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 69-year-old Carmela and her 40-something 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.
For breakfast we ate fried beef, flour tortillas, and pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread). The pan dulce was a soft, airy, lightly sweet reminder of my L.A. childhood. My grandmother grew up in El Paso and L.A. Her mother, Altagracia, was born in Chihuahua: Mexico’s largest state. No one knows which town, but she must have passed through Juárez to get to El Paso, Texas – where she lived most of her short life. Perhaps the tastes I learned at my grandmother’s knee in Los Angeles – pan dulce, cosido, sopa, chorizo, menudo – are the tastes of El Paso, which are, in great part, the tastes of Chihuahua.
Could I be a reincarnation of Altagracia? I carry some of her DNA, so part of her does live on in me. Maybe that DNA called to her, and she, in turn, called me to Chihuahua.
Patricia had planned to get her hair done at her brother’s shop, but changed her mind, because he was busy with customers preparing for the Revolution Day weekend. I asked her if Diego is forced to pay extortion to drug cartels, like other business owners in Juárez. She said that he would never tell the family if he were, because he wouldn’t want to worry them. But the beauty shop next to his has been extorted, as has a neighboring convenience store.
When sunshine split the courtyard in two, I drifted outside to sit on the stoop and write. Carmela’s skittish dogs lazed nearby in squares of warmth. I never did get any writing done, not because of the dogs, but because of my friends’ hospitality. I had barely gathered my thoughts, when Patricia emerged with cushions for me to sit on. I hadn’t written more than a few words, before she returned with a glass of water. I had finished maybe a sentence, when Carmela came out and asked about my writing.
I had mistaken it for just another of Mexico’s abandoned businesses, until Carmela told me the story.
I became grateful for the interruptions, when Patricia came back to suggest I take a photo of a crumbling building nearby. I had mistaken it for just another of Mexico’s abandoned businesses. Then Carmela told me the story:
The tree grew so close to the center, and provided so little cover, that I kept pointing and repeating: “This tree?”
A year earlier, the building had been a rehabilitation center for drug addicts and alcoholics. Then, on Sunday night, December 5, 2010, cartel gunmen – I don’t know how many – stood at a nearby tree and opened fire on the Alcance Victoria Centro de Rehabilitación. The tree grew so close to the rehab center, and provided so little cover, that I kept pointing and repeating:
“Yes, this tree.”
Those guys must have had some cajones.
“You can still see the bullet holes,” Patricia said.
“You can still see the bullet holes,” Patricia said. Damn straight. The gouges were huge. Closer inspection revealed shattered glass below the vacant windows. Inside, below a wall painted with the words “Casa de Oración” (House of Prayer), lay a shambles of drywall, plaster, glass, and abandoned odds and ends. The center remains closed. “Everyone is too scared to return,” Carmela said.
The rehab center remains closed. “Everyone is too scared to return,” Carmela said.
The night it happened, Carmela heard the gunfire, but didn’t know what it was. She thought her daughter Sara had come to visit and was pounding on the door, just to be silly. But when she opened the door, no one was there. She walked to her fence and saw smoke rising from the rehab center. She crouched down and hurried inside, not returning outside until ambulances arrived.
One man was killed, eight people injured. That same night, gunmen hit another rehab center across town, shooting three more men to death.
Cartels have attacked many rehab centers in Juárez, and throughout Mexico, hunting for rival gang members who might be hiding out or recruiting among the easy pickings. If they’ve killed innocent bystanders in the process, perhaps the gangsters view that as a warning: it’s not good for their bottom line if customers quit buying their products, and it boosts their sense of power to keep everyone frightened.
“The little girl who lives next door to my mom is still terrified,” Patricia said. “She also had a shooting at her school. Pobrecita (poor little thing). She jumps every time she hears a loud noise.” Patricia’s mother cried for weeks. “Can you imagine an old lady going through that?”
As I bent to photograph the lone yellow flower growing in the rubble-filled lot, I imagined someone driving by and shooting me.
As I bent to photograph the lone yellow flower growing in the rubble-filled lot, I imagined someone driving by and shooting me. Unlikely, yes, but not unfounded. Dozens of Mexican journalists who’ve dared to publish stories about cartel atrocities have been killed, kidnapped, or threatened.
Back in Carmela’s courtyard, my eyes followed Patricia’s pointing finger to a mountain just a few miles away. “That’s El Paso, right there.” There’s a war in Carmela’s backyard… in America’s backyard. At that moment, it seemed too close to home – for all of us.
(The names of the people in this story have been changed for their safety.)