Dreaming a Flat Bridge between Juárez and El Paso

Since Luis Urrea's visit to El Paso, I got sidetracked and I find myself moving around the furniture in my imagination about El Paso and Juárez. That's how I found this postcard tucked into our digital files for David Romo's Ringside Seat to a Revolution. How charming and idyllic it is, so much so it drips with the real blood of irony in comparing to what we have now. It's true, back in the day, the bridge between El Paso and Juárez was flat [*see note], and the Rio Bravo (aka, Rio Grande) was a common resource, certainly not a fenced and heavily guarded dividing line between El Norte and El Sur. Then in the early 60s the Kennedy Administration brokered the Chamizal Treaty which diverted the river into a concrete ditch. It also moved the border at the downtown bridge a hundred yards or so north, over which some pendejo engineer designed, and the feds built, a three story tall bridge. It's meaning was simple--divide one city from the other. These decisions, made in DC and DF, radically altered not only the river, but also south downtown El Paso, especially around the Segundo Barrio and Chihuahuita Barrio. And over the years since the 60s the culture and the politics of the two cities has changed dramatically. It was slow change at first, but then in the mid-90s to now, the change became accelerated. The border on the U.S. side has become a military camp for a number of federal agencies, each elbowing more and more space for themselves, fewer and fewer people from the U.S. go back and forth to enjoy families and friends and entertainment to simply enjoy Mexico, and illegal drugs and immigration have become essential cash industries for the Mexican economy. And so how do we reverse this insanity? How do we make our bridge flat again?

First thought, best thought: Rewrite the U.S. drug laws; remove the capitalistic incentive from the sale of marijuana, heroin and cocaine; and treat addiction as a sickness, not as a crime. But you say this to the bureaucrats in D.C., they just talk gobbley-gook, then they turn around and show you their fat asses. I'm a poet and I should be able to say this better, but, damnit, as I write this, it's Friday afternoon, and I'm tired of the insanity I see.

Insanity like a three-story bridge that should be a flat bridge.


[**NOTE: Thanks to Roberto Camp who a long time ago explained to me that the building of that monstrosity of a bridge was a tipping point in the history of these two sister cities.]


Round 1: Juárez / El Paso Riddle vs Luis Alberto Urrea

"Juárez No.1" A paper mache piñata by Abel Saucedo
In an exhibition of his work at the El Paso, Downtown Library
Juárez No.1 refers to ongoing drug war and murders.
For more information about Saucedo's work, see this article

Open up the El Paso Times most days--first section, page 6 or 7, you'll read an article like the one below about the on-going narco wars going on down the hill and across the river in Juárez from where Lee and I live.

Bodies of five men found in Juárez
By Daniel Borunda / El Paso Times
Posted: 08/05/2009 04:08:36 PM MDT

The bodies of five men, one of whom was decapitated, were found in a parked sport utility vehicle Wednesday morning in Juárez, Chihuahua state police said.

The man's severed head was in a plastic bag left atop the hood of a red Jeep Patriot found about 5:40 a.m. near Avenida Tecnologico and Avenida Vicente Guerrero. The men had not been identified and appeared to have been beaten.

There had been three additional homicides by Wednesday afternoon, adding to the nearly 1,200 people killed in Juárez this year due in part by a war among drug traffickers.

Here's the rub. El Paso is ranked the third safest in the country and Men's Health magazine ranked El Paso the second "happiest city" in the country. Weird shit. I haven't studied the statistics, and, in fact, they bore me. I leave that sort of stuff to my daughter Susie Byrd who sits on the El Paso Council. She loves the nuts and bolts of running a city. I'm a poet. I like thinking and writing about El Paso and Juárez, cities that I've come to love, two cities divided by a river and an international border but which made out of the same cloth, the same place, the same roots. All sorts of paradoxes and contradictions and, as Blake called them, contraries.

