A vast expanse of dusty, crumbling structures made up of red brick and adobe sprawled out into a smog-choked horizon. Many seemed to still be standing from the early 1900’s, deteriorating slowly under a brutal, desert sun.
Ciudad Juárez definitely was not a tourist attraction. Few curio shops catered to the international visitor. Juárez Avenue was the main drag which began at the international bridge of the Rio Grande and stretched sixteen blocks south, lined on both sides with a few discos, small cantinas, and fly infested restaurants. To the constant tune of a mambo beat, taxi drivers sat inert in the intense sun, shop owners languidly read newspapers, and mangy dogs zigzagged between pedestrians who clogged the cobblestone sidewalks.
I made my way south on Juárez Avenue to the towering Guadalupe Cathedral, a pile of ancient stone which dated back several centuries. From what I gathered, Juárez sprang up around the cathedral like growing fungus and spread outward.
Turning on Avenida 16th de Septiembre, I approached the fortress of worship down a dusty sidewalk. As I crossed towards a crowded plaza in front of the church, my senses were on alert.
Encompassing a large, concrete square - Plaza las Armas, it was called - sat a multitude of people on long, stone benches under sporadically placed trees doing nothing but socializing as they had for countless years.
It was near mid-afternoon and the sun beat down in shimmering heat upon the concrete thoroughfare. A legion of shoeshine boys fluttered through the masses as vendors sold flavored ice and sunglasses. Two young men did a clown act at the base of the cathedral stairs to an applauding and laughing audience. The stalls were an arabesque of multihues selling all types of candy colored curious. The air wafted with smells of spoiled garbage, automobile exhaust, and seared taco meat. Local families strolled with their giggling children, bewildered tourists gawked, and in cooling shadows a band tootled and twanged music indigenous to Sinaloa. I stood for a moment and appreciated this idyllic scenario of Mexican life which took place against a backdrop of the cathedral’s mammoth, twin-spires topped by neon crosses.
Interwoven among this picturesque scenery was the clandestine hum of rentboy activity and the old farts in Stetsons who loved them, squatting in the roasting shade, shivering with lust. I knew this type of place all too well.
As on cue, I was swarmed over by guides strictly on the hustle:
“Pussy women? Titty girl?"
A group of stern and rugged campesinos peered down at me from a rustic, graffiti splattered gazebo in the middle of the plaza with far away eyes filled with curiosity for the wandering foreigner.
Covered in grungy clothes, the gaggle of stoic men waited silently and patiently for the sun to set and make the run across the border. At the base of the gazebo, lonely queens idly sat and lingered for the chance to snag one of those studs as countless, cheap hotels lay nearby.
I stood there taking it all in when a young man hobbled on crutches up to me. As he approached, he wore a forced smile upon his face.
He introduced himself and said his name was Edgar. He was a young man with shaggy, brown hair. His face was handsome yet held a visage of some unknown and long suffering. He was dressed nicer than the other beggars, so I assumed he wasn’t. The crutches were fairly new and gave me the idea his malady was recent.
“Hello there, Edgar.” I grinned, attempting to be cordial. “What happened, man? What’s with the crutches?”
His face grimaced in pain and mumbled something about having a hard time standing. After purchasing us both a soda, I invited him over to a vacant spot on the concrete benches.
Again, I lightheartedly inquired what was wrong with his legs. He stared at the passing multitude, took a sip of his drink for dramatic effect, and began his tale of woe.
With a determined look deep into my eyes he said, “I was walking home from work two days ago - you know, out by Parque Independencia. A squad car pulled up and two officers began harassing me. They had me sit on the curb as they began going through my backpack. I had nothing in there but my uniform, right? They asked for my ID - which I had. It was current - but, this one pendejo accused it as being fake.” He took another sip of his soda. “They started all kinds of shit that I looked like some runner for the cartel they had been looking for and right in front of me cut my ID up with a knife. Then, they threw me into the back of the squad car.”
“Damn. What happened next?” I asked.
His eyes became misty, “They drove me out to the middle of nowhere, man. Still cuffed, they dragged me out behind this building and had me take my shoes off. I was sitting in the dirt when they took their batons and began beating my feet.”
He lifted one pant leg and his skin was mottled with large purple and blue bruises. His tan skin ashy from scratch marks.
I scowled. “Goddam!”
Edgar rolled his pants back down and continued, “They threw me in the back of the car again and drove me out to my neighborhood and dumped me about six blocks from my house.
With the utmost contempt peppered with fear, Edgar eyed two police patrols meandering through the Plaza - one a hulking, apish looking man and the other a stone faced, dumpy woman. At that moment I could not help feeling Edgar’s emotions. I loathed them, too.
