The night before Revolution Day, David, Patricia, and I took their mother to El Pistolero, “The Gunfighter,” to celebrate her seventieth birthday. I suppose there was a certain revolutionary spirit in Carmela’s tossing back a beer in a bar with her son and daughter — an act of defiance against age, and time. We then spent the night in a motel with an old-fashioned wagon in the courtyard, and I thought, “So Mexico romanticizes its history, too.” We’d planned to go out for breakfast in the morning, but nothing in Nuevo Casas Grandes was open on El Día de la Revolución.
We’d stepped into a spaghetti western.
You see, 101 years ago, Francisco Madero ran for president against dictator Porfirio Diaz. But Diaz rigged the election and threw Madero in prison. Madero escaped to Texas, and on November 20, 1910, he called upon the Mexican people to revolt. On November 20, 2011, David declared, “My mom has to have her morning coffee!” So we stopped at a convenience store in Nuevo Casas Grandes to buy her coffee-to-go.
David drove, and his mother Carmela rode shotgun, stiff-backed and silent – maybe because her son’s CD of thumping, electronic Latin dance music was vibrating the compact car around her.
“This music doesn’t bother your mother?” I asked Patricia, who sat with me in back.
“No, my mom doesn’t mind at all.”
“It would drive mine up the wall,” I said. I didn’t mention that it was doing that to me. It was nice of David to drive, and I thought it would seem ungrateful to complain. I tried to tune out the music.
The Chihuahua desert was as stark as I’ve described it in the novel I’m writing.
Studying the scenery didn’t help. The Chihuahua desert was as stark as I’ve described it in the novel I’m writing: creosote, sand, mesquite, sand, yucca, and sand… miles of prickly drab, topped by cirrostratus-whipped sky. The distant hills struggled to look mountainous, as if the desert wanted to rise to more than it was: a place not to get caught on foot without water.
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.
Once-upon-a-time, with Americans crossing the border to shop for novelties and bargains, Juárez used to be a great place for entrepreneurs.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This Thursday, I’m traveling to a place that should have yellow caution tape around it. According to the news, according to family and friends, according to the U.S. State Department, if I’m looking for danger: non-essential travel to Chihuahua, Mexico is the way to go, especially Ciudad Juárez. When I told my grandfather I was going to Mexico to do research for my historical novel, he shouted a bit, then insisted, “OK, next subject.” But hey, sometimes Grampa shouts when he and Dad are deciding where to grab breakfast on Sunday, so I didn’t take it personally.
According to the U.S. State Department, if I’m looking for danger: non-essential travel to Chihuahua, Mexico is the way to go, especially Ciudad Juárez.
I’ll only be in Juárez for a day and a half of my five-day round-trip from El Paso to Casas Grandes. Don’t tell my husband, but I’m more scared about the twelve hours I’ll be on a Mexican highway. I plan to hide a couple hundred bucks in my shoe, in case I need to pay off highway robbers. Remember when our parents used to say, “That’s highway robbery!” and we thought it was just an expression?