A City in Two – Translation
[Daniel Alarcón, host]: Welcome to Radio Ambulante from NPR. I’m Daniel Alarcón. So, let’s assume that because of the very nature of our podcast, we’re interested in borders. For all the reasons you can imagine. They’re places of transition. Of cultural and linguistic fluidity. They’re places of exchange. It depends on where you’re looking from, of course, but sometimes the borders themselves go unnoticed.
[Victoria Estrada]: When you fly to Juárez and you arrive —if you’re taking a plane— if you go at night, there’s no difference. I mean, it’s one single city, if you look at it from above.
[Daniel]: This is Victoria.
[Victoria]: I’m Victoria Estrada. I’m an editor at Radio Ambulante.
[Daniel]: Victoria lives in Xalapa, Veracruz, but she grew up in Ciudad Juárez, almost, almost at the border with the United States.
[Victoria]: It’s like, if there’s no traffic, like 10 minutes away.
[Daniel]: From her parent’s house to Puente Libre, one of the crossings that takes you to El Paso, Texas. It’s a bit of a newer part of the city. But…
[Victoria]: My grandparents’ house is actually downtown. So, the old houses are the ones that are downtown, and those are the ones that are near the border.
[Daniel]: And when you say “near,” what do you mean? Like walking distance?
[Victoria]: Yes, walking distance.
[Daniel]: So, throughout her childhood, crossing the border was completely normal.
Do… do you remember the first time you became aware of the fact there was a border?
[Victoria]: No, no, no. I’ve been trying to think of if there was even a moment I thought like “about the border,” but… but I don’t remember one.
[Daniel]: To her, and many people in Juárez, crossing the border is an ordinary thing to do. Any business in Juárez will accept dollars. Victoria even remembers businesses that accept pesos. Of course, there are differences between the two cities — and I don’t want to minimize those — but it’s not an international trip. At least for people from Juárez, it doesn’t feel that way. It’s more like “going to visit the family that lives half an hour away.” That’s how it’s understood. It’s “going shopping.” It’s “eating at a restaurant you like.” It’s “going to work.” Only the family, the mall, that restaurant, that job, well, are in the United States.
Let’s put it this way: for Victoria, El Paso was just an extension of the world she already knew. She remembers riding in her parents’ truck with her siblings, in the line, waiting…
[Victoria]: But I don’t remember thinking: “What’s happening here is that there’s a border, and we have to like go to another country.” No.
[Daniel]: I mentioned the differences. They exist, of course. The highway. The infrastructure. The money. Commercial abundance. That’s something you can tell right away.
[Victoria]: When you cross to El Paso, I remember that my… my dad would tell us: “Put your seatbelts on,” you know? I mean, because to cross (laughs) you need to put your seatbelt on. So, it was like: “OK, sit up straight. Sit in your places,” you know?
[Daniel]: Like someone who’s visiting and has to show good manners. And another detail…
[Victoria]: In El Paso, you have to stop at the signs.
[Daniel]: In other words, Juárez with rules, more structure, and more fun. Crossing the border, whatever the reason, always got Victoria’s attention.
[Victoria]: It was, like, fun for me. Like you only went to El Paso to do fun things.
[Daniel]: She would go to see her cousins or her aunt. There was a roller coaster, a zoo.
[Victoria]: So I really liked going to El Paso a lot.
[Daniel]: So much so that if her parents went without her…
[Victoria]: I would get really mad, like… I would get really mad that they went to El Paso without me. For example, if they had the visa in their bag and then I saw them, and they… they would take it out of the bag and would put it back where it was kept in the house, and I would say: “You went to El Paso!” I mean… (laughs).
[Daniel]: In short, I’ll put it this way: El Paso was so close to Ciudad Juárez that some people would cross the border to get ice cream. And despite the desert heat, they would make their way back home before it melted.
Victoria’s childhood and teen years coincide with two waves of violence that gave Juárez its reputation. They started recording femicides in the city in 1993. Victoria was six years old.
[Journalist]: We’re going to Mexico where they still don’t know the official number of murdered women in Ciudad Juárez in recent decades.
[Daniel]: And then, when she was older, she saw the onset of the so called “war against drugs”, which President Felipe Calderón started in 2006.
