BORDER LIFE: ON THE EDGE
By Robert Geller
EL PASO, Texas (Feb. 28) – After a weekend that saw the 12th running of the $150,000 Borderland Derby, it is worth taking pause to reflect on the significance of the name.
Located in Sunland, NM at the crossroads of El Paso, TX and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, living and working in this region is particularly unique. Often the focus of political debate, especially in relation to issues of illegal immigration, it is fascinating to have lived, albeit seasonally, through a rather tumultuous decade of border town life.
A week ago I took myself to see the new documentary, “Murder Capitol of the World” a phrase that many Americans, undoubtedly those nestled by the US-Mexico border, recognize as synonymous with Juarez. My last trip across the bridge into Juarez was an odd one with all the telltale signs of a city in decay.
It was early April 2007, not long prior to my return to Washington–-that boasts one of the friendliest borders in the world—to redeem a winning Super Bowl ticket on the Indianapolis Colts over the Chicago Bears. I had placed the wager at a well-known betting shop less than a few hundred feet from the border crossing. Admittedly I had waited almost two of the designated three months window to redeem my money and I don’t always have the greatest sense of direction, yet it soon became clear that the betting shop was no longer there, having been converted into a different business altogether.
Met with chuckles at my petty distress and my repeated attempts to correctly translate the explanations being offered by pedestrians, I eventually accepted my loss, took a quick tour of the market and neighboring retail stores as I had often done over the preceding years, noted the increased build-up of militia stationed, machine-gun ready on street corners and headed back to one of the safest cities in the U S of A, El Paso. I never have been back to Juarez since.
Less than a year after that afternoon sojourn, the violence in Juarez went through the roof. In fact, 2008 marked the turning point that experts will be able to explain far better than I ever could, knowing that history, culture, economics, drug cartels, the hard-line approach of President Felipe Calderon and the U.S. remaining the world’s number one consumer of illicit drugs, all make for a mind-boggling mix. The reality is that many El Pasoans cross back and forth into Juarez on a regular basis to be with their families and friends. That is not to say that it is always smooth sailing. I personally know of people in my immediate circle who have experienced tragic loss at the hands of this human disaster that I am not prepared to risk becoming another statistic of.
Filmmaker Charlie Minn did his best in his latest documentary “Murder Capitol of the World” to point out that unlike his 2011 documentary entitled “8 Murders a Day”, the murder rate is now down to six a day, hypothetical explanations for which open up another can of worms. The fact is that the death tolls in the two most recent U.S. wars pale in comparison to the tally in Juarez. In a radio interview about the tragedy, Minn tried to put as positive a spin as possible on the reduction in killings but reminded his audience that even on a good day, with only two slayings that would mean potentially eight murders the next day in the context of the average.
The sad truth is that there is a sense of helplessness that everyone who lives in the firing line of this modern-day carnage feels. How times have changed. When I first began working at Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino, many young employees would party late into the night in its many hopping nightclubs, others would slip across for a few hours to a hair salon, grab a bite for lunch or ice-cold cerveza—beer—and perhaps return with a few prized items like take-away tamales or inexpensive apparel. Down on Paisano Road in West El Paso where my Tuesday running club still trains, we have seen the huge partition go up to appease politicians either side of the aisle that only come to this borderland for campaigning purposes despite ranking the region high on their agenda. The road parallels the dried up, littered section of the Rio Grande River that delineates the separation of the two countries here, snaked 24/7 by Border Patrol vans and under constant camera surveillance.
Life goes on as the saying says, and though I have moved myself up the road to live in the Land of Enchantment in Las Cruces, I remain actively involved in the El Paso community. The city remains a cultural mix, strongly influenced by neighboring Juarez that comes through in the local cuisine, the entertainment, lodgings and most of all, the predominance of Spanish spoken in homes and on the streets. Border life combines an ironic blend of living on the edge with a resigned attitude of manana or wait till tomorrow, of patriotism and liberalism, of desert beauty and strip-mall ugliness.
Under the foothills of Mount Cristo Rey, Mexico, lays Sunland Park Racetrack & Casino that in less than a month will stage the 10th running of its $800,000 Sunland Derby (G3). The Triple Crown lead-up should attract the top two runners back from this weekend’s Borderland Derby, Isn’t He Clever and Zackn’Mat who dominated the stretch drive in similar fashion to Southern Africa and Thor’s Echo seven years ago, their positions reversed in the 2005 Win Star Derby as it was then known.
The spotlight rarely seems to fall on this region for favorable news and in its own way the success of racing in this southwest corner is a source of great pride to its community that feels legitimized by staging Kentucky Derby preps of national importance. Documentary filmmaker Charlie Minn went out of his way to rally his audience around the strengths of the neighboring cities that have enabled the citizens of Juarez to show signs of returning to a greater sense of normalcy in the current year.
His plea was loud and clear, to remind the world of what is going on across the road. So, at this time, before I get swept up in the festivities of the approaching Sunland Derby and my own little racing world, spare a thought for the borderland itself, in its entirety, knowing that ignorance is not bliss.
The only track announcer in Emerald Downs’ history, Robert Geller begins his 17th season on Friday, April 13.