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Adios, la Frontera

Throughout June and July, while our house in Anthony languished on the market and the fires of summer raged beyond our doors, I once again boxed items for another move, my hands becoming raw from grappling with cardboard, tape gun, and tape. 

One evening, 10 days before our departure, Ernesto, Ernesto’s wife, Linda, and I walked across the Santa Fe Street International Bridge for dinner in Juárez. 

From the bridge, I noticed, painted high on the sloping concrete bank on the Juárez side of the Rio Grande, a three-foot-square portrait of Che Guevara, a reproduction, likely a stencil, of the world-famous Alberto Korda photograph of the Cuban revolutionary, medical doctor, and summary executioner.  Except for a red star on Che’s beret, the painting was in black and white.  In black letters beneath the portrait were the words “El Che Vive XXX Aniversario,” surely a reference to Guevara’s own execution by the Bolivian army in 1967. 

I was tempted to draw the painting to pinko-hater Ernesto’s attention, but did not.  Given Ernesto’s respect for Mexican self-determination, he probably would have reserved judgement. 

At the Juárez foot of the bridge, vendors sold popsicles, handbags, plastic Jesuses in agony on plastic crosses, and automobile sun shades.  Meanwhile, idle cab drivers tempted, in creaky but nonetheless effective English, callow gringos: “You want something big?  Something special?  You want young girls?” 

Juárez was dusty and weary after another day of 100-plus temperatures.  Gazing upward to the foothills of the Sierra Juárez, I saw a crush of one- and two-story businesses and residences, many painted in lavender, sky-blue, pink, and aquamarine.  Everywhere in Mexico there is a love of bright colors.      

After a brief walk down Avenida Benito Juárez, we entered Martino’s Restaurant, where Ernesto and his wife would treat us to a meal.  In the hot evening, the restaurant’s dark, air-conditioned interior was welcome. 

Martino’s was classy: white tablecloths, plump cloth napkins, waiters in white jackets and bow ties, ice in the urinals. 

I drank Corona and scarfed down freshly-baked white bread.  I ate onion soup, its chopped white onions mild, sweet, and crisp.  My salad was pallid iceberg lettuce; tangy shrimp cocktail followed it.  My entrée was a slab of lean beef piled with strips of roasted poblano peppers with a side of whole beans.  Dessert was the Mexican custard known as flan.  I don’t recall if Ernesto disappeared behind another bowl of caldo. 

Immediately after supper, the four of us re-crossed the bridge, and Linda and I said goodbye to Ernesto, his wife, and Juárez. 

While we lived in Anthony, we heard lurid stories about Juárez’s crime related to the exportation of illegal drugs to a drug-hungry United States.  A Las Cruces colleague of Linda’s, a Mexican-born physician, told us of a Juárez plastic surgeon who remade, at gunpoint, the face of a Mexican drug lord, and was then dispatched for his efforts.  But it would be another 10 years or so before the complete explosion of the Juárez drug wars, which were coupled with the mysterious, because apparently non-drug-related, murders of hundreds of Juárez women, turning that city into a terrified place day and night. 

Between my El Paso students who commuted from Mexico, my Instituto students, my adventures in the city with my father and Ernesto, and my experience at Martino’s, I left Juárez with a soft spot in my heart for the legendary city.

Our final night in Anthony was warm, breezy, and humid as fantastic electrical storms, distant and silent, surrounded the little town.  The crushing heat of July made it easier to say goodbye.  Although I considered our experience in the Chihuahuan Desert largely a disappointment, I knew I would always remember the good neighbors we had as well as the cheerful, soulful, humble Mexican-Americans of southern New Mexico and west Texas in general. 

The following afternoon, with the moving van loaded and gone, I climbed in the truck with Buddy; meanwhile, Nick and the two cockatiels joined Linda in the sedan.  We arrived at a motel in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, before nightfall.  The following day we were in Alamosa, Colorado.

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A Third House, in El Norte

In late May, Linda and I drove to Alamosa to hunt for our third house.  Entering the Valley was, in some respects, like being thrust back into my native Northeast.  It was still spring there: 70 degrees, 25 degrees cooler than Anthony.  There was a generous smear of high clouds above the Valley, creating a filtered light that soothed eyes more accustomed to the striating Chihuahuan Desert light.  And, in Alamosa itself, there was much more greenery than in a desert New Mexico town.

On the east side of the Valley, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise steeply, climbing to altitudes of 13,000 and 14,000 feet and thus presenting awesome reliefs of 6,000 to 7,000 feet; they looked almost unscalable.  Their higher elevations were piled with snow, recalling my depressing days of briefly living among the Gore and Williams Fork ranges to the north.  However, now a fundamentally happier person who’d grown weary of the desert fires, I looked at this range with a longing to explore. 

The west side of the Valley is bordered by the more gradually-inclining San Juan range, peaks that run from 10,000 to 13,000 feet.  

If any of these ranges included private, as opposed to national forest, land, that land appeared to be sparsely populated.

And there is a remarkably vast and towering dune field―when we arrived, a national monument, today a national park―on the east side of the Valley. 

The heart of the massive Valley is implacably flat: at times during our visit, in my billed cap and with my head tilting downward, I felt as if I were peering into western Nebraska. 

Mountain snowmelt fed the rios Grande and Conejos.  Canals and ditches drew from these rivers for cattle-growing purposes.  Meanwhile, water pumped from the underground aquifer and distributed with massive center-pivot sprinklers irrigated hundreds of circular fields developed for crops. 

In the northern reaches of the Valley, however, there are vast stretches of gray desert scrublands. 

Except in the towns and along the rivers, the Valley had few trees. 

Architecturally, Alamosa was almost completely wood, brick, and stone; most of its neighborhoods looked as if they could have been imported from Ames, Iowa.  There was just a smattering of pueblo-revival structures.  Beyond the town limits, however, there were a number of much newer pueblo-revival style houses.  We made an offer on one of them, and it was accepted. 

Before leaving Alamosa, Linda directed me to a Mexican restaurant she had discovered on her initial visit.