[Journalist 1]: Juárez is one of the toughest battlefields in this narco-war.
[Journalist 2]: Violence in the city skyrocketed, because of the cartels’ struggle over territory and market share.
[Journalist 3]: The sight of murdered people in the streets of this city has become almost ordinary.
[Daniel]: I want to mention that these two very difficult periods because if you’re not from there and something about the city sounds familiar, it’s probably because of this. I have to admit in my case it is.
But for people from the area, this becomes the background music of a life that is, in every way, normal.
Victoria, for example, didn’t live her life locked away. Not at all. She went to school, to her friends’ houses. She worked on the other side of the border, in El Paso. She and her friends would make road trips to rock concerts in Texas and Arizona. One time she even went to Los Angeles. But like so many teenagers, she dreamed of seeing the world.
[Victoria]: London, Paris, New York.
[Daniel]: The plan was to study abroad. But her parents said…
[Victoria]: “Well, no. We don’t have the money, right? So you can’t go somewhere else.” But I always… like I always thought about it. I mean, I always thought I was going to go somewhere else.
[Daniel]: Her chance would come. All this time, those years when Juárez would appear in international headlines, Victoria told me that the violence didn’t affect her, not directly. You get used to living with a certain kind of violence. It happens in another neighborhood, on the outskirts of the city, sometimes even around the corner, but you notice it less and less. You learn to ignore it.
[Victoria]: It’s just like there’s a gunfight and it’s like: that has never happened before. You’re afraid and then it’s like, “hmm,” and you get on with your life. Then, it’s always… I mean, violence is like that. It’s like: you get on with your life.
[Daniel]: And it wasn’t until years later she realized that everything that had become normal for her, wasn’t actually so normal. It was when she arrived in Mexico City from Juárez for the first time and saw the way people reacted when they found out where she was from. First, when she told them she had studied literature, it was like they didn’t believe her.
[Victoria]: “There’s literature in Juárez? There’s culture over there?” I mean, it was like no one was doing anything other than, I don’t know, eating carne asada and shooting stuff, you know? I mean…
[Daniel]: And it seemed like that was what people wanted to hear. Not about literature, of course, but rather, the shootings. About the deaths. The Norteño folklore. It was almost a morbid fascination.
[Victoria]: They want you to tell them, you know? Like how many gunshot victims have you seen. So, it’s like you always have something to say, you know? If you’re from Juárez, you have something to tell people because things have happened there, right? Because being from Juárez is like having survived something.
[Daniel]: Victoria realized how people were reacting to her and saw an opportunity. After all, she was in a new city. And not just any city, but Mexico City, immense, infinite, out of control.
[Victoria]: I was super lost because I didn’t know anything and it was a big city and I had never been anywhere like it. And I was trying to use this thing about being from Juárez as if it made me a tougher person than really I am.
[Daniel]: And she realized that being from Juárez could protect her.
We’re talking about all this, about Juárez specifically, because of something that happened not there, but in El Paso. On August 3rd, 2019. A shooting.
On the day of the attack, where were you?
[Victoria]: Uh, at home in Xalapa, in my apartment.
[Daniel]: At that time, Victoria had been living outside of Juárez for eight years. After that first trip to Mexico City, she’d moved around to several cities and had been living in Xalapa for a few months.
[Victoria]: It was Saturday morning. So, I was still… I think I was still in bed. I mean, like reading or something.
[Journalist 1]: We begin with breaking news: A deadly mass shooting at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas.
[Journalist 2]: A few moments ago, there were reports of a shooting at a retail store here in El Paso, Texas.
[Journalist 3]: Police say several people have been killed, numerous injuries at this time.
[Journalist 4]: In the city of El Paso, multiple victims of a shooting at a shopping center have been confirmed.
[Victoria]: That Saturday, I was at my computer all day, you know? I mean, checking updates, and … and… videos started coming out.
[Woman]: Someone’s hurt. Someone here is hurt, ladies. Shot here outside by the sale the school had. A man is injured.
[Victoria]: In other words, you started seeing videos on… on Facebook, in these groups that are like Juárez groups, you know? In other words, from people who are there.
[Woman]: Oh no!
