Picturing the border: memories of Ciudad Juárez, México

Tuesday, February 26, 2019 - 7:41pm

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Illustration by Sherry Chen

I have a vivid memory of an old photograph — I am 5 years old. I am in the park across the street from my house in my school uniform, clutching in my hands two Barbie dolls and laughing. Behind me, the metal playground stands tall and barren, too hot to the touch under the heat of the afternoon desert sun. On the ground are sparse patches of yellowing grass, as if someone tried to make it grow but realized any attempt to shield it from the drought would be futile.

A vibrant Ciudad Juárez, Mexico surrounds me. Beyond the guard and gate that protect my neighborhood, there is a wide avenue that runs north to south. It abruptly turns left when it runs into the basin of “el Río Bravo,” or the Rio Grande, as if acknowledging it is not welcome on the other side. Despite the apparent rejection from the “gringos,” a bustling business district dwells on either side of the street. Everything from restaurants and bars to costume shops and hair salons can be found there. Old American school buses that have been painted over and now function as public transportation drive up and down carelessly, a phone number labeled as “quejas,” or complaints, always written on the back just in case. People honk their horns at the jugglers who practice their art standing at intersections in hopes of receiving a peso or two from drivers.

At night, the avenue lights up in color, with strobe lights and smoke machines functioning at maximum speed until the early hours of the day. Occasionally, sirens can be heard in the distance, rushing to the site of the next robbery or homicide. Over 1 million people coexist around this avenue — some are up to no good, but most lay their heads on their pillows every night thinking about love, professional success or responsibilities.

The year is 2002. The average price of a USD is 9.67 MXN. Due to the implementation of NAFTA, there are 396 factories, or “maquiladoras,” operating in Juárez. The average “maquiladora” worker earns 6 to 8 USD per day. But they are finding themselves unemployed as factories gear up to leave the valley and outsource to China. Due to the factory exodus, 200,000 people are uninsured. The justice movement “Ni una más,” or “Not One More,” is formed in response to an increase in women’s killings, or “femicidios.” The mayoral election has been canceled due to fraud allegations.

I have a vivid memory of an old photograph, my mother standing behind the camera, capturing a perfectly uncomplicated moment in my life. My laughter echoes innocently up the avenue and into my neighbor’s houses, spilling onto the canvas of a complicated society, one forcibly delineated by what once was a flowing river, but is now an empty basin. Once the sound reaches the riverbed, it dips but then rises again and crosses freely onto the other side.

That freedom, the privilege, to laugh so sincerely and without preoccupation would soon be muffled by expectations. From a very young age, I was accused of curiosity. I was a “callejera,” or a girl who liked being out of the house, and a “jacalotes,” or a girl who always wanted to have fun. My curiosity was met with the realization that the more I learned about my society, the more I would be pushed to obey its rules. Close your legs when you sit. Smile at compliments from old men. Feel good when they say you look like a butterfly. Don’t object when their eyes follow you as you walk away.

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Courtesy of Andrea Pérez Balderrama

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Eight years later, the candor of my laughter has been replaced by a feigned, frustrated smile. Another memory of a photograph, except in this one I am 13 years old. I am surrounded by friends in the basketball courts of our “secu,” or secondary school. We just performed in our school’s “fonoshow,” the Mexican equivalent to an American school’s talent show. This year, we banded together with a group of 9th grade students to choreograph a medley of songs. In the picture, a group of nine girls and two boys takes center stage. All of the girls, bare shouldered and wearing fishnet tights, don red lipstick and rehearsed smiles while the boys stand there with their hands by their sides and straight faces.

I am kneeling on the ground. My hair, made to look unnaturally big, shines a golden brown, sun-kissed color that contrasts with my fair, makeup-covered skin. The outfit makes me look at least 15. My black shirt displays two spray painted golden hands over my breasts, and a white bra strap peeks out from under one of the shirt’s black spaghetti straps. My hand is uncomfortably patting my black tulle skirt down, as if its length made me uncomfortable.

Some of the other girls also place their hands in strategic places. One covers her chest while pretending to touch her collarbone. Another crosses her arms around her waist, hiding her midriff from the camera. Some hide behind others, and some try to make themselves bigger. We are all dressed the same, but each of us wears the makeup and clothes differently.

Our school now runs drills in case of shootings, and the man who used to sell us popsicles from the other side of the fence has been banned. Security has been tightened –– parents now have to carry photo IDs of their kids to be able to enter the school grounds. Kids go missing for weeks — we are told they went on vacation, but rumors fly around that they crossed the border for safety. Their parents have been kidnapped. Their uncle was killed. Their brother was caught by “sicarios,” or hitmen, surrounded by the wrong company.  

Beyond us, the sunset, and the imminent darkness that is to follow it, dissolves plans and causes families to lock their doors and draw their curtains. The avenue stretches wider now than it did in 2002, but there are no cars to fill it. Once in a while, a lonely driver appears on the horizon and finds themselves waiting at a red light in vain. There are no cars driving on the cross street. What was once a bustling business district is now plagued by boarded storefronts and broken windows. In some places, bullet holes can be seen puncturing old store signs and doors of businesses that are still open to customers –– there isn’t enough money to patch up or replace them.

Park benches and pavilions don’t serve their purpose anymore. They just tolerate the sun every day, their paint chipping and being eaten away by the radiation. The patches of grass that once existed in the park across the street from my house have long been forgotten, and now a layer of dust accumulates on our neighborhoods’ cars every time boys come out to play “fútbol.” Fences go up to block streets that once could be traveled freely, and cameras are installed at restaurants and stores.

