(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Friday, March 9th, 2012)

The night before Revolution Day, David, Patricia, and I took their mother to El Pistolero, “The Gunfighter," to celebrate her seventieth birthday. I suppose there was a certain revolutionary spirit in Carmela’s tossing back a beer in a bar with her son and daughter — an act of defiance against age, and time. We then spent the night in a motel with an old-fashioned wagon in the courtyard, and I thought, “So Mexico romanticizes its history, too.” We’d planned to go out for breakfast in the morning, but nothing in Nuevo Casas Grandes was open on El Día de la Revolución.

We’d stepped into a spaghetti western.

You see, 101 years ago, Francisco Madero ran for president against dictator Porfirio Diaz. But Diaz rigged the election and threw Madero in prison. Madero escaped to Texas, and on November 20, 1910, he called upon the Mexican people to revolt. On November 20, 2011, David declared, “My mom has to have her morning coffee!” So we stopped at a convenience store in Nuevo Casas Grandes to buy her coffee-to-go.

Casas Grandes was the site of one of the early battles of the revolution. About 100 people were killed, and federal forces defeated the rebels. These days in Nuevo (New) Casas Grandes you can buy individual, factory-made, plastic-packaged pumpkin empanadas, even on Revolution Day. I opted out. I just don’t like single-serving pies: American or Mexican. My stomach rumbled in revolt against a breakfast-free Sunday. One-hundred-one years ago, the whole country of Mexico rumbled in revolt against hungry Sundays-through-Saturdays.

The green-gold cottonwoods along the Casas Grandes River stretched into chill blue waking light. Wheaten desert grass cut a broad ribbon between low mountains. We turned onto a new road, a shock of shiny, zippy blacktop, to the village of Mata Ortiz: some 2000 people nestled before a comfy armchair of a mountain called El Indio.

We got out of the car at the smallest plaza I’ve ever seen, where Carmela plopped down on a bench as if she owned the joint. Patricia pointed down the dusty street, to a lone cowboy on horseback trotting our way. We’d stepped into a spaghetti western.

Warrior statues stood watch from a wooden fence.

The town consisted primarily of two long rows of homes, humble but not impoverished. A few abandoned adobe huts leaned here and there. But the other houses declared that this was an artist’s colony. A two-story home of cheerful yellow stucco winked at us with a blue door. Warrior statues stood watch from a wooden fence. One modern adobe home was smoothed, rounded, and painted an eye-aching blue that prompted me to say, “This reminds me of…” just as I spotted her name celebrated across the gateway arch: “Viva Frida Kahlo!"

The modern adobe home prompted me to say, “This reminds me of…” just as I spotted her name celebrated across an arch: “Viva Frida Kahlo!”

The adopted name of this town’s artisans adorned a metal plaque above most doorways: Ortiz. The village name, Mata Ortiz, had made me laugh the first time I’d seen it. I thought it meant “Kill Ortiz,” and the threat and humor implied made it seem a perfect hometown for my fictional Lopez family. So, in my historical novel, I’ve created a pueblo with a similar name. Patricia informed me that mata also means a "starting point" or "birthplace." Actually, Mata Ortiz was named for Juan Mata Ortiz, a local hero who won a battle against Apaches in 1880. But I like the idea of it being a birthplace — of the Mata Ortiz artists’ movement, which began with one boy in the 1970’s.

When Juan Quezada was twelve he quit school to help support his family. While gathering wood in the mountains, he found pottery shards left behind by the ancient Paquimé people. He taught himself to recreate their style, and added his own creativity – working with fingers and knives, and using cow manure to fire the pots. An American bought some pots to sell, and a few ended up in the hands of an anthropologist, who came to Mexico to find Juan and offered him a stipend to dedicate himself to his art. Juan has passed his ceramic skills on to his family, who have passed it on to their families and neighbors. Today, Mata Ortiz boasts some 400 artisans.

Juan Quezada taught himself to recreate their style, and added his own creativity.