[Victoria]: And Facebook also has this thing now, which is really awful, which is like: “Mark yourself as safe”, like: “This event happened, now mark that you’re OK,” you know? So, people I know who are in El Paso or in Juárez start marking themselves as safe.
And the death toll starts going up.
[Journalist 1]: More than a dozen people are dead.
[Journalist 2]: At least 15 people have died.
[Journalist 3]: At least 18 people have been killed.
[Journalist 4]: They killed at least 19 people.
[Journalist 5]: Authorities confirm 20 dead and 16 injured in a shooting at a shopping center in the US city of El Paso.
[Daniel]: A little after 10 a.m., a man entered a Walmart in El Paso with a semi-automatic rifle sometime and started shooting. The shooting lasted a few minutes. Then, the shooter left the store, got in his car, drove to a nearby location, and turned himself in to the police.
The final number of victims of the attack was 22 dead and 26 wounded.
That same day, the identities and stories of people who had died started being released in the media.
[Victoria]: That boy who was 15. And then the mo… the woman who was a schoolteacher. And so, it’s like… it’s a lot, you know? I mean, it starts to become a lot.
I mean, that Saturday, over the course of the day, the news of the shooting started turning into something much uglier, you know? I mean, more emotionally harmful, you know?
[Daniel]: More harmful, according to Victoria, than the violence in Juárez. Maybe because that violence was already normal.
You have to recognize a certain contradiction or at least incongruity in that reaction. Why does one death, or ten, or fifteen, over in El Paso, hurt more than the same number in Juárez? It sounds insensitive. It seems, you could even say, cruel.
[Victoria]: In Juárez there are a lot of massacres, right?, a lot. And every so often, you hear about… I don’t know, how they burned a car and there are so many people dead, you know? Or they shot up a house and this many people died, you know?
[Daniel]: In other words, for Victoria, one of the effects of that normalization of violence is that in Juárez, there are no victims anymore. There are only deaths. And another thing…
[Victoria]: The violence in Juárez is always very anonymous, you know? I mean, you never see who the victims are exactly. Because besides there’s always that line of: “No, surely they were involved in something,” you know? I mean, “they’re narcos,” and things like that.
[Daniel]: It works as a way of justifying those killings. Or forgetting about them. The last thing they want is for you to empathize with the victims. It’s very different to how mass shooting violence is covered in the United States.
Why does this attack hurt so much?
Perhaps it has to do with what El Paso represents for so many people in Juárez. With what we’ve already: fun, comfort, safety. Throughout those dark years that Ciudad Juárez went through, tens of thousands of Mexican families moved to El Paso to escape. And the idea of El Paso as an organized and safe version of Juárez became even more pronounced.
And, well, it’s painful to realize that the idea you had, that you were safe once you crossed the line well, was just an illusion.
And in Victoria’s case…
[Victoria]: One thing that had a big impact on me was when they said: “No. It was in that Walmart.” Everyone knows which Walmart is the one at Cielo Vista, and then they said: “On this weekend because this is the weekend with all the back-to-school sales.” And that’s when people come from other areas, even like… other places in Chihuahua and so on, because it’s even more full because there are those deals. And I remember my parents used to bring me on that weekend when I was in midd… in grade school and middle school.
And… and it was like… like: “They’re targeting me”. In other words, I’m that person who’s going to go shopping at Walmart when there’s a sale, right? Because… . So, it seemed really evil. I mean, it’s like “really?” You want to kill people who are buying school supplies? And at the same time it hit really close to home too.
[Daniel]: We’ll be back after the break.
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[Daniel]: We’re back with Radio Ambulante. I’m Daniel Alarcón. Before the break, Victoria Estrada was telling us what it was like growing up in Juárez, with El Paso right on the other side of the border. Three days after the attack in August of last year, Victoria went back to her hometown to try to understand what had happened.
[Victoria]: Arriving in Ciudad Juárez always leaves me a little disoriented. At the same time, it’s the place I know the best, and the place I left behind almost a decade ago. Going back so soon after the attack was even more confusing. I didn’t have a clear sense of what I was going to do. I just felt like I needed to be there, to see my family, to try to process what had happened.
