Published in Howler, issue 15, Fall 2018
It’s 7:50 in the morning, more than an hour before Mexico plays Korea and there’s already a line extending outside the door of a restaurant in Juárez. Its beach themed decor seems to almost mock the fact we live in the middle of the Chihuahuan desert, along the United States-Mexico borderland. The day before, Juárez saw record-breaking highs: 107 degrees. The summer is only a few days old and already, the multiple days of heat reaching into the triple digits makes it feel as if the season’s been here much longer. La Dirección General de Protección Civil, the city’s department of Civil Protection, cautions it’s best to avoid being outdoors during the middle of the day. Just across the border, the U.S. Department of State says you should reconsider traveling to Juárez altogether.
The city, once labeled as the deadliest in the world, is in midst of escalating violence. In fact, the day before Mexico defeated Germany, there were 14 homicides. Mexico’s historic victory received more front-page attention than what El Diario de Juárez called, “the most violent day of the year.” But as dozens of El Tri fans wait for seating inside the restaurant, they eagerly await on their beloved to play their second game of the World Cup, that doesn’t seem to matter—at least not now. Not for 90 minutes that’ll help distract them from the heat, the crime, and everything else that’s happening, even on the north side, of the suddenly tumultuous borderlands.
Juárez’s drug violence, as we know it today, began about a decade ago. From 2007 to 2008, homicides in the city spiked from roughly 300 to about 1,500. That violence culminated in 2010 when Juáritos—as locals lovingly call it—averaged about 8 murders a day. For a few years it appeared the violence had receded. Places that had become akin to ghost towns, came back to life. In 2015 city officials even pitched Juárez as a tourist destination. “Juárez is waiting for You,” the campaign slogan said. But by 2017 a list of the world’s most violent cities, included Juárez once again. The month before the World Cup began there were 124 homicides here, including 10 on Mexican Mother’s Day, where one murder occurred at a gathering celebrating the holiday. Twenty-three days into June and there’s been 113 more homicides. Partly because of the violence but more so because of the politics that accompany it, the borderland—usually relegated to the edges of their respective countries that matches their geographic location—has become the center of debate, especially on the northern side of the border.
Inside the restaurant, every worker—from the waiters to the parking lot attendants—wears a green-colored Mexico jersey. They turn away would-be patrons with no reservations, at the door. “En todos lados está lleno,”—every place is packed—a woman, turned away at the hostess’ station, says to her party as they try to decide where to watch the game. Workers move tables from storage to the center floor and space within the building gets increasingly tighter. A local politician, always willing to get confused for a man of the people, despite wearing a shirt with his political party instead of a Mexico jersey, offers to carry a chair. They tell him no. He smiles, nods his head and waves his political hand.
Short on menus, waiters—who look desperately at the influx of bodies—tell people they must share the single sheet of laminated paper. “We recommend ordering something simple and before the game starts,” the waiters warn in Spanish. “Also, please be patient. Food will take longer than usual to come out.”
Twice within 25 minutes, the restaurant plays “Cielito Lindo.” The song’s become synonymous with the Mexican national team and its fans. Every version of the song implores people to sing without crying—the polar opposites of emotions. After the second playing, the music suddenly stops and gets replaced by the television broadcast of the Mexican national anthem. The restaurant gets quiet. The sound of dishes being stacked and unstacked, even stops coming out of the kitchen. A few, feeling especially patriotic, stand. One woman, with her hand over her heart, becomes glassy-eyed. When the anthem ends, seemingly everyone claps and cheers.
As the game starts, a man gives his plate of food away without so much as having lifted his fork. “I can’t eat when the game is on,” he says. He passes his plate of chilaquiles in chipotle sauce to someone nearby. He then looks up at the television and wipes his sweaty, nervous palms across his thighs. Another man looks at one of the many televisions and screams, “Vamos Mexico!” At that point, it feels like the most important thing in the world is the game. It’s a welcomed distraction from everything else going on. And maybe some, once the effects of the game wear off, will even feel guilty because of it.
It’s about 50 miles From Santa Teresa, New Mexico, to Tornillo, Texas. The Juárez-El Paso borderland is roughly in the middle of the two towns that in recent months have come under national attention. In April, the first parts of the wall dividing the U.S. from Mexico, was first erected in Santa Teresa. If that wasn’t enough deterrence, immigration enforcement has recently included separating children from their parents, even among those fleeing their country’s violence that come seeking asylum. The government houses some of those children in tents set up in Tornillo. Incidentally, Tornillo is also a Spanish word for a screw.
For as violent as Juárez is, El Paso often ranks among the safest cities in the U.S. Home to Ft. Bliss, there’s a large military presence in the city. The Army base was first established around the time of the U.S.-Mexico War. That one-sided conflict ended with 1848’s Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which named the Rio Grande as the border and in the process cost Mexico about half its territory. Here, it split what was once El Paso del Norte into 2—what later became Juárez and El Paso.
