Lost (and Found) in the Rain of Juárez

Yesterday Joe Hayes and I went over to Juárez to walk around and to have dinner. It’s been a long-time ritual for us when he comes visiting from Santa Fe. It was just regular trip to the other side, so it feels odd writing about a three hour journey that has long been a habit of mine. But people keep asking me: Do you go to Juárez anymore? These people have been reading the news, hearing the continuing grisly murders along the border and especially in Juárez. I hadn’t been for a month or so, and everybody in El Paso knows that Juárez is suffering because so few people are crossing over the bridges and spending money in Mexico. People are on this side are scared. I don’t blame them. Last year over 2000 people, most of them involved in some way in the drug trade, were murdered. Among that number have been a few U.S. citizens, some the result of stray gunfire. It’s still going on but it’s not so bad now. El Presidente Felipe Calderón has sent 7,000 federal troops. Their job supposedly is to combat the two narco-traficante cartels who are doing battle to control the Juárez trade route. The Juárez Cartel is headed by Vicente Carrillo-Fuentes (the brother of the infamous and allegedly dead “Lord of the Skies” Amado Carillo Fuentes) which is battling to the death the Sinaloa Cartel and el Chapo Guzmán. If you listen to the gossip on the street you’ll discover that few people believe “the news” that the army or the local police are non-partisan protectors of the people. The street rumor has it that Calderón and the federales are on the side of el Chapo and the Juárez police are on the side of Vicente Carillo-Fuentes and the local cartel.

“Whatever,” as the kids say. It's just sad, sad stuff.

We crossed the Stanton Street Bridge. We were happy to be going to Juárez again. A quiet rain had begun to fall as soon as we topped the bridge. It came and went, sometime heavily, during our walk. It’s a month too early for the monsoons to begin saturating this part of the Chihuahua Desert, so the rain felt delicious and comforting. The desert, even in its cities, has a beautiful smell when it rains. It’s the smell of wet greasewood and sage bushes. Such dreamy cool weather for the end of May when in most years the thermometer is already climbing over 100. Now wonder Joe and I enjoyed walking in the rain and dancing among the puddles in the greasy streets. It was a great unexpected pleasure.

Just on the other side of the bridge we saw a covey of the Mexican army, seven men dressed in desert brown helmets and fatigues, packing automatic rifles and pistols. I wanted to take a photo but I didn’t dare. These seven unsmiling soldiers were dressed up to play Mexican Army but they didn’t inspire any confidence. Mostly 18 and 19 years old kids, they were loitering out of the rain under a big tree like malingering taxi drivers. Except these guys were carrying big guns.

We walked south down Avenida Lerdo—or as we call it, la Avendia de las Novias—where dress shops populate both sides of the street. The shops specialize in quinceañas and weddings, and the big windows are decorated with manikin dreams. The shops were empty of customers. Their incomes depend on the Mexican-Americans coming across and spending money. Nobody was crossing anymore. As far as they were concerned, nobody was getting married, nobody was celebrating a young girl’s 15th birthday. Maybe their world was drying up like an empty seed pod. The clerks peered at us through the drizzle, wondering where the two old gringos were going.

We walked down to Avenida Septiembre de la Diez y Seis and then west to the plaza and the cathedral and the mercados. At least people were wandering in the streets there. Except it didn’t feel like the border. The rain had changed the ambience. That and the absence of gringos and Mexican-Americans, folks with money in their pockets, folks to do business with. It could have been Veracruz or Hermosillo. Any place else further south. But the Mexicans were there at least. Juárez, like New York City, is a street city. It's vitality is out on the streets to watch and feet. A little band of of cristianos were singing corridos to Jesus in the gazebo of the plaza, women and children and men scurried back and forth, buying food for dinner, trying to make a peso somehow, laughing and screaming and chatting and singing. Music blared from loudspeakers. Behind the new mercados is Calle de Paz, a street of unbridaled laissez-faire capitalism. A few years ago Calle de Paz was packed with illegal vendors selling everything from song birds to rattlesnake rattles and herbs to ripped off DVDs (you can buy first run movies for $5) and any kind of dope if you knew who to ask, but after the city built the two new mercados the police ran all the street vendors away at gunpoint. One man, a leader of protesting vendors, was killed. Now, with the recession debilitating the street economies of Juárez, the puestos (stands) are creeping back into the streets. And of course the sad whores are still there. Calle de Paz is the last territory of the old whores, women in their 30s and 40s, fat and worn out, long past the hungry dreams of their late teens and 20s. They stood in the doorways of cheap bars, their eyes empty and lonely, watching the rain come down.

