Sunday, February 26, 2017

Life is Too Short to be Afraid: Ciudad Juárez, Mexico Pt. I

(La vida es muy corta para tener miedo - Life is too short to be afraid.)

Juárez, I had a dream today
The children danced, as the guitars played
And all the violence up and slipped away
Goodnight, Juárez, Goodnight - Tom Russell "Goodnight Juárez"

Tom Russell recorded Goodnight Juárez in the fall of 2010, and by the end of that year 3,111 people would be murdered in a city of about 1.4 million. Ciudad Juárez was already coming to be widely known as the Murder Capital of the World and tourism from the north, for many decades so lively, if admittedly often bacchanalian, had effectively ceased in the few years since cartel activity had begun to spike in 2007.

However, 2010 would represent the bloody peak of brutality and, by 2015, there were just over 300 homicides. While it can’t be said that the violence has up and slipped away--and 2016 did see an uptick in killings--Ciudad Juárez is not the place it was several years ago. Yet most of the world hasn’t heard that, or at least doesn’t believe it, which makes Juárez an utterly fascinating, enchanting, and still, at times, sobering city to visit now.

(Groceries - The Shrapnel.)

This story starts when, while visiting El Paso in 2013, I ran into a man setting the old clock in San Jacinto Plaza. He told me that he’d given walking tours of Juárez for years and was thinking it was finally safe enough to resume them. On a subsequent visit I tried to see if the tours were being offered and, sure enough, there was a webpage touting guided trips to downtown Juárez. “Entertaining! Educational! Fun!” the ad read. And, in the biggest, boldest letters: “SAFE!” That was more than good enough for me. Sadly, it would take another couple years to get myself back again to actually take a tour, but in that time Juárez’s reputation for violence seemed to change almost not at all, even as the death toll continued to decrease.

As it turned out, Rich Wright, who has been running these tours, was not the man I met in the plaza. But he’s been going to Juárez his entire life, including during the years of greatest bloodshed, and, with a mutual acquaintance or two in the Minneapolis music scene of the ‘90’s, I couldn’t have asked for anyone more simpatico. Did I mention my Spanish is hardly serviceable?

(Taqueria el Tropíco.)

We paid our 50 cents to cross the Paso del Norte International Bridge and off we went, stopping to note a spray-painted marker on a train bridge below. This was for Sergio Adrian Hernandez Guereca, a 15-year-old shot there by the U.S. Border Patrol in 2010. A case to decide whether his family can sue is now at the U.S. Supreme Court, and the scrawled “Sergio” was an immediate reminder that battles do continue to rage, even if in 2017 some of the fiercest may be fought in hushed courtrooms and the shadowed halls of government.

Once in Juárez, our first stop was Ignacio Mariscal Street, long known as the infamous red-light district, La Mariscal. Rich pointed to an open plaza temporarily filled with brightly-colored amusement park equipment and recalled it lined with ancient bars, a scene now hard to imagine. The demolition is part of a widespread government effort to destroy the haunts of the cartels and generally clean things up, a process which has seen many historic babies going out with the druggy bathwater.

(Amusement of a less traditional sort at La Mariscal.)

Stunning murals covered many of the walls surrounding the plaza, but just before noon on a Friday the amusements were quiet and the plaza itself deserted. So we crossed the walkway to a neighborhood that had not yet been subject to razing or revitalization, which pleased me greatly as among the abandoned buildings was the former home of a brothel called White Lake. It was immortalized in Cormac McCarthy’s “Cities of the Plain,” if moved to a somewhat fictionalized location in the city. Nearby a man lay in a crumbling, concrete doorway sleeping, only his feet protruding into the gathering daylight.

(Former location of White Lake brothel.)

The next stop was the Museo de la Revolución en la Frontera, a wonderful museum housed in the grand old customs building. Tracing the turbulent history of Mexico through the early years of the 20th century, it depicts the frequently harrowing tales of men of great and sometimes dubious intent such as Porfirio Díaz, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata, and Pascual Oruzco, many of which were photographed in the very same building that now describes their legacy.

(Museo de la Revolución en la Frontera.)

