Word has it that our bid list – the list of possible jobs/locations for Andrés’ next post – will be released this week. So while I’d been toying with the notion of doing a glancing recollection of our first year in Ciudad Juárez next month, at roughly our anniversary mark, I’ve decided to time to look back is now. I have this notion (accurate or not time will tell) that once we begin the bidding process it will be hard not to see our life here through the lens that forward trajectory. So here’s a sketch of my first nearly-year of memories, untainted by any notion of what lies ahead.
It was a glorious road trip to get here from Virginia. Tennessee is impressively wide. And green and rolling and melodic and delicious. Texas is known for its bigness so that came as no surprise. It was nice to be back in the kids’ home state, and our stay in the hill country was relaxing and lovely. Entering the Chihuahuan Desert and smelling the distinctive greasewood smell (it had to have rained recently) and seeing the yucca and the mountains and tuning in to the New Mexico State University NPR station I’d been hearing since before I cared to listen . . . a surreal, delightful, wistful, sweet moment. Juarez itself did not look nearly as foreign as any of the places we’d dreamed of landing. Though I have to say, having spent a year in two-bedroom apartments, our giant house with its many tiled surfaces was a bit disconcerting.
Summer was a strange in-between time for the kids and me. School in Mexico lasts into July so we opted to homeschool for a month or so after our arrival and then call it done. Andrés was learning the visa-adjudicating trade, which was exhausting. We had met many lovely families in the Consulate community, but those with kids in Juárez schools were still in school mode. So we were quite free, really, to do our own thing. We visited friends in Dallas and went to a family reunion in Oklahoma and spent some time on the way back with family in Lubbock. The ease of travel to visit our friends and family did nothing to diminish our sense that Juárez is a most unusual place to have landed in the foreign service. Not complaining at all, but it was and is a strange spot to be in when you’ve spent as much time as we did preparing to go somewhere utterly out of our known spheres.
July in Juárez is hot. I had known this, remembered the desert heat of my childhood, but what I hadn’t realized was that temperatures in Las Cruces, a mere 45 or 50 miles away, tend to be as much as 10 degrees cooler than temperatures in El Paso and Juárez. Of course, as the cliché goes, it’s a dry heat. And it is, and that does make a difference. I’d take a Juárez summer over a Dallas summer any day. We found a water park with $4 admission and spent many a summer day enjoying paletas poolside. Isaiah became adept at asking “Cuándo abren los tobáganes?” or “When are you guys going to open the slides?” It makes sense in the desert – the water slides only operated a few hours each day. It was a cultural adjustment for Isaiah realizing that the posted operating hours for the slides weren’t necessarily reliable.
School. The kids had attended a dual language public school in Dallas for the vast majority of their school-attending lives but school in Mexico was still a big change. Isaiah started at the academically intense, very structured bilingual school he had picked and Marisela started at the homey, family-style (100% Spanish) Montessori school she had picked. Both impressed us with their incredible flexibility and bravery and seemed to thrive right away. I got a small taste of what it’s like to be linguistically and culturally separated from my kids’ school experience – like so many of the Mexican families of kids at the school the kids had attended in Dallas. And yet I had the undeniable (though uncomfortable) benefit of class privilege working in my favor. It gave me new insight into how intimidating it must be for immigrant families putting their kids in school in the U.S.
Mexican independence day is the 16th of September. We were lucky enough to have my cousin, Steve, visiting on that occasion. There’s a restaurant in Juárez called Viva México. They serve a variety of traditional Mexican dishes and put on a no-holds-barred stage show during dinner – horses, mariachis, elaborate costumes, cast of thousands (OK, maybe dozens). There was a show on the 16th but when we called for reservations we were told it was all booked. We were also told if we just showed up at 8pm we might be able to get seats if someone didn’t show. We took the risk and it paid off. I strongly suspect, however, that even if they had been totally full they would have found space for us. You see, my cousin does not blend in with the Mexican crowd. He is tall and impressively gringo. And that’s something of great value at Viva México, especially on a night where pretty much all of the tables were filled with Mexicans. One of the big set pieces of the show involves making elaborate fun of a foreigner. And when we walked in and they saw Steve, they knew they had their mark. The kids were delighted to see their much-adored “cousin-uncle” brought up on stage. We didn’t get home until midnight (we had to stay for the “grito,” or shout of independence) and it was a truly memorable evening.
In October it really seemed to dawn on Isaiah that we were here to stay (as much as one can say that in the foreign service). It was a rough time for him. He missed his friends in Dallas dearly and missed the ease of school in Dallas and our very comfortable place in our neighborhood and community. We all did, of course, but it hit Isaiah especially hard. It’s interesting to me that this is roughly the time at which Isaiah started developing a particular interest in the horror genre. Horror is a popular thing among boys in Mexico. We don’t let Isaiah watch horror movies, but he is allowed to watch select X-Files episodes, play some age-appropriate “horror” video games, and I found some books and stories he could read. He revisited Edgar Allan Poe, which had terrified him when he first checked a book out from the Rosemont library in fourth grade. Recently he’s starting writing his own horror story. I suppose the horror genre is about giving some kind of voice to our deepest fears – it seems that this has been a real outlet for Isaiah as he copes with feelings he’d never experienced before.
