FNS Photo Essay: Our Border 2015: Juarez Summer

Editor’s Note: Frontera NorteSur is proud to be based in the Paso del Norte, a historic region which encompasses two countries and three states. In the first of a series of photo essays, we take a visual tour of the Ciudad Juarez side of the border. Snapped for posterity one summer day of 2015, this photographic tour  was taken at a moment when the Mexican border city is undergoing yet another historic transformation.

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After years of abandonment, crowds have returned to Avenida Juarez, the main drag of downtown Ciudad Juarez that leads to the Santa Fe Bridge connecting to neighboring El Paso, Texas.

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A mariachi performer rests on a new bench on Avenida Juarez.  Planted along the Avenida, the benches are part of a comprehensive downtown revitalization project.  Originally began about a decade ago, the project is coming to fruition after delays wrought by development controversies, political transitions, property sales negotiations and the Great Violence of 2008-2012. Spearheaded by the Chihuahua state and municipal governments, the redevelopment has been underwritten in good measure by funds from the Mexican federal government.

Local officials view downtown revitalization as pivotal in the current recovery and future vibrancy of a border city home to more than 1.3 million people.

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A dominating mural of famed singer Alberto Aguilera Valadez, better known as Juan Gabriel, lords over Avenida Juarez.  Completed earlier this year, the simple message reads: “Congratulations to all the people who are proud of who you are.”

Born in the Mexican state of Michoacan in 1950, as an infant Juan Gabriel was brought to Juarez, where he launched a story book musical and acting career.  Gabriel’s songs, including “No Tengo Dinero,” “El Noa Noa” and “Querida,” are  imprinted  into the sound track of contemporary Mexican life. Countless artists have done cover versions of tunes from Juanga’s repertoire.  Recently, “The Divo of Juarez” rolled out a new song that celebrated Juarez and questioned why neighbors in El Paso don’t visit a sister city just a short stroll across the Santa Fe Bridge.

Reprinted in the Norte daily,  a few of the words  from the song go something like this in English:

Yes, you are more handsome

Now more of a city

Now more secure

There is tranquility…

It’s simple, as they say

Why on earth do you never come see me?

If I could go to El Paso, I swear, I wouldn’t be insisting to you again

Might it be that you are accustomed to the good life you give to yourself?

Or could it be that you’re forgetting me?

Why don’t you come to Juarez to see me?

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Officially, the remodeled Avenida Juarez  is now  “The Juan Gabriel Binational Tourist Corridor.” Gabriel’s public praises of Chihuahua Governor Cesar Duarte, and even the inclusion of the politician’s name in the new
Juarez song, sparked polemics over the singer’s long relationships with Duarte and the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party, especially in the days leading up to the mid-term 2015 elections.

“The charisma of Juan Gabriel, his altruistic work in this city and his status as a popular idol disarms the people and fools them into the hands of political sponsors,” wrote  local political commentator Carlos Murillo in the Juarez Dialogo blog. “Allowing themselves to be seduced, the people forget hard feelings and focus on the fiesta, the spectacle…”

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Pedestrians view the underpass that exits on Avenida Juarez. Inaugurated last year, the underpass flooded shortly after its opening but escaped a similar incident so far this year.

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Young rock n’ rollers kick out the jams on the new, spacious public plaza that extends along Avenida 16 de Septiembre from Francisco Villa Avenue next to the train tracks all the way to the old historic plaza in front of the Cathedral.  On this hot and stuffy summer day, the crowd sought shade below buildings in front of the band not seen in this photo.  During the last two years, Juarez’s street music scene has exploded, with rock n’ roll, blues and popular Mexican music the favored genres. When the weather is right, large crowds encircle the bands and couples blissfully dance the afternoon away…

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People mill inside a Coca Cola stand set up one weekend to celebrate a company anniversary. Mexico is one of the largest consumers in the world of Coke, and delivery trucks reach even the most remote villages.

Health experts partially blame Mexico’s obesity crisis, ranking in league with the United States’, on the consumption of sugary drinks.  A 2014 analysis of obesity rates by the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development found that more than one in three adults in the U.S. and Mexico were obese, while more than one in four in Canada were in the same category.
Hmm.., might the North American Free Trade Agreement have anything to do with this phenomenon?

