Friday, 05 September 2014 15:41

Coming Of Age And/Or Growing Up As An Aggie In Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico

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Avenida Juarez as it was during my college years.  View looking south  two blocks from border. From Mexican postcard mailed in 1960. Prominent on the left are the Reno Bar and Restaurant and the Chinese Palace bar and night club Avenida Juarez as it was during my college years. View looking south two blocks from border. From Mexican postcard mailed in 1960. Prominent on the left are the Reno Bar and Restaurant and the Chinese Palace bar and night club

Coming Of Age And/Or Growing Up As An Aggie

In Juarez, Chihuahua, Mexico

 

by

Arthur Scott

 

 

   To paraphrase a Willie Nelson song; " I got a degree at NMSU but, I received my education on the highways, streets, byways and hills of old Juarez " Todovia estoy agui!

   The current Santa Fe Street bridge  did not exist while I was a student. The freeway and connecting bridge span to Mexico was completed during the 1970's. This connected to the Mexican portion of the old Santa Fe Street  bridge. The chnge was required after the signing by the US and Mexico of the Chamizal treaty. This treaty, signed in 1964, that annexed to Mexico 600 plus acres of south El Paso because of the shifting of the Rio Grande. Subsequently the Rio Grande was routed thorough a concrete channel. This treaty resulted in the razing of a large industrial part of south El Paso and the relocation of  3700 El Paso residents.

     I received my "Golden Aggie" certificate several years ago. I entered New Mexico A & M in 1956, a year after I graduated from high school. I graduated from New

Mexico State University at mid-term 1961. I paid my own way through college. I did have a State tuition scholarship that I lost after two semesters due to poor grades. After high school, I worked a year for the State to make enough for my first year. After that it was two or three jobs at a time and summers and Christmas holidays with the USGS as a hydrologic field technician.  Though it took me a year to realize it, all the money I poured into the Mexican economy was my very own. This epiphany occurred one Monday morning when I woke up in my dorm with a throwing up and painful hangover and a bottle of mescal in my arms. From that point I became serious about my education, repeated some basic engineering courses in order to raise my transcript grades, and made the Dean's list every semester after that morning until I graduated. However, this was not to say that my love affair with Juarez ended but, my first priority became my academic education. I did survive to have a 37-year career as a Civil Engineer/Hydrologist.

   The fifties were truly an age of innocence. Television (when it was available) was black and white and life mirrored the  Ozzie and Harriet show. All girls dreamed of a perfect marriage with two kids and a picket fence. Boys were breadwinners and duty toward ones family. Damn or hell were almost never heard in the movies. Pornography was limited to shaky black and white 16 mm films known as "stag films."  Strippers, even in Mexico, remained in pasties and g-strings. This was pre sexual revolution and gander roles were in place. New Mexico A & M had a  ratio of five males per female student enrolled. Girls were primarily home economics with a scattering of accounting, or agricultural majors. I don't recall a single female in any engineering class in five years. Computers were unknown other than one that filled a room in the electrical engineering building. Slide rules were the mark of an engineer. Women at the college all stayed in the girls dorm, Garrett Hall. They were under curfew with a couple of hours later on weekends. Men were only allowed in the lobby of the building, there was a desk person on duty , and girls were required to sign in and out.

   Drugs were not a problem during the fifties. Even in college I don't personally remember a single person smoking or even talking about smoking pot. It was not ingrained in our university society at the time. I guess because of its easy availability alcohol was the drug of choice. Regardless of age all it took was a forty mile ride south past Anthony , then past the old El Toro cement plant on the left, and cross the border into a different world. Aggies soon learned that it was best not to cross the border on the first of the month as this was the military pay day at Ft. Bliss which brought a influx of soldiers and higher prices.

   My introduction to the den of iniquity came when I needed a ride to Las Cruces to start school. Three of the guys I worked with insisted on driving me down and celebrate my starting college with a trip to Juarez. I remember very little about my introduction to the town but do recall there was a good dinner, lots of cheap booze, a few strippers and possibly some hookers, and waking up the next morning still in the car in the parking lot of what was to become my first dorm, Breeland Hall. It was only a couple years old at the time but now it  has since been torn down to make room for newer buildings.