All 400 of them still seemed asleep this quiet morning, except for a couple of guys brushing horses in backyards, and a miniscule but ferocious black mutt defending his front yard. When I strolled off to explore the town, Carmela admonished her daughter Patricia, “You go after her. I don’t want someone to take her!” As if an artist might emerge from the silence, kidnap me, and bake me in a kiln.

As Patricia and I walked down the street, a middle-aged woman stepped out of her house and sang in a three-note legato, “¿Quieren-ollas?” (You-want-pots?) We did. She let us in through the bedroom, past the unmade bed, to a tiny dining area. A table filled the room with pots vastly different from the classic red, white, and black designs I’d seen on the Mata Ortiz website. Her husband and son were the artists: a soft-spoken man and a teenager rubbing sleep from his eyes.

The father showed how he picked each divot into the clay with a small knife.

Their pieces were a unique blend of prehistoric and ultra-modern. Some were unfired, but most were shiny black, thanks to long firing times in the quemada, or kiln. All had tiny repetitive designs, and the father showed how he picked each divot into the clay with a small knife. The son made black pots that looked like a cross between metallic flying saucers and woven baskets. As an experienced haggler, I tried not to act too eager, but I knew I’d buy one. The son seemed startled by my interest. Perhaps most tourists come here to enter a prehistoric time-warp? If so, he’d taken a risk in making these. They were fantastic.

Perhaps most tourists come here to enter a prehistoric time-warp? If so, he’d taken a risk in making these.

Patricia and I said we’d look around first and come back. When we stepped outside, David and Carmela where in the car, creeping down the road, searching for us.

We didn’t know how to approach the next potter. Sure, there was probably one in every house, but was it proper to knock uninvited? We didn’t have to: twice more, women approached and asked that musical question, “¿Quiren-ollas?” and in we walked to a house or shop.

But my heart belonged to the alien black saucer basket. So I returned and bargained. Someone once told me a deal is good when both buyer and seller are smiling. The deal was good. If I’d bought the same piece in Santa Fe it would have cost much more, but then it wouldn’t have cost me a trip through the drug-war territory of Chihuahua, Mexico.

We then visited the village’s river, Río Palanganas, tributary of the Río Casas Grandes.

We then visited the village’s river, Río Palanganas, tributary of the Río Casas Grandes. Rivers play an important role in this desert and in my novel - offering both a means of survival and a perilous barrier to escape. This one was an algae-lined trickle. Falling in would be a mucky, chilly pain-in-the-ass, but not deadly. It was pretty: ducks lolling, water mirroring, trees arguing whether it was spring or fall.

Carmela marched ahead of us, up a grassy hill topped by a humble pair of Catholic shrines.

We crossed the main road to a grassy hill topped by a humble pair of Catholic shrines. Carmela marched ahead of us to the top. Spread below us, I saw the fictional pueblo and valley from my novel, almost as I’d dreamed them: an old painting of one of the final places of peace before war arrives. But Carmela saw something else: a mirage of the mountain village where her seven sons and daughters were born. “It’s just like Terrero,” she told Patricia, with a smile and a sigh.

Carmela saw a mirage of the mountain village where her seven sons and daughters were born. “It’s just like Terrero,” she told Patricia.

At the edge of town, people, horses, cars, and wagons began lining up to celebrate Revolution Day. We returned to watch a parade so short it brought nostalgic tears to my eyes — which makes no sense because I’m from Los Angeles. Cheerleaders performed gymnastics, and one boy flipped from the top of a pyramid and fell on his back, drawing a puzzling cheer from the spectators. Schoolchildren waved swirling ribbons. Donkeys and cars pulled wagons full of children wearing swirling skirts and magic-marker Zapatista mustaches. When a cartload of kids shouted, “¡Viva México!” I imagined them thinking “¡Viva Mata Ortiz!” a town proud of creating art from earth.

Donkeys and cars pulled wagons full of children wearing swirling skirts and magic-marker Zapatista mustaches.

