I spent an unexpected fourth night in Ciudad Juarez after AeroMexico canceled my flight out on Sunday. The airline put me up at the Quality Inn, which is a pretty nice hotel, also just north of the US Consulate, and gave me a voucher for dinner. I ate in a well-appointed, cavelike, smoky bar in the hotel compound where a young woman with a Mexican accent only a bit better than mine (there are many Mexican accents, but I’m just saying she spoke Spanish like a gringa) was holding court with the waiters, delivering a discourse on underground hip hop. She was smoking and drinking beers and entertaining most of the restaurant staff.
I was reading an English newsletter of the maquila industry I had picked up in the hotel lobby. The glossy paper referred to the region as the “borderplex” and offered various theories on how regional meanufacturing specialization in the developing world was going to pull the U.S. out of the recession (or some such bullshit). I was pegged as an international businessman—they kept asking me if I do international business. I just said I was writing a book.
The woman came over to talk and she was clearly American, from San Francisco. Just like the baggage handler at the airport was clearly American (Oklahoma) and many of the people in the hotel lobbies around the Consulate are clearly American, waiting here in Juarez to find out if they can get their visas and go home.
I say “clearly American,” but of course, this depends on definitions. Technically, any American who finds themselves in Juarez with business at the Consulate’s visa section has had some type of problem with his or her residency in the United States. But citizenship is not really how we define “American” on a day to day basis. The baggage handler and I had an instant rapport the moment he said, “Nah man, I’m American, I’m just hiding from my wife.” And then added, “They deported me.”
The young lady in the bar, well educated and upwardly mobile and, after spending a year’s exile in Mexico, perhaps too worldly for her age, had a similar take: I’m American, I’m just waiting for the paper.
Here’s what happened to her: She was born in Mexico but grew up in the U.S. speaking fluent English, ragging on Oakland from across the Bay, pretending to like football and leading student protests for immigration reform. All that time, she did not have papers. She says her dad, an American citizen originally from Mexico, could have conveyed citizenship to her while she was a minor but he put it off and she turned 18 and she was an adult without legal status in the U.S. So she turned herself in and waited out a one-year penalty in the city of Monterrey. Now she’s back in Juarez to take a quick citizenship test—she says the questions are totally easy—and get home to her family in S.F.
She seemed a little miffed by the whole thing, but kind of had a good time down here for a year and is eager to get back to college and to her previously scheduled, normal life.
What is an American really? Is it defined by food, language, music, culture? Or is it the aesthetic of Jazz—the combination of all of the food, language, music and ideas of all of the people present in the 50 states at any given time.
Or is America a pace? Several Juarenzes have told me they’d never go north because people just shut themselves up in their houses and don’t congregate in the streets to make Jazz. I think there is some truth to that, but there are spaces within America where we meet on the streets and create culture.
There is one question that comes up a lot here and is important for my research. Is life easier here or there? I suppose it depends on whose life. My life has certainly been fairly easy of late, living in Boise, with all the comforts and security of life there. Compared to Juarez, that life is relatively stable, easy, safe. But it’s stressful too in a sort of suburban, drive to succeed, juggle the kids kind of way, which is uniquely American as well. Time takes on a different urgency up North, an unhealthy urgency. But is it easy or hard? That’s a question many Mexicans seem to be asking themselves these days, perhaps calculating the risks and benefits of going north or asserting a type of Mexican cultural nationalism that holds the primacy of lifestyle and personal interchange over time and money.
I’m going to walk past the Cartier watches one more time here in the Monterrey airport before I leave for Queretaro … I’ll let you know what they tell me.