   During the early year of the 20's (particularly during probation) and the 30's, Juarez was a playground for American movie stars, entertainer and other US celebrities and the Mecca of quickie devoices. Even in my era; of the fifty's and sixties, Juarez was a vibrant city and tourist destination , although in certain locations somewhat depraved by American standards, and  even then it was twice the population of El Paso. It was then the play ground of Ft. Bliss soldiers and NM A&M and Texas Western (UTEP- University of Texas El Paso)students.  Mainly the few blocks along Avenida Juarez aka "The Main Drag" which encompassed the area from the bridge south to the City Market and Old Bull Ring and two or three blocks east  and west.
   Crossing the border on foot in those days consisted parking in one of the multitude of lots at the foot of the bridge, climbing the steps to street level, pass the last American business on the east side of the bridge, which was a gigantic pawn shop. As I recall there was a nickel toll entering Mexico and no formalities with the Mexican officials.

  Avenida Juarez presented a plethora of bars, liquor stores, curio stores, leather boot and saddle shops, restaurants, strip clubs, night clubs, and innumerable street hawkers selling food, lottery tickets, magazines, and Mexican cigarettes. There were still a couple of bars/supper clubs that survived from the old days, The Old Kentucky Club and The Chinese Palace. Both places displayed photos of the celebrities that had visited in bygone years. I think that by then the Chinese Palace was just another strip joint.

   It wasn't unusual during this time to take a date to Juarez for drinking, dinner and dancing. There were places like La Caverna which was entered down some steps and decorated with fake stalactites and stalagmites lit with black light. It served dinner, and had a band or mariachis and a dance floor. Every lady was given a fresh gardenia.  Meals were very good and reasonable. Table cloths and napkins all white starched linen.

   All restaurant and bar servers were male. In Mexico food and drink serving was deemed a male profession.  Service by theses uniformed waiters was impeccable. Other favorite eating places were Reno Restaurant known for steaks and Martiono's  Restaurant that served the best Boquilla Black Bass I have ever eaten. Large tender steaks went for $5 and large shrimp cocktails for $1. We were smart enough to avoid salads or water but dumb enough not to worry about ice cubes in drinks. I  also remember eating fine burritos or tacos and tamales from street vendors. As I look back, not one of my smartest moves. I don't, however, remember any one ever being stick from food in Juarez. I do, however, remember innumerable people being sick from, tequila, rum, etc. My theory was that enough mezcal would prevent any food-borne deceases.

 

Interior of Thee House of Oppenhiem.

 

    Going south there was a store named "House of Oppenheim." It was reportedly started in 1892. There was no price haggling and they carried the best quality serapes, sterling jewelry, leather goods and Chanel and other French perfumes.  This was the store where a young man  bought things for gifts for a special girl fiend.  Additionally, in this area and across the street was a large store called "Decor" which featured fine hand made Mexican style furniture and home furnishings. Down the street a few more blocks to Avenida de 16 de Septienbre was the two story City Market where you could buy anything from fruit, meat, live chickens and parrots. On a mezzanine were all the tourist items.  On the street there was a small plaza park and the Plaza de Toros de Juarez, the original city bullring.

 

 

City market around 1957. From Mexican postcard.

 

      A  few of the bars we frequented on the main drag included the Kentucky Club, two Fifteen- cent clubs where all drinks from tequila shots to "Champaign" cocktails were $0.15, the Follies, Latin Quarter, Guadalajara de Noche, the Lobby Club, and the Jockey Club... There was also  the bar on the corner that had the "world's largest" marimba played by five men.  Corona beer was not popular.  They later created a drinking holiday that was of little consequence in Mexico and with a bit of cleaver US advertising became currently the largest Mexican beer export. The favorite beers sold in the day were  Carta Blanca and Cruz Blanca. Once in awhile  Tecate, the only canned Mexican beer at the time. Favorite liquors were Jose Cuervo tequila shots, Oso Negro gin and vodka, and of course Bacardi (hecho en Mexico) rum. All could be had for around a dollar or less for a quart bottle. I believe the legal drinking age was eighteen, but had never seen anyone checked and the town was frequented by a lot of El Paso high-school kids.