While much has changed in Juárez, some things have not, and just past noon we found ourselves in Buen Tiempo on Vicente Guerrero, a bar operating continuously since the early 1920’s and thus now the oldest in Juárez, if only barely. With lime-colored walls and No Fumar signs that were hardly being taken as even a remote suggestion, the tequila came in chipped votive candle holders with little crosses on the bottoms and the Indio was cold. People I didn’t know asked me questions I couldn’t always understand and earnestly shook my hand. It all seemed right and proper. From there we headed to Mercado Cuahtemoc and then upstairs for a less liquid lunch. The chips and salsa verde were delicious, as were the chile relleno burritos. At this point, since entering the Buen Tiempo, we probably hadn’t spent 15 Yankee dollars between the two of us.

(El Buen Tiempo, the oldest bar in Juárez.)

The afternoon ended with the obligatory stop at the Kentucky Club, said to be the place where the margarita was invented. Once the haunt of the likes of Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, and Steve McQueen, the Kentucky Club bills itself as world famous and is sometimes referred to as the oldest bar in Juárez. However, it seems that much that is reportedly true about the Kentucky Club may not be quite so and, in fact, the current building is not the original circa-1920 bar. That one was on Dieciseis, over by the train tracks, and not as close to the border. The margarita was good, no doubt about that, but I was perhaps more impressed by the $2.25 price tag.

After giving away whatever coins we had left to people gathered around the bridge, we paid our four pesos to get back to America with plans to return the following day for a “less-structured” tour, part of a lucrative syndication package City of Dust has worked out with El Chuqueño, Rich Wright’s excellent blog on El Paso, its environs, and desert living in general. Details of that second trip across the border will be coming up next.

(Los perros de Juárez.)

Sunday, December 11, 2016

A Little Piece of Quiet: Lingo, New Mexico

I might as well stop pretending that I’m going to post more regularly and admit that, modern life being what it is, time is always tight, and seemingly ever-increasingly so. However, one way to get new posts written is to take to my sick bed and thus find myself confined to the small space between the bedroom and kitchen table. As such is the case today, let us leave the hustle and bustle of modernity behind once again and step back into the past, this time to visit Lingo, New Mexico.

The little village of Lingo, which can still claim at least one family as residents, is on the eastern edge of New Mexico, just five miles from Texas. It’s a tiny dot on the map at the western extremity of the staggeringly vast Llano Estacado/Staked Plain plateau. As such, it sits among some other places we’ve visited in the region, such as Pep, Causey, House, and Highway.

Jean M. Burrough’s “Roosevelt County History and Heritage” leads off with a handwritten letter about the Bilberry family’s arrival in what was not yet Lingo. They lived in a “two-room shack, dirt floor” and Finis Bilberry farmed and raised sheep. School was first held in 1916, the schoolhouse being a one-room dug-out at a place regrettably named Nigger Hill. Also known as Dead Negro Hill, this was where, in July 1877, a group of African-American soldiers and buffalo hunters abandoned their pursuit of some Comanche who had stolen stock and killed one hunter. Desperate and dying of thirst in the summer heat, the men began to search for water, some going 86 hours without a drink. Five would die in this incident, which was sometimes remembered as the “Staked Plains Horror." In 2005, the name of the rise was officially changed to Buffalo Soldier Hill.

Speaking of place names, in “The Place Names of New Mexico,” Robert Julyan notes that Lingo was known as Need in 1916, becoming Lingo in 1918. No one knows why it was originally called Need, but in 1918 the postal authorities thought the name too close to Weed, a settlement down south in Otero County. At that point, not only did Need become Lingo, but the post office got moved three miles to the north. I don’t know why the post office also had to move. Anyway, it’s been speculated that Lingo took its name from the way the people spoke (i.e., “the jargon, slang, or argot, of a particular field, group, or individual”), but more probably it references a family, now forgotten.

