Six years ago, this simple statement would not have drawn even a second notice when uttered among residents of El Paso, Texas. At that time, a trip to Juarez was de rigueur for everyone from adventuresome visiting relatives from the Midwest to senior citizens buying prescriptions and expensive tequila cheap to underage local teenagers looking for anything in a shot glass.
Yet when I mentioned this trip to a friend afterward, the look on his face was a mixture of disbelief and shock. “I won’t go any more,” he told me matter of factly. “You couldn’t pay me enough to go,” he said, as if there were an adequate sum for risking your life. From 2006-2011, an estimated 38,000 people have been killed in Mexico, primarily in drug-related incidents. As the gateway to lucrative U.S. drug markets, Ciudad Juárez has seen more than 6,500 deaths since 2008. The numbers are likely higher, since many deaths go unreported due to intimidation by both criminals and police.
I’m not particularly adventuresome or heroic. I was simply tagging along with a young missionary couple who are heroic. They work in a small community on the outskirts of Juárez, whose residents battle poverty in all its forms amid a nagging wind, which often gusts into gales of blowing sand. This is a desert no man’s land. One-room stucco houses, often painted in pinks and golds, dot the barren landscape. Some live in worn wooden shacks where open air makes its own 2 x 4s.
We ate a feast of chicken fried in a cast-iron barbeque dish set over an open fire, with sliced potatoes and rice prepared Mexican-style with tomatoes and onions. One of the missionaries’ daughters turned 3 the next day, so we brought a large chocolate birthday cake with us for the celebration. Her name is Eden.
I have lived in El Paso since 2005 and spent six months in Mexico learning Spanish in the mid 1990s. While this fiercely patriotic country is overwhelmed in every way by often gruesome murders, I have never met anyone but generous, authentic, loving people during my time in Mexico’s interior and along its borders. It is her government that abandons her.
After the sense of community I felt during our visit, a change came over me when I saw the 10-foot high border fence from the inside. As the car sped along a road that parallels the fence, which snakes its way between the two cities, I glanced through the chain links at the early evening lights of El Paso. How striking it is to look out at a border city through a fence rather than obscured from it behind a wall. I was blindsided to see El Paso so close (right along the border) and yet so far away. I felt like it was me they were afraid of.
I don’t share Robert Frost’s observations about fences making good neighbors, though I couldn’t get the poet’s line out of my mind when I returned home. I plan many more trips to Juárez with my missionary friends, despite what others say. I hope the fence never changes me.