    Almost every bar featured strippers and a live band whose primary instrument was the   bongo and/or conga drums used to set the rhythm for the girls.  Like the old burlesque shows there was usually other entertainment, at least in the classier places. It could be mariachis, singers, or comics.  Stripper, even in Mexico, in those days were much more demure than strippers today. Most clubs featured at least one American stripper.

    Street children in Juarez were sad. This was my first view of absolute poverty in a third world country. Very small children would wander the streets or sit on the bridge sidewalks while dressed in rags even in freezing weather. They carried little packets of two or three individual Chiclets chewing gum and called out "Chickle, chickle!"  By doing this they were not technically begging. The wisdom of the day was to never give them money as you would be mobbed. My wisdom was to save all my change and give it to the saddest on the way across the border home. To me this was a necessary unknown act of kindness. The older kids were more of a pest. If you were with a group of males the would approach with "Hey mister, want to have sex with my sister? Four dollars. I take you!" If you were with a girl it was embarrassingly, "Hey mister. do you want to get married? I take you." If your retort was ,"We are already married." Then the little hustler would say, "Want to get divorced? "I take you." If you drove across and parked on a street or meter, boys would approach asking to be paid to "wash" (watch) your car. Actually it was a form of extortion because you were afraid not to pay them for fear of car damage. Off course, then and I understand now; the government was rife with corruption. All police, Federale (blue uniform) or Ruale (brown uniform), could be bought. Traffic or behavior transgressions could be settled with cash "instant fine." The system of "mordita" or bribery is ingrained in the Mexican government and society. They did , however, have a unique system to insure payment of parking in a no-parking zone, or over-parking time limit. The police took the car's license plate which meant you had to go to the Municipal building, pay a fine, and retrieve it. This could case serious difficulty if it was a weekend as they were only open eight to five on week days. Most of us felt that the lure of cheap gas was not worth the possible problems so we paid the US parking and walked across.

   By 1957, Juarez had two operating bull rings. There was the downtown, small, "Old bull ring' Plaza de Toros de Alberto Baldras. And a brand new, 6000-seat, bull ring that was built on the outskirts of town. It was called Plaza de Toros de Monumental. During the season bull fights were held every Sunday in both rings. Additionally Juarez supported a very large, modern, and beautiful race track that alternated racing seasons by racing horses part of the year and dogs the remaining part of the year.

 

 

Plaza de Toros Monumental. Date unknown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Advertisement El Paso Herald Post March 1957

 

 

 

Advertisement El Paso Herald Post 2-28-1958

 

   As can be seen in the advertisements above from an El Paso paper  , Freddie Guzman, a great trumpet player, was a regional celebrity. Note that by 1958 he was also owner of a club called The Latin Quarter. It was kind of a dingy place slightly off the main drag after crossing the bridge. Music was good and strippers were bad. Guzman was variously touted as "The prince of the trumpet.", Mexico's greatest trumpet player.", and "The Harry James of Mexico." He was a first prize $100 winner on the Horace Heidi talent show. We thought he was good and made a special effort to see him play. Word was that he was in with the bosses that ran Juarez. Not a cartel and to my knowledge drugs were not a huge problem at the time; just one of the "in" crowd. However, in April 1960 a federal grand jury indicted "Albierto Fredrico Guzman, better known as Freddy Guzman, and  Patrick Edward Chartrand  of smuggling, concealing, and transporting one pound of marijuana. Guzman is a well known trumpet player."  Guzman lived in El Paso on a permanent resident visa. Guzman was returned to Juarez on a $5000 bond.  Additionally a  hearing was held by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, "La Migra"  to determine if the charge warranted revoking his visa status. I could not find the resolution of these charges but I don't personally remember his playing after that. I was able to find an article in a 1965  El Paso paper stating that he was one of the featured entertainers for a benefit for Beaumont Army Hospital. In 1974 he released an album of his own compositions on CBS International records.  Liner notes state that he had been living and playing in Acapulco for thirteen years.