“Wow…that’s tough.” I mumbled. I mean, what could I say?
“That’s not all of it.” He spat, wiping his mouth with a napkin. “As I was walking home - the best I could - another patrol car cruises up and they started their shit. I explained what happened, right? They laughed, accused me of not having an ID after I had told them what happened - threw me in the back of the car and drove me around awhile - all along not saying a word. Once at a substation, they put me in a cell and beat my legs as other prisoners silently looked on. It was horrible!”
As tears began to trickle down his brown cheeks, I asked, “Then what did they do?”
“They let me go.” He stated flatly. “They drove me a block to my place and let me go.”
Edgar sat there for a moment, silently reminiscing the terrible ordeal. He gulped another mouthful of coke, “The next day, I told my neighbor and she gave me these crutches. I took a taxi over to the police station on 8th and tried to explain what happened. The receptionist just said it was my word against the cops. And they would believe the cops - since I had no ID. After that, I went to the Human Rights building and tried to explain it to them - but, I got the same response. Man, I tell you, amigo - you gringos have no idea how fucked up it is for us here.”
He stuttered out the words, “I was hoping…since I’d lost my job because of this, if you could help me with any pesos? I haven’t got anything and,” He jerked his chin down to his legs, “I don’t think I’ll be working anytime soon.”
I stood up and took out my wallet. Removing two twenty dollar bills, I placed them into Edgar’s hands.
Edgar’s eyes misted up again, “Gracias, amigo. Mucho gracias.”
He excused himself to return to his apartment and use the money to pay rent. As I watched Edgar hobble away, it was my first taste of the dire circumstances in which the cartels and the local police were suffering onto the people of this city.
The sun ultimately boiled away into night and I walked out of the plaza. As twilight fell, the downtown area burst into a carnival atmosphere. All types of crazy hipsters assembled wearing woolen, Peruvian ski caps and hip-hop paraphernalia and pacheco haircuts in every doorway and on every corner.
I strolled down Avenida 16th de Septiembre and passed tiny, sweltering carts where they prepared churros and cut them for me from sizzling grease baskets. I crunched voraciously from a bag I purchased as I planned to cover the Mexican night ahead on the cracked and trash strewn sidewalk.
Wandering aimlessly, I rambled down the crazy hooker infested street of Calle Mariscal and pushed and dodged through the phantom night of activity.
Mariachis stood on lamp lit corners or in front of closet-sized cantinas and blew beautifully into shiny trumpets. Taxis crawled along pot-holed pavement, sweaty American perverts from El Paso aimed for their Dark Prey as children huddled hungry in the shadows with wary eyes. Transvestite prostitutes minced through the night with their coiling fingers of Come On as young, heterosexual Aztec men passed. The youthful drunks stumbled with flashing smiles and gave the trannies the once over.
Ranchero Music drummed from a thousand neon-splashed cantinas. Down mysterious side streets, antique and crippled buses built in the 1950’s waddled in mud holes, flashes of fiery-yellow transvestite whoredress in the dark, in shadowed alcoves assembled pimps and pushers of flesh and junk who leaned against walls of naked mortar. Pretty boys passed, every age. I turned to watch them, far too beautiful, my God - they smiled back a smile that was a siren which could sink any ship, cabron.
Macho men dressed in flashy vaquero gear or grimy rags with huge, floppy straw hats entered and exited smokey bars occupied with howling people, drinking Indio from tall water glasses, coolly smoking mota in crumbling alcoves, shamelessly pissing into open sewage ditches along dark alleys. Whores by the hundreds lined along the adobe walls of Orizaba Street and in front of their dank, sweet scented cells of disease, beckoning coyly as I passed.
A scrawny prostitute with long, straight raven hair approaches and flashed me a smile of silver-capped teeth.
“Oye, baby, want to fuck?” She beams.
I look down and noticed she was several months pregnant.
“Oh, mami, it looks like someone beat me to it.” I smiled as I passed her.
She laughed heartily and calls at me, caressing her stomach with petite, brown hands, “For you, one price for two, papi.”
Arm in arm, packs of young Mexican men recklessly strolled down the main whorestreet of Mariscal, black hair hung limply over their eyes - borracho – as long legged women of calling in tight yellow-blue-red dresses grabbed at them and cocked their pelvises in, pulling at their shirts and pleading. The boys drunkenly wobbled and smiled shyly away as blank-faced cops patrolled the thoroughfare on little bicycles, rolling invisibly over broken sidewalks.
I eventually stopped on a corner under a flickering marquee and lit a cigarette, soaking all this wonderful madness in. With an optimistic grin, I realized with certainty that Juárez would make a mighty fine home for a while.