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Sub

But there was still another semester at the community college to complete.

And, as it happened, an opportunity to substitute teach.  The head of the college English department informed me that a substitute English instructor was needed for several evenings at the Technological Institute of Ciudad Juárez, and I offered my time. 

I looked forward to the extra money and, more, the experience, however flickering, of “teaching in Mexico.”  

I met with other American instructors―mostly full-time ones at the institute, I presumed―of various subjects at an El Paso shopping center near the border, and we climbed into a van for the ride south. 

Evening traffic on the various bridges connecting Juárez with El Paso was considerably less than that during the daytime, so we entered Mexico with a minimum of delay.  We then hurtled this way and that over the more streamlined avenues of Juárez to reach the institute southeast of downtown El Paso. The campus of the 35-five-year-old institute was spacious and tidy. 

Prior to my first class, I met with a pleasant bi-lingual administrator of the institute, and she led me to a second-floor classroom where I was to substitute.  The room had the familiar drabness of my classrooms at El Paso Community College and UNM.  The mujer introduced me to the students in Spanish. 

The students were generally older than any I’d taught in America.  Many of them were smartly dressed, the men in business jackets, dress shirts, and ties now loosened, the women in blouses, skirts, and heels.  I assumed most of them had spent the day working in mid-level or more advanced jobs in some of the dozens of maquiladoras―Mexican assembly plants for computers, mobile phones, appliances, auto parts, and medical devicesI’d heard so much about since moving to the borderland. 

I have little recollection of the precise nature of the English my Juárez students were being taught, although it likely had something to do with communicating with English in the business environment.  The administrator told me that many of the students spoke English, although not with great fluency.  If the class was using a textbook, I was not shown it. 

I quickly concluded that my purpose as a substitute was not to delve into the class’s current linguistic focus, but rather to fill the 75 minutes of class time with conversational English about any topic under the desert moon and make the students feel that they were continuing to get their money’s worth.  I encouraged the students to tell me what they did for a living and share the challenges they felt they faced as students of English.  I also prattled on, quite self-consciously, always wondering how clearly I was communicating, about myself and my impressions of the borderland.  As with my older American students, I sensed my Mexican students were all highly motivated.  To a person, they were respectful, and I liked them throughout. 

After class, the drive back to America was even more disorienting, as night had fallen completely over Mexico and the spring winds drove clouds of dust over the feverish streets and neighborhoods of Juárez.

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First Week in La Frontera

Our first week in Anthony, a week in which Doña Ana County’s newest country squire noted in his journal that “My wife is greatly entertained by my enthusiasm for our new surroundings,” I unpacked, looked, listened, and explored.

Pleasantly absent was the urban drone―or roar, depending upon my mood―that filled my ears whenever I was outdoors in Albuquerque.  Only vaguely, and then depending on the wind direction, could I hear the steady rumble of traffic on I-10, some two miles east of our house. 

In this relative quiet, I heard new sounds, particularly those of birds.  In the pre-dawn hours began the bubbly squeaks of dozens of kingbirds in the green mansion of our cottonwood tree.  I met a new species of dove, plumper than the mourning dove of central New Mexico and possessed of a different call.  Instead of the mourning dove’s “coo-AHHH coo coo coo,” the white-winged dove inquired, from the power lines overlooking our property, “Who cooks for you?”[1]  I heard roosters crowing throughout the day.  And what I originally―and somewhat alarmingly―thought was an elderly lady yelling “Helllll-p!” every dawn from a farmhouse a quarter-mile to the northeast, I would soon learn was a peacock. 

One day I went for the first time to the IGA Feria supermarket in Anthony, Texas.  There, for all I knew, I was in Mexico.  I estimated that 98 percent of its customers were Latino, and of those a combination of Mexican-American and Mexican. (There had to be Mexican nationals, legal and illegal, in both Anthonys, I concluded, given the twin towns’ agricultural economies and proximities to the border.)  The only two customers I heard speaking English were Asian.  The market’s produce section included something I’d never before seen: cactus leaves, sans spines.

In row after row in the huge field that bordered our backyard the cotton was four inches high.  Indeed, I was fascinated by the four-mile-wide greenbelt that humanity, harnessing the Rio Grande, had created through what was once almost entirely desert; fascinated how the river, which ran a mile-and-three-quarters west of our house, spread, through a variety of irrigation systems―canals and ditches―to our part of town.  Everywhere there were ditches, some earthen, some concrete, three to four feet deep.  Some were bone dry.  Beneath parched skies, water, swiftly moving and lustrous as polished chrome, filled others.  Some of the earthen ditches were falling into crumbling, eroded neglect.  Yet these primitive ditches, no doubt dating back scores of years, were still working.  Their antiquity was stirring, these Roman aqueducts in miniature. 

