Wednesday, March 25, 2009

The Battle of Juarez

The Battle of Juarez
I've met the sons of darkness,
and the sons of light
In the border towns of despair
Bob Dylan, "Dignity"

I had the pleasure of sharing lunch ten years ago with the celebrated Southwestern painter Tom Lea. He was ninety years old and nearly blind, but his mind was astute as he shoveled in the peppermint ice cream and chatted about many things: the bullfighter Manolete; preparing paint varnishes; memories of the Mexican Revolution. Lea's father had been the mayor of El Paso, and he was always kicking "that old saddle-skinned son of a bitch" Pancho Villa back across the river. Villa, in turn, put a price on the sheriff's head, and little Tom Lea had to have a bodyguard accompany him to school. It was early in the 1900's and the revolution began to thunder in Northern Mexico. Tom Lea said El Paso folks would set chairs up on their rooftops and watch the war action across the river. The six o'clock news was just a quarter mile away; being written in blood through the binoculars.
80 years later, in 1997, I was close to being gunned down twice, near the bullring in Juarez. Wrong place; wrong time. Big time. These were the incipient skirmishes in what is now the full-on drug war in the streets of Juarez between the Tijuana and Juarez cartels. Statistics: 2000 people killed within the last year in Juarez (the Baghdad of Northern Mexico). An estimated 2000 illegal weapons flow from the United States into Mexico every day, and a ton of coca powder, heroin and marijuana travels in the other direction. Up the noses of the middle class; into the arms of the poor. Filtering through the lungs of wasted angels.
There are now ten thousand army troops and cops patrolling the streets of Juarez. Billy the Kid wouldn't stand a chance. The bridge into hell is just a twenty minute car ride from my hacienda. Ain't this the last frontier Hollywood cowboys longed for? Ain't this what Cormac McCarthy was trying to dream up? It might be time to put a chair up on the roof and watch the action, again, through field glasses. I used to walk those Juarez streets and drink at those bars; and good ones they are. There is nothing like the Kentucky bar on a Sunday afternoon when the margarita limes are being squeezed by Mando and Ana Gabriel is on the jukebox with her husky pipes bellowing out "Valentine de la Sierra.". And how many new narco-corrido songs will emerge from the current smoke? The narco ballads are the most contemporary of cowboy songs. And how many righteously shocked news commentators and NPR icons will lay their moral outrage at our feet? These news people bleed for us, but their blood is colored water and pomegranate juice.
The tourist market is empty now and the mariachis have gone underground. I wonder what happened to that old beggar from Kansas I met awhile back on a deserted Juarez street corner. The most down and out, grizzled and homeless sixty year-old being on the face of God's troubled earth. He wanted paper money; pesos or dollars. "Don’t give me no pennies," he said. "I'm from Kansas. I draw pictures on paper bags." I wish I'd asked him how in hell he got trapped in Juarez. Forever. His vaporous presence walking away down that alley… haunts me. Who was he? Why can't he cross back over? I want to hear HIS take on the drug wars. Only his take.
Is he dodging the gunfire now in that alley behind the Tragadero Restaurant, where Tom Lea's friend, Manolete, stares down from a 1946 photo on the yellow smoked walls? Are people blind in heaven? Or is Tom Lea, who landed with the Marines on Pelei, catching this action…all of it raging down along the river, in the battle of Juarez.

25 comments:

Laura's neighbor said...

I hardly know what to write on this one. No pleasent memories of beautiful music. Only reasons of why I never go to Mexico anymore.

Pancho Villa stole from my Great Grandfather in Jimenez but luckily when Villa went to his house only my Great Grandmother was there dressed up as a maid, but someone told Villa and he knew who she was and remarked how my Great Grandfather had left town. Then he left, not killing anyone for once.

Some 70 years later my cousin was killed in the same town. He worked at a bank. The security guards hired to protect the bank were the ones who robbed the bank and killed my cousin in the process.

Some hit men offered my uncle their services to go after the killers and kill them, but my Uncle said no. It wouldn't do any good, it wouldn't bring his son back.

Then there is the cousin's husband who got kidnapped last summer and released a month later for an undisclosed amount of ransom.

Nope. No song to remind me of the good times today. Just memories of how what I thought the good Mexico was all about. Dirt streets, vendors calling out from their horse and buggy selling fresh fruit, and the music in the morning echoing from the army band downtown. Loosing electricity during a rain storm and having to light the candles, and playing in the streams that exist for a short time in the street after the storms, or maybe not even having electricity to begin with and lighting the kerosene lamps after dark.

