We have reached the edge. Holding on to the railing of the Santa Fe Bridge, I can see the Rio Bravo's dirty water running, and then I feel the electric current again. I face red painted nails I do not recognize, and I tell myself this is not me. I’m not an immigrant, not a worker in the maquila, I am not a family member of any of the murdered woman, nor an inhabitant of this border city. And yet, hips sheathed in black silk, red lips and high heels, I walk into the Juárez night like a fish in water.
In Noche y Día we drink cold beer for 12 pesos while other women strip instead of me. One shows signs of a recent birth. On the way to the toilet is the small space that plays the role as the dressing room. I play the role of another, just like the girls who get drunk before returning home and becoming housewives until the next night. I try to interview them in vain; the conversation moves away from the formal rules of journalism when I ask for a sip of their beer. Literally and metaphorically, this trip has destroyed any remnants of journalistic discourse. I can talk only about the night and day, like the name of this decadent place where we see a solitary man enjoy the show from the front row, as a lover would wait for his girlfriend.
Because of these women I had to rip up newspapers and cut out the only coherent words: one more body, double life, unidentified, her clothes. A text defines performance art as tending to critically examine seductive techniques, creating desperate spectators in the process. Somehow, this is what we do when we enter the night. I walk along López Mateos Avenue in a ripped dress, leaving an ephemeral imprint only documented by Toño Juárez's camera. Like an obscene soundtrack, male voices from passing cars stay registered in our mind. Here, violence is not seen, but felt. One can also sense it in some of the rules put in place by the state government; a veiled curfew, an obligatory invitation to leave early and not see what might happen later. Liquor stores close at 9pm, and bars at 2am. The Juárez night ends early, and nobody seems to like the idea. Or at least this is what our hosts think, as they discuss where to continue the party in a corner. Tired, I am that person who reminds them there is no place to go. People start to come home, streets begin to empty, and gringos go back to El Paso; we can see them at the bridge marked by a cross full of nails. There is one nail for each murder victim in the last ten years, inhabitants explain; more than three hundred. There is not a trace remaining of the four and a half thousand women missing. Beyond this cross death is not a word that is pronounced, but the fear is felt.
Suddenly they appear in the middle of day. A black rose of mourning in Mrs. Norma Andrade's door; the mangled body of her daughter appeared three years ago. A barren field. And then another. Kilometers of desert. Night erases the marks left by the day, but reveals the unseen. The range of possibilities that the border opens up is unexpected. In Bajarí men undress for a mixed audience, mostly gay. They display their curves and muscles and dance to the rhythm of music, allowing the spectators to touch and kiss their dicks. Men and women grab your waist and ass without asking for permission. Repeatedly. One grabs my left breast and I respond with a slap, forgetting what a blow could mean in this city. The guy begs my pardon, saying what he really wanted is the ass of another man, and reaches towards the one next to me. Someone offers their seat to rescue me. I become a spectator, a fish in a fishbowl.
With a choice the dancers, supposedly gay, prefer straight girls as partners. Overly daring dances that not anyone could follow. The artist Lorena Orozco improvises a routine in which she moves from being the dominated to the dominator. She ends her piece bending the stripper at the waist and slamming his ass with her hip, throwing him far from the stage. Other women get sat on by men. I observe, seated at the table. My game is one of exposing artifice. That's why I cut up my dress and my lingerie, and give away squares of black silk that at least one man keeps in a box. But memories of the Juárez night don't fit in any box.
In the Hospital of the Family I met some of the girls that work at night. Later I visited two of them at Virginia's, another club, along with the sociologist Jorge Balderas. The air was thick enough to cut with a knife. The waiter took us to a table, almost by force, to ask us in a too loud voice what we wanted. Then they escorted us to the door when we decided not to drink. The girls weren't allowed to speak, and saying that I worked for a newspaper only worsened the situation. At the exit Jorge and the waiter argued over who was the first president of Mexico. My friend answered, Moctezuma, and now the waiter yelled, indignant at the response. He insisted that he--could-re-spond-to-what-ever-we-wan-ted-to-know. The waiter didn't understand that this was impossible; I wanted to know what it is like to be a woman in Ciudad Juárez, and I didn't want a man's answer. We fled.
My question remained up in the air without an answer, and I had to bite my tongue. Jorge had spent two years interviewing women workers in the maquila. Many of them had immigrated from their hometowns to gather up the scraps of the American Dream, which was reaching to this side of the border. They entered the workforce in jobs putting together the smaller pieces for larger machinery for transnational corporations. Leaving their small towns where they grew up was if they had been advanced three decades. They liberated themselves; they no longer had to ask for permission from anyone and they didn't even need a man to form a family. These accomplishments and the regression signified by the appearance of a new term, feminicidio, seemed to be two faces of the same coin. Someone was throwing that coin into the air to decide the fate of the Juárez women. Authorities and mass media took advantage of the deaths to invite the survivors to close doors, mouths, necklines and legs, for their own safety.
We found the rest of our friends at The Open, a more relaxed environment with liter beers and pool tables. We left when they started sweeping up and turning off the lights. Day was taking over the night and trying to wipe away the traces of havoc. Insomniac eyes were impossible to hide.
Even so, most people woke early to travel to the desert, to burn the soles of their feet, climbing on sandy dunes.
On the way back, one of the last activities was a tour. The voice of a professor of the Autonomous University of Ciudad Juárez told us motel stories and the intensity of his sex life when he worked at the maquila. He avoided referring to six crosses on the side of the road, but talked about the jonkes (junkyards) and the house of famous Mexican singer Juan Gabriel on our way. When the bus stopped at Bar Noa Noa, which had recently burned down in a fire, he didn't tell us the story.
In relation with the first night's outing, El Segundo Piso seemed inoffensive; individualist, tranquil, modern and unreal. The Nomo's had a good vibe, and you can talk calmly with strangers, plus we could count on the hospitality of the owners. The real Juárez night seemed to be somewhere else.
We participated in a performance art festival, but the most intense and upsetting interventions happen crossing the limits of the night. We lose ourselves in city lights seen from a precipice that Jorge took us to, in the streets that we videotape from the window of his car. In drug dealer hangouts and on the banks of the river right on the border. In all those hotels whose thresholds we don't cross. In my hand holding the bridge railing and in those women who I am not.
About the Author
Alina Reyes, freelance writer and journalist born in Chile. She has spent the last three years living between Santiago, Mexico City and New York, and also writing her first book, a travel journal about these adventures.