In my pickup, after driving through the Texas towns of Anthony, Vinton, and Canutillo, I entered the city of El Paso for the second time in my life.  The twin cities of El Paso, Texas, and Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico, are separated by the Rio Grande and cupped between the Franklin Mountains of Texas and the Juárez Mountains of Chihuahua; thus, a thoroughfare that gave El Paso’s its legendary name and inspired a fabulous Marty Robbins ballad.

I entered the city via Paisano Drive, which, as it skirted the Rio Grande, initially took me through a community named Smeltertown, after an ASARCO copper smelting plant that may have still been in operation; in any event, a name that surely made industrialists swell and environmentalists cringe.  To the south, meanwhile, rose Juárez, population one million, its many squat, drab buildings covering small hills seemingly bereft of trees.  I saw a man on the Juárez riverbank dipping a five-gallon bucket into the Rio―here simply a trashy, languid stream―in order to painstakingly rinse the dust from his little school bus nearby.

A chain-link fence topped with barbed wire separated Paisano Drive from the Rio Grande.  On the opposite side of the thoroughfare, another chain-link fence, this one crowned with razor wire, blocked access to the tracks―tempting, no doubt, to a hungering undocumented citizen of Mexico―of the Southern Pacific Railroad’s main line. 

Now began the swarm of United States Border Patrol vehicles variously crawling and scurrying everywhere.  When not in motion, the vehicles were idling, their cabs comfortably air-conditioned, under metal lean-tos at the river’s edge.  The scene depressed me: Here were armed employees of the United States government darting about with, it seemed to me, the absurd purpose of arresting and deporting people who merely wanted to clean American motel rooms, hoe American onion fields, and pick and sort American chile peppers.  The simplistic view of a liberal new-arrival. 

Although considerable stretches of El Paso exhibited signs of poverty and decay, compared to dusty, smoky Juárez, El Paso, with its typically American abundance of steel and glass, gleamed.  And I’d seen enough of north Texas to know that El Paso’s overwhelming Latino population made the city look and feel far more New Mexican than Texan.   

More days, more impressions.  Up and down the Mesilla Valley, murals―grand, colorful, ambitious, and frequently honoring Mexican history―graced the walls of even the humblest businesses.  At Charlie’s, a little Mexican restaurant in Anthony, Texas, a six-by-twenty-foot mural on the dining room wall featured a buff, golden, bare-chested man in a giant headdress―undoubtedly Moctezuma II―reclining on a verdant hillside on the outskirts of a many-templed city.  In his arms swooned a voluptuous woman―no doubt one of his wives, concubines, or queens―her full lips about the width of a Chubby’s burrito from his.  Elsewhere in the elaborate mural, a jinete, or horseman―the revolutionary Pancho Villa or Emiliano Zapata?―brandished a rifle.  There were iconic images of El Paso and Juárez, including the Santa Fe Street bridge linking the two cities, and the 40-foot-tall limestone statue of Christ atop Sierra de Cristo Rey in Sunland Park, New Mexico, which borders west El Paso.  On the north wall of the room a smaller mural depicted a humbler scene: the open door of a casa, revealing a cigarillo-smoking hombre reading by lamplight, his hat and dog at his feet. 

Purely commercial art saluting the area’s history was typified by the sign for El Pollo Ranchero, a fast-food restaurant in west El Paso, which depicted a menacing chicken with narrow eyes and―never mind the gender incongruity―a Zapatista mustache.  Wearing a ten-gallon hat, this take-no-prisoners fowl was armed with two holstered six-guns, and both wings were ready to draw.  One law-and-order pollo, all right . . . about to be plucked, chopped, grilled, and served up hot and spicy in a tortilla.  ¡Buen provecho! 

Meanwhile, in a different cultural vein, a large billboard along I-10, just south of the Anthony exit, advertised an El Paso “gentlemen’s club”―that is, a titty bar―that invited its prospective customers―“gentlemen” through and through, of course―to “FEEL THE POWER!” 

No subtlety there.  Machismo in full―and weird―bloom.   


[1] Since then, the white-winged dove has expanded its territory northward and today is well-established in Albuquerque as well.