Okay, so reading this Note from the Borderland did bring some good memories of the mexico I knew as a kid.

We may not have the old Mexico anymore, but we have the memories and Tom Russell's music.

Thanks again Mr. Russell for sharing.

jeffreyjeff said...

Geezo Tom,
No wonder Cormac McCarthy didn't want to go to the bullfights with you... Blood Meridian indeed.

I've always enjoyed visiting Juarez when business took me to that part of the country. I think my first time was 1997 and back then young women were disappearing off the streets at alarming rates. Each time I've returned it seemed a little more ominous, a little more dangerous... something you could feel in the air. Last year, crossing the bridge, looking down at the Che painting and anti-Yanqui slogans on the concrete banks of the Rio Grande, I had an uneasy feeling. Only made it up Juarez Avenida as far as the Kentucky Club. Had a couple of Tecates while Jorge the waiter regaled me with stories of the Clubs famous clientele.. John Wayne, Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe, Jack Kerouac and Hemingway drank here. Legend has it that Dylan wrote Tom Thumb Blues here...(Jorge didn't know Cormac McCarthy, although John Grady Cole, McCarthy's anti-hero, had his last drink at the KC, before getting sliced and diced in the parking lot of a Juarez brothel). It was odd, one of the locals kept going to the jukebox and playing Led Zeppelin.

Now an army prescence...headless bodies hangin' from the overpass...bodyless heads turning up at the plaza. Charles Bowden warned us years ago. Hillary Clinton says the solution is simple. North Americans need to stop using drugs... Maybe God needs to burn Gomorrah down

Saddle Tramp said...

In Search of Three Tom's, The Ramblin' One, Trading Punches, Paintings on the Wall and [ I'll Be Damned ]

Dylan is returning to the border again in his new album which is being described as having a "border town feel to it" with David Hidalgo on accordion on every track. Dylan still riding as hard as ever.

I took the long ride from Auburndale, Florida to Modesto, California . Stopped for lunch at Mulate's in Breaux Bridge, Louisiana for grilled catfish, gumbo & jambalaya. In the
entranceway they list their celebrity guests. Dylan is between Muddy Waters & Dizzie Gillespie. Most worthy bookends. On my last visit the ceiling was covered with layered business cards but this time it was bare. Their roof was torn off in a hurricane. Insurance will no longer allow it. Insurance and banks, the failed [ rulers ] of our economy. On through San Antonio that night taking the upper deck for the view. Late Sunday afternoon taking the business loop of IH-10 through Sierra Blanca past Ellison Motor Co. and the adjacent and Lapidary / Rock Shop / Silver Wrapping, etc. Store with disappointment im my timing of getting there at off hours. On out past the abandoned truck stop west of town and onward to El Paso City. Thinking of Ramblin' Jack's song " Cup of Coffee. " Wonderin' if . . . Naw . . . He ain't home anyway, I'm sure. Driving on through the song that is El paso - Ciudad Juarez looking at those adobe dwellings like dusty ants on a hill. Pale and
parched hills split by El Rió Bravo del Norte. That night spent in Lordsburg, New Mexico. Early morning arrival in Tucson for a two day layover. A quick stop for a shower at the TTT truck stop ( last of a dying breed. ) The morning & afternoon spent at Mission San Xavier del Bac where the scaffolding on the west half of the front is now gone
revealing the results of the long restoration work now completed. Now white as a dove's wing. That evening spent at the Congress Hotel starting with drinks in The Tap
Room. " No blender drinks in this bar " barks the barkeep. " the day they put a blender in this bar is the day I leave." Pete Martinez' cowboys look down from above the bar. His work in stark contrast to what covers the walls elsewhere.
The one next to the hotel clerk's desk titled " A Manicurist's Dream " comes to mind. Perhaps you noticed it Tom. Dinner at the Cup Café. A delicious barracho pork tenderloin with a specially prepared sweet potato along
with green beans. I Picked up ( for $5 ) a copy of the "Without A Shot Fired" account of the 1934 capture of the John Dillinger Gang in Tucson by Tucson police officer and former TPD historian Stan Benjamin. It was a convoluted series of events that led to their arrest. In the arrest of Russell Clark a fight ensued between him & a officer Sherman. Calling for help, officer Mullaney came to Sherman's aid hitting Clark on the head so hard with his
.38 that it bent the ejector pin on the cylinder. It still did not knock down Clark. Mullaney then hit Clark " right between the horns " with an iron claw and it still did not slow him down. Finally, several officers dogpiled on him and were able to handcuff him. Later on Dillinger was caught by surprise in a stakeout. When the officer kicked open the door he said " stick 'em up " Dillinger paused and said " I'll be damned ." the officer did not know until later that he had captured Dillinger. They don't build crooks like this
anymore. I don't know if Dillinger et al are tourist in hell or permanent residents. I guess maybe only Heaven knows and Tom Lea. We know Tom Lea took his tour of hell en
route to heaven. No Heaven . . . no hell !
The next morning spent at The Sonoran Desert Museum with the desert starting to bloom. Lunch on the sun warmed patio at The Ocotillo Café. A geat Cobb salad that includes Jalapeño bacon. A short hike back down to the pullout with 500 horses ready to head to California . . .