Now, I often feel like City of Dust is in a race against dusty oblivion as so many of the buildings documented on this blog are disappearing fast, and those in Lingo are no different. But unlike Lucy, NM, where I got there too late to photograph the old school or the Formwalt house, in this case I arrived just in the nick of time. Shown above and at left is the post office, where around 1953 a Mrs. Balko was postmistress. Mrs. Fanny Brown took the position on April 20, 1968, staying until the post office closed in 1984 (possibly on November 2). I visited on December 12, 2015 and on Valentine's Day 2016 the old PO burned to the ground. Apparently someone was driving a pick-up with a BBQ grill in the back and hot coals became airborne. Numerous blazes were started, consuming a total of 1,083 acres in southeastern Roosevelt County, but at least no one was hurt and no other structures were damaged.

Below is the crumbling Lingo Baptist Church, reportedly also used by other denominations on occasion, possibly after a second church in town closed. The general store is shown at the top of this post. Other buildings included a café, hardware store, basketball gym, and a shop in a Quonset hut, none of which still stand.

Fish fries and dances were held at the high school, which was across the street from the post office. The dances were a big deal as such stuff was not allowed in nearby Causey. However, Causey was where you would go to get your hair styled by the much-loved Lingo resident Edna Ashbrook. Lingo’s last graduating class was in 1945 and numbered five: Meryl Terry, Pete Rogers, Billy Joe Cunningham, Otis Foster, and Gene Collins. You can still find the blacksmith shop, but it’s fallen into a jumbled heap. Things are certainly much quieter than when Lingo could boast of the Hair twins--Judson and Jettie--and the Henry triplets--Anna, Bunna, and Lanna--although, you know, sometimes quiet can be nice.

Now I must return to my Theraflu.

The only published sources of information on Lingo that I could find were Burrough’s “Roosevelt County History and Heritage” and Julyan’s “The Place Names of New Mexico.” Wikipedia has a long entry on the “Buffalo Soldier tragedy of 1877.” Everything else for this post came from the many good people that left their recollections of growing up and living in Lingo on a series of photographs on the City of Dust Facebook page. Those photos and the accompanying comments can be found HERE, HERE, HERE, and HERE.

Sunday, July 31, 2016

Empty Desks: Contreras, New Mexico

In Socorro County, New Mexico, tucked off a side road that parallels I-25, not far from a muddy stretch of the Rio Grande, is the little village of Contreras. This was where a man named Matías Contreras once raised cattle and sheep and gave his name to a small community. A post office opened in 1919 but closed in 1935.

Not far south of Contreras is La Joya, the literal end of the road, and, in fact, a map from 1918 has Contreras as Los Ranchos de la Joya. La Joya’s recorded history post-European contact goes back much farther, to 1598, when Juan de Oñate's expedition found a Piro Indian pueblo there and called it Nueva Sevilleta because the setting reminded the Spanish explorers of Seville, Spain.

To me, the most striking building in Contreras is the old, long-empty school, naturally. I don’t know much about it, but I do know that students were attending classes there in the 1930’s. So perhaps it's one of the many Works Progress Administration (WPA) structures built in the area around the time of the Great Depression. Nearby Alamillo has a WPA school that became (and might still be) a residence, although it looks quite different.

There used to be a plaque to the right of the front doors (see top photo), which I somehow managed to miss. Later I was told it commemorated some local folks involved with the school, but before I could get back to look more closely it had been removed. I don’t think it was stolen though; probably it was taken off because the building is in such poor condition. Maybe whoever has it will read this and tell us what it says! I should mention that I photographed the school a few years ago and not only is it in worse shape now, it's also been fenced-off.

Otherwise, the San Jose Catholic Church, part of Our Lady of Sorrows Parish, is well-maintained and hosts a fiesta in March. There are no going commercial or civic concerns, but there are some well-kept homes and, if you visit whilst under the vengeful eye of the relentless afternoon sun on a parched, triple-digit day, plenty of dust. Of course, as this is the blog for connoisseurs of dust, everything is as it should be with this trip to Contreras, New Mexico.

There’s not a lot out there on Contreras, so pretty much all the historical information for this post came from Robert Julyan’s trusty “The Place Names of New Mexico.”

I have a backlog of so many small towns and villages in New Mexico that I may well never get to them all at this rate. But I can keep trying! Next time I’ll just reach my hand into the hat and see what I pull out.