Isaiah turned 12. I turned something way bigger. We ate turkey. For the first November in quite a while we didn’t go camping for Isaiah’s birthday or for Thanksgiving, due to the fact that the kids are not on a U.S. school schedule. Veterans’ Day was always our Isaiah’s-birthday-campout weekend and we had taken all of Thanksgiving week to camp for a few years running. So the no-camping thing was weird, but I have to say otherwise it was not unlike any November in the U.S. of A. Only with slightly more Spanish-speaking. And the kids didn’t have Thanksgiving day off, which I have to confess we thoroughly enjoyed. Andrés and I drank wine, cooked Thanksgiving dinner, and watched the Cowboys lose, then welcomed the kids home and had a wonderful big meal together. Marisela was thankful we didn’t have to camp, Andrés and I were thankful we had stress-free, kid-free dinner-prep-and-hanging-out time, and Isaiah was thankful he didn’t have to pretend to like football. It worked for everyone.
The last two Christmases we had spent at Texas State Parks – in a yurt in Abilene, then in a cabin at Caddo Lake. It’s amazing how Santa can find us anywhere. We actually took it quite easy on Santa this time, spending Christmas in our own house with a tree and everything. It was actually the first time we’d ever had a traditional Christmas tree in our home – traditional as in a cut-down fir tree acquired in a commercial transaction. When Isaiah was a newborn we made the best of a notice from the City of Dallas warning us that an evergreen in our alley was impeding trash collection. We cut that thing down and hauled it into the living room. After that we made an annual habit of decorating a potted Norfolk Island pine and stacking our gifts around it. Then there were the State Park Christmases – for which we packed a bag of ornaments and decorated whatever foliage seemed fitting. Santa was probably really thrown off by our markedly more mainstream behavior.
I’m really trying to not cheat the one-paragraph rule so I didn’t mention in my December paragraph that for Marisela’s birthday we were visited by the Dyche grandparents, and then the kids and I basically followed them back to Lubbock for a pre-Christmas visit with my sister and her family. I guess there’s no such thing as too much of a good thing, though, because we visited the Dyches yet again in January, making the trip up to their Santa Fe townhouse when the kids had a four-day weekend. We were able to visit Dyche and Calderón grandparents and I somehow also squeezed in visits with my super fantastic friends Susan and Natalie. The weirdness of being here so very close to people and places so close to my heart really never goes away. This is also the month during which I learned of my violin teacher’s death (see previous post). It was certainly a nostalgia-packed January. And we went to the beach in Cancún and had a blissful time. That is utterly unconnected to anything else in this paragraph but I didn’t return or indent so it’s still part of the same paragraph. Right?
Pope month!!! I am a lifelong Episcopalian and we had a wonderful church family at Christ Episcopal in Oak Cliff, but because Juárez’ two Anglican churches are in the “red zone” (area of town we are not allowed to visit without special permission and/or escort) we have been attending mass at Roman Catholic churches here. The liturgy and music is nearly identical to the Spanish-language service we’d sometimes attend at Christ Episcopal, and so the primary difference for us is that when we want to receive the Eucharist we have to cross the border and go to an Episcopal church in El Paso or Las Cruces. Since we’d been visiting Roman Catholic parishes we had started hearing rumors of a possible Papa Francisco visit to Juárez pretty early on, and by the time the visit actually did happen, the whole city was overjoyed. It was such a vindication for a city that has suffered so much. The kids had the day of the Pope’s visit off, as did Andrés. We were especially moved by the words he spoke at the prison he visited, and by the words of the prisoner who spoke, as well. It was a bit of word play in Spanish that’s hard to translate, but she essentially said the question that’s relevant for her and for the other prisoners is not “What am I here for?” (as in for what crime) but “What am I here for?” (as in to what greater end; to accomplish what). And Papa Francisco, for his part, acknowledged that he was no different, no greater, no more beloved a child of God, than the prisoners. It was a powerful message.
