Saturday, August 23, 2014

Living on the X

When we arrived in Ciudad Juarez, over 18 months ago, the "Equis" (the massive X pictured above) was still under construction, and was completed shortly after our arrival.  There are many theories as to what it represents, and many people wondering why here, why a big ole' X standing on the Mexican side of the border, but nearly straddling the country divide.  One belief was that someone was spelling out MEXICO from coast to coast along the border, and being in the middle, naturally we go the X.  But as nobody had heard of an M or a C or an O anywhere else along the line under construction, that theory was quickly dismissed. Another more credible belief was that it was to represent the crossing of cultures between Juarez and El Paso.  After all, the full name, "El Paso del Norte" brings up images of a frontier trading post where people from disparate regions are funneled together to make it through the pass to the other side.  It's a crossing of cultures between Native American (as in native cultures from whichever side) and European, whether Spanish or English-speaking, or other. While I still haven't heard a definitive word on what it really means, like any type of art, it means what you want it to mean. To me, it's the representation of the melting pot in general. But if you're not satisfied with that answer - head on down to Matamoros or Tijuana and look for the big "M" or the "O" (depending on which side you're reading from) and let us know what you find. 

Recently, my husband and I, accompanied by a couple who've become good friends of ours, spent the evening at a park in Juarez called Parque Borunda.  Located towards the outer edge of our "green zone" (i.e. about as deep as we're allowed to stretch our legs into the city), it's a regular city park with grass, benches, a fountain (no water) and trees - the usual parky stuff, plus a small amusement park with brightly lit and colored rides, a baseball diamond and a midway of food stalls. We came for an evening of "fair fare" and people watching on a warm summer night and wandered through the food stalls, picking out our dinners: Garibaldi hot dogs, tortas de bifstek, agua fresca, elotes, churros rellenos and paletas.  (That's the sum of all our dinners, not what we each ate, I must add.)  

We sat on a small retaining wall, eating our dinners and trying not to get the food on our shirt fronts, and watched the families, couples on dates, teen music/dance troupes, a puppeteer and an assortment of stray dogs (who were occasionally trying to make more stray dogs, thereby causing a kerfuffle among the kids watching who then tried to figure out just what those two dogs were doing?!).  

So much of the food we saw looked like puro Mexico and the rest looked like country fair Americana. Stalls sold "Dorinachos" - someone's ingenious creation wherein single-serving bag of Doritos are carefully sliced open sideways and melted cheesy sauce or salsa is then dumped on top of the chips - presto ready to go and no thin paper boat to eventually leak all over your lap.  
The Dorinacho in action

The Garibaldi hot dogs are called "hot dogs," first of all, and not "winnies" as hot dogs are often called in Mexican Spanish, and come bacon-wrapped, then grilled/fried and topped with cheesy sauce, mustard, ketchup, pickles and jalapenos. (Oh my what the best of two countries can create!)  While waiting in line deciding if I wanted the chico or grande, I watched the two guys manning the stand outright hustling to quickly serve the long line of salivators preparing to raise their serum cholesterol levels in a single delicious serving.  The rest of the food was truly Mexican: the devotion to elote (corn) is apparent and it's sold either roasted whole and smeared with spices and mayonnaise, or sliced off the cob and served in a cup with any combination of condiments mixed in. Churros are certainly no stranger to the American fried-food scene, but it wasn't until I came to Mexico that I saw the churro relleno (filled churro).  Another brilliant person created a churro-reamer which creates a pocket inside the wand of doughy fried goodness to be filled with chocolate, vanilla or caramel cream.  If that is too rich for you, there are paletas which are real-fruit popsicles of every color and combination (I had a white and pink strawberry vanilla).
Elote off the cob and in the cup
Churros rellenos - there is a god

Life here, on the X as it were, is neither here nor there. Neither Mexican nor American. Border life is a third nationality on its own, like our giant read Equis, that has feet on either side (well almost). 
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that the Texas side of the border out west here is really not the Texas one imagines with its Texan accents, cowboy boots and big trucks.  Sure, it has all those things, but instead the accent here says, "I grew up bilingual" instead of "I grew up on Southfork Ranch with JR and Miss Ellie"; more often the boots are Mexican pointy boots and the trucks, well okay, they're about the same. 
(Side note: Texan trucks may have gun racks, but the other day in Juarez we were driving behind a black full-sized Silverado truck that instead of having a gun rack in the back window, had a guy standing in the pick-up bed carrying an AK-47. Hmmm... kinda' the same as a gun rack only far more terrifying.  We hoped he was an "undercover" Federale because he was wearing just jeans and a plaid shirt and riding in an unmarked truck, but then we figured that the large weapon he was carrying kinda' blew his cover - if he had one to begin with - so we just kept our distance instead.)

Anyway, pretty much everyone on either side of the border, but particularly on the Juarez side, has family por otro lado.   That's often how the US is referred to here - the other side, or simply alla, "there."  Families have been coming and going since there were families.  Listening to El Paso radio amuses me as the DJs chat with each other or with their callers making dedications, switching between both languages as if it were assumed that everyone were bilingual: "This song goes out to mijo que va a cumplir 16 anos  on Saturday and will be starting on the high school football team!" "Orale! We wish him well, from su mama Rosa!"   

Looking for a particular item at JC Penney's in El Paso the other day, I asked the store employee if they had the thing. She responded, "Let me go ask my colleague," and so we found another woman and the first woman asked, "Mire, ella busca una bolsa para llevar sus, sus, pequenos bottles of shampoo, you know, like for travelling? Las tenemos, o no?" I then described in Spanish the little toiletries bag I was hoping to find, which I thought might get a surprise reaction from the clerks as I will never be mistaken for someone who looks like a native Spanish speaker (it didn't, and they didn't miss a beat), and we continued to make our way through the possible sections of the department store, in both languages, until it was decided that I better just "look for it en linea, si, seria mejor."  I've decided that people use whichever language fits the situation best, is easiest to say, or just captures the sentiment most accurately. Listening to two native Spanish speaking coworkers chat in front of me (one Puerto Rican and a Mexican), it was all "Andele pues...let's just call him and see if he can come here on Wednesday."  "Ay, si, si, OK andele pues, hasta miercoles..."  ("Andele pues" being the go-to phrase for "alright," "let's go," "sounds good, okay" and as the 1-2-3-4 for the lead singer to start up the song.)

Between food, families, language or music - the border is the gentle blurring of one country gradually into another.  A place where Boston Irish kids go to their friends' quinceneras and where the jalapeno is as common a condiment as ketchup (and boy am I going to miss that!).  It truly is, life on the X. 

(*Footnote: I must give credit to my friends MJ and JF, the ones we went to Parque Borunda with, for coming up with the slogan "Living on the X."  Besides perfectly embodying the cross-cultural border life, it is also a double entendre to those of us who went through the mandatory anti-terrorist threat training before arriving in Juarez.  Again and again, the instructors told us that our first goal was to "get off the X!" Meaning, if you realize you're in a situation that is about to get bad, or get that feeling that you're about to be pounced on from some direction - get off the X and get out of there!) 

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