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Like other Mexican cities, pawn stores have proliferated in Juarez in recent years. The hock shops get especially busy before and after holiday seasons and in the run-up to school when parents have to pay registration fees, purchase school uniforms and buy supplies.

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An entirely different shopping and cultural experience awaits the visitor to Sunday’s Bazar del Monu, which is located at the Benito Juarez Monument and park on Vicente Guerrero Avenue on the edge of downtown Juarez.

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A trip to the bazaar is a flashback into the Age of Analog. Here, shoppers can find eight-track and cassette players, plug-in clocks, AM-only radios and almost every other imaginable device that kept the human race buzzing along before the Deacons of Digital conquered the world.

“I don’t like new items-laser discs, computers,” vendor Jose Armando Contreras Hernandez said. “It’s not right that you spend six months with your CD and it’s no good anymore.”  Contrary to stereotypes, Contreras said the customer demand for durable pre-digital era goods isn’t just confined to old fogies. “Some of the youngsters prefer old articles. They find out that the laser discs don’t last for years,” he said.

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At the Bazar del Monu , visitors find priceless second hand odds and ends, antiques, classic novels in Spanish and English, stunning handmade jewelry, and more. The Monu is perhaps one of the best places in either Mexico or the U.S. Southwest to find old blues and jazz recordings- vinyl, CD, eight track or cassette. Massage tables, musical and dance performances and other artistic expressions round out the free event.

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Pablo Montalvo coordinates the Sunday cultural bazaar. A co-founder of the event, Montalvo recalled episodes a few years back when he and other Monu regulars experienced first-hand the so-called narco war.

“All of a sudden there would be shoot-outs and we’d hit the ground,”  Montalvo told FNS.  During the carnage, the citizens of Juarez were faced with a stark choice, he said: “Do we stay inside at home or go out?”
Montalvo and his friends refused to be cowered behind four walls.  “We’re coming out of the fear we lived in for many years,” Montalvo described the mood in Juarez. These days, hundreds may turn out to the Monu on a typical day.

News of the Monu has gone international, and Montalvo is noticeably pleased to hear about journalistic and artistic attention paid to the weekly coming together of the tribes in places like Germany, Houston and Honduras. “We’re crossing borders,” he gleamed.

Montalvo invites Pasenos, New Mexicans and indeed, anyone from anywhere in the world, to see, smell, hear and taste the Monu, open every Sunday from about noon to five pm or so.

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The Bazar del Monu attracts a cross-section of Juarez and border society. More than anything else, the Monu is a place of reclaimed public space, conversation, community and creativity.

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Juarez is emerging as an important center of urban art. During the last two or three years, murals and other forms of public art have spread across the city. On one end of the Benito Juarez Monument and park, Roy Reyes (center) and two friends paint a mural aimed at inspiring reading. The mural contains words by Mexican writer Octavio Paz and Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. “Poetry is the hanging bridge between history and the truth,” read Paz’s words.

“This is to beautify the city a bit, and give the people a little art,” Reyes said. The Juarez painter said he and his friends were contracted by the private Comex paint company to do the Benito Juarez Monument mural.  “We’re going to do various murals,” he added, mentioning sports, entertainment and ecology as other topics the muralists plan to paint.

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While many murals are going up across Juarez, a previous one stands wiped out on the wall of a middle school across from the Benito Juarez Monument. During the third week of August 2015, still publicly unidentified men painted over the mural dedicated to Luz Angelica Mena Flores, a young woman who disappeared in Juarez eight years ago.  Relatives of disappeared and murdered young women were outraged by the affront.

“I feel as if my daughter was just disappeared. I can’t express all that I feel. I simply do not have words. ” Luz del Carmen Flores,” told El Diario de Juarez. “ Seeing her painting re-comforted me and gave me consolation, because I always have had faith and hope.”

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Buses crowd Vicente Guerrero down the street from the Monu. Downtown Juarez is a transportation hub for buses that transport people to and from far-flung working-class subdivisions and colonias including Riberas del Bravo, Tierra Nueva, Lomas de Poleo, Anapra, Alta Vista, and dozens of more. Many of the privately-owned buses are in poor condition, and passengers may have to endure rickety long rides across the city on rutted, pot-hole marked roads that sometimes cave in or turn into small lakes after summer monsoon storms-if they come.

