(Originally posted on the Girls Trek Too blog, Thursday, January 12th, 2012)

Around noon, an aging sedan rolled up. A skinny, baby-eyed girl-woman got out, stepped up to the courtyard gate, and gave me a puzzled smile through the bars. She had long, metallic-red hair, mod side-bangs, and fluffy white ankle boots.

“Sara?” I asked.

She widened her eyes, as if shocked at the very thought. “Anita.”

“Un momento.” I rushed toward the house to find someone to unlock the gate.

Anita is Sara’s daughter, a twenty-year-old student at the University of Ciudad Juárez. She had arrived to take her Aunt Patricia, Grandmother Carmela, and me to her mom’s house, a forty-minute drive through the gauntlet of Juárez.

Once-upon-a-time, with Americans crossing the border to shop for novelties and bargains, Juárez used to be a great place for entrepreneurs.

We first drove through the busy old streets of el centro, or downtown. Tiny businesses crowded cheek-to-cheek sold clothes, food, electronics, repairs, and more. It seemed half the shops were vacant. El centro was starting a fast, runny, crumbly slide into decay. Patricia and Anita discussed why so many shops were boarded up or abandoned: the owners couldn’t afford monthly extortion payments to the cartels.

“It’s such a waste,” Patricia said, “since Juárez is a perfect place for a small-business person to flourish.” With Mexicans coming to Juárez to work in American and other foreign factories, and once-upon-a-time, with Americans crossing the border to shop for novelties and bargains, it used to be a great place for entrepreneurs. Now it’s a horror. “The same thing happened in America in the 1920s,” Patricia said, comparing the cartels’ stranglehold on Juárez to the power the mobs had in Chicago and New York during Prohibition.

Anita’s oversized eyes grew rounder as the car crawled through the narrow streets. I wondered why she looked so scared. Surely this street full of people wouldn’t erupt into gunfire on a sunny Friday afternoon. Would it?

She visibly relaxed when we reached the broad Avenida 16 de Septiembre. The thoroughfare passed under the main bridge to El Paso, then changed names about four times along its extensive length. The avenue was lined with so many modern restaurants, car dealerships, big box stores, and warehouses that it felt as if we were passing through the shopping districts of multiple American suburbs. “Juárez is so big,” Patricia said. “Juárez is huge,” I echoed.

The long, sleepy drive took us to an apartment-size, two-bedroom home, huddled behind another locked gate. Patricia’s sister, Sara, greeted us with a broad smile and open arms. The friendly, chubby, unassuming woman kissed my cheek, then insisted that Carmela and I rest on the couch, while her seven-year-old daughter Sylvia and little cousin Eladio played underfoot. Sara and Patricia refused my offer to help prepare lunch, and I didn’t insist, because the kitchen was so tiny that the two sisters kept running into each other. Two couches and a dining table lined a shotgun room where I had to uncross my legs to let people pass, and the table had to be pulled away from the wall so we could eat together. Even then, we ate in shifts, because Patricia's brother David and a friend joined us, making nine for lunch.

Instead of the tight quarters getting on everyone’s nerves, it seemed to only increase their closeness. Chatter and laughter warmed every nook and cranny. I’d spent plenty of time over the years with my own Mexican cousins from large Catholic families, so the chaos felt more or less normal.

Sara was very attentive to all of us, but grew shy at any hint of attention to her. Still, when I praised her fantastic pork chile colorado, she confided with a chef’s pride the secret to her tangy red sauce: orange juice. For dessert she'd baked a moist carrot cake balanced with a light, pleasing coconut frosting.

My greatest pleasure was watching and listening to the two children, maybe because this required only rudimentary Spanish. Like her mother, the beribboned Sylvia was smiling and quiet, though not too shy to show off her swimming awards. Eladio recited his long list of physical injuries, real and imagined. The real one was a bruise under his eye, which he insisted Sylvia had given him. Everyone laughed at this fib. They’d seen what had really happened, though I couldn’t understand what that was. No one seemed to mind when Eladio bounced a tiny ball in the house, so I bounced it back to him. He missed and it bonked him on the nose, sending everyone into gales of laughter – another injury for his list. Though the kids played hide-and-seek and giggled like kids everywhere, when it was time to go they seemed exceptionally disposed to hug and kiss the new person in their midst.

Toward evening, Anita’s and Sylvia’s dad stopped by for an hour to cuddle and talk with his daughters. Patricia explained that he doesn’t live with them, though he and Sara are not divorced.

As the sun lowered outside, Sara asked me, “Are you scared to be in Juárez?” I said that I’d traveled to dangerous places before and that I tried not to dwell on it. I explained that I felt safe with Patricia and her family, since I trusted my friend not to take me anyplace too dangerous. At this, I shot Patricia a warning glance, making everyone laugh again.

Sara drove us back to Carmela’s house at twilight, and her daughters came along. When we arrived it was seven o'clock and night was falling. I wondered why they risked driving after dark in this city under siege.

Maybe fear becomes so exhausting after a while that it turns into a giggling nervousness, or foolish fearlessness, or numbness through which an inner voice occasionally calls out: “Hey! You could die any moment!” Does everyone answer that voice the same way I do? “Yes, but I have a feeling it won’t be today.”

