Further Reflections on Working in Ciudad Juárez
When Katy and I decided to come to this area on the border for our documentary, many months in advance of these fast-paced weeks, we knew that Ciudad Juárez was going to be a complicated place to even be neighbors to, much less to work in. We knew that our involvement there would be somewhat unpredictable, and would require evaluating the situation that we found, not that we tried to anticipate, and therefore were prepared to work only in El Paso for the entire summer, if the situation warranted.
As it is, our main source of this evaluation has been from locals who have lived here for years – academics, activists, people of faith, and regular residents who know far more about the city than we do – and understand the situation much more clearly than the national news networks. Though there has been a significant spike in news about violence in Juárez, there does not seem to be a significant change in opinion down here: it remains that people from El Paso who we are working and living with are largely of the opinion that under certain conditions, we are good to travel into Juárez – all of which conditions we have duly taken into consideration: Go with someone you know and trust, not alone. Do not stay there at night time. Do not go into the city unless you are there to do specific, meaningful work. And tell someone in El Paso what your schedule is and when you should be home.
It is also important to note that we are actually working apart from the “narcoviolencia” that has gripped the city; the community of Lomas de Poleo has been the site of a land dispute for many more years than the recent shift in drug-related violence to the city. Each time I have visited the border with a group of Georgetown students, I have heard about Lomas de Poleo. As we have described before, the community is a small group of elderly farmers, who settled on their land many years ago – who raised their children on this land, grew their food on this land, built schools and churches on this land – who are not allowing powerful economic forces drive them away from the lives that they built so lovingly. There is no doubt in my heart or mind that theirs is an absolutely extraordinary story when the vast majority of such situations these days ultimately reinforce the idea that profit trumps lives and livelihoods. It has become more important to protect the profit margins than to protect the entire Gulf of Mexico. So in the vast and sometimes overwhelming ‘bigger picture’ of the world at large, this story of Lomas must be told, and told again, loudly and firmly, to remind us of what it means to stand up for a different set of rules, a different set of priorities.
To me, working in Juárez also relates to the quality of our documentary work. Our project as a whole, to put it as concisely as possible, is about what it is like to live in a colonia by the border, and about the personal stories of people who are building strong communities and rich lives in spite of very low resources and lack of public and governmental support. Although one can make much of a one-sided border trip, it is simply a different creature than it would be with an understanding the realities of both sides. This past Thursday was the first time I had crossed into Juárez in over two years, and friends, I had truly forgotten what that felt like. “Sister cities” are complicated: when people say they “have more in common with each other than with other communities in their respective countries,” I think it means more that they are interconnected, as opposed to necessarily similar. They rely on one another and share many things, like most siblings, but they still can have many profound differences.
If we want to do a documentary about being on the border, it ideally would include both narratives, both sets of experiences – exploring their interconnections and conflicts and shared histories. You cannot understand someone entirely without getting to know their family. This is the first reason that Katy and I have been making such an effort to connect with people in Juarez and include their narratives: in order to do justice to our objective of capturing this space which has received us so openly, it is important that we make this effort.
The second reason is that in spite of some risk, making the trip across the bridge as U.S. residents is in and of itself an important act. Being on the border has reminded us of the enormous privilege of being a U.S. citizen – being able to deliberate about whether or not to go into Juárez at all, and deliberating about the times of day that we go, and with whom, always with our carefully stowed passports to speed our return if needed. As the national news reiterates the danger of Juárez, there are still millions of people who live there, and who often have little choice about it. I think it is important on a macro level for the United States to show greater solidarity with the rest of the world – especially with its sisters – and when I say United States, I don’t mean the White House, I mean the citizens. These days in particular, we are not the most talented empathizers with immigrants or people of different life histories. We may be just two kids, but when we sat down with some of the folks from Lomas de Poleo in Mexico and talked to them about our project, I was convinced completely that we were doing the right thing, and that our work and willingness to take that risk (which is minimal, compared to their daily lives) was a genuinely meaningful act. I am grateful for the opportunity and the colonos’ openness to sharing their lives with us, and am grateful to know them.
These are some of the thoughts behind our decision to work in Juárez, and I hope they are at least understandable, even if you might not agree with all of them. We are very conscious of the risk involved in entering into the city of Juárez and the community of Lomas de Poleo, given that they are respectively suffering from a great deal of violence, compared to much of our world on “this” side. We are taking many precautions, and are being taken very good care of by our primary contacts, Juan Carlos and Cristina. In addition to feeding us excellent homemade pizza and briefing us on the history and context of Lomas de Poleo, they are extraordinarily kind and caring people, whose children are our age; their advice to us and instructions on how we should move about the city are based firstly on our safety and well-being, and additionally on how we can be most efficient and useful to the community in our short time in Mexico. Ultimately, we believe that the work should and needs to be done, and we are truly honored to be some of the ones doing it – safely, and not without respect for the context, but nevertheless with commitment.