On the north end of the avenue, the “gringos” have built an iron fence on the ancient basin of the “Río Bravo.” At night, Border Patrol SUVs station themselves at intervals to guard it. It is as if they have grown more scared and proud with the passing of time, each year broadening the chasm between self and other within which Border Patrol officers find comfort.

The year is 2010. The average price of 1 USD is 12.75 MXN. At least 3,000 deaths have been reported in Juárez, out of which 306 were femicides. Living in the metropolitan area are 1,332,131 people, making the city the eighth largest in Mexico. The Sinaloa Cartel and Juárez Cartels are fighting a “turf war.” During some months, Juárez reportedly experiences 10 murders a day. Some consider our city a war zone, so much so that the Mexican government has sent us military forces. Military checkpoints are common, but even more common yet is to see soldiers with their hands on the trigger of automatic weapons.

I am kneeling on the ground, and the innocent laughter that seemed so normal in 2002 has now vanished. Instead, I look uncomfortable. My smile appears wide, but my eyes say something else. The moment the camera managed to capture is no longer uncomplicated. The laughter that once spilled unpreoccupied is now contained in a forced smile, kept at bay by the knowledge and the expectations that have accumulated with time. It is charged with years of bearing witness, years of seeing, feeling and hearing things that will never be forgotten.

The avenue and the river basin, as empty and broken as they may seem, are still my only landmarks. At 13, I am actively discovering my body and identity, but I can only build up from what I already know. I know women are never supposed to sit with their legs open. I know I am never supposed to admit that I wear makeup. Instead, I need to apply the perfect amount, enough to enhance my features but still go unnoticed by other people. I know my friends are embarrassed to eat in front of men for fear that they will be perceived as fat or without manners. I know I always need to smell good and smile quietly in the background of a conversation. I know I am never supposed to go the bathroom alone. I know I should feel flattered when a man tells me I am beautiful, even if it is at the wrong place in the wrong time.

Even if I never wanted to hear it or do it in the first place.

I feel uncomfortable in my own body. Violence finds a way to circle around it like a vulture patiently waiting for its prey to die.

Violence circles my body in the “literal” way –– I always have to look back and make sure that a man is not following me when I am in the store without my mother. I look back the same way that I always do when my father is driving past dawn, making sure no car follows us home, out of fear of being physically harmed.

There is a park near my house. It used to be an empty lot, but the government found a way to transform one of the corners into a memorial for the victims of femicide. Its walls are painted white with bright pink trims and the ground is littered with black and pink wooden crosses. In 2002, the sight of such bright colored walls and the presence of the crosses would spark me to ask questions that my mother never wanted to answer, but now I keep quiet. I know why the park is there now. I know what the crosses stand for. I understand what it means, and I have no reason to believe that I am exempt from that treatment.

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Courtesy of Andrea Pérez Balderrama

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Another 8 years have passed since I knelt on the basketball courts of my “secu,” and yet another photograph has been taken. For this one, I am able to recall the exact moment when it happened. It was a humid summer day in Mexico City, and my family was visiting La Casa Azul, Frida Kahlo’s childhood home converted into a museum of her art. My cousin motioned me to pose for a picture, and I reluctantly agreed. It was a painless, fast moment. She kneeled, took the photo and stood up. I never imagined she would provide me with one of my favorite photographs of myself.

My smile is secure, confident, and I am looking directly at the camera. I am wearing my favorite summer dress. Its cream color makes my skin appear sun-kissed, and the pattern melts into the background, as if Frida and I agreed to match our taste. The dress itself is heavy, made out of rayon, but it doesn’t seem to be bringing me down. My hands sit delicately on my sides, shoulders are relaxed, and I am leaning back slightly as if motioning to the sky.

In the background, barely there, is the window of Frida’s studio. Her garden blossoms around me, and the little sun that can escape the canopy of trees creates shadows that dance on my face. The photo was taken from below, so it appears as if I am towering over the frame. Despite the exotic plants and colorful flowers and walls of the background, I am still the point of focus of the photograph. Every angle and line leads the eye to my face.

Out of the frame and surrounding me is a city that I barely know and a country that I no longer recognize. No sabes nada de la Ciudad de México, muchos se van y terminan regresando a sus pueblos asustados. You don’t know anything about Mexico City, many go and go back to their towns scared. That is what my grandma kept saying to me when I told her I wanted to move there.

The country, I don’t recognize because I left it. I have been living in the U.S. since 2011 and I now understand so much more. I am able to build my identity not only on the things that I see and experience, but also based on other people who are different than me but have some shared experiences.

The year is 2018. I have not lived in Juárez since I was 13 and I am now 20. The years have flown by without hesitation, and the girl in the photograph has learned how to reclaim herself. I still look back in the supermarket to see if any man is following me, but have stopped trying to determine if the person driving behind me has malicious intentions. I no longer shave my legs, now eat in front of men and always go to the bathroom by myself.

Most importantly, I have found my voice. I never knew it was possible to advocate for myself the way I have learned to do since 2011. It is in the small things. The girl with golden hands over her breasts, red lips and unnecessarily big hair is now a part of a different, slightly more accepting society.

I now know my voice deserves to be heard. I know that violence and fear may have prevented me from speaking before, but I am also aware that what I accepted as normal then would never pass as normal now. I am able to see everything that happened to me in Juárez as an outsider. I learn about my hometown from books and classes, from people who have never been there before. Their approach, the way they see my city may not be holistic, but I do think that it is valuable to study your experiences through an outsider’s role.

If it wasn’t for the University of Michigan, I would have not had the amount of education needed to process and deal with the remaining trauma left over from those last few years in Juárez.