Thanks for insights on the border TR.

Poems & Lamentations from an ulalating cab . . .
Midnight roads I ride



-saddle tramp
Via: Stockton, California in the shop waiting on a damned EGR valve . . .

Laura's neighbor said...

Mr. E. Tramp:

So sorry you missed Mr. Ellison in Sierra Blanca. He's my 80 + something friend who's watched 6 generations of my children's family pass through Ellison Motors over the years. He's got a chair in that shop that was at the Bright Ranch in Marfa when Pancho Villa stopped in. At least that's how I think the story goes. There's a couple old cars in there that were from when his Dad first opened that shop when cars first came out. Maybe old Tom Ellison would have had that EGR valve you were waiting on. But your right about the hours, used to be he'd tow you off the freeway 24 hours a day when he ran his towing business but now he just opens up in the morning and closes after lunch making jewelry in between customers.

I think it's okay that the old Tiger Truck Stop in Esperanza is closed down for now. I saw those poor tigers once upon a time. I'm not sure what they were feeding them but it was a lot. Hopefully they're in a better place. I liked seeing the "Thing" better than those poor Tigers.

We tried to eat there once upon a time too. Walked in thinking it would be nice, but it was hot and only a few flies as signs of life. We decided to seat ourselves. On the way to a booth, there was a half eaten plate of breakfast. It looked pretty good, a piece of steak or some kind of meat, some fried eggs, refried beans, toast, a cup of coffee. But right there in the middle of the plate the customer had put their ciggarette out hardly touching the food. And rising up from the plate was a trail of smoke from the half smoked cigarette. We decided to eat in Sierra Blanca instead.

I wonder what famous and infamous people have eaten at that truck stop over the over the years. It must have been something once. One can only imagine.

From El Paso, no rain, no snow, not even a flood, just lots of wind.

Tom Russell said...

Anderson Cooper from CNN TV is now camped out near the fence here making nihgtly reports....from a mighty safe distance. TR

Laura's neighbor said...

Good grief. Morally that wall wasn't right. After all, unless we are Native Americans we all are decendents of immigrants.

But I'll tell you what, I kind of feel a little safer with it after watching the news. Maybe it's just a false sense of security though.

The x-mayor of Juarez has a house here now and so do a lot of other people who have already fled Mexico because of threats on them and their families. There is a new club on Doniphan not far from Rosa's Cantina that used to be open in Juarez but when the owners didn't want to pay protection money they opened up here. What is to stop these killers from getting across the border to take their revenge on this side if they come across legally?

What is the big answer? I guess there isn't one. Probably a lot of small right answers and a few wrong answers to go along with them.

I'm not good at history, I was always out riding my horse rather than reading books, but weren't there a lot of gangs and mobsters when alcohol was illegal in this country? I'm pretty sure there was smuggling from south of the border to the U.S. back then cause my children's great-grandpa used to do it down in Presidio. Isn't there a correlation between legalizing alcohol and mobsters and gangsters going away?

I wonder if Mr. Cooper has ever heard Tom Russells Borderland CD? Anyone have an extra copy? I'm sure he'd love it, especially after getting to know our part of the world for a few days.

Here is hoping that Obama's trip to the D.F. is a good one.

El Paso, Texas

Peter said...

I read Lea's novel, "The Brave Bulls," some decades ago, and it's one of the ones that has stuck in my head. Incredible insight into the Mexican mind and culture, for a Gringo.

I still hear the very last line: "We'll live forever and get rich!"

None of us will, but that's the attitude to have. Why nor?

P.

Peter said...

Sorry. That would be "Why not?"

Learn from my error, children, and don't post before finishing first cup of coffee.

P.

Saddle Tramp said...

Charlene Applegate ( AKA ) Laura's Neighbor ) . . .

Looks like I will be doing another load to Abbeville, Alabama after my Midwest delivery and will reprise my trip through Sierra Blanca. This time hopefully arriving before noon. You have set the table well. I will tell him hello for you. Hope the blood does not spill over. There is a saying that says that we will allow you to trim our mustache, but do not cut our lip. They have cut the lip and there is plenty of blame to go around in this devil's bargain.