(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, 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 27th, 2011)

As Patricia and David had promised, their mother didn’t live far across the river from El Paso, Texas. After David drove through downtown Juárez, he spent five minutes winding through dark neighborhoods before turning into Carmela’s driveway. He unlocked a padlocked gate to pull into the courtyard. The gate had been there before Mexico's drug war. Juárez has long known big-city, border-town dangers.

The inside looked bigger than the outside suggested. In the new addition, an old-fashioned wood stove warmed and cheered the room.

The house wasn’t small, though it might seem poor by American standards: a graying, peeling sprawl of cinderblock, brick, and adobe. “It’s too bad they can’t fix up the outside, isn’t it?” Patricia said. “No one wants anyone to know that they have anything and attract attention.” Juárez sees plenty of robberies these days.

The inside looked bigger than the outside suggested: the original casita with bedroom and kitchen; an old addition with a sitting room, two bedrooms, and a bathroom; and a new addition with a living room, dining room, and unfinished kitchen.

Patricia had warned me that, although her mother is warm and generous, she gives wooden handshakes and rarely smiles. So I was surprised when Carmela, a stocky woman of seventy with reddish-gray hair pulled tight into a bun, smiled broadly, threw her arms around me, and kissed my cheek. Maybe she has reached that point in life when she’s ready to risk revealing her inner self. For the rest of the evening she gave me alternately benevolent smiles and puzzled stares, either surprised that I spoke Spanish, or appalled at how badly I spoke it, or both.

Patricia presented her mother and brother with gifts: framed copies of the only photo of all seven brothers and sisters together. The children stood in a dirt yard in front of a tiny adobe house in a village nicknamed Terrero, which means “pile of dirt.” David touched each face, laughing and remembering. Carmela’s eyes shone with happy tears. “Mis ninos!” (My babies!)

Patricia mapped the faces for me: Ignacio, Patricia holding David (she was thirteen and he was two), Julio, Sara, Diego, and Tito. The only two I’d met so far were Patricia and David — the baby of the family. Diego, second youngest, still lived with his mother and would arrive home soon. I would meet Sara the next day.

The photo whispered old stories to them that it couldn’t tell me. Patricia shared one tale: a pig once fell down a well in that yard. Her mother lowered Juan in a bucket, so he could pick up the pig at the bottom and put it in. After they pulled up the pig, Juan climbed back into the bucket so they could pull him up, too. They worried the rope might break, but it held. Patricia also pointed out the courtyard wall in the photo. The older boys had built that wall, using rocks that their old swaybacked burro had carried down from the hills.

The photo was taken by their father, a harsh man and musician who came and went without warning. Patricia says that, the day he took the photo, they knew he wasn’t coming back. She swore it showed in their eyes, so I imagined I saw it, too: a forced final happiness, looks of smiling relief, confused resignation, and swallowed resentment. Not long after, her mother sold first one pig, then another, then the cow, then the burro — so she could feed her children. One year, they gleaned the scattered grains local farmers left in their fields after the harvest – grain by grain – so they could bake bread. Carmela finally sold the house, making just enough money for one-way bus tickets to Juárez, where she and the older children could find jobs.

The shining laughter the family shared over this photo told me more about the hardships they’d endured than tears could have. Their humor gave them the strength to survive deep poverty. That strength carried them through school, and on to careers as business owners, teachers, editors. It carried three of them to America.

We ate dinner in the modern dining room, next to the old-fashioned woodstove. “This is very important to my mom,” Patricia said of the stove, and I could see why. The chubby antique warmed and cheered the room, as well as heating coffee and tortillas.

Our traditional dinner reminded me of my grandmother’s cooking: cocido, a soup made with beef bones and vegetables; thick homemade flour tortillas; and sopa, a tomato-based, soupy dish which my grandmother used to make with rice, but which Carmela made with noodles. I asked Carmela what made her sopa so creamy. She said the secret was sour cream. Everyone urged me to use my fingers to pull the gristly meat off the bones in the cosido, and I finally gave in. Every culture has a tradition of hospitality, but there’s something very casual and familiar about Mexican hospitality, as warming to my soul as that woodstove was to my flesh. I felt as welcome as a long-lost cousin.

After dinner, I was so stuffed and travel-weary I could barely stay awake to meet Patricia’s brother Diego. I discovered that he and Carmela had built the new addition themselves: him doing the construction, carpentry, and drywall; her carrying huge cinderblocks and doing other grunt work. All this, though Carmela is seventy and Diego puts in ten-hour days at the downtown beauty salon he owns. When Patricia gave him a copy of the family photo, I watched another face crinkle with memories softened by time.

Outside the padlocked gate, Juárez was going to hell in the hands of drug cartels, but in this room, I was watched over by an altar of small saints.

I excused myself early and went to bed in David’s old room. The house was freezing, but under four heavy blankets I felt warmer than at home. Outside the padlocked gate, Juárez was going to hell in the hands of drug cartels, but in this room, watched over by an altar of small saints, the night was so quiet I might have been in the village of Terrero, “pile of dirt,” where I slept like a rock.

(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.


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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