By Paul Blase
I’m writing this as I pass Exit 0 on I-10 outside El Paso, Texas. We’re crossing back into New Mexico. This past weekend in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, I spent with a coworker’s family. There’s a lot I want to cover, so let’s start with the days leading up to the visit.
I had never been to Mexico before. Obviously, a terrible narrative exists regarding the cartels, kidnapping, dangers to foreigners, pickpocketing, and so much more. Without ever having been, one would believe it is a land of destitute, practically a third-world country. You’d believe you’d have to spend an inordinate amount of money to have creature comforts such as high-speed internet, clean water, safe meals, and just a positive visiting environment. Hell, I heard stories of how you must dispose of soiled toilet paper into waste bins because the plumbing doesn’t work. Stories of how consuming tap water would make you deathly ill; stories of how cartel members randomly open fire in broad daylight, killing innocent bystanders.
But let me tell you, you’d be wrong.
Of course, these situations exist in parts of Mexico— that’s why videos and stories exist depicting such. Admittedly, I didn’t stay or visit the most dangerous parts of the city (nor did I have a desire to). But what I found was so much better than anything I could ever expect.
As we took the exit to approach the Cordova Bridge of the Americas, my heart was pounding. I was arriving in Juarez at about 9:30 PM on a Friday. As we drive across the border, there are concrete barriers, razor wire, fences, everything in a zig-zag pattern, likely to prevent anyone from zipping through like a bat out of hell. It looked like a war zone at the crossing and the section where my friend dubbed “Iraq.” I saw why.
We crossed into the city, and the road conditions got slightly worse (not as bad as New York, to be fair). We passed by some shops that were closed for the evening and then turned down a road that I was informed was once the nightclub district. Everything was closed and boarded up, and windows were broken. Some houses down the streets had razor wire on top of their fences. I was a little worried. The plan was to go out to a bar/club called Silver Fox. This was the moment my perception started to change.
It was no different than any other bar with live entertainment in the United States. People were dancing, the band was killing it, and the DJ was on point in between the band’s set. The beer was cheap, the spirits were high, and the women were beautiful. I think I had 9 or 10 beers throughout the night, and it came out to 600 pesos or 30 bucks.
The following day I woke up, and we went to eat Menudo at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant. I enjoyed an Orange Fanta with it, and the food was delicious. It could have been straight out of someone’s Abuela’s cocina. The fun had just begun. We went around the corner to a bakery and as soon as I walked in, my mouth began to water. The selection of baked goods was out of this world. The smell? My words won’t do it justice. I picked up a danish and some cinnamon rolls, and my friend got some cakes and conchas and elected to pay. All in all, about seven bucks.
We went back to the house, which, the neighborhood included, looked MUCH better during the day rather than at night. The extended family began to come over. I met my coworker’s uncle, Arturo, and somehow kept a conversation going in mostly Spanish for two hours, with me occasionally using Google translate for some help. We talked as if we were old friends, discussing our children (and his grandchildren), where we are from, his love for classic American cars, and sports. As the rest of the extended family came over, we prepared to head into the city, where I took some touristy pictures. There were street vendors everywhere— shirts, pottery, elote, burritos, churros, agua fresca, fruits… the whole spectrum.
Arturo stayed by my side and talked with me the whole time. I felt as if I was his son or grandson. As a group, we went to Kentucky Bar and Club, which boasts the world’s first Margarita. I’m not a fan of tequila (thanks, 21st birthday), but I had to partake. When you’re in New York, you eat pizza. In Chicago, you get dogs. In Texas, you get BBQ… Well, in Juarez, you get a margarita. Having checked that off the list, I transitioned to Bohemia beer, the same one Arturo was drinking. He continued to keep me in conversation with everyone. The table ordered nachos, which were “para morirse.”
We then went to sushi dinner, which, as a guest and recipient of so much hospitality, I picked up the tab. A whopping 1,350 pesos ($70) for 15 rolls of sushi. It was surprisingly amazing. Wasabi and ginger were not offered, but rather a side of sriracha and yum yum sauce. During the dinner, Arturo spoke more of the diversity of Juarez, its history, and how it has changed for better and worse.
As we gathered all of our possessions, Arturo put his hand on my shoulder and said, in Spanish, “Mi casa es su casa. Any time you are in Mexico, you have a house and a meal.”
I must state that part and highlight the sincerity in his eyes and voice.
As we went to my friend’s in-law’s house, which reminded me of an American home and neighborhood, I noticed a trend. There was no television in the living room. The coincidence was that whenever we were at someone’s house, or just together, we were all in the living room talking and laughing. For a moment, I thought, this is why it’s called a living room. This is what “living” is. It’s not a place to watch TV. It’s not a place to waste your life. It’s a place to gather, to share your time, and enjoy it with family and friends. I feel like we lose sight of that in today’s world, where our personal entertainment is at a premium, and we forget about the simple things that make life what it truly is. I complimented the in-laws on their lovely house and was again reminded that I have a place to stay in Mexico.
As we all said goodbyes at my friends’ house later that evening, Arturo shook my hand briefly and came in for a quick embrace, to which I said “me encanto,” which loosely means it has been a pleasure. He placed his hands on my shoulders and said, “Hasta la proxima,” or until we meet again.
What a great man.
As we were leaving this morning, I said my goodbyes to my friend’s mother with an obligatory “Adios, mama. Muchas gracias para la hospitalidad,” — thank you very much for the hospitality. In response? “Por supuesta, tienes mi casa.”— of course, you have my home.
That brings me to this point now. Reflecting on all of this weekend’s doings as we sat in line to cross the border for 45 minutes. Understanding what my perception of a Mexican border town was, what to expect as I saw life among Mexicans. I’ve traveled enough to never judge or stereotype people in other cultures, especially in their native land, but you never really know what to expect when it’s your first time. Having finally experienced that, I would like to think I have an educated opinion.
I am very vocal about my distaste for traveling and staying at resorts, going on cruises, etc. After all, why the hell do I want to go to another country and feel like I’m still in America? Eating American food with American people? No. Drop me in the middle of a country where I can barely speak the language, and let me figure it out. Let me experience life THEIR way. Let me LEARN.
My overall opinion of the Mexican people has increased positively after this weekend. Mexicans are such kind, genuine people. The sincerity in their voice and body language when they offered their homes to me was one of the kindest gestures I’ve ever received. Learning about their culture, their struggle, where they are, and where they have been—enjoying some absolutely delicious food and great laughs—seeing my friend’s niece playing, completely oblivious to the potential struggles that exist in her life to come. It’s eye-opening. It’s rewarding. It’s so enriching.
It brings a sense of grace and enlightenment to my life, knowing how good I have it as an American, but also knowing what values we can bring from Mexico to live a better life moving forward.
As I said in my introductory article, I’m rich beyond measure because of experiences like this past weekend, and when it comes to increasing that kind of wealth, I’m one greedy son of a bitch.
Hasta la proxima, Mexico.