That Tuesday, I crossed over to El Paso. It isn’t as easy to cross as before. Now it’s normal to spend an hour or more in line, and that day was no different. When I got to the middle of the bridge, I came across a barbed wire partition that blocked off one of the lanes that had been added after the number of immigrants arriving at the border increased. It made the crossing look even more aggressive.
The first thing I did was go to Cielo Vista, the shopping center where the shooting had taken place. I arrive a little after 4 p.m.
There was a makeshift memorial for the victims, and I was surprised by the number of people there: about two hundred people including children, adults, and seniors. Many brought flowers or messages to leave among the white crosses that had been placed there for the 22 victims of the shooting. Almost all of the people who had died were Latinos, though some were Mexican nationals, some were US nationals, and others were both. There was also one person with German citizenship.
The thing that had the biggest impact on me was the silence you felt in that place. We were in the open air, near stores and restaurants that were still open. There we people handing out food and water. It was the middle of summer, and an afternoon where you can feel the oppressive heat and desert sun.
The memorial was in a parking lot behind the Walmart, on a cement slab in the middle of the mall. It was a strange place to gather. It’s not nice or attractive. But there we were, more than 200 people, some of us whispering to one another.
It was such a somber atmosphere that it was hard for me to talk to people, almost in bad taste. I didn’t take out my recorder. I sat down somewhere I could find some shade and tried to be still. Observing. I was there for more than an hour without moving, just watching, and around 6 p.m., a new wave of people arrived. They were leaving work and wanted to stop by on their way home, to see the memorial. To leave a reminder. To give their condolences.
And that was when, finally, I worked up the nerve to talk to some of the people who had arrived.
[Man 1]: Well, it feels like… like I lost a relative.
[Victoria]: I didn’t ask the people I spoke with for their names because at that time I didn’t exactly feel like a journalist. Being there in the Walmart parking lot was a form of mourning for me.
This man in his 40s told me that he hadn’t lost anyone close to him in the attack, but he still came. I asked him why.
[Man 2]: It felt important to come, and offer a few prayers, and be here because this shouldn’t… shouldn’t be ignored.
[Victoria]: I didn’t lose anyone I knew either, not a friend or relative. Still, I was there, with my recorder in hand, in the silent mass of people in front of a makeshift memorial.
I was surprised how many people had come to Ciudad Juárez just to visit the memorial. They were people who understood what united the two cities.
[Woman 1]: What happened is very painful for us. We think of El Paso as a brother, right? Because we always come here.
[Man 2]: There are people who don’t understand, but there are strong roots between the two cities and the two countries.
[Victoria]: That union had us there, trying to understand what we felt.
[Woman 1]: Because it isn’t fair what happened. I feel outraged about what happened. I can’t believe it.
[Victoria]: It was hard for all of us to believe, honestly. Shootings in the US are common, unfortunately, but a few hours after the news came out, we learned that this wasn’t a casual attack. El Paso had been chosen as a deliberate target.
The goal was to attack the very idea of the border region. Of that place where cultures mix. Where it’s nearly impossible to distinguish a Mexican citizen from a US citizen. Where you don’t know if the person you’re talking to is going to respond in English or Spanish.
We learned about the xenophobic motives behind the attack from a manifesto the shooter published. I’m not going to say his name —because what would be the point— but in the text, amid a list of racist fears and white-supremacist fantasies, was the idea that migration was a problem, that the so-called “Hispanic invasion” of Texas needed to be stopped. That’s why he drove more than ten hours to attack the border, to send a message of hate. With bullets.
Now there are two cities, but when it was founded in 1659 there was only one, which was called “Paso del Norte.” Almost 200 years passed before the war between the United States and Mexico split the city in two. El Paso on the US side and Paso del Norte on the Mexican side, which 40 years later would change its name to Ciudad Juárez. The river, which previously had united the city, now divided it.
A few years after the war ended, in 1864, there was a torrential downpour and the river, which had become the international border, changed course —something that happens in the desert— and it ended up a little further south than before. That caused the US to gain a little more territory.
That was the start of a dispute between the two countries that wouldn’t be resolved until 100 years later, in 1964, when the United States returned to Mexico a part of the territory which was called El Chamizal. And since then, the riverbed was fixed in place with a cement construction so it wouldn’t move again.
