Once-bustling neighborhoods and boulevards are short of people, light on traffic, full of crumbling businesses, and loaded with “For Rent” signs. Big-name entertainers have canceled performances. To top it all off, an eerie tension grips the air as a threat stands to set off another car bomb before the end of the month.
So when young people showed for an all-day music and art exposition last weekend, the gathering had the vibes of an extraordinary occasion. Dubbed Juarez Live, the event was part of the highly-debated “We are All Juarez” campaign launched by the federal government earlier this year to reconstruct a city shattered by the war between the Juarez and Sinaloa drug cartels. Months later, the violence drags on with no end in sight.
“This is a cry to say that Juarez is alive, that young people are alive and standing up and wanting to make positive noise to show that there are also many good things in Juarez, not only bad things,” said Carlos Uranga Peralta, public relations coordinator for Juarez Live and Ciudad Juarez Youth Network. “There is always going to be violence and some cartel bat-tles, but the citizens will always go out to recuperate our space, our streets.” According to Uranga, Juarez Live is planned as the first in a series of events to recover the city.
Ringed by federal and municipal police, with two parked ambulances at the ready, the July 24 event unfolded at the Paso del Norte Cultural Center, a sprawling, state-administered complex completed during the term of outgoing Chihuahua Governor Jose Reyes Baeza. Accompanied by a dog with bulging brown eyes, the police duly searched a reporter’s backpack at the entrance to the event site.
Concert-goers began arriving to the free fest early in the afternoon, as the first of 22 scheduled rock, pop and jazz bands took to a huge stage. Masters of fusion and electronics, Tijuana’s Nortec Panoptica Orchesta was billed as a headliner. Projecting an energy that sliced through the humid air, Sel Cruz, the female lead singer of the Ciudad Juarez group Tierra Luna belted out lusty, jazzy numbers to help lift up the collective mood.
El Paso Times reporter Eileen B. Flores estimated about 5,000 people attended the show. However, some prominent local faces were absent. Later spotted on the Santa Fe Bridge connecting Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, Ciudad Juarez Mayor Jose Reyes Ferriz was busy with an interview for German media, according to members of his security detail. The mayor, who leaves office in October, was aware of Juarez Live but had more pressing matters to attend, the chief of Reyes’ bodyguards said.
Back at the Paso del Norte Cultural Center, Juarez Live provided an opportunity for local artists and craftspeople to sell their wares. A 22-year-old vendor who identified himself as Pilo said his collective specialized in producing t-shirts, paintings, posters and other materials.
“We’ve been working with Juarez Live for a month and know how difficult it is,” Pilo said. “But we also see how people are lending their support to get events like this moving forward.”
At another booth, high school student Gabi Ruiz and her friend Anais displayed their line of pretty, hand-crafted “girlie accessories” including feathered earrings, headbands and pouches.
Juarez Live was organized to show another side of a city which has the reputation of the “world’s killing ground,” Ruiz said. “Sometimes there are good things like (Juarez Live) and we hope they do more things like this.”
The lives and concerns of the two young women might seem conveniently distant to US media consumers who cringe in horror at the news from a city seemingly in another universe, another time dimension.
But Gabi and Anais are the neighbors next door. They are borderlanders, part of the latest generation shaped by countless binational ties. With no hint of an accent, Ruiz speaks perfect English, a skill she said she acquired by watching Sesame Street and other US programs beamed into Mexican homes.
The Ciudad Juarez residents have boyfriends who live in El Paso, and must travel back and forth across an increasingly guarded border; theirs are love affairs of the Drug War and Post 9-11 era, an age when the modern chaperones are US Customs and Border Protection personnel enforcing “dating rules” of when an encounter can take place and for how long it can last. The entry line at the Santa Fe Bridge is part of the romantic ritual. “We can’t do anything about it,” Ruiz said. “We wait and then we go.”
Besides showcasing music, food, games and art, Juarez Live featured booths offering information about fighting discrimination, combating drugs and addressing other social ills. Set up by Mexico’s National Council against Addictions (CONADIC), one stand offered pamphlets and a comic book.
Maria Martinez Ruiz, deputy state coordinator for CONADIC, an agency of the federal Secretariat of Health, said that in addition to an “abusive and explosive consumption of alcohol,” illegal drug usage is a rampant problem in Ciudad Juarez, with cocaine, marijuana and methamphetamine the favored vices.
According to Ruiz, a major thrust of the federal government’s anti-drug campaign is the establishment of New Life drug counseling centers. Of more than 300 such centers in Mexico, three are located in Ciudad Juarez, Ruiz said. “It’s better to prevent than to send someone to a treatment or rehabilitation,” she added.
An imposing young man with a bushy head of hair, 21-year-old Jason Elizalde showed up to Juarez Live for a graffiti contest. A self-proclaimed practitioner of “urban art,” Elizalde admitted he paints wherever he can, especially on highly visible streets. Inspired by realism, Elizalde said sketching faces full of pain and fear were his most recent creations. “Everyone in Ciudad Juarez is afraid, and that is what I like to paint,” he said.
Elizalde disclosed he had lost cousins and friends to the violence. While many others have fled Ciudad Juarez, Elizalde said he preferred to stay put. Another borderlander who’s lived in both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, Elizalde’s words conveyed a gritty, street-smart duality that might be incomprehensible to many.
“I like Ciudad Juarez because the people are very close,” he said. “They are good people. They are good people who treat you good wherever you are. There are lots of happy people.”
Would Juarez Live aid in steering his hometown onto a brighter course?
“I don’t think it will change the situation in Ciudad Juarez,” Elizalde mused. “Almost all the people who come here are good people who don’t get involved in problems. I don’t think it will change things, but there are people here who have hope that Ciudad Juarez will change.” Deep inside, Elizade confessed, he too maintained a reservoir of hope that things would turn around.
Meanwhile, just south of the city embers from the most recent round of house burnings by gunmen roaming the rural Juarez Valley smoldered in the remains of a once-thriving agricultural region. But at least for one muggy day in July, as the clouds puffed and billowed in monsoon season formation, part of the population of Ciudad Juarez could relax, take in snazzy tunes and perhaps even dream of a better future.
Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.
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