Driving last year into one of the poorest, most violent slums of Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican border metropolis known worldwide as “Murder City,” my taxi driver hunched over the steering wheel and gripped it tight.
“Those young men standing around—they’re thugs,” he warned. “It’s dangerous here. I’ll get out and escort you.”
“That’s okay,” I demurred in gringo-accented Spanish. “Perla es una amiga.” I felt as though I were fingering a rosary, because Perla and I hadn’t seen each other in years. I only hoped I’d find her at home in this dusty neighborhood full of tumbledown houses and shacks. I hoped she’d remember me. I hoped she’d take kindly to my visit. I hoped she’d watch my back.
Perla was home, and she remembered me. “You haven’t changed a bit!” she effused, circling me briskly in a pair of Nikes, which, I noticed with surprise, looked new. As we embraced I saw that her hair was dyed, as mine was, hiding the gray. I wondered how she could afford hair coloring. Her eyes looked more sunken than mine, and their sockets had tightened. Her face was hatched with wrinkles.
“You haven’t changed a bit, either,” I lied.
I’d first met my amiga 25 years earlier, after moving with my husband and two preschoolers to a cozy home in downtown El Paso, just a mile from the border, and Juarez. Soon after we moved in I got a knock at the door. Answering, I found a petite Mexican woman with a straw basket and several spindly kids. They said nothing, but stared raptly at me and mine.
“Lima! Aguacate! Guavas!” the woman hawked in Spanish. She was my neighborhood’s illegal-alien fruit-and-vegetable vendor, back when the U.S.-Mexico border was open in ways almost unthinkable today.
Over transactions during the next few months, she told me she’d recently arrived in Juarez with her five children from a village many miles to the south. They were so poor, she said, the family sometimes caught mountain rats and ate them. Her husband was in prison. In Juarez, she’d learned to buy produce wholesale. She’d also learned to wade the Rio Grande, dart across Interstate 10, and navigate a dank sewer tunnel—often with the kids in tow—to sell Americans like me the fixings for our dinner.
Perla made $70 a week selling her wares. That was twice what she could earn in the maquilas, those transnational assembly plants that employ hundreds of thousands and define the economy of Juarez.
My neighbors and I loved Perla’s tasty, cheap produce. She sold avocados three for a dollar, with a lagniappe sometimes thrown in. Fifty cents for 10 key limes, great for pico de gallo or pie.
The Border Patrol, trundling through the neighborhood in green vans, played cat-and-mouse with Perla and other undocumented vendors. Perla would run, and one time she got separated from Magdalena, her 7-year-old girl. An artist named Susan found Magdalena in tears and took her in overnight. The next day, Perla sneaked back to El Paso and knocked on doors until she found her child.
I didn’t just buy from Perla. I bathed and fed her kids, including Jose, her 2-year-old, who was about the same age as my son. The whole family showered in my bathroom; they said they had no running water in their home. Sometimes I drove to Juarez—back then it was completely safe to do so—to visit Perla and her family in their one-room tarpaper shack. It was dark inside and smelled of sweat. I returned frequently, bringing used clothing, cheese, 10- and 20-dollar bills.
They wanted more, of course. Once Perla asked me to stand as madrina—godmother—to the children. “You’ll be forever responsible,” I told myself. “They’ll ask and ask and demand, never ever have enough, never leave you alone.”
“I’m not Catholic,” was my reply. It was truth on top, where a priest would care. Underneath, where I cared, it was a lie. She didn’t ask again.
In 1993, a new border policy lined up agents along the river so poor Mexicans could no longer sneak over. Not long after, I moved far into the U.S. interior. Perla was out of my life.
Last year I moved back to El Paso, and a very different border. Agents and helicopters and sensors are now everywhere on this side. On the other, drug cartel-related murders had turned Juarez into a war zone, with hundreds of killings per month. The violence has since calmed down: the murder rate in 2012 dropped dramatically. Even so, few people from El Paso dare to visit.
But I felt terrible staying away, and on a Saturday morning last fall I walked over the international bridge and hailed the taxi. The driver warned me; I told him I had a friend.
She was still in the same shack, with her grown children living nearby, now with children of their own. Her youngest, Luisito, 15, had been born after I left El Paso. He was a teenager now, gangly and achingly handsome. Over Nescafe, Perla confided that Luisito was a glue sniffer, illiterate and jobless. That did not surprise me. I remembered that Perla had been unable to afford education for her children in the 1990s, when even in public schools Juarez parents had to pay for uniforms and textbooks and tip the teachers. People like Luisito are known as ninis, short for ni estudian, ni trabajan: “neither working nor studying.” Mexican sociologists and criminal justice experts call ninis the foot soldiers of the cartels. Watching Luisito loll on a bed amid walls stained with graffiti, it wasn’t hard to imagine his future.
Perla pointed out Jose, the boy I’d fed and bathed 20 years before. Weeks before my visit, Perla told me, Jose had murdered a man, for hire. “You mean he’s a sicario?” I asked. A hit man? “Sí,” she said, “un sicario.” The cops more or less knew this and came around every few days to rough him up. Family members of the people he’d killed were also making threats.
Jose nodded, gravely and proudly. Then he shook my hand and introduced me to a 17-year-old boy, the son of one of Perla’s daughters, a girl who’d taken baths at my house. This boy told me he was working as an extortionist, shaking down small businesses with a gun. The cartel allowed him to keep 10 percent, about $100 a week, which he used to buy clothes, Nikes, and other little gifts for family members, including his grandmother. He was trying to convince Luisito to join the trade.
I understood that I was surrounded by dangerous, violent criminals. Even so, I felt the joy and pang of reunion with an old friend and her descendants, kids of the kids who’d flocked around their mother as she brought me avocados, who’d shampooed in my home and splashed my own children in the tub. Who’d looked at me then as though I were kin, and saw me that way still.
The hit man poured me a second cup of coffee. He asked if I took sugar. He listened to his grandmother reminisce about her long-ago adventures in my neighborhood. Once, for instance, she’d spoken at a human-rights conference about her abuse at the hands of the Border Patrol; then she’d spent the night at my house, in a big, clean bed in a big, clean room, and hadn’t slept a wink. The hit man gave me a hug.
Outside the tarpaper shack, the extortionist showed me crumbling fossils he’d dug from the sand nearby: clams, snails, urchins. “What are they?” he asked, and when I told him they were sea animals, he asked how creatures from an ocean could possibly turn up on a mountain, in Juarez, in the desert of Chihuahua. I gave him a 30-second geology lesson. It was a lesson he would have gotten in fifth grade, if he’d ever been able to attend school. He was happy to learn now, and said I really should come back to stay awhile. Quince días, he suggested—two weeks, to get to know him and the rest of the clan. I smiled and clucked and bounced in agreement, knowing my husband would not allow it.
After we’d walked to the street so I could return to El Paso, Perla looked back toward her offspring waving goodbye. “I guess I’ve got mafia in my family,” she said, half-sheepish and half-mourning.
I thought about Perla’s godmother invitation, how I’d declined its formalities while embracing—thoughtlessly? selfishly? cravenly?—bits of its practice.
“I guess I’ve got mafia, too,” I thought in the cab, headed back toward the bridge.
Names in this story have been changed in the interest of privacy and safety.