But even now, there are reminders of how the border moved. The high school I attended in Juárez was in El Chamizal. You could see the United States from the schoolyard. It was so close some of my classmates would leave class to buy cigarettes and burritos at the bridge.
One of the high school buildings was older than the others, and it was different: it just had one floor, with interior hallways, an indoor cafeteria, and an auditorium, American style. It was one of the buildings that had changed countries when the border moved. It had been built when El Chamizal was still part of the United States and later it became part of Mexico when the territory was returned.
They said that when it was in the United States it had been a kindergarten. And you could tell, because the chalkboards in the classrooms were low to the ground, they came up to a teenager’s knees. They were chalkboards made so little kids could write on them. Only one detail remained from its former life as an American kindergarten: those chalkboards.
Sometimes I wonder if it seemed odd for the Americans who studied there that they had to cross the border to visit their old school. Maybe not, after all, they grew up in El Paso, so they must have understood.
And that’s what the maps don’t show: that the border isn’t a line, but a region, with its own culture, people, language. Bi-culturalism is a culture in itself, just like bi-nationalism is its own form of nationalism.
From Juárez, you can drive 10 hours south without leaving the state of Chihuahua. It’s the biggest state in Mexico, and Texas is almost three times that size. I mention this so you understand how isolated we are, so you know that we’ve built by force a culture that seems to be a separate nationality from that of Mexico to the south and the US to the north.
We’re from the desert. We’re more gringofied and we speak pocho, mixing Spanish and English. And it seems like we’re more affected by what’s happening in the US than in Mexico. When its daylight savings time, Juárez switches over later than the rest of the country because it’s more important to have the same time as El Paso than as Mexico City.
People who aren’t from here often come up with simple explanations: the culture on the border is a second-rate copy of the two cultures it’s composed of. They don’t understand that it’s the opposite, our culture is the authentic representation of a region that is unlike any other.
As long as the border has existed, there have been people who celebrate that coexistence, that hybridity. There are others who tolerate it without much enthusiasm. But there are also those who see it as a threat.
The day after I arrived in El Paso, I went to Casa Carmelita, a community center that supports migrants. They had held a vigil for victims of the shooting two days earlier, so I wanted to talk to the organizers. When I got there, they put me in contact with Juan Ortiz, who was the best at speaking Spanish of all of them. But at the time, he wasn’t in El Paso, so we spoke over the phone that night.
He sounded very emotional. He told me that in the afternoon on that Wednesday, not long after I left Casa de Carmelita, a man…
[Juan Ortiz]: Parked in front of Casa Carmelita in a spot that clearly said no parking.
[Victoria]: Casa Carmelita is in downtown El Paso, a few meters from the border, on a street that leads straight to Juárez. You’re not allowed to park in front of the house because there’s a fire hydrant. But that was where this man parked his car. While he was there…
[Juan]: He put on a pair of blue gloves and, what’s been reported… what witness reported that was a gun. And he was just standing there watching people go in and out.
[Victoria]: But there was one detail which is perhaps even more alarming: the back of his truck was covered in an image that showed Rambo with President Trump’s head and a huge machine gun. He had other bumper stickers that said things like, “If they come for your guns, give ’em your bullets first.”
That had been the day Trump arrived in El Paso to visit the victims of the shooting.
It was reported that that same truck had been seen earlier near the memorial at Walmart, where a few Trump supporters had shown up. There, the man with the truck declared to the media that he had traveled from Houston —a roughly 11-hour drive— to support the president’s visit.
Like I said before, Juan wasn’t at Casa Carmelita at the time, but he told me that they called the police and it didn’t take long for them to arrive. They questioned the man, but in the end, they let him go. And even though witnesses said they saw him with a pistol and a knife…
[Juan]: In Texas, it’s not illegal to have a pistol in plain view when you’re in your car.
[Victoria]: Texas is an open-carry state. In other words, you can carry unconcealed firearms, as long as you have the necessary permits. According to the police, the man hadn’t committed any crime. And even though people at Casa Carmelita and other neighbors reported that they felt threatened by that man…
[Juan]: The police were unwilling to press charges, and they let him go.
[Victoria]: During the call, I asked Juan why he wasn’t in El Paso at the time, and he told me he was in Dallas with his family. He was recovering from something that happened three months earlier…
[Juan]: Because I was a victim of a… of a hate crime, there in El Paso.