If Tom Russell had a son, his name just might be John Reedy . . .
Listening to his cd " Twisted Vignettes " with his great version of TR's " All This Way For The Short Ride " as well
as a cover of Robert Earl Keen's " That Buckin' Song . "
I stood next to Robert with about 30 of the faithful gathered around him and his fiddler playing that song ( and others ) at Hasting's Books & Music in Amarillo. He was doing a little promotional tour for his new cd. A travellin' minstrel
and troubadour and me as close as you can get . . .



Trees only grow so tall . . .
something has gotta fall


-saddle tramp

Via: Lovelock, Nevada en route from Hilmar, CA to
Greenwood, WI.

El Guero Norteno said...

When I was younger, we used to coon hunt down near Esperanza in those salt cedar thickets. The place was called Tommy's Town then instead of Tiger Truck Stop. Just a gas station and a cafe run by Old Man Tommy, no last name I can recall. Pretty good grub then. Of course after trailing a pack of hounds all night, road kill would've tasted good.
We also had some cattle we ran along the mesa north of Fort Hancock by the Diablo dam. I spent a lot of time as kid brush popping cows out of those arroyos that were thick with cat claw and mesquite. I learned at an early age to wear my pistol in a cross draw rig instead of a strong side holster when riding through thick brush. There were some caves along the mesa that had petroglyphs in them and an old Army bivouac site. We used to find broken pottery, spent cartridges, brass buttons and old bottles there.
I know why TR is drawn to this area along the border. It is rich in history and beauty. You usually have to get off the pavement to see it however.

editor said...

poor beautiful, bloody Mexico.

Just got back from LA where I saw the Bold Caballeros exhibit at the Autry. Gorgeous George Yepes paintings.

I remember fishing from pangas and camping in the hills with my brother, a case of Tecate and a bottle of greasy tequila. Skipped the tourist haunts. Hope I can go there again one day, but not now.

Charles Bowden did warn us years ago.

Read The Power of the Dog. A fine novel about the Mexican drug trade.

Laura's neighbor said...

Have a nice stop in SB Mr. E. Tramp. Maybe Mr. Ellison could tell you a story or two about Tommy's Town too. I had heard of Tommy's Town from some old folk in the past, never knew it was the truck stop. I actually thought there was a town down there somewhere called Tommy's Town.

Saddle Tramp said...

Laura's neighbor :

I have passed up the Tiger Truck Stop along IH-10 in Gross Tete, Louisiana dozens of times. It had never appealed to me to see an imprisoned tiger so I always drove on, choosing to spend my time elsewhere. I may stop this round to check on the tiger's welfare and it's history. Maybe even get one of their bumper stickers I have seen pasted on the control panel at Chino Valley Truck & Tank wash in Chino, CA right next to Donna's Ranch & Hacienda. What I hope not to pass up, is Tom Ellison in Sierra Blanca where a brand new advertising sign for Acme Paints is right alongside a dillapidated weathered grey building. I will have to ask Tom about that and a few other things. Incognito in SB . . .


-saddle tramp

Via: Thompson, Iowa waiting to load for Abbeville, AL.
Snowed Tuesday morning in Greenwood, WI. where March went out backwards ( like a lion. )

Abner Mull said...

Ramblin' Jack and Cups of Coffee

TR had the good sense to get away from the border for a while. With his Swiss bodyguards in tow, he landed last night in Salt Lake City for a house concert which seemed to be attended mostly by members of his own family.

This being a house concert, the seating was in kind of a U shape. I snagged a seat on the front row on the left side, thinking wow, what an awesome view I would have. Turns out his family settled in on the other side, and he spent most of the night playing to them, so I spent most of the night admiring the tooling on his leather strap and metal TR medallion that adorns the strap. He did turn around from time to time and play to those of us in the cheap seats. Funny though, even though I was sitting close enough to him that I could have kicked him, I still couldn't figure out what brand of guitar it is that he plays. Definitely not a 1935 Gibson - that belonged to Thad Beckman who accompanied him.

During the intermission, a lot of people gathered in the kitchen to sample the various goodies that folks had brought (the brownies were excellent!). Tom emerged from his hiding place to refill his coffee cup. I happened to be standing there on the fringes of the crowd and said well, it's around over there. He said "I know, but I can't get through there. That's why I'm sending you" and handed me his coffee cup. Well, I must say I felt a bit like the psychiatrist in the skit by the Ace Trucking Company who is asked by his patient to help push a stuck car. You mean, I went four years to MIT, worked 25 years in industry, got 3 patents, so I can fetch your coffee??? (response: "That was damn nice of ya!") But anyway, I took the cup and muscled my way through the crowd and found the coffee pot...

