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This past November I visited Ciudad Juárez, Mexico to witness the urban redevelopment taking place in the city’s historic district and efforts to save sites like the popular La Nueva Central restaurant. With my digital camera I took about thirty minutes of footage from which I produced this seven and a half minute video, “La Ultima Taza de Café?” (The Last Cup of Coffee?).
An urban redevelopment project is changing the face of the historical center of Ciudad Juárez where many blocks have already been demolished. The video shows La Nueva Central, the main cathedral, the Plaza de Armas, an Aztec Dancer, the statute of Tin Tan, Avenida Juarez, a monument to the disappeared women of Juárez, and the International Bridge Paso Del Norte. Juárez’s make-over is taking place in the area closest to the international crossing to El Paso. What will replace the demolished blocks is unclear, though the business elite supports a new convention center in the district.
After years of blogging, I recently began experimenting with video production and appreciate how it tells a story in unexpected and spontaneous ways. In “La Ultima Taza de Café?” the sounds of street vendor selling corn on the cob or pieces of a conversation reflect the vibrant life in Juárez. Certain images take on a life of their own, such as the reflection of people walking by as I was filming the glass facade of La Nueva Central.
I like to use recorded music to set the mood of each scene. In this video I used parts of three songs by Victor Jara, the great Chilean singer-songwriter and political activist murdered by the Pinochet regime after the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency and the Nixon administration orchestrated the overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973.
Among the rewards that came from doing this project, I especially appreciated a comment on YouTube that obviously came from Juárez: “It’s a shame that it takes someone from outside the area to recognize the beauty of our history and the warmth of our people. Who better than those who work and live in our historic city center to decide what is best for downtown.”
I hoped the final product would be a flattering portrait of the people I filmed and one that transcends Juárez’s rough edges, so seeing the response mentioning the “warmth of our people” showed I had some degree of success.
I remember years ago a Mexican telling me why she didn’t like living in the United States due to the “falta de calor humano” (lack of human warmth). Interestingly, I find the opposite when I'm in her country. One finds hospitality and friendliness throughout Mexico. Juárez is no exception.
During the making of this video I reflected on my own personal evolution regarding Mexico. For the first quarter-century of my life “warmth” was not something I associated Mexico with.
While growing up in Elkin, North Carolina in the 1960s-70s, someone made an off the cuff comment to me reflecting the negative stereotype of Mexicans. Migrant laborers worked the tobacco fields in the area, and I was warned, “Stay away from the Mexicans.”
It didn’t take much effort to avoid them. The migrants were thoroughly segregated, living on farms or in labor camps. Once the tobacco was harvested in the fall they would move on. Now things have changed dramatically—in the Elkin area you can now find Mexican stores, taco shops, and churches offering services in Spanish.
I returned to Juárez in early January, and little had changed since November. No new demolition had taken place, although no one seems to know what will happen in the demolished areas. Though tourism is still almost nil, the city’s overall crime rate has improved in the past year, and authorities plan to remodel the old tourist marketplace with hopes of attracting tourists back to the city.
I delivered copies of my video, “La Ultima Taza de Café?” to the staff and waitresses at La Nueva Central. A group of youth performed a few songs while I sipped café con leche. It’s hard to imagine this place and other businesses in this vibrant area of Juárez may soon cease to exist. I can only hope this video will play some small part in helping to save it.
Richard Boren is a freelance writer, environmental activist, and educator based in the Arizona/Sonora borderlands. He blogs at The Hobo Dispatch.