We went to the Villa del Mar for dinner. It’s long been one of my favorites but it’s been a year or so since I was there. A few of the tables had patrons, so that made us happy. At least it was still open. We sat at a booth and a young mesero brought us fresh made chips and two salsas and a bunch of limes. Joe doesn’t drink anymore, I don’t drink much, so we both had agua minerals con limon. I had the Sopa Marinera Grande and Joe had the filete de pescado mojo de ajo. It was very good. We watched the rain fall outside and we talked about all the many times we have crossed back and forth. When the rain slacked up some, we asked for the bill. It was $12.76 (1560 pesos). A little more that 8 pesos for a dollar. Like it was when we were kids. But now I’m 67 and Joe will be 64. Joe laughed. It was his time to pay, but how can it be so cheap? He gave the waiter $20 in ones, the young man smiled a very large smile and we walked back home to the other side.


This morning I woke up at 5am. I had stomach cramps. I had the runs on and off during the day. Oh well. A little memory from our journey. That happens on this side or that side. It happens everywhere. That’s how the Buddha died. He didn’t complain. People have a bad day, they make a mistake. That’s what my friend Art Lewis the famous sax player told me once. I'm still trying to learn.


Here are a couple of poems of mine from my book The Price of Doing Business in Mexico (1998). They are both poems about Juárez and how I feel about that city that’s five minutes from where I write this. Both poems are the same poem differently, but that’s okay. (By the way, I've still not taken the time to figure how to put indents in the blogger, so if you want to see the poems the way they supposed to look on the page, buy the book.) And, oh yeah, the photograph of Lee and me is a favorite of mine, and I’ve used it numerous other places. It was taken in 1977 in Martino’s Restaurant on Avenida Juárez a few blocks from the bridge. Pedro Ruelas Alvarez, a street photographer, took the photograph. We were sitting in the corner booth by the front window. We were living in Las Cruces at the time, and we had no idea that we would ever move to El Paso. Ruelas, who charged us three dollars for the photograph, is now dead, but many of the waiters are still there. Martino’s is having a difficult time. If you have a chance, go by and eat there too.


The Gavachos in the Photograph

They’ll tell you when you’re growing up
that water goes under the bridge,
but they don’t tell you about the bridge
that goes over to Avenida Juárez
where Martino’s Restaurant is
two doors down from the Kentucky Club.
The imagination opens those doors,
and there I am,
the big bearded gavacho in the straw hat,
the coral necklace,
drinking Dos XX Oscura
and thinking I will have enough riches in my pocket
to nourish my heart in case of love.
It’s Lee’s 32nd birthday, 1977,
a year before we moved to El Paso.
Isn’t she beautiful?
I am 35.
We sit in the corner booth by the windows
where the tiny Tarahumara children stand forever
with their outstretched hands
reaching into the emptiness of the 20th Century,
and a kaleidoscope of people walk
back and forth
looking for ways to lose themselves
in the dwindling twilight.
Glittering mirrors.
Hard-crusted bolillo rolls.
French onion soup.
Chateaubriand for two fried in butter French-style.
We become stuffed and drunk and happy.
We wander the streets holding hands,
we climb a rickety staircase
to a small $10 room with clean sheets,
we make love like resplendent wild beasts
in search of something Jesus said,
and then we walk back into
the jingle-jangle of Avenida Juárez.

That was twenty-one years ago now.
Nothing has really changed except us.
Pedro Ruelas Alvarez,
the street photographer who took this picture
is dead now.
Like my mother is dead.
My sister Patsy.
My brother Bill.
Like Lee’s mother and father.

“Water under the bridge, ¿verdad?”