So I was delighted and curious when the editor at Playboy Magazine (yeah, yeah, that Playboy Magazine) hired Luis Alberto Urrea to come down here to write an article about El Paso. Writers usually parachute into El Paso, they talk to the usual suspects of reporters and so-called experts of various persuasions (politics, academia, etcetera) from both sides of the river and then they send back blood and guts dispatches. But the Playboy editor wanted a different look at a city that occupies such a contradictory and peculiarly romantic place in the American psyche. He chose Luis for obvious reasons. Luis is un fronterizo puro carrying all the appropriate baggage. He grew up in Tijuana and San Diego, his father is Mexican, his mother is from Boston, for God's sake, and he's recognized for his non-fiction about the border, more recently The Devil's Highway. Besides, he writes like a novelist because he is a novelist, eg the epic Hummingbird's Daughter about Teresa Urrea (yeah, a distant cousin whom all the Urreas call tia), aka Teresita, la Santa de Cabora. It's a long story. Read his books.

Luis was in town for a week talking with people and driving around and taking notes. He's been here a bunch of times before--to visit, to speak at the Border Book Festival or UTEP or NMSU, to do research in the archives at the downtown library and at UTEP re: his tia Teresita. This time he stayed at our house on Louisville in the Five Points neighborhood of El Paso. It was fun for Lee and me to have him around. We talked about our common obsessions--El Paso and writing and books and writer gossip and poetry. Benjamin Alire Saenz had us over to dinner one night, I drove him around, historian David Romo (Ringside Seat to a Revolution) drove him around, Susie drove him around and introduced him to all sorts of folks, he met with Border Patrol section chief Paul Wells, he ate at Papa Burgers and Chico's Tacos and Ardovino's Desert Crossing, he listened to and hung out with Ernie Tinajero and the band Radio la Chusma, etcetera. He certainly didn't get the Cook's Tour. He got the down-home tour. Which, as you'll see, included the Concordia and Smelter Town cemeteries. We got interesting ghosts wandering around.

"The Good & the Bad" A Found Poem in Concordia Cemetery.
Who knows if the rocks are the same rocks.

Concordia Cemetery is across the street from the L&J Restaurant, one of the great Mexican restaurants and watering holes in El Paso. I had taken Luis here years before and he wanted to go back to visit John Wesley Hardin's grave. Concordia is an old west graveyard--nameless and forgotten graves for the poor and not so poor; a barren Chinese graveyard enclosed by a stone fence with rectangular blocks of concrete sitting atop the bones; lots of tombs for the richer Catholic dead; a well manicured grassy section for the Jewish dead; a similar section for the Methodist. The dead are always dead no matter who they are. The dust and rocks and burrowing owls tell us this truth. Likewise the volunteer cactus and desert trees and weeds. We are all spectators of the dead. A very strange place on a hot day. Very strange thoughts.

The Concordia's main claim to fame is that John Wesley Hardin is buried there. A jail surrounds his grave--not for any symbolic reason, but because several years ago citizens of his birthplace tried to steal his bones. They wanted to transport the murderer back to East Texas for purely monetary reasons. JWH is a tourist draw. Such is the weird El Paso news.

John Wesley Hardin's Gravesite

Chinese Grave, Concordia Cemetery

Child's Grave, Concordia Cemetery>

Luis and Johnny Byrd in the shade of a big mesquite.
It was at least 104 that day.

Before you check out, make sure you watch Radio la Chusma playing "Cruising"--it's pure El Paso sound, all those Mexican vibes mixed in oldie radio and very hip chicanismo. You get to ride around in a two-tone Chevy through El Chuco. Watchalo!

Round 2 will be Monument Marker 1 and the Smelter Town Cemetery. It'll be up in a few days.


Death Rider on Texas Avenue

Death Rider on Texas Avenue.
He needed 70-cents to catch a bus.
He told me I wouldn’t believe him why.
I didn’t. It’s the luck of the draw.
I wish it made sense but it doesn’t make sense.
August and we can almost taste the cooler weather.
Bright tomatoes. A cantaloupe.
I gave him $5.