Shortly before I left daily newspapering, a colleague and I wrapped up a year-long project reporting on the disappearances and killings of women in Ciudad Juarez, a Mexican city bordering El Paso, Texas. Our on-site reporting was limited to six weeks, so we spent most of our time conducting long, intensive interviews.
The few times we forced ourselves to break away from work chores was to shop the few artesania (folk art and crafts) shops near downtown. Walking along aisles adorned with colorful handcrafted wares was the best way we knew to relax and forget about the ugliness of the violence surrounding us.
I think about this now as I hear news about the latest drug-related violence along the U.S.-Mexico border. This time, three workers from the U.S. consulate in Juarez were killed, setting off a maelstrom of politicking on both sides of the border that is sure to snarl any efforts to solve the killings.
One of the things that always struck me about Ciudad Juarez (and many other Mexican cities) is the constant juxtaposition of the modern with the traditional. A perfect example are Tarahumara Indians, who are seeking to preserve their way of life in rural communities, yet needing to interact with life in the city.
Tarahumaras are known worldwide for their competitive runners, but I hope they eventually get recognized for their crafts, as well. The beaded art piece that now hangs in my office was created by Tarahumara women for the Artes Indigenas de Chihuahua (Indigenous Arts of Chihuahua). The non-profit arts group has helped Taruhumara and other indigenous communities in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, where Juarez is located, sell their wares. I remember being pleasantly surprised when I found some of the group's artwork for sale at a boutique in Santa Fe, New Mexico last year.
This "tortillera," a specially designed cloth to keep tortillas warm, features four of these little beaded dolls. I think it's too nice to use for its intended purpose so I'm thinking of framing all four, keeping one and giving the rest as gifts to people who enjoy folk art. (I would love to hear if you have any other ideas for ways to better enjoy this beaded folk art.)
I've always believed that the arts are one of few nuggets of hope in any community struggling with problems like violence and poverty. I certainly don't think these are the answer to such ingrained problems, but a way for people in the community to express their creativity and to earn some much needed money.
As for my Frida painting, I bought it at a restaurant in Juarez aptly named, "Frida's Restaurant." The food was delicious and the service great, but what I remember most was the Frida-inspired decor. Despite much traveling throughout several Mexican states, I have never seen a restaurant quite like Frida's Restaurant. I wonder now whether it receives enough business in a city that even most Mexicans are afraid to visit nowadays.
Here I am standing outside Frida's restaurant while working in Juarez in 2003.
The ceiling inside Frida's Restaurant featured this great mural.
Living and working in Juarez for a short time allowed me a chance to discover some hidden gems in a city that is forever in the headlines for its never-ending violence. The Tarahumara's beautiful handiwork. The entrepreneurial spirit that pushes business owners to believe a restaurant like Frida's can flourish in a place like Juarez. The feistiness of ordinary people who press on with their dreams and goals in the midst of such violence.
Today, I look at my Frida painting and my beaded art by Tarahumara women and I remember that these are the kind of things that eventually define a city and not the headlines.