The Mexican Revolution & the Drug War - A Holiday Weekend in El Paso & Juárez (Part 1)

I woke in terror and opened my eyes to green tubular objects floating toward me — string beans, or slow-motion bullets. I yelled, startling my husband. When I snapped out of it I reassured Dale, “It’s only what always happens.” Meaning: “It’s only because night terrors are my thing, not because I’m traveling to Juárez,” although that was precisely the problem. I closed my eyes and pictured my breasts exploding. I wondered what Dale would do if I were shot. It was too much to contemplate. I asked God to keep me safe, and fell back to sleep.

I woke a short time later to catch a flight to El Paso with my friend Patricia. Before I left the house, I removed my engagement ring. Patricia, who used to live in Juárez, said, “I’m glad you left your ring at home.” No point attracting robbers with a diamond, especially one with sentimental value. I still wore my wedding band, an instinct from younger days when traveling solo meant constant sexual harassment.

When we arrived in El Paso, we took a bus to the old-fashioned, brick-and-mortar downtown and scouted a place to eat. We happened upon a hole-in-the-wall called Rico Café, which served Mexican and Chinese food. I couldn’t resist. The place is owned by a skinny Chinese husband and chubby Mexican wife, calling to mind my Chinese great-grandfather and his Mexican wife, who once owned a Chinese restaurant in El Paso. They’re part of the family history that inspired the novel I’m writing. The fictional story has taken me into northern Mexico, so I was about to follow my story there in real life, for research.

We then walked to the Museum of History for an exhibition on the Mexican Revolution. By chance, we were heading to Mexico in time for Revolution Day, November 20. My novel’s opening follows a Mexican family across the desert as they flee the revolution in 1910. Such coincidences make me feel that I’m on the right journey, though some think me foolhardy.

The exhibit featured old photos, films, and just a few artifacts. An old machine gun, or replica, was aimed at a poster advertising a 1914 documentary, The Great Mexican War. Three film companies produced documentaries about Pancho Villa and the revolution, showing real battles, but also blurring the line between fact and fiction. They even wrote scripts, hired actors, and bought General Villa a new uniform. It was the first war captured in motion for the world to see.

El Paso experienced a small boom thanks to that war: selling ammo to Mexicans, and souvenirs, rooms, and food to American spectators. Many sightseers paid upwards of a quarter to watch the 1911 Battle of Juárez from the rooftops of such buildings as the Hotel Paso Del Norte (now the Camino Real). The hotel offered a money-back guarantee if the battle didn’t take place. Throughout town, five El Pasoans were killed and eighteen wounded by stray bullets flying across the Rio Grande.

After the battle, tourists crossed into Juárez to be photographed in front of bullet-riddled buildings. Ladies in bonnets and bandoliers posed with rifles amid revolutionaries and mercenaries. One guy proposed to his girl inside a building full of broken glass and bullet casings. As I stared at a picture of a photojournalist running crouched through desert scrub, I listened in my head for bullets whirring past his.

While Patricia and I strolled the exhibit, her brother David and their friend Carlos crossed the border to pick us up. El Paso has some 800,000 residents, Ciudad Juárez around a million — though in recent years hundreds of thousands of Mexicans have fled the violence of the Juárez drug cartels. Viewed from above, the two cities appear as one, "and a river runs through it." It typically takes at least an hour to drive across the border, but this time it only took them fifteen minutes.

When David arrived, I said, “Mucho gusto.” He replied, “Nice to meet you.” This set the stage for the weekend: me talking to him primarily in Spanish, him talking to me primarily in English. Patricia spoke to me in English and to the two men in Spanish. It might have been easier for me if they’d stuck with Spanish. Switching back and forth gave me a headache.

We drove around El Paso, stopping at Aéropostale, Target, and WalMart. An ever-smiling David explained, “I don’t come here very often, so when I do, I do a shopping… what do you call it?”

“Shopping spree?” I offered.


He bought a DVD player, socks, t-shirts, and a stylish plaid jacket for a friend. Patricia bought a sleeping bag to use at her mom’s cold house in Juárez, and makeup for her sister and nieces. Carlos bought a turkey. Mexicans don’t celebrate Thanksgiving, but he couldn’t resist the bargain: fourteen bucks, less than half what it would cost in Juárez.

At twilight we headed for the frontera. The line was long at the main bridge, so David drove to the Puente Lardo. That toll bridge costs $2.50, while the main bridge is free. David said it’s worth paying to wait only five minutes - or it would have been, if not for the flashing red and blue lights that stopped us on the way. The El Paso cop gave David a ticket for a defective taillight. I hoped that would be our biggest scare all weekend.

“Maybe you’ll see another Mexican Revolution while you are there,” David teased.

“I hope not,” I replied. “Anyway, a revolution wouldn’t be very useful now.”

“No,” he agreed. “It’s a little too late.”

A drug war has already taken over.

I’d been nervous about crossing into Juárez after dark. But as we passed the old customs house, cathedral, and plaza full of Mexicans on holiday, it all seemed so normal as to be anti-climactic. Maybe this is what it feels like to visit Israel (or Palestine), I thought. You can only worry so much about bullets or bombs that usually don’t come. Then again, we’d been in town less than five minutes.

(to be continued...)

(The names of the people in this story have been changed for their safety.)

(This story was originally published on Girls Trek Too, as part of the series: A Holiday Weekend in El Paso & Juárez: )

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