   The only other drug-smuggling case occurred after I had returned to Santa Fe from the Army in 1965. It happened to involve another of my musical herons of the time, Johnny Cash. Wilkapidia states about the incident "His most infamous run-in with the law occurred while on tour in 1965, when he was arrested October 4 by a narcotics squad in El Paso, Texas. The officers suspected he was smuggling heroin from Mexico, but found instead 688 Dexedrine capsules and 475 Equanil tablets that the singer had hidden inside his guitar case. Because the pills were prescription drugs rather than illegal narcotics, he received a suspended sentence."

   During the 1960s, the Mexican government promoted, through the National Border Program, ProNaF (Programa Nacional Fronterizo), a regional and urban planning initiative to face an economic openness in the southern and northern border cities which aimed to promote  an integrated development model. In Juarez this resulted in building a new and very modernistic tourist market/mall; very nice hotels, bars, and restaurants. All were constructed in the Plaza Monomental area. It was my understanding that this area also was part of the Chamizal treaty. It was not a large draw for the college crowd who preferred the gritty downtown area.

   A constant attraction, which had existed  in Juarez for decades was prostitution which was legal and controlled in Mexico. It was  discrete in that there were absolutely no street prostitutes in the main tourist area or in the bars along Avenida Juarez. Between their acts the strippers would hustle watered down drinks which was probably a mainstay of their income.  Two blocks south and two blocks to the east, at least so I was told, was a street that had a dozen or more bars next door to one another on both sides of the street. On  the outside they were well lit with garish neon. On the inside a bit darker and a bunch of black lights (big fad in the day). Most were equipped with a location to watch  16 mm black and white stag films or live sex shows depending on what the group was willing to pay. Also, usually at least one brown-uniformed cop was on duty, and who was more than willing to accept a "tip" for any imagined or true infraction. Of course the mainstay of these establishments were the girls. They would swarm a table of guys to request them to buy drinks. And of course to negotiate prices for other services. The girls never handled cash, that was the job of the bartender or manager. Each of these particular bars had bedrooms upstairs or in some cases off a rear courtyard.

   At the top of the food chain was "Irma's. It was located ten blocks or so from downtown. It was on a hill by itself. A group of adolescent male Aggies could negotiate a fare with a taxi driver to take the entire group to Irma's. Decor and girls in the establishment were much more upscale than the downtown houses. It was a two story building with a downstairs, bar, dance floor, and theatre. Upstairs were the bedrooms. All prices, drinks and female company, were much higher than downtown.

   During a multitude of trips to Juarez between 1956 and 1987, I never once felt uneasy about my personal safety. Including one long weekend road trip to Cd. Chihuahua.

   Returning across the border to the US was generally simple. Drunk or drunker you had to remember three answers and no smart-ass antics.  First, "Nationality?" American, United States, or US were normally acceptable. Second "Where are you from?" Las Cruces, New Mexico worked well. And last but not least was "Do you have anything to declare? This was while you were holding a bottle of booze in each hand and a Taxco bracelet and earrings in your pockets. Best to name them all and hope he didn't question your age.  If you were of legal age, no problemo. If not it was best to  tell the truth and request that the customs agent destroy your precious bottle of rum in your presence. Usually not well received. I can now understand why border customs  agents got real tired of wise-ass college kids. Also, I have been told, that many a pint bottle accompanied under aged Aggies across the border in the high tops of cowboy boots.

   The next obstacle was the Texas liquor tax collectors. Had to pay for and receive a Texas liquor stamp for each bottle imported. Seemed a bit ludicrous as none of us were Texas residents. In the latter years of my college career, one only had to show that you were not a Texas resident. Finally the last time I crossed the border during the eighties, Texas had stopped the entire procedure, as I understand,  based on some US court case.

