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Ropes Across the Border

Climbing la montaña to connect with Mixteco culture.


I couldn't remember the name of the woman I was looking for. So I starting asking the ladies selling necklaces outside the Mercado de Juárez if they knew Carol, who was doing a shoe-making project with a woman selling things there.

After asking three women, I found her—Marina, a small, thin Indian woman, and her daughter Aracely. She said, ", I know Carol. I can bring you to see the shoes." Carol was an American woman I knew who'd lost contact with a family making shoes in a sort of individual development project in Juárez, and asked if I could locate them.

Marina and I agreed I'd come back to the marketplace at 4, and she'd bring me to her home. I walked around for awhile and realized she would probably appreciate some meat for her family. I went to a store behind the cathedral and bought a few slices of beef.

Marina and Aracely were there at their corner when I returned, and we started walking toward my car. But first we stopped off at the Flor de Michoacan ice cream place across from the Mercado—my treat, I said.

Marina's Spanish was so mingled with her Mixteco language that I felt I understood only about a third of what she said. I could talk to her daughter Aracely a lot more freely. Smiling broadly at me from across the table, Aracely was game for a friendship with a foreigner.

I explained that one reason Carol hadn't visited them was that she was too afraid to go to their neighborhood. What she told me later was that she was mostly afraid of the drive. But Marina looked at me with a sad face and said, "You don't have to be afraid of us." It was hard to imagine anyone being afraid of this worn-looking slip of a woman and her grinning 11-year-old daughter.

I started driving up the large hill, or "la montaña," as they called it, where they lived. There must have been about 11 sudden left and right turns announced by Aracely from the back seat. The ride was hair-raising. Most of the streets were narrow, and I found myself crossing streets pretty recklessly.

But I kept up a conversation with Marina. She said they'd lived in their neighborhood seven years, and most people there were from Oaxaca, even from her hometown. Her brown face had a perpetually worried look. She said they left Oaxaca because "there was no food" and intimated that she had little food now. She made only about $6 a day.

Marina held on her lap the small cup of ice cream she'd ordered. She was bringing it home to give to her five-year-old daughter, Ana. Despite temperatures in the high 80s, it hardly melted at all.

The odd thing was, despite the obvious poverty, I found myself charmed with those winding streets. The way the houses climbed the hills in rows resembled bric-a-brac, or a wedding cake. It made me think of Italian towns that slope down to the Mediterranean. With some upgrading, it might look like that someday.

It felt pretty idiotic, but I kept wanting to say, "Es bonito," it's pretty. I'd been several times to Anapra, the squatter settlement seen from the highway along the Rio Grande in El Paso. Anapra's houses were built on sandy little hills with no trees, and dust blows 100 feet in the air. To me it was the absolute picture of desolation.

But here everything was bathed in clear sunlight, minus the infernal heat of summer that was as yet a few weeks off. Here and there we passed a nicely painted house with bright trim. Some of the winding streets had charming little walls on either side.

When we got close to their house, Aracely pointed to the school she went to. Behind la montaña was a larger rock mountain rising in sere majesty out of the flat desert. Their house and tiny plot of land were almost at the top of la montaña.

As we got out of the car, we were greeted by the jaunty tones of a trombone. Marina's son Alfredo was practicing in the tiny building out back. Marina tapped on the door and asked to use the room for a minute. He flashed a grin at me, the gabacha so out of place here, and explained that he played in a band, mostly at weddings.

Another daughter brought the shoes. A neighbor had ended up making them. They were handwoven with a thin yarn, built on soles Carol had brought them. Carol later said she was amazed by their creativity, although the shoes weren't all technically perfect.

Outside in their postage-stamp-sized yard with small trees and a cage filled with nine healthy-looking, mostly green, parakeets, Marina and I chatted. Her husband, she said, was at work at a maquiladora. When I said I liked the light blue parakeet best, she said, "." She liked the same sweet sky color I did.

This tiny house lot seemed so homey and full of life, as if it were in a neighborhood in Oaxaca, although it wasn't considered safe to travel there at night in this city so rife with violence. Marina gave me a little wave and smile when I left her.

Aracely and her 14-year-old sister Lety accompanied me down the hill, chattering in Mixteco, so I could find my way. When I caught sight of the heart-stopping view of both Juárez and El Paso spread below us, I did allow myself one "Es bonito." In downtown Juárez we went with another sister to the public telephone caseta and called Carol, who was so happy to hear from them again.

Back on the other side of the border the next week, I Googled up "Mixteco" on the Internet, and tried out a few words. I found out Mixteco is a tone language, like Chinese.

While substituting in the schools in Deming, I talked with a middle-school girl combing her friend's hair outside on a "goof-off day" during gym. She was Mixteco, and recognized the words ve'e (house) and ya'a (chile). I have the urge to learn more.

Later, after Carol had the chance to visit the family in Juárez, she brought me two little baskets Marina had made for me.

Throwing ropes across the border, that's what it's all about. It makes you feel whole, a part of the world instead of isolated. Finding the heart of innocence in a mean city makes it a safer place.


Borderlines columnist Marjorie Lilly lives in Deming.

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