It’s taken me a while to understand where the infamous violence of Juarez came from which is why I’m writing this blog towards the end of my trip.
It’s worth noting that historically large parts of southern USA were actually Mexico until recently and many people from Juarez to this day feel northern Mexico has been sacrificed non-consensually. (El Paso was annexed around 1848, again the vast desert somehow making the boarder town more remote and less connected/valuable.) That said, the boarder cities are also the gateway to "the dream land", which in itself creates a complex and insurmountable range of problems and opportunities. In fact in 1940’s Juarez was well known for it’s live Jazz scene and original plans to create Las Vegas were actually designed for Juarez.
Today I met with Chabello, an incredible percussionist/musician and the founder of a peaceful music movement for boarder city bands called Alianza Fronteriza, (Border Aliance). Chabello took me to The Kentucky Bar, which is where the famous Margarita was invented where he spoke openly and passionately about the Jaurez music scene, past and present. The walls were littered with pictures of American icons such as Marilyn Monroe, John F Kenndy, Elvis, Jonny Cash and more. After a swift and unreasonably strong Margarita we walked around the downtown area and visited another couple of other bars which all had signs that said no drugs, guns or minors, which for me seems a curious thing to insist upon, like it might not be a given.
(La Cucaracha doesn't look like this picture anymore!)
The next day a few colleagues and myself visit a place called ‘La Cucaracha’ (The Cockroach) also downtown. The bridge that takes you into El Paso (USA) is literally yards from the doors of La Cucaracha yet despite the close proximity the river that divides the cities represents a deep and distinct cultural divide. In recent years small time drug dealers and street beggars sit in the doorways of the crumbling and naively optimistic music hall venues. The Cucaracha itself would have once been a lavish, beautiful and vibrant music venue with a capacity of around 750 with an ornate and decorative surround balcony. It’s 11pm, Friday evening and we are the only three people in the venue. The walls are dressed with an impressive range of dusty stringed instruments. Old cardboard boxes are stacked in all corners, the bar’s only pool table has become a dumping ground for old percussion about 30 years ago and an ‘out of order sign’ in the men’s toilet looks like it was put there about the same time. The owner sits in a dirty red t-shirt watching a gameshow from a big old analogue TV in the centre of the bar and when I cheerfully ask him to recommend a drink he begrudgingly gives me the best tequila I’ve ever tasted. He is probably the most miserable and depressed shell of a man I have every met and yet for some reason I like him. Eventually we talk about music and out of the blue he starts playing English Victorian children’s songs and nursery rhymes on a beaten up old piano before equally impromptuly going back to his TV.
I’ve gone into detail about La Cucaracha as for it represents the feeling of abandonment of downtown Juarez, and where dreams and drugs are pushed up through Latin American and now congregate in this bottleneck.
I’ve been told upon a number of occasions that Juarez is a multicultural city and a place where immigrants settle. When I dig a little deeper it seems this mostly means people from Southern Mexico who are on their way to USA or to find work in the factories. This is strange for me because the thought of a Cornish person settling in Durham and being called an immigrant would be laughable but I have to remind myself the England is about the same size as the state in which Jaurez sits, Chihuahua. In the latter part of last century Jaurez saw a huge influx of single parents, mostly women who came to work in the sewing factories making clothes for the USA market who would then sell the same items back to Mexico at an inflated price (even now many people from poor Juarez communities will go over the boarder to buy clothes that have often been made in Mexico to resell them on street corners to make some money). During these times the women worked long and hard shifts, their children were left at home and the barrios became swamped kids from single parent families. These children, feeling alone and abandoned, craved to belong to, and feel part of something. The toxic mix of a surplice supply of boarder town drugs, powerful drug cartels and barrios teaming with adolescent, frustrated, poor and lonely children fused to create some of the worst violence the world has ever seen. During my first every phone call with Alma she told me that when a child works hard to achieve the applause of an excited audience they feel a deep satisfaction that no drug or gun could ever replicate. I don’t want to oversimplify things but at the same time Ccompaz’s approach to violence is not rocket science; it’s the same feeling of wanting to belong, from the same children, only now they have something positive to do.
A clip from one of my favourite interviews....