“Call me as soon as you’re back across the border,” said my mother. “Text me every hour,” said my girlfriend. “Just don’t go to Juarez. It’s not safe,” said pretty much everyone I told of my plan to cross the border from El Paso for a day. However, despite all the trepidation from both my loved ones and random strangers, I feel a calling to see Juarez. I can’t effectively write about El Paso without discussing the border, and I can’t write about the border without crossing it. So on a warm May morning, I walk over the bridge, leaving the US behind for the oft-maligned Mexican metropolis of Juarez.
As comfortable as I am traveling solo in foreign countries where I don’t speak the language, having only a day to see Juarez – and yes, with the city’s reputation in the back of my mind – I charter Rich Wright of Juarez Walking Tours for a private excursion. He meets me on the American side of the border, and promises to drop me back off on the American side of the border, which makes my mom a bit more at ease. We pay the 50 cent per person bridge toll for pedestrians, and set off across the mighty Rio Grande, which is anything but mighty these days between lack of rain and snow in the Rockies and dams further upriver.
It was under this bridge that images of the most recent immigration crisis emerged, thousands of refugees from poverty- and war-torn Central American countries waiting for the chance to apply for asylum. Such images are heartbreaking; the response by the American right to them was even more so. Rich and I stop for a moment to talk about the river as the border, the monstrosity that is the new border wall, and the drought conditions, and then cross to the other side. After a very brief search of Rich’s backpack – and no passport check – we are in Mexico, in Ciudad Juarez, the city of Juarez.
Until 1888, Juarez was called El Paso del Norte, the passage to the north. Founded by Friar Garcia de San Francisco in 1659, El Paso del Norte was created as Spanish conquistadors moved north from Mexico into “New” Mexico, ultimately reaching as far as Santa Fe. As in other parts of the Americas, they converted the local populations they found, and built a mission, Guadalupe de los Mansos, on the southern bank of the Rio Grande, around which grew the city. (Modern El Paso, which kept the name of the original city that is now Juarez, joined the party later, and was originally just an extension of a single city on both banks.)
The mission still stands, and sits at the heart of Juarez, right next to a massive and beautiful cathedral that, while it looks old, was only built in 1941. It is from here that the city spread out, and Rich points out the original city hall, and the oldest bar in the city – one of the first businesses built – where we have one of several drinks we would consume on such a hot day.
As we walk, Rich delights me with stories of Juarez’ history. Did you know the Mexican Revolution began here? I didn’t, but tales of Pancho Villa, Francisco Madero, and the dictator Porfirio Diaz (for whom a street in El Paso is named, to my chagrin) bring the terrible violence of the period to life. Rich supplements these with photos of the streets we pass as they would have looked during different periods of the city’s storied past.
One stop we make is La Fiesta, a recently restored club that has yet to reopen thanks to Covid. Richly decorated, it is just one of a number of such huge and lavish clubs that once existed all over Juarez. From prohibition through the 1960s, Juarez was similar to Havana: a playground for Americans to escape, to drink, and to experience the high life for a smaller amount of money. These clubs once hosted many of the top American bands and singers, who came here to polish their acts before going on American tours.
Other remnants of this period of immense prosperity remain. The Kentucky Club, just across the border, has a long history catering to American tourists – and makes a great margarita for a fraction of what it would cost in El Paso. However, the days of large numbers of Americans crossing the border seem to be over, at least for now.
From 2003 to 2013, Juarez was one of the leading cities in the world in murders. Drug cartels battled for control of the priceless routes from here into the US, and the Great Recession led to the cartels being one of the few sources of well-paying “jobs” for everyday Mexicans trying to feed their families. Today, that violence is much lessened. While in 2010, Juarez saw more than 3,600 murders, 2021 only had 1,400 which, while up from the 2015 low of 311, is still significantly less than the peak. (Much of this can also probably be attributed to the recession features of the current Covid era, and the reopening of the border and corresponding return of many jobs has seen 2022 at a three-year low so far.)
Unfortunately, the period of violence and the inability of that reputation to stop clouding the city has led to much of downtown Juarez – the border area – to be abandoned. Hotels and businesses that catered to Americans are gone, stores have closed, and even the central market is shuttered. And, with cross border traffic not picking back up (Rich tells me that the only Americans who cross the border are those with families still in Mexico, those with business interests here, and the occasional out of town tourist like me), a large percentage of these buildings are simply shells of what were once seemingly beautiful edifices.
While a few restaurants and bars right along the border – on Av. Benito Juarez – have been able to survive, just a few blocks away, all that is left is abandoned facades. Many have been covered with murals, but while beautiful, they are not a substitute for the thriving businesses of the past. And while Covid is to blame for some closures, the fact is that many of these buildings have been empty for a decade or more.
We stop for tacos in a tiny restaurant off a busy pedestrian marketplace – locals only, for the most part, although I can easily imagine this being a hub for tourist souvenirs in a slightly different universe – and talk about the future. There is money in Juarez, a lot of money. The suburbs have beautiful gated communities, home to millionaires and billionaires who have made fortunes on everything from cross-border commerce to manufacturing (Juarez is a hub for foreign company factories like Boeing and Bosch.) But without a significant focus on restoration of the border area, it is likely tourism will never return. And while a few local entrepreneurs have done a little, such as the restoration of La Fiesta, there doesn’t seem to be much appetite for trying to rebuild Juarez as a destination for American tourists. It is too bad, because even in a few hours here, I see the potential.
Our tour ends with another uneventful border crossing. A five peso coin into a turnstile is all that’s needed on the Mexican side. About six feet across the US border on the bridge we are asked for our passports, just to show we aren’t going to try to seek asylum. (While I’ll be talking more about this in another article specifically on the border, it is disgusting that this takes place, specifically flying in the face of American law, which allows for an asylum request at a port of entry, which this is. However, without an immigration attorney present, it is unlikely anyone would be aware of this, and would be turned away by armed authorities.) We pass a group of people being deported, walking single file with armed escorts. A ten minute wait inside a building to have our passports scanned, and then we are back in the US. I bid farewell to Rich and contemplate what I experienced today.
For starters, I never felt unsafe, not for a single instant. Part of that was due to my amazing guide. Rich knows Juarez, knows a ton of people, and speaks Spanish. Part of it was the ever-present warmth of the Mexican people, something I’ve experienced everywhere I’ve traveled in this incredible country. And part of it was the fact that the violence in Juarez, while present (as violence is present in many major cities in the world), is incredibly overstated, especially during the day in the center of the city.
My second takeaway is that Juarez is a cool place. No, it isn’t full of amazing tourist sites (although a small museum to the actor/singer Tin Tan was pretty cool, along with the cathedral and mission), but it has a character that is unique to this border city. There are lovely pedestrian areas, nice parks, and beautiful street art. Old colonial architecture, good food, and cheap – and strong – drinks round out the experience.
Finally, I reflect that I am welcome here. People smile at me, greet me, shake my hand. And this is in spite of the fact that just a few steps down the road, my country has built a monument – the wall – that sends a strong message that nobody here would be welcome in my home. There is no animosity, no glaring at this gringo who dares flaunt my American-ness in their home. Would we do the same under reverse circumstances? I’d guess not.
El Paso is a cool city. But to truly understand it, to fully grasp what it means to be a border city, you must cross into Juarez, even if only for a few hours on a walking tour with Rich. What you’ll find will surprise you: a city rich in history full of amazing people, and a place that will hopefully return to the prosperity it deserves soon. Visit Juarez. You won’t regret it.
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