I landed in El Paso at 11.20 p.m. Manuel, the driver sent from the colegio hosting the conference, spoke no English, and my Spanish is mostly limited to what I have learned from reading subway ads in New York (las cucarachas entran pero no puedan salir came unfortunately to mind). On the way to the border a rabbit ran in front of our car. Manuel braked; it swerved back to avoid another car; we felt the bump. He looked in his rear-view mirror and made a rueful hand gesture. In a novel this would be foreshadowing – and we’d have hit something bigger than a rabbit. A foreign journalist was decapitated a few weeks ago, but we’re inoffensive academics. The previous week I’d asked my seminar if they’d go to a conference in Ciudad Juárez. ‘What’s the paper on?’ they asked. ‘Violence in literature,’ I said. ‘Well,’ one of them said, ‘what better place to give a paper on violence?’ I found that I lacked the courage of my cowardice: I would have liked to pull out but couldn’t bring myself to.
At the border young men with machine-guns scrutinised the car and waved us through. The hotel wasn’t far; the entire trip took less than half an hour. Not knowing what else to do I watched Los Simpson on TV for a while. The next morning I identified other conference members waiting for the van: ‘Vida y Resistencia en la frontera norte?’ They nodded. The colegio had armed guards at the gate of its small parking lot. The room we were in had bales of hay in the walls for insulation. It seemed that we were probably not going to be gunned down; this was simply an academic conference. Fear gave way to boredom as I realised I’d signed up for two full days of papers in a language I don’t really understand. At least during the first panel – on the way that cultural exclusion has been internalised – we were shown a series of movie clips, from Chaplin on.
Instead of coffee breaks between panels there were intervenciones artisticas. The first was a classical guitarist, the second a dancer dressed in blue satin who executed extremely precise moves to a bouncy song about ‘La Frontera’. Midway through she danced into the aisle and took an audience-member by the hand; after a half-second’s hesitation the latter allowed herself to be pulled up to the front of the room, as did three others, who were shortly joined by two more volunteers. With no further instruction or encouragement the performer completed her moves with six enthusiastic back-up dancers, all of whom were later to give sociological papers about murder in Ciudad Juárez.
The high murder rate was variously attributed to the culture of masculinity as aggression, and to the North American Free Trade Agreement that invited international companies to set up factories on the border, with young women from all over Mexico going there to work. Many charts were projected onto a screen: drug use, alcohol abuse, bullying, domestic violence. Hundreds or possibly thousands of women have been killed since 1993. The main conflict at the conference seemed to be over whether murders of women in Juárez – feminicidios — should be considered in a separate category from murders of men.
After two days I was driven back across the border by a group of locals from the conference. We stopped for dinner at their favourite Juárez restaurant, but it was closed at 8.30 on a Friday night: everyone is too scared to eat out. We ended up at a bustling place on a wide avenue, with a large terrace filled with people eating and drinking and being serenaded by mariachi bands. Suddenly everything seemed normal. ‘Well this is hardly a sinister scene,’ I said after a few tequilas. ‘Yes, they must have paid off the gangs,’ a friend who teaches in El Paso said. ‘Let’s hope so, because otherwise this is the kind of scene where men with guns show up, just to show that they can.’ Though of course they didn’t.