[Victoria]: It was the night of May 16th, his birthday. That day Juan had gone out with some friends.
[Juan]: We were talking about politics, including immigration. When other people, a white guy and other people who were with them, got offended and… and started a fight that I got injured in. They injured me very well, I mean, very badly.
[Victoria]: They broke his shin, in the fibula and tibia. While he was on the ground, they kicked him so many times his pectoral muscles became disconnected from the bone in his left arm. The wounds were so severe that Juan was still recovering.
So even before the Walmart attack, Juan was very aware of hate. He filed a police report, but they still haven’t arrested the people who attacked him that night.
I think he knew it but didn’t fully understand it until the attack in August. The fact that there’s something in Juárez and El Paso that a lot of people view as a threat, so much so that they want to destroy it.
In those days, I spoke with María, the wife of one of my cousins.
[María Vidal]: I mean, like, it leaves you thinking: “Man, are people that messed up?” Like… I mean, I know you see a lot of people on TV who are like: “Yeah, get those immigrants out” and, you know, bla bla bla, a lot of discrimination. But to know that the shooter actually drove to El Paso just to do that, how many people like that are there? I mean, if one guy did it, are there going to be any more?
[Victoria]: If felt like a new kind of violence. You felt it when you were in public, at a shop, a gas station, a bookstore. It was the message that had come with the attack: “You’re not welcome here.”
[María Vidal]: I mean, it’s messed up, because why do I have to leave? I mean, where am I going to go? Why? Why leave? Why do I have to be afraid? And sadly it’s something we do feel. I’m afraid all the time, and it bothers me because I shouldn’t have to feel that way. Why do I have to be afraid?
[Victoria]: Why? If there’s no way for there to be an invasion, because Texas has always been Hispanic. If the border is such a ridiculous invention that soon after it moved because of some rain.
It’s just as absurd as someone wanting to kill you just for existing. It would make you laugh if it weren’t so terrifying.
[Daniel]: On February 6thm 2020 — six months after the shooting — the federal pressed federal charges of hate crime against the man who carried out the shooting at the Walmart. The shooter was already facing charges of capital murder at the state level, to which he pleaded not guilty. In that case, the prosecutors declared that they would seek the death penalty.
This story was produced by Victoria Estrada and by me. It was edited by Camila Segura and Luis Fernando Vargas. The music and sound design are by Andrés Azpiri. Andrea López Cruzado did the fact-checking.
The rest of the Radio Ambulante team includes Lisette Arévalo, Gabriela Brenes, Jorge Caraballo, Rémy Lozano, Miranda Mazariegos, Patrick Moseley, Laura Rojas Aponte, Barbara Sawhill, Luis Trelles, David Trujillo, and Elsa Liliana Ulloa. Carolina Guerrero is the CEO.
Radio Ambulante is a podcast by Radio Ambulante Estudios, and it’s produced and mixed on the program Hindenburg PRO.
Now we want to hear from you. Most Radio Ambulante listener’s live in the US. And yes, there are reason to be afraid: the massacre at El Paso, the mass raids, the xenophobic discourse. But we want to turn that feeling around. So, we thought about doing a collective portrait that celebrates our culture in the US. To do that, we need you to send us an image — just one — of a personal object that helps you remember and express your latin identity.
For some is a letter, a family picture, the suitcase with which you migrated, a keychain, a recipe, a craft, a book. Any ordinary object that shows that you’re proud of being who you are, even though the environment seems to be getting more hostile every day. Send us the image and a brief description of that object using the hashtag #EstadosUnidosEsEsto.
Don’t forget to mention @radioambulante. We’ll share your images and testimonies with other listeners. Remember: #EstadosUnidosEsEsto.
Radio Ambulante tells the stories of Latin America. I’m Daniel Alarcón.
In the next episode of Radio Ambulante, a teenage girl has a dream: to play soccer in Brazil, one of the leading countries in the sport
[Laura Pigatin]: Era futebol para os meninos e ballet para as meninas, só que eu não queria fazer ballet, eu sempre quis fazer futebol, né, sempre gostei de futebol.
[Daniel]: But societal prejudices put that dream in danger. Her story, next week.