Thursday, November 19, 2009

Road to Sta Teresa Now Paved All the Way: The Road to Sanity is Not

Ciudad Juárez is just not the bustling, alluring city, teeming with that infinite, energetic norteño charm it once exuded. It used to remind me of the Alexandria of the Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell, one of the great novels of the 1950s, where the protagonist is not so much the people of the novel as the city itself. The late Ricardo Aguilar, a friend and colleague of mine at NMSU, captured the tempo and spirit of Juárez, especially the voice of the common tipo on the steet. His short stories still rivet my attention, and some are translated into English.

Traffic is down to a trickle in most parts of the city. The hundreds of racks of used clothing and old appliances for sale on the streets remind you of the toll the recession and violence have taken. People no longer congregate in large numbers on the streets downtown to gossip with one another. And in the expensive shopping malls your footsteps echo as you walk past a deserted parade of stores, an eerie commentary on the fear of kidnapping among the upper classes. Night life? Forget it. As they say, don't even go there.

The city will recover, make no mistake about it, and when it does, it will be a pleasurable feast again. But things will have to happen before it can recover, and the next few months will clarify a great deal about how long this might take and how it might come about.

I've been explicit in writing about the circumstances of violent death in Ciudad Juárez. The major news media in New Mexico cover it only intermittently when something happens that is picked up by the national media. I thought it might be useful to convey the staccato rhythm of daily death as it comes, startlingly fast, through an automobile windshield on a busy intersection, or just outside a victim's home as he leaves for work, or in a nightclub parking lot. I was hoping this way to make the reader wonder what might be behind the killings and, yes, what our relationship might be, should be, to our neighbors to the South.

Ciudad Juárez is 35 miles from my home in Las Cruces as the crow flies; it is closer to Albuquerque than Denver and within a mile of the racetrack at Sunland Park. These are our neighbors. New Mexicans gave illegal sanctuary to hundreds of refugees from Central America during the 1980s and today Albuquerque politicians speak piously about the plight of immigrants. We think nothing of flying off to Africa or Honduras to dispense eyeglasses to the blind or medicine to the sick or crutches to the lame. But we don't think as often about our neighbors on the other side of the fence, and our government certainly spends a lot more time thinking about the security of the residents of Baghdad than it does about the people of Juárez.

Politicians in New Mexico love to speak at border conferences about doing business with Mexico. We have an office of Mexican Affairs and a Border Authority. We brag about our closeness to Mexico, ethnically and economically, and exalt our cultural ties to Mexico in the fiestas of Santa Fe each summer and mariachi conferences down here. But, with the occasional exception of Bishop Ricardo Ramirez, I haven't heard a peep from public figures, not even an official voice of empathy, about the crushing violence and deadly gunfire within earshot of a casino at Sunland Park raking in profits and taxes, in significant part, from prosperous citizens who live, or used to live, in the most violent city in the world.

I will continue to describe the violence but focus more on the larger political context in Cd. Juárez. There are mayoral elections coming up next July, and the presidential campaign of 2012 will begin in earnest next year. The violence will not go away, but it now becomes more visibly part of the wider political world. Partisan interaction will, in turn, shape the overall climate within which violence will ebb and flow.

I was in Cd. Juarez yesterday and, as usual, I checked out the Santa Fe bridge for traffic before deciding to cross back at Sta. Teresa. While the four-lane highway is not yet finished, at least two lanes are paved all the way, and you can do 50 mph (I got up to 70) safely on most of it--there is virtually no traffic--after Anapra, so the trip from downtown is only 20 minutes. More minutes will be shaved off when access streets linking downtown to the road are finished. Waiting lines at Sta. Teresa will go up. Yesterday only five cars were in front of me, but the wait in both lanes was painfully slow. On the other hand I have noticed an improved professionalism in recent months by border officials monitoring your passage. The attitude is more respectful and you realize from the quality of their questions they are actually thinking, discreetly, while making reasoned judgments about you.

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