I grew up in the arid valley where the moonlight was muffled by the smoke of thousands of coal-burning stoves. It was cold and scary at night and the day came, only to reveal the night’s crimes. Every morning, the newspaper delivered headlines of the number of people, my people, who didn’t make it through. Dozens every month. Hundreds every year. It was an eye for an eye among my people. The vicious cycle of death and suffering continued uninterrupted for years.
Nobody was spared — not the rich, not the poor, not those who ran or those who hid. Every single person was affected. Family members started to go missing. Some came back and some were never seen again. Some were taken viciously and purposely. Some were mere accidents of a ricochet bullet. Their deaths were quick and painless.
Nobody knew how to stop the misery, but everyone was learning every day how to live in it. There were no rules. Love was vanishing. We lived in a war zone, yet the world was unaware of our suffering.
I sat somewhere on the top branches of a tree looking out at Lake Michigan, unearthing memories. It had been some time since I had been to Juarez, Mexico, but I still liked to open my chest of memories once in a while. I was afraid of forgetting about my people and their suffering, but was also privileged enough to be able to see it from the other side — o separate myself from it instead of live through it. I felt guilty sometimes. All of the femicides, the organized crime, the anarchy that ruled my city’s streets. I was away. I wasn’t there to see it, but all I could do was remember.
I remembered a woman and a girl in a car at dusk. They were driving on an empty avenue, their conversation dwindling because of a disagreement. A typical mother daughter interaction. The girl iced her mother out for picking her up early from a friend’s house, even though the mother had agreed to extend the curfew by a few hours.
Unbeknownst to the girl, who had just started la escuela secundaria (middle school), her mother was afraid. A crippling anxiety crawled up her spine, and the hairs in the back of her neck were permanently spiked. She would not be at ease until they crossed the 15-foot wall and electrified fence that separated their neighborhood from the city streets.
Safety is only a few minutes away, the mother thought to herself while she looked over to the passenger seat, where her daughter sat with her arms crossed and eyes fixed on the ground.
Her daughter's face was no longer that of a little girl. It had started to transform, along with her body, to give way to a woman. It was a dangerous time to be a woman in this city. Women had been disappearing and dying here for decades, and there was nothing more dangerous than a girl and a woman in a car by themselves.
Suddenly, a car pulled up next to them. It was another woman. She was older, but the years manifested in a lovely way. This woman had the appearance of someone who wasn’t afraid anymore. She had seen too much. Lived too much. Suffered too much. She was there as an act of freedom.
During these years, no women dared going out of the house without their husbands, especially not at night. Being by a man’s side gave them an illusion of safety, as if any man could have stopped what happened that night.
The light was still red when a small, white, battered-up Toyota driving on the cross street — the only other car within sight — stopped in the middle of the intersection. Two armed men poured out of the Toyota and headed straight for the older women’s car.
In the sliver of a second before the men came too close, the two women and the girl looked at each other. Their mouths watered and stomachs dropped at the sight of danger.
“Don’t look at them,” the woman said to her daughter.
The exact complexion of either of the men would remain a mystery, as neither of the women nor the girl could recollect it after the incident. But their presence was infinite. It was as if their bodies radiated a kind of heat that could permeate the doors of the car. Their presence seeped through the atmosphere and filled the veins and minds of the two women and the girl with fear.
The light was still red when the men went up to the driver’s side of the older woman’s car and pulled their guns out, pointing them at her head through the window, opened the door and yanked her by the arm. Her gesture of freedom, the bravery of being in the streets on her own, left her kicked and bleeding on the ground. She wore a handkerchief around her head that was now covered in blood and dirt. One of the men took her purse as well.
When she saw this, the mother did not hesitate to accelerate through the red light. The men got into the cars and shortly after, the battered-up Toyota and the older lady’s car appeared in her rearview mirror. The old woman still laid frozen on the ground; becoming smaller and smaller as the cars drove away.
There might have been other red lights that night, but the mother did not stop at any of them.
She did not breathe until she had driven her car past the 15-foot stone wall and electrified fence that divided their neighborhood from the city streets. Her shoulders did not relax until she and her daughter were safely in their home.
She locked all of the doors and drew all the curtains. As if any physical barrier was going to stop the men who robbed and kicked a woman on the street from coming after them.
That mother and daughter were me and my mother. When I think of it now, I always remember family, friends, sunny days and happiness, but the more I sit on top of trees unearthing memories, the more I realize how real and possibly traumatic my experiences were.
My family has been living across the border now for a few years. Here, where all the lawns are perfectly manicured and everyone wears braces, it is hard for people to understand what happened. It’s hard for anyone here to really know me when my past is so foreign to them. I could attempt to explain, but there’s no way to put these feelings into words.
I know I’m not from Juarez anymore, but it is important to never forget. To keep reliving those moments, as if it could change the fate of the city or my own. As if I could forget about the privilege of being on top of a tree looking out at Lake Michigan without a trace of worry. As if I could go back without being seen as a gringa.
I look back now, after spending most of my teenage years in Michigan, and I can pick out all of the ways in which I am different than my friends who stayed in Juarez. I think they can see it, too. Whenever I am with them, I am the Michigander, but whenever I am with my new friends, I am the Mexican.
I sometimes feel like I don’t have a home, but what I do know is that I grew up in the arid valley where the moonlight was muffled by the smoke of thousands of coal-burning stoves. It was cold and scary at night and the day came, only to reveal the night’s crimes.