La Frontera, Part I: the Line that Divides Us Can Unite Us

Raramuri' lady in Palomas, Chihuahua

Raramuri’ lady in Palomas, Chihuahua

The first time I left the US was right here, at El Paso, in 1974, crossing the bridge across the Rio Grande (okay, so not so Grande right here), and into Ciudad Juarez. It seemed like the weirdest place in the world. Now I know why—it is.

Juarez was pretty much a sea of brothels at the time, it being 1974 and all, with the ‘Sexual Revolution’ in full swing, Denver at the time not so different, in all honesty. But that wasn’t the attraction. The attraction was the life! In the streets! I loved it, and ended up spending several days here, albeit resting my bones on the American side of the line every night (and yes, I had at least one drink thrown at me by a prostitute for ‘just looking’). The rest is history. I’ve since been to more than 150 countries.

Street market in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Street market in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Juarez is still weird, but for different reasons now. The whorehouses (and ‘Boys’ Town’ and donkey shows, etc.) are long gone, but the cartels have since moved in; and this AFTER an infamous stretch of never-solved female kidnapping/murders had already left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths. No, I didn’t see any heads hanging from bridges, but I did see a lot of policemen with machine guns, and shops with boarded-up windows. I saw no espresso, no high-end gift shops, no fancy bars, and only one white-ass tourist—me.  It’s dirt cheap, too, unbelievably so.

But life goes on, and so does Juarez. ‘Hope springs eternal,’ and all that jazz; ‘La esperanza es eterna‘ and all that mambo-jambo. It’s still a welcome change from the ennui and boredom of modern auto-mobilized America. America is so sad and lonely, people stuck in their lonely cars on their lonely roads in their lonely suburbs, separated by parking lot lines and the too-perfect gaps in flawed logic and orthodontically-adjusted teeth.

A room rate for every mood: $4/hour up to $70/week. But how's the WiFi?

A room rate for every mood: $4/hour up to $70/week. But how’s the WiFi?

Unfortunately this is all that some Americans will ever see of Mexico, much of it visible from I-10, and that’s unfortunate. There’s much more than that, especially if you’re willing to cruise beyond the border areas. The border itself gets better, too. Almost due west of El Paso, and due south of Deming, NM, lies the tiny border town of Palomas, it only a few miles south of the village of Columbus, NM, famous for a turn-of-the-century raid by Pancho Villa.

Palomas is so remote, and so desolate, that the border-line parking-lots don’t even charge for parking. But that’s not bad. Not a soul in town will let me pass without a smile and a wave. And there are more than a few restaurants, and bars, and hotels, and posadas, and pensiones. I imagine I’d rather be here overnight than Juarez. There’s even a fancy higher-end (not just ‘curios’) crafts shop, which also has a branch in Silver City, NM fwiw. That’s where I meet an Indian lady weaving baskets, she sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk outside. I try to sneak a pic; no way.

Un dolar”, she says, only half-joking.

“Haha; you caught me,” I try to deflect the request. “What are you weaving, baskets?”


“Do you have any already finished?”

Alla’.” ‘Over there.’

They don’t look half-bad. “How much?”

Nationalistic display in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

Nationalistic display in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico

We strike a deal. Those pesos have been lingering around my desk for far too long. We chat. I ask where she’s from. Chihuahua. She’s Raramuri’. She seems impressed that I know the correct word for her raza, not the Hispanicized ‘Tarahumara’. I tell her about my trip to Samachic for Holy Week some thirty years ago. She knows the place. She’s been there. This is fun.

We’re having a moment, she so far from home and so alone—me, too; she surrounded by a dominant cultural paradigm that doesn’t really understand her and largely ignores her—me, too. And she’s less than two hours’ drive from an American town where she could likely be a star, however lonely, however ironic. Yes, that’s the price of freedom. The point is that without this line in the sand, the result of some prior macho gabacho’s historical stiffie, or something equally inane and insipid, this nice lady and I would not be having this moment. The point is that she doesn’t really want to break through to the other side.

Lonely border post at Palomas, Mexico, and Columbus, NM, USA

Lonely border post at Palomas, Mexico, and Columbus, NM, USA

She wants the line. And so do I, to a point (two points define a line—hers and mine, I guess). I’ve been to the other side, and back, more times than I can count. But I don’t necessarily want to be there right now. The line is fine. This is the border: bringing together lost souls for communion, hearts afloat for grounding, currency traders for brief exchanges. This is my greatest—perhaps only—accomplishment in life, the ability to touch bases with far-flung people in far-flung places: Mexico, Laos, Yemen, Madagascar, wherever. And it’ll do—for the moment.