September 16, 2017: ¡Viva la Independencia!
At the height of the Mexican Drug Wars of the early 2010’s, Ciudad Juarez was considered the most dangerous city in the world. In 2010, there were over 3,500 homicides. Oddly enough, it is located directly across the Rio Grande from America’s safest city: El Paso, Texas.
Eventually the violence died down and in 2015, there were less than 300 homicides, a 90% reduction, putting Juarez’s homicide rate lower than that of 3 major US cities: Baltimore, Detroit, and New Orleans. Certainly there are some very dangerous parts of those cities, but there are also some very safe parts. If I can survive in any of those US cities, certainly I would be fine in Juarez if I picked the right area.
Despite this major drop in crime, most Americans have not taken notice and incorrectly believe Juarez to be as dangerous as Aleppo. In any city, especially a Latin American city, one should always be careful and use common sense. Whenever I travel somewhere new, I always am on an extra high alert.
I woke up in my hostel in downtown El Paso around 8am and walked south along Stanton Street through the tall buildings. 10 minutes later, I reached the Stanton Street Bridge. I walked through the gap in the fence and continued along the sidewalk over the sad-looking Rio Grande (most of the water here is funneled through side channels). At a point high above the concrete channel, I reached the border marker. Some German tourists were taking pictures with the sign.
I kept walking and eventually reached the Mexican customs building. There was an X-ray machine for the bags, but it was unmanned. I kept walking and eventually found my way onto the streets on Juarez. Nobody from the Mexican government checked me, asked for my passport, or talked to me. In fact, I did not see a single Mexican government official of any kind.
Turns out, Mexico has what’s called a Border Zone (Zona Frontera)- anyone can visit the border cities, but in order to continue further south, one has to get a passport stamp and has to receive a visitor pass from a government office. Technically, visitors are only allowed to stay here in the border zone without a passport stamp for 72 hours, but I’m sure there are people who have played their cards right (or very wrong) and have been here for months if not years.
Across the border, I wandered my way over to Avenida Benito Juarez (namesake of the City). This main drag (that looked very similar to Avenida Revolution in Tijuana) was full of bars, shops and restaurants. It was not an incredibly lively place at 10am.
About 3/4 of a mile in, the street ended at a pedestrian plaza. Here, two large pedestrian walkways stretched to the right and left. In the middle of the plaza were some large block red JRZ letters.
I followed the pedestrian mall over to the Plaza de Armas, a major public square with the Cathedral. There, I stepped into the famed restaurant La Nueva Central for breakfast.
La Nueva Central is Juarez’s old school diner that interestingly enough was founded by Chinese immigrants. The place is now so popular that it is open 24 hours a day. I ordered some delicious egg dish and orange juice for a grand total of 90 pesos (about $5.50). The orange juice was served on a china plate.
The guy next to me was wearing a Star of David pendant and was reading a spiritual book. We successfully avoided discussing our religious beliefs, but he did tell me that there was a huge Independence Day parade at 11am.
It was only 9:45, so I still had some time before the parade. I walked over to Cathedral on the far side of the Plaza de Armas. This was one of the strangest- in a bad way- cathedrals I have ever seen. It wasn’t pretty on the inside and was terribly unsymmetrical.
Next to the Cathedral is the famed Misión de Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe de los Indios Mansos del Paso del Norte (aka the Mission). Built in 1659, it is the oldest structure for hundreds of miles in any direction.
Behind the Cathedral and Mission was a dizzying maze of markets and narrow alleyways. It felt so good to be in a place like this- it really took me back to some of my favorite markets: Bangalore, Guyana, Merida! I wandered for 30 minutes before somehow finding my way back to the Plaza de Armas.
I then stopped in the Museum of the Revolution on the Border. Set in the historic customs house that once housed a meeting between US President Taft and Mexican President Diaz, the museum tells the complicated story of the Mexican Revolution that occurred from 1910-1920. Unfortunately most of the museum was exclusively in Spanish, although some exhibits had English translations.
From what I got out of the museum was that during the end of the 19th century and the start of the 20th century, Mexico was ruled by a dictator named Diaz. A major enemy of Diaz, named Madero, was exiled to the United States. Meanwhile, a rebel named Pancho Villa was attacking Diaz’s troops in northern Mexico. Villa’s successes led Madero to return to Mexico to command the revolutionaries. First they attacked the border town of Agua Prieta just across from Douglas, Arizona. They then moved east to Juarez. Madero wanted to negotiate, but Pancho Villa decided to attack the city anyways. With a force of 1,500 they successfully captured Juarez. The US army was so impressed by Pancho Villa’s fighting abilities, generals and journalists personally congratulated him by meeting at the midpoint on the International Bridge over the Rio Grande (still the main border crossing).
Villa and Madero then went on to topple Diaz at which point things got really complicated.
It was now 11 and the parade had just started. I walked over to the crowd of people gathered along Calle 16 de Septiembre to see the Mexican Independence Day parade (for those of you who don’t know- Mexican Independence Day is September 16th).
The crowd was five deep, but I managed to work my way up to the front. People were blowing plastic horns. First, groups of school children marched in tight formations. They kept their limbs perfectly straight the entire time in what is known as goose step. Student drummers kept the energy loud.
After the schoolchildren, a bunch of beater cars drove through honking their horns. Some of the cars had low-rider hydraulics which awed the crowd.
Then, the army rolled in on tanks. Some of the tanks had trumpeters. Other tanks had soldiers with bazookas.
Finally, vaqueros (famed Mexican cowboys) and women dressed in traditional outfits rode through. Some were using lassos.
At the end of the parade, the crowd poured into the street and began to walk back towards the main part of downtown. Horns were blowing and people were throwing some sort of chalk powder into the air. It was quite an amazing atmosphere.
I headed towards the border. My final stop was the Kentucky Club, the famed bar where the margarita was apparently invented. Unfortunately, the bar was chained shut and a sign (in Spanish) explained that they lost their liquor license, which I did not think was even possible in Mexico.
With that disappointment, I headed across the Paso del Norte bridge back into El Paso. The wait was about 25 minutes, but with my SENTRI card, I breezed right through.
Later in the afternoon, I walked across a third border crossing, the Bridge of the Americas- about 3 miles east of Downtown El Paso. I wanted to visit the Chamizal Park, which was given to Mexico by the United States in 1968 as part of a 100-year border dispute.
At the end of the Mexican American War, the Rio Grande was determined to be the border between the two countries. However, in 1860 and again in 1864, the river flooded which resulted in the river drastically shifting course causing hundreds of acres of land to suddenly switch countries. This land was called the Chamizal and had some very very interesting stories. The dispute was eventually resolved in 1968 where a channel was built at roughly the midpoint of the river’s course before and after the floods.
The US side is a National Memorial run by the Park Service to commemorate this peacefully resolved border dispute.
The Mexican side has a humongous park. There, I saw a sight that nobody would ever imagine could happen in Juarez: families picnicking and women napping alone in the park.
My opinions of Juarez were nothing but positive! Like in any city, a tourist needs some sense of awareness and knowledge of which parts of the city are safe/tourist friendly. However, I did not think that this city needed any more street smarts than anywhere else in Mexico.