Besides the Army base, the Border Patrol assigns thousands of their agents to the El Paso sector. The Border Patrol has also placed permanent and temporary checkpoints at every major road out of El Paso. With the U.S. increasingly militarizing its southern border, El Pasoans—though they share many cultural similarities with Juárez—are largely exempt from the high numbers of homicides occurring in its sister city. Still, that hasn’t stopped politicians, even Texas’ governor, from confusing El Paso with Juárez. Many, unfamiliar with the edge of the country, don’t know where the United States ends and Mexico begins.
One of the first thing that occurs when you live in a place that outsiders only see as violent, is that the people’s humanity often gets lost. There’s an assumption that with so much death, people don’t laugh or smile. That they’d somehow grown callous and no longer love. That they can’t take pleasure in simple things—like the World Cup, per se—because of the tumultuous surroundings. If you live here, it’s not like you’re suddenly without fear. It’s not like we’re animals. Rather, you learn to manage that fear, developing a sense of when and where you can go. But more importantly, if you are in certain places, you learn when it’s time to leave.
The moment Mexico scores its first goal—a penalty kick in the 26th minute—it feels as if someone’s released a pressure valve. There’s always an invisible hand at work. As Memo Ochoa continues to keep the game scoreless, he’s again elevated to sainthood, San Guillermo, like he was 4 years earlier against Brazil. Mexico scores again and at that moment, at least for now, all past sins of every member of the Mexican team, seem forgiven.
It suddenly dawns on one man that Hirving “Chucky” Lozano—the hero of the game against Germany—is just 22 years of age. “He has at least 2 more World Cups left in him. Maybe 3.” he says to no one in particular but loud enough to get heard. When Rafa Marquez subs in during the 67th minute, the same man says it was only right that “El Jefe” gets to play.
For the last 10 minutes of regulation, the television broadcast talks of how well things are going. “Mexico está más vivo que nunca,” says one of TV Azteca’s announcers—Mexico is more alive than ever. With 5 minutes of stoppage time added to the second half, Mexico is up 2-nil. Having decided for themselves there would have only been 2 minutes of stoppage time, a few loudly protest that 5 minutes is too much. And yet, at that moment there’s a feeling that Mexico, perhaps for the first time, has a legitimate shot at winning the World Cup. Someone mentions the team is, surprisingly, among the 5 best teams in the tournament. Someone else at his own table, presumably worried such hubris may raise the ire of the fútbol gods, quickly quiets him.
With a few minutes left in the game and many feeling an unsaid confidence, Korea scores. A loud groan rumbles through the restaurant. “That goal may end up hurting us in a tiebreaker,” says a faceless voice with the courage to say what many of us thought but refused to vocalize—as if ignoring the obvious made it less true. Sometimes it’s too painful to say words we already feel.
There’s a renewed tension in the room. A man yells frantically at the television, “Calmados, Calmados!”—imploring the team to keep calm. He doesn’t take his own advice. Neither do most people inside the restaurant.
There’s a fragility to comfort, peace even, that can suddenly and without reason, vanish. When you live through it enough, one inevitably learns to balance dreams that seem impossible against nightmares that feel real. When you veer too much toward one side—an impossible dream, in this case—there’s always something there to bring you back.
The game ends. Mexico wins 2-1. People cheer. In the couple of hours since the game began, the cool desert morning has turned much hotter. It’s close to the time of day we’re advised to stay indoors. But this does not stop people from celebrating under the desert sun. Just as after Mexico defeated Germany, hundreds of fans gather close to the Cordova International Bridge that connects Juárez and El Paso. They celebrate across from El Chamizal, a park that for decades remained disputed territory between the U.S. and Mexico. Cars pass and honk, passengers yell and whistle. People, dressed in green, red, and white, proudly wave the Mexican flag. At that moment, there’s a sense that something special could be happening. It’s the foreign feeling of, “Oh God, things may actually be alright.”
The next morning, long after Germany’s improbable last second victory over Sweden had a sobering effect on those drunk with illusions of World Cup grandeur, Juárez wakes up to a windy sun rise. Overnight, the number of homicides passed the previous month’s. In June alone, 129 people have been killed in Juárez. Because of that German victory, Mexico has yet to qualify for the round of 16 and the goal scored by Korea weighs a bit more. Stay hydrated and out the sun, wear light-colored clothing, bring pets indoors, take special care of the old and the young; these are the suggestions we’re given to help deal with the oppressive, deadly heat. The wind will make the day even worse.
In the desert, with the lack of grass and trees, the wind causes sandstorms which, within hours, turn beautiful blue skies into drab shades of brown. Light posts will shake up and down as if they’re dancing to howling winds. Doors get blown off their hinges. You can hear sand blast against windows, as if someone’s throwing it by the handful. And on those days, even if it’s just a day after everything felt so perfect, the wind feels as if it’s on fire.