The three-hour drive back to Juarez was uneventful. As we drew within some twenty kilometers of the city, Patricia pointed out the great white silhouette of a horse, painted high on a mountainside. It marked the ranch of a drug cartel. “To let us all know who’s boss.” She told me about the dead bodies the gangs often leave hanging under the city’s bridges for everyone to see. She said it filled her with coraje: rage.

One-hundred-one years after the Revolution, was it worth it? Marching in a parade to celebrate a war for freedom isn’t the same as being free. There’s a new war in Mexico, and for now the bad guys seem to be winning. Still, I brought home a lustrous black olla, and wherever people can create art - even art as dark as night - there’s still hope.

(The names of the modern people in this story have been changed for their safety, except Juan Quezada.)

Published in Mexico

(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Wednesday, January 4th, 2012)

I woke to the safe sounds of a gas burner igniting, a pan shifting, an egg sizzling. It was only then that a rooster started crowing somewhere in Colonia del Carmen. Perhaps he sets his clock by Carmela. I lingered in bed, until I heard Carmela and her daughter Patricia muttering in Spanish and figured it must be time to come out of hiding. I had no clear idea of the hour. My cell phone is my usual watch and I hadn’t brought it, unwilling to pay roaming charges in Mexico, or to risk having it stolen on the desperate streets of Juárez.

The pan dulce was a soft, airy, lightly sweet reminder of my L.A. childhood.

When I emerged it was 7:30 and Carmela was hanging laundry in the chilly morning shadows of the courtyard. Every day she washes dozens of towels and smocks for her son Diego’s hairdressing shop. She then made us a delicious herbal tea from canela (cinnamon) and flor de azahar (orange blossom).

“Good for calming the nerves,” she said, “para la tranquilidad.”

“I need that,” I teased. “I have an energetic personality.”

She smiled and offered her sincere hope that her tea would help.

For breakfast we ate fried beef, flour tortillas, and pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread). The pan dulce was a soft, airy, lightly sweet reminder of my L.A. childhood. My grandmother grew up in El Paso and L.A. Her mother, Altagracia, was born in Chihuahua: Mexico’s largest state. No one knows which town, but she must have passed through Juárez to get to El Paso, Texas – where she lived most of her short life. Perhaps the tastes I learned at my grandmother’s knee in Los Angeles – pan dulce, cosido, sopa, chorizo, menudo - are the tastes of El Paso, which are, in great part, the tastes of Chihuahua.

Could I be a reincarnation of Altagracia? I carry some of her DNA, so part of her does live on in me. Maybe that DNA called to her, and she, in turn, called me to Chihuahua.

Patricia had planned to get her hair done at her brother’s shop, but changed her mind, because he was busy with customers preparing for the Revolution Day weekend. I asked her if Diego is forced to pay extortion to drug cartels, like other business owners in Juárez. She said that he would never tell the family if he were, because he wouldn’t want to worry them. But the beauty shop next to his has been extorted, as has a neighboring convenience store.

When sunshine split the courtyard in two, I drifted outside to sit on the stoop and write. Carmela’s skittish dogs lazed nearby in squares of warmth. I never did get any writing done, not because of the dogs, but because of my friends’ hospitality. I had barely gathered my thoughts, when Patricia emerged with cushions for me to sit on. I hadn’t written more than a few words, before she returned with a glass of water. I had finished maybe a sentence, when Carmela came out and asked about my writing.

I had mistaken it for just another of Mexico’s abandoned businesses, until Carmela told me the story.

I became grateful for the interruptions, when Patricia came back to suggest I take a photo of a crumbling building nearby. I had mistaken it for just another of Mexico’s abandoned businesses. Then Carmela told me the story:

The tree grew so close to the center, and provided so little cover, that I kept pointing and repeating: “This tree?”

A year earlier, the building had been a rehabilitation center for drug addicts and alcoholics. Then, on Sunday night, December 5, 2010, cartel gunmen – I don’t know how many – stood at a nearby tree and opened fire on the Alcance Victoria Centro de Rehabilitación. The tree grew so close to the rehab center, and provided so little cover, that I kept pointing and repeating:

“This tree?”

“Yes, this tree.”

Those guys must have had some cajones.

