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Crossing the border for an afternoon visit to Juarez

Commentary:

Every once in a while, I like to spend an afternoon wandering around Juarez, Mexico, to take the pulse of the city, whose population is approximately 2.5 million people. I am frequently in Juarez, but mainly to attend trade shows, industry events, and to meet with Mexico companies and officials. However, my schedule is always tight, and I generally do my business there and immediately return to the U.S. afterwards.

A couple of weeks ago, I had a Saturday afternoon free, and I decided I would see what was going on in Juarez. I usually drive into Juarez, park my vehicle, and wander around. However, I decided that I would park my car on the U.S. side of the Santa Fe bridge and walk over to Juarez, thus avoiding what I thought would be the long lines of vehicles waiting to cross into the U.S. It was hot and it reminded me why people in Mexico tend to walk on the shaded side of the street on days like this.

The first place I stopped was the famous Kentucky Club, where legend has it the margarita was invented. It was packed at 2:30 pm, and loud. Years ago, when I first visited Juarez on a college buddies’ excursion down from Albuquerque, I remember the Kentucky Club was the first establishment I visited in Juarez. I was impressed by the ornate bar backdrop that I was told was carved out of the hull of an old ship. In fact, everything in the Kentucky Club looked like something preserved from the last century, even the waiters, who looked like they were all in their seventies.

I was told that one waiter, who was in his eighties, had started working as a boy at the Kentucky Club since it opened in 1920. Each one of these waiters wore fancy tuxedos or suits and exuded elegance and customer service. Gone are the old guard waiters, which have been replaced by friendly, energetic, young men who are perfectly fluent in Spanish and English. This is a handy skill, as about half of the patrons that day were obviously Americans who were speaking English.

I continued to walk south on Avenida Benito Juarez towards the main plaza. Gone are the old classic bars and clubs such as the Mariachi Club, the Cave, and Señor Fogs. Also gone is the elegant Club Florída, which had tuxedoed waiters with cloth napkins draping from their left arms, and pictures of famous American actors and celebrities who had dined or imbibed there. Some of these clubs have been boarded up, and others taken over by businesses such as currency exchange houses. Ironically, signs for some clubs like Señor Fogs and the Mariachi Club still hang and give a testament to a very different past. The infamous Mariscal is almost all torn down, replaced by open spaces. This notorious boys’ town was the site of drunkenness and debauchery for decades. It was eerily calm that day.

Arriving at the plaza, I saw a troupe of Native American musicians on a stage playing for Native American dancers in bright, colorful dresses. The feel was very festive, and the general public joined in on the dancing. A few feet away, were human statues on pedestals. These are entertainers who paint themselves so convincingly that they can stand motionless on their pedestal and people can walk right by them until they frighten somebody by moving.

There was bustling activity in the plaza in front of the main cathedral, with vendors of jewelry, books, health elixirs, and food peddling their products. I walked through these stands and into the modern malls that are open-air on either side and lie just south of the cathedral. The malls were packed with people purchasing clothing, electronics, milkshakes, Chinese food, and lingerie. You could plop these malls on the U.S. side of the border and they would fit in perfectly.

During my afternoon in Juarez, I did not see a single policeman or soldier, which has been the case almost every time I visit this city. It’s clear that the cartel violence that erupted in Juarez around 2008, and frequent flare-ups since, have driven away many Americans, who in the past enthusiastically looked forward to visiting this northern Mexico City for shopping and entertainment. However, on this day, Juarez had a normal, almost familial feel to it. Families were eating ice cream together or strolling through the plaza. Teenagers were scoping out each other. Elegant women were gazing through windows at shoe ware – very normal activities and sites for most people.

The afternoon was getting late, and I decided to walk across the bridge back into the U.S. This was the worst part of the afternoon. Upon summiting the bridge, I must have been behind 200 people ahead of me waiting to cross. Even though shading has been installed, the sun still seeped in and burned all of us who were waiting. Customs and Border Protection staff would periodically allow groups of 50 to 75 inside the building to be processed, so it took a long time to get across. However, for the pleasant afternoon I had in Juarez, I didn’t complain.

Jerry Pacheco is President of the Border Industrial Association. Pacheco's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of KRWG Public Media or NMSU.

Jerry Pacheco is President of the Border Industrial Association and Executive Director of the International Business Accelerator.