As I mentioned before, the Mexican school calendar officially extends to mid-July. It seems that in practice the schools tend to shut down operations around the end of June, but there’s no exact science to it. The long school year doesn’t actually mean there are more days spent in the classroom, though. Christmas break is nearly a month. Spring break is two weeks. The last Friday of every month is a day off. And there are various holidays sprinkled generously throughout the year. By the time we hit spring break (which coincided with Semana Santa and the first week of Easter) the kids were truly ready for it. It seemed to have finally hit Marisela that this is not a flight of fancy or a temporary adventure. She’d been occasionally sad, occasionally expressing that she missed friends in Dallas, but for the most part had been rolling with it all astonishingly well. Until suddenly she wasn’t. The kids are both huge Doctor Who fans. I know that at eight years old Marisela is quite capable of realizing that we don’t have a TARDIS and that she would not simply be deposited back in Dallas just minutes after we’d said goodbye, but in a way I think she was kind of hoping that was the case. Not that we’d actually time travel, of course, but that we could have this exciting adventure and meet new people and see new things and then just pop back into our “real” life and kind of wonder if all of that had ever really happened. By the time spring break rolled around she was well and truly stressed out by grappling with the newly-dawning revelation that there is no TARDIS. There’s no neat and easy wrap-up to that little story. She’s still struggling. It’s still very hard for her. But the break really did her a lot of good, and she seems re-energized to keep living this new adventure. [OK . . . there should be a paragraph break in there but I’m almost done so I’m cheating. More cheating: also we celebrated Andrés’ birthday this month . . . St. Patty’s day is not quite the party here it is in the U.S., and there was no Guinness to be found in Juárez.]
I’m playing with the timeline a little bit here, as the first of the trips I’m going to describe actually happened in March, but I’m grouping thematically. And also I already cheated and forced two paragraphs and an aside into one for March. I couldn’t in good conscience squeeze in a third. This spring marked our glorious return to camping. Andrés took a few days of annual leave so he could have Semana Santa off, and we squeezed everything we could out of that week. We had a nostalgic dining experience at Dick’s Café, one of my family’s old haunts in Las Cruces. We toured the gorgeous Plaza Theater in downtown El Paso – one of only a very few remaining theaters dating back to silent movie days, lovingly restored and put into use as a performing arts venue. We also went camping, and our return to camping was as big as Texas itself, it seemed – we camped at Big Bend National Park, which is a stunning place to be. Canyons, mountains, desert . . . Isaiah does far more justice to this trip in his blog than I can, so for further details see isaiahtherovingbison.wordpress.com, but suffice it to say it was such a spectacular place to be that even our most reluctant camper, Marisela, had a wonderful time. Such a wonderful time that I felt the need to keep the outdoorsy-Marisela-momentum going with a second camping trip. We came home from Big Bend, celebrated Easter, then turned around and went camping at City of Rocks State Park in New Mexico, one of my favorite picnic spots when I was a kid. We capped off the kids’ spring break with a trip to visit the Trinity Site. It was fascinating, thought-provoking, and startlingly beautiful. Los Alamos is also a beautiful place. Such strange ironies – the destruction and the beauty superimposed on each other. I’m guessing that wasn’t lost on the Manhattan Project scientists. Being there at there at the site I had to wonder how much those thoughts had entered their minds.
Whoa!! Not only did my “paragraphs” get longer and longer (as I got into months with fresher and fresher memories), but I realize now that I’ve actually written twelve paragraphs. We arrived mid-May. It’s now mid-April. So while we haven’t actually been here a full year yet I’ve written twelve months’ worth of (increasingly long and cheat-y) paragraphs. Oops.
Another thing I realize: I haven’t written a lot about Mexico per se. That’s because the reality is that we are posted on the border – which both is and isn’t the same as being posted in Mexico. Due to security restrictions our movement within the city is limited. We aren’t supposed to drive anywhere out of the city, either (except to Chihuahua, with permission, which I hope we’ll do at some point but haven’t done yet). So the majority of our traveling and exploring has taken place north of the border. At first I fought this. I didn’t come along on the foreign service crazy train to re-visit the scenes of my youth! I’m not here to just keep camping at Texas parks and hanging out with my family in Lubbock as if we’d never left Dallas! But then I decided I was being stupid. Because why not? Why not spend time with family while we still can? Why not take advantage of the natural beauty of the southwest? Why not take full advantage of the fact that we can hang out in scenic and lovely Santa Fe and also see good friends and grandparents at the very same time? What fool would not take advantage of that?
So we do live in Mexico. And we have made friends here, and I’ve brushed my Spanish up quite a bit (no longer inserting random Czech words, at least most of the time), and the kids are doing their level best to learn it (and really impressing us in the process). But we also live on the border and I’m finally at peace with that idea, I think. When we first moved here I kind of thought of crossing into El Paso as a kind of selling out of the foreign service experience I wanted to have. Looking back that seems both naïve and self-important.
I’ve had hopes and dreams regarding our next post for months now. Probably by the next time I write those hopes and dreams will be a little more tangible. Right now we can say we’re hoping to go to Africa, which we are, but our bid list might not have Africa posts we want that match our schedule. Stay tuned . . . I will post about the bidding process once we get that list. And I will not make any paragraph-limiting promises, because clearly I cannot be trusted in that regard. Also there may or may not be a purely photographic retrospective posted sometime soon. There are intentions and then there is reality and it’s hard to say if those will intersect. Until next time!