“You can still see the bullet holes,” Patricia said.

“You can still see the bullet holes,” Patricia said. Damn straight. The gouges were huge. Closer inspection revealed shattered glass below the vacant windows. Inside, below a wall painted with the words "Casa de Oración" (House of Prayer), lay a shambles of drywall, plaster, glass, and abandoned odds and ends. The center remains closed. “Everyone is too scared to return,” Carmela said.

The rehab center remains closed. “Everyone is too scared to return,” Carmela said.

The night it happened, Carmela heard the gunfire, but didn’t know what it was. She thought her daughter Sara had come to visit and was pounding on the door, just to be silly. But when she opened the door, no one was there. She walked to her fence and saw smoke rising from the rehab center. She crouched down and hurried inside, not returning outside until ambulances arrived.

One man was killed, eight people injured. That same night, gunmen hit another rehab center across town, shooting three more men to death.

Cartels have attacked many rehab centers in Juárez, and throughout Mexico, hunting for rival gang members who might be hiding out or recruiting among the easy pickings. If they've killed innocent bystanders in the process, perhaps the gangsters view that as a warning: it’s not good for their bottom line if customers quit buying their products, and it boosts their sense of power to keep everyone frightened.

“The little girl who lives next door to my mom is still terrified,” Patricia said. “She also had a shooting at her school. Pobrecita (poor little thing). She jumps every time she hears a loud noise.” Patricia's mother cried for weeks. “Can you imagine an old lady going through that?”

As I bent to photograph the lone yellow flower growing in the rubble-filled lot, I imagined someone driving by and shooting me.

As I bent to photograph the lone yellow flower growing in the rubble-filled lot, I imagined someone driving by and shooting me. Unlikely, yes, but not unfounded. Dozens of Mexican journalists who've dared to publish stories about cartel atrocities have been killed, kidnapped, or threatened.

Back in Carmela’s courtyard, my eyes followed Patricia’s pointing finger to a mountain just a few miles away. “That’s El Paso, right there.” There’s a war in Carmela’s backyard… in America’s backyard. At that moment, it seemed too close to home – for all of us.

(The names of the people in this story have been changed for their safety.)

Published in Mexico

(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Tuesday, December 6th, 2011)

I woke in terror and opened my eyes to green tubular objects floating toward me — string beans, or slow-motion bullets. I yelled, startling my husband. When I snapped out of it I reassured Dale, “It’s only what always happens.” Meaning: “It’s only because night terrors are my thing, not because I’m traveling to Juárez,” although that was precisely the problem. I closed my eyes and pictured my breasts exploding. I wondered what Dale would do if I were shot. It was too much to contemplate. I asked God to keep me safe, and fell back to sleep.

We took a bus to El Paso's old-fashioned, brick-and-mortar downtown.

I woke a short time later to catch a flight to El Paso with my friend Patricia. Before I left the house, I removed my engagement ring. Patricia, who used to live in Juárez, said, “I’m glad you left your ring at home.” No point attracting robbers with a diamond, especially one with sentimental value. I still wore my wedding band, an instinct from younger days when traveling solo meant constant sexual harassment.

When we arrived in El Paso, we took a bus to the old-fashioned, brick-and-mortar downtown and scouted a place to eat. We happened upon a hole-in-the-wall called Rico Café, which served Mexican and Chinese food. I couldn’t resist. The place is owned by a skinny Chinese husband and chubby Mexican wife, calling to mind my Chinese great-grandfather and his Mexican wife, who once owned a Chinese restaurant in El Paso. They’re part of the family history that inspired the novel I’m writing. The fictional story has taken me into northern Mexico, so I was about to follow my story there in real life, for research.

Patricia and I skipped Rico Café’s Chinese buffet, in favor of tender and flavorful barbacoa tacos.

We then walked to the Museum of History for an exhibition on the Mexican Revolution. By chance, we were heading to Mexico in time for Revolution Day, November 20. My novel’s opening follows a Mexican family across the desert as they flee the revolution in 1910. Such coincidences make me feel that I’m on the right journey, though some think me foolhardy.