Another gavacho couple is sitting in that booth tonight.
They are looking out the window
at the Indian children with the large black eyes,
and they are afraid
of what they see in that confusion.
Give them a quarter, mister,
give them a dollar,
give them back the secret places
in the mountains where their spirit thrives.
That’s what I always want to do,
to give away something to make myself whole,
but it seems so impossible,
even to give something to myself.
At least I feel like I am at home now,
here in El Paso,
walking back and forth across the bridge,
and I’m hoping to find enough riches in my pocket
to cure some of the ache in my heart.
This is my prayer—
May God grant us all love
and a little bit of peace on Avenida Juárez.


How to Eat Stuffed Fish in Juárez

Jesus died for the sins of us all.
So I walked across the bridge to Mexico
with my friend Rus the basketball coach,
and we ate fish at the Villa del Mar
which seemed like
the natural thing to do.
It was Lent in a Catholic country.
The waiter was a pro, thank God.
Two Bohemias apiece,
chips and fresh pico de gallo,
bolillos (on the soft side)
a good and simple caldo,
the pescado was rellenado
con tiny shrimp and crabmeat—

the bill was 16 bucks and we added a four dollar tip,
becoming heroes because we had money in our pockets.
Outside the afternoon had become night.
The glass doors opened,
and like always
there was the river
of dark fleshy people
who walked up and down
like they knew where they were going.
Hallowed be their names.
Hallowed be all of our names.
We went and said Hello to Benito Juárez,
stern el Presidente Indigeno
gloriously astride a marble and bronze pedestal
in the exact center of a plaza
that carried his name like secret ammunition.
Pancho Villa and Emilio Zapata
were somewhere in the shadows of the flimsy trees,
happy to be the guardians of a pair of lovers
who were snuggled up on a green park bench.
The man had his hand inside the woman’s white blouse.
We turned back into the clutter of human beings,
the clanging traffic,
and a little Tarahumara brother and sister who found us
like lost pieces of a puzzle, blessed us
with their sad hunger, their black watery eyes
blinking with the memory of

the Sierra Madre,
dead babies,
lost Gods.

All that we had to give was money.
50¢ for each of them.
Enough so that they fled back to their mother,
a tiny woman who sat on the curb with another baby
wrapped in a rebozo that was becoming the color of night.

It would have been nice
to have had my wife along beside me,
friend and lover, a woman
to touch my hand crossing the confused streets.
But Rus was okay—
he listened to the disturbances in my sentences
like a friend is supposed to do,
at least until he ran into a British travel-writer-novelist-acquaintance
who towed along a wife and a blonde couple from Baltimore,
all of them younger than me, all of them
delighted with who they were and who
they were going to be.
I should have told them about my brother Bill,
whose heart burst open one morning
two months before
after he had bagged his limit one last time
of beautiful mallard ducks
from the cold Mississippi sky.
The Holy Trinity—

God the Holy Blood,
God the Holy Dead,
God the Holy Food.

I didn’t because
this was Mexico and Mississippi is Mississippi
and my brother was dead now
So there we all were
five gavachos on the other side
with nothing to talk about
except ourselves.
We avoided the subject for the most part.
At least we didn’t talk about basketball.
Thank you, Jesus.
I bought a bottle of Tequila and went home.


butch said...

What a treat, Bobby. Many of us who live thousands of miles away from that urban war zone only hear the totally negative CNN jive about Juarez. How wonderful to get a glimpse of it through your eyes. And thanks for including that perspective of two other Juarez poems from the past. Sad to hear of the dysentary blues, but that often is the price of Mexican water, whether it tastes good or not. CNN reported that in one year there have been over 4,000 lives lost there in Juarez, like the body count of US dead in Irag and Afghanistan. Many of us are pleased you didn't get plugged while chowing down with friend Joe. Be careful with yourself. You are too valuable of a poetic resource to read about, or hear about as an innocent fatality in that terrible chaos.


Terry Lucas said...


Good to hear about Juarez. I've not been since 1973--my last year to live in Las Cruces. Also good to hear these poems--I have a copy of The Price of Doing Business in Mexico on my desk, open to "The Gabachos in the Photograph." BTW, I bought the book in a used bookstore somewhere about ten years ago. It is autographed with an inscription: "For Mike--en la frontera" I assume he was very hungry or ill to have let go of these terrific poems. Peace.

Francisco Serratos said...

It's nice to know that, at least, one soul from El Paso cross the bridge in this awful times.
I like your post.