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The View From Juarez

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Commentary: I recently took a friend of mine and his son to Juarez, Mexico, to pick up some items over the Memorial Day weekend. Usually, I would drive into Mexico, but I didn’t want to do this on a holiday weekend. I knew the later we stayed in the city, the longer the northbound lines at the ports of entry to cross into the U.S. would be, as U.S. citizens/residents who have relatives in Mexico returned home. Therefore, I parked at the base of the Santa Fe Bridge and we entered Mexico by foot.One thing we noticed immediately is that almost everybody in Juarez was wearing a mask, many of them with colorful Mexican designs. COVID signs cautioning people about social distancing and testing were everywhere. However, because of the nature of certain areas, such as Juarez’s downtown district, social distancing is difficult, and I saw a lot of people in close proximity to each other. This was especially true as lines of people queued at bank entrances to do their banking at the end of the month. I saw lines at a couple of banks stretch down the sidewalk.

In Juarez, vaccinations have been open to people older than 60. I talked to a 63-year-old taxi driver who told me that he had received the Astra Zeneca vaccine. He has nine brothers and sisters, of which five live in El Paso. As American citizens, they can come visit him in Juarez, but he is deemed by the U.S. federal government a “non-essential” Mexican traveler and cannot enter the U.S. to visit them or to go shopping. He told me that he can see that things are getting better in Juarez and that the city is coming alive again. He then quickly pivoted to the municipal and gubernatorial elections and began to make a case for the Morena party winning in both cases. As he said, “Change doesn’t come overnight.  However, you can see it happening little-by-little over time.”

As it was election season, it seemed that every available piece of concrete or wall was covered with campaign slogans. The paint shops and painters must get excited when it gets close to elections. I’ve always been fascinated with the willingness of building and infrastructure owners to allow these types of paintings on their property, which can remain for a long time after elections are over. 

Public buses, loaded with commuters, zoomed by on Avenida 16 de Septiembre. It was typical Juarez traffic on this main arterial road, with cars in every lane and people going in every direction possible. On a couple of streets, the vestige of a spring shower or a water leak caused ponding along the curbs on some of the main streets. We had to be careful not to walk by these mini lakes when traffic was present so as not to get soaked.

The malls around the main plaza in Juarez were heavily frequented by customers. Cell phone accessory stands, clothing stores, ice cream shops, and ladies’ apparel stores all had people in them. The smells of Mexican and Chinese foods wafted through the air. Vendors sold jewelry, hats, books, and arts & crafts on the plaza, of which a portion was boarded up for construction. Many stores still have strict pandemic protocol and have an attendant taking people’s temperature and squirting hand sanitizer into patron’s hands as they enter the establishment. Sadly, a lot of retail establishments are boarded up and probably will never again open.

Bars in Juarez can now stay open until 12:00 am. I talked to one employee at the Kentucky Club who told me that American tourists are returning to patronize his establishment.  As in many U.S. states, bar patrons cannot sit at the bar, and chairs have been removed. At the Kentucky Club, in order to have a drink, we were required to order an entree, I was told that this was part of the state orders for liquor establishments.

As I climbed the bridge to return home, I crossed many street vendors selling sweets, water, sunshades, and hand-made items. There were street entertainers busking for money, and of course, window washers plying their services for tips. I was glad that I didn’t take my car into Juarez, as I judged that waiting times to cross into the U.S. by auto were between two and three hours. Crossing back into the U.S., Customs and Border Protection only let smaller groups of people into their building at a time, where they were asked about their citizenship and made any declarations of items picked up in Mexico.

Walking back to my car, I felt a spark of urgency and optimism in me. I sensed the urgency in making COVID vaccinations available on both sides of the border so that we can return to a semblance of normalcy at the border. In the past two months, Mexico has tripled its vaccination rate. The State of Chihuahua has administered approximately one million vaccines. This provided me with an optimistic feeling that as even more people are vaccinated across the border, normalcy seems close.