An old machine gun, or replica, was aimed at a poster advertising a 1914 documentary, The Great Mexican War.

The exhibit featured old photos, films, and just a few artifacts. An old machine gun, or replica, was aimed at a poster advertising a 1914 documentary, The Great Mexican War. Three film companies produced documentaries about Pancho Villa and the revolution, showing real battles, but also blurring the line between fact and fiction. They even wrote scripts, hired actors, and bought General Villa a new uniform. It was the first war captured in motion for the world to see.

Three film companies produced documentaries about Pancho Villa and the revolution, showing real battles, but also blurring the line between fact and fiction.

El Paso experienced a small boom thanks to that war: selling ammo to Mexicans, and souvenirs, rooms, and food to American spectators. Many sightseers paid upwards of a quarter to watch the 1911 Battle of Juárez from the rooftops of such buildings as the Hotel Paso Del Norte (now the Camino Real). The hotel offered a money-back guarantee if the battle didn’t take place. Throughout town, five El Pasoans were killed and eighteen wounded by stray bullets flying across the Rio Grande.

Many sightseers paid upwards of a quarter to watch the 1911 Battle of Juárez from the rooftops of such buildings as the Hotel El Paso Del Norte.

After the battle, tourists crossed into Juárez to be photographed in front of bullet-riddled buildings. Ladies in bonnets and bandoliers posed with rifles amid revolutionaries and mercenaries. One guy proposed to his girl inside a building full of broken glass and bullet casings. As I stared at a picture of a photojournalist running crouched through desert scrub, I listened in my head for bullets whirring past his.

Ladies in bonnets and bandoliers posed with rifles amid revolutionaries and mercenaries.

While Patricia and I strolled the exhibit, her brother David and their friend Carlos crossed the border to pick us up. El Paso has some 800,000 residents, Ciudad Juárez around a million — though in recent years hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have fled the violence of the Juárez drug cartels. Viewed from above, the two cities appear as one, "and a river runs through it." It typically takes at least an hour to drive across the border, but this time it only took them fifteen minutes.

Viewed from above, the two cities appear as one

When David arrived, I said, “Mucho gusto.” He replied, “Nice to meet you.” This set the stage for the weekend: me talking to him primarily in Spanish, him talking to me primarily in English. Patricia spoke to me in English and to the two men in Spanish. It might have been easier for me if they’d stuck with Spanish. Switching back and forth gave me a headache.

We drove around El Paso, stopping at Aéropostale, Target, and WalMart. An ever-smiling David explained, “I don’t come here very often, so when I do, I do a shopping… what do you call it?”

“Shopping spree?” I offered.

“Yes.”

He bought a DVD player, socks, t-shirts, and a stylish plaid jacket for a friend. Patricia bought a sleeping bag to use at her mom’s cold house in Juárez, and makeup for her sister and nieces. Carlos bought a turkey. Mexicans don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but he couldn’t resist the bargain: fourteen bucks, less than half what it would cost in Juárez.

At twilight we headed for the frontera. The line was long at the main bridge, so David drove to the Puente Lardo. That toll bridge costs $2.50, while the main bridge is free. David said it’s worth paying to wait only five minutes - or it would have been, if not for the flashing red and blue lights that stopped us on the way. The El Paso cop gave David a ticket for a defective taillight. I hoped that would be our biggest scare all weekend.

“Maybe you’ll see another Mexican Revolution while you are there,” David teased.

“I hope not,” I replied. “Anyway, a revolution wouldn’t be very useful now.”

“No,” he agreed. “It’s a little too late.”

A drug war has already taken over.

I’d been nervous about crossing into Juárez after dark. But as we passed the old customs house, cathedral, and plaza full of Mexicans on holiday, it all seemed so normal as to be anti-climactic. Maybe this is what it feels like to visit Israel (or Palestine), I thought. You can only worry so much about bullets or bombs that usually don’t come. Then again, we’d been in town less than five minutes.

(The names of the people in this story have been changed for their safety.)

(to be continued...)

Published in Mexico

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