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Women pass by a casa de cambio, or money exchange outlet, on Avenida Juarez. In 2015, Mexico is undergoing another peso devaluation of historic proportions. Lately, the headlines of local newspapers have played up the continued drop in the value of the peso in relation to the dollar. “The dollar surpasses 17 and previews a blow to wages,” blared Norte in a recent edition. Analysts attribute the peso plunge to low oil prices and jitters over a possible raise in U.S. interest rates.

The cheap peso favors tourism, families cashing in migrant dollars sent from El Norte and the foreign-controlled maquiladora sector, a cornerstone industry in Juarez, as labor costs diminish.

Jerry Pacheco, executive director of the International Business Accelerator in New Mexico, analyzed the winners and losers in a recent piece. According to Pacheco, the peso lost 19 percent of its value just in the 12-month period from August 2014 to August 2015, hitting its “lowest level against the dollar in history.”

Though the cheap peso is a boon for the maquiladora industry, the current exchange rate will discourage shoppers from trekking across the border to cities like El Paso that depend, in large part, on Mexican shoppers. “This could result in decreasing investment and job losses on the U.S. side,” Pacheco wrote. “The dance between the dollar and the peso and the associated effects are strong evidence how economically interdependent the U.S. and Mexico have become…”

For many Juarenses, immersed in cross-border commerce and living, the strong dollar is bad news.  Juarez university professor Teresa Vazquez was previously able to reside in El Paso, but since her peso-paid salary is of less and less value in dollar land, she must now consider renting in Juarez. Rising El Paso rents, courtesy of the unfavorable exchange rate, are “choking me,” she said.

The Bazar del Monu’s Pablo Montalvo said he used to zip across the river to purchase music for resale in Juarez.  But the trip is now not worth the effort, forcing a change in shopping strategies, he said. “I have to shop in the popular markets here,” Montalvo added.

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A Juarez institution, the Kentucky Club bar survived the Great Violence. While many businesses closed shop or fled across the river to the Sun City, the Kentucky Club hanged tough with a die-hard Mexicano clientele and a handful of daring El Paso customers. Nowadays, the historic watering hole esta de modo, or in fashion, attracting a lively, young Juarez crowd. Good luck finding an empty stool on certain afternoons and evenings!

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From ruins to Riches? Construction equipment sits parked on Mariscal Street one block off Avenida Juarez. Once the city’s red light district of legend and lore, Mariscal is now largely razed and poised for re-development as the next phase in the downtown revitalization takes shape.  Not far from here, a new Noa Noa club, the namesake of the old establishment made famous by the Juan Gabriel song and connected to none other than Juanga himself, could be in the makings.

In early September 2015, plans for a new development close to this scene and snuggled against the international river border were unveiled. Named “Hacienda Paso del Norte,” and conceptualized in the “Pueblito Mexicano” style, the development is slated to include a plaza, a supermarket, a pharmacy, restaurants, stores, bars, disco and casino, according to El Diario and Norte.
A group of investors including Javier Gomez Ito and Carlos Murguia, cousin of former Mayor Hector “Teto” Murguia, are behind the project.  The current city government offered the land to investors at a discounted rate, the local press reported.

A short promotional video posted on You Tube offers a drone’s eye view of an upscale commercial center. With music by Mariachi Vargas de Tecalitlan setting  the mood, the camera hovers over a seaside resort-like spread sprouting palm trees and an abstract fountain. Imagine Cancun or Los Cabos on the Rio Grande.

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Erected by women’s activists more than a decade ago, La Cruz de Clavos (The Nail Cross) sits at the foot of the Juarez side of the Santa Fe Bridge.  Virtually impossible for any pedestrian returning to El Paso to miss, the structure honors the victims of feminicide. Names of disappeared and murdered women are affixed to the nails making up the cross. Recently an individual or individuals draped the cross with a red-stained Mexican flag and the word “Justice” in Spanish.

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A view of sister city El Paso, Texas, from Ciudad Juarez just across the Rio Grande/Rio Bravo. In the foreground a Burlington, Northern and Santa  Fe train skirts the border.  In the background, beyond the U.S. and Mexican flags fluttering on the international line, the downtown skyline of El Paso is lettered with names like Chase Manhattan.

Photos: Bob Chessey

Text: Kent Paterson


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