s a pause, and a dark diagnosis: “The cancer.”
He sees an acquaintance, maybe an old friend or a colleague from the chile fields, who looks to be wandering through the park without apparent interest in the Chavez march.
“Why the hell you hanging out with these communists?” asks the acquaintance, friend or colleague. “Fuck you,” comes the reply. “I can’t work in the fields no more. This is the least I can do to represent my people.”
I should talk to him. He oozes colorful candor and vernacular wisdom. But I can’t move. I never know how to accost strangers and insinuate myself into their lives without off-putting rudeness. I want to ask the usual stupid questions. Why are you here? What are you protesting on this sweet Saturday morning?
I want to ask these things. But I maintain my dilatory approach, and I try to fashion the perfectly engaging opening line, perhaps a dollop of knowing sympathy mixed with a dash of self-deprecation. Then I think about Becky and Max back at the Hyatt, checkout looming. And so I move on and miss out on their stories. James Agee would be so proud.
Who knows what I lost?
Tales of wives lost to cancer no one would treat for lack of insurance. Stories of wages unlivable and conditions inhospitable. Mysterious skin rashes contracted working in the booming chile fields – fields awash in pesticides, chemicals sprayed liberally to control the pepper weevil. Waiting at midnight bus stations trying to get on contractors’ crews, 16-hour days for a handful of peanuts.
I didn’t ask any questions, and didn’t hear any inconvenient truths. A reporter afraid to ask the most basic of questions = no reporter at all. So I don’t learn a thing about how difficult it is to make it picking chiles beneath the broiling sun for $6,000 a year. I always wondered why New Mexican salsa seemed to be particularly piquant, just a little zingier than the rest of the field. Pesticides and suicides.
In place of journalism, I substitute an epiphany wrapped in a rationalization wrapped in one big, fat excuse.
Why they came? It’s obvious. Obvious as that glittering Chase building soaring into the wild blue ether, juxtaposed against these poor farm workers as if they were so many dispensable Lilliputians.
Obvious as a battalion of corporate lobbyists marching on Capitol Hill armed to the teeth with an unlimited arsenal of greenback dollars. Obvious as 29 dead coal miners in West Virginia and 11 dead oil workers in the Gulf of Mexico.
In the words of Leonard Cohen, everybody knows.
Everybody knows the deal is rotten, Old Black Joe’s still picking cotton for your ribbons and bows. … Everybody knows the fight was fixed; the poor stay poor, the rich get rich That’s how it goes. Everybody knows.