I had a photo (11"x11" B&W print) of Ramblin' Jack Elliot on the train in Heber that I wanted to give Tom. So after the show (and the two encores), I went over to the merchadising table where Nadine was. Besides the usual CDs, they had a few Dylan prints. I decided to see if he'd trade me a Dylan print for my photo (seems like a fair trade to me - Ramblin' Jack for Dylan) even though I know the odss are, well, like zero. I asked Nadine if she thought he'd go for it and she said probably not, more likely a CD or T-shirt. I said that sounds like a fair deal, but don't tell him I said that. Tom arrives after putting his guitar away, and I say "she said you'd trade me a Dylan for this." "No, no!" she protested, "I said a CD or T-shirt!" I said "but I already have every one of these CDs" at which point Tom explained that he really couldn't trade a Dylan because they needed them for Denver, so take a T-shirt then. I said I really didn't need a T-shirt, just take the photo. But I guess we've established that a Ramblin' Jack is equal to a Gretchen Peters in the musical trading card world...

Oh yeah, the songs - a mix of old and new, from Blue Wing and that rooster song to Guadalupe and Nina Simone. Ballad of Ira Hayes, The Pugilist at 59, Ash Wednesday, ... But no Merle Haggard. Audience participation ("just the women!" "just my family!" "everybody!")

Many thanks to Hal Cannon for hosting the event, and to Tom for doing it. Hopefully Tom'll do more of these in the future. That is, if he wasn't too put off by the people taking a picture of him flipping them off ("That's called a G chord," he explained).

editor said...

Nice review. I've got in trouble with that G chord myself a few times.

Abner Mull said...

That's why we should all play banjos. They're only offensive to the ear. And then only when played bluegrass-style.

editor said...

Abner, I'll pass that along to the banjo player in my band tonight. He hasn't been sufficiently tormented by banjo jokes.

(Jokes? Who said they're jokes?)

Peter said...

Quoth A. Mull: I still couldn't figure out what brand of guitar it is that he plays. Definitely not a 1935 Gibson - that belonged to Thad Beckman who accompanied him.

Was it black? I've never seen him playing anything but his beat-up black Collings OM. He had a new Collings slothead 00 for a little while, also black, but I guess it broke in transit and he went back to his old one.

At Tunbridge, VT., last year I was downstairs waiting to use the can on his break, and I overheard him tell someone, "The only good guitars are Collings and old Martins." Well, even the great ones can't be right all the time. I considered going over and starting to rattle off a few dozen names of new small companies and individual builders whose products are at least as good or maybe better, but why start trouble when he's in the middle of a good show.

Not that I sneer at Collings or old Martins, you understand...

Peter

editor said...

"The only good guitars are Collings and old Martins."

TR is fond of the definitive statement.

Abner Mull said...

Well, there you go. I've not heard of Collings before. Did notice a sticker through the sound hole that said Austin, Texas but couldn't make out the name on the pehead. Knew it wasn't a Martin - no bullet hole in the back :-)

editor said...

Collings are indeed very nice guitars. I have a friend who bought one to replace his retired 1962 Martin and it's SWEET.

I wouldn't go so far as to say that Collings and Martins are the only good guitars; I have a Breedlove Revival Series Dreadnought that I love.I know people who swear by Santa Cruz.

However, if I was in the market for a new guitar (and who isn't, all the time) I'd look to Collings first.

Saddle Tramp said...

One more for the [banjo] ...


" A sip of wine a cigarette

and then it's time to go

I tidied up the kitchenette

I tuned the old banjo

I'm wanted at the traffic jam

they're saving me a seat

I'm what I am and what I am

is back on boogie street "

From Boogie Street
- L. Cohen / S. Robinson



-saddle tramp
Via: S. Florida Ave.in Lakeland, FL

thedesertsings said...

Bill the Kid wouldn't last?

I doubt Roy Rogers would either.

Abner Mull said...

Trivia question:

On the Hardin & Russell* album Ring of Bone, who plays banjo on the track Beneath Canyon Walls?

*Patricia Hardin & Tom Russell, 1976

Al said...

Tom Lea captured the great southwest like no other artist. The picture of his wife Sarah in her diaphanous skirt, standing against the ever present sun, the mural in the library on Oregon Street of the profile of the mountains to the west of El Paso at sunset, Lea was a man with a heart for a place that has only skin and bones.