   About 1965 my then wife and I returned to visit Juarez.  We had returned to Santa Fe and bought a house with a VA loan after being released from active duty in the Army. We had minimal furniture so decided to take my 3/4 ton Dodge pick up, head south, and buy some furniture. Most of it was purchased at Decor however, some of the dishes etc were purchased elsewhere. We ended up with a massive dining room set including hand made  table, six chairs, and a buffet And a wrought iron chandelier with hand blown shades, a wrought iron love seat and coffee table, some dinner and salad plates and some silverware. I don't remember the cost but it was a few hundred dollars. With the truck fully loaded we headed for the border fully expecting to pay import duty.

   First obstacle were the Mexicans. First guy waves me on. Then second guy, with more brass on his shoulder, starts yelling "Alto, Alto!" So I stop and  in his rapid-fire Spanish I only got "papelas." I hand him a fistful of receipts and he starts walking around the truck. He comes back to the window again with unintelligible Spanish for  a gringo. Finally the light comes on, I put a twenty in the pile of receipts and he tells us "adios." Next come the American guys. First guy very politely establishes we can each say "American" without a hint of accent and that we are from New Mexico. I show him the receipts and he then tells me to pull out of line and drive behind the customs building. Suddenly my pickup was in a line with a bunch of semis and huge box-trucks. I drew the Customs Agent from hell. H e grilled me endlessly about importing stuff for resale although I told him it was for personal use. He even threatened me with the statement that an agent could visit my home at any time and check for the furniture. I responded that they would be welcome at any time my door was usually open. He noticed and asked about my Department of Interior ten-year lapel pin. Told me his brother worked for the department and then was more friendly. He looked over my receipts, gave us our personal importation exemption, banged on an adding machine and said we owed $24 duty. Except we could not import the dinnerware because of lead content and were banned. He said we could return across the border to Mexico and return it or destroy it there.  We chose the latter and broke the entire set piece-by-piece into Customs garbage cans.  I knew better because this was a Mexican china not the earthenware that had a lead-containing glaze. But sometimes loss of a battle is better than loss of a war!

 

 


 

This is a photo I took in the late 80's on the Paso Del Norte or Santa Fe Street bridge a two-way pedestrian port. I had not entered the US and view is south toward Avenida Juarez in Mexico. One-way traffic for northbound passenger vehicles only. There are currently  four international ports of entry connecting Ciudad Juarez and El Paso, including the Bridge of the Americas, Ysleta International Bridge, Paso del Norte Bridge and Stanton Street Bridge.   

 

   Now, as in most tales, there is tragedy in this tale. In a few short year during the early 21st century it all disappeared and the entire city of Juarez  descended into anarchy. Bars and clubs bordered up, darkness on the streets, music silenced and streets and buildings pockmarked by bullet holes. The media has covered this extensively and named Juarez "The Murder Capitol" of the world, and "The Most Dangerous City In The World" just ahead of Bagdad, Iraq. According to the December 2010 Daily Finance website " Across the border from El Paso, Texas, a mass exodus triggered by a murderous war for drug trafficking routes into the United States has left huge swaths of Ciudad Juarez uninhabited, rocking Mexican home builders and gutting the large industrial city of its upwardly mobile working class."  By 2011 it was reported that 24% of Juarez hones were abandoned. There were large areas of Juarez that were empty streets. Plaza Monumental had been razed and a Walmart Plaza built with only the bronze bull monument remaining. Between 2007 and 2013 there were 11,000 murders reported in Juarez. In San Diego, a US city of the approximate same size, there were 320 for the same period. By 2013 there were 190, 000 abandoned houses and an exodus of 300,000 people from Juarez. A once vibrant but now sad and dead city.

   To describe Juarez as it exists today, Singer-songwriter Tom Russell says it best in his song JuarezGoodnight:" I used to paint the town, Now you gone and turned it upside down,  Into a dark and bloody battleground."   Goodnight Juarez: http://youtu.be/ELVOYUPh21g

 

 

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Read 4930 times Last modified on Friday, 12 June 2015 14:46

1 comment

  • Comment Link Mike Lord Friday, 05 September 2014 18:23 posted by Mike Lord

    Pedro, this is fabulous. Brought back a slew of memories. Muchisimas gracias!

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