Distance 271 miles
Elevation 3,740 feet
Population El Paso 844,480 metro
Population Ciudad Juárez 2.5 million metro
Notable For the largest bilingual and binational work force in the Western Hemisphere
Downtown Juárez still feels gutted since the demolition of its nightclubs and the shuttering of so many businesses and markets, but among the ruins you can experience—if, I will stress, you have a Juarense to guide you—a lively community trying to find itself and its sense of vitality and ownership over the space again. We had several Juarense friends-of-friends who showed us the museum, the bars, the restaurants, Juan Gabriel’s house. They made sure we had change to cross back across the bridge, and they knew to pay the men who appeared on the street asking for money to watch the car. (Without them, the battery might get stolen while you ate dinner, we were told.) These locals knew instinctively what streets to turn down and what streets not to turn down. Juárez is no longer the most dangerous city in the world, and I don’t want my advice here to sound too American or hand-wringing, but having talked with people who have lived in and watched the city as it was taken over by cartels, as its streets continue to be haunted by femicides (gender motivated murders memorialized by pink painted squares with white crosses on them all over the city), it’s important to remember not to cross the border lightly.
This is a heavy place. As one Juárez artist told us, it’s badly in need of gentrification—not something you hear every day. But the kind of gentrification it needs—people to move there, to start businesses, to fill in the long-empty spaces downtown—has to be, the artist specifies, a gentrification with an awareness of the existing community that has experienced so much disruption and displacement. What it likely does not need is any attempt to make it more aesthetically pleasing from the outside, like when the residents of Sunset Heights in El Paso took it upon themselves to “donate” paint to the neighborhood in Juárez that was visible from where they lived, so it could be painted in bright colors. Rather, it craves an influx of people who will come in with a consciousness of the space they take up, who will coexist rather than displace, and I would argue that this same consciousness ought to be demanded of any tourist or visitor coming to Juárez.
El Paso, a much smaller, quieter city, represents a haven to some Juarenses seeking better educations, jobs, or safer neighborhoods in which to live. Of course, not everyone can cross freely between the two cities, but many do on a daily basis for work or school, even when 9/11 or, more recently, the U.S. president’s random threats, caused the wait in line to stretch to three hours or more. El Paso and Juárez, for a long time part of the same country, were never really meant to be divided, and those who live in either city live double lives. Code switching is part of the lexicon: between English and Spanish, between allegiances and citizenships, between a perceived safety and a sense of fear. For a city of its size, El Paso’s own contemporary art scene is still emerging, and its artists and galleries crave critical attention, as do those of so many cities in the southwest. Despite the lack of awareness with the scene on the part of critics from major art centers, the artists and projects I encountered in the Borderplex signaled a more active, political, and meaningful engagement with real people and issues than I have seen anywhere else lately. It’s time to start paying attention, not to the news stories that float our way when the border is being used as a political bludgeon, but to the voices of the people and communities in this region who badly need amplifying.
Azul Arena Magazine
El Paso and Juárez have a brand new quarterly arts and culture magazine to call their own. Beautifully designed, their first issue includes a local historian’s perspective on efforts to save a series of murals under a Spaghetti Bowl interchange and a profile of Cassandro, a lucha libre (professional wrestling) superstar.
El Paso Museum of Art
One Arts Festival Plaza, El Paso
Senior Curator Kate Green and Assistant Curator Kevin Burns, who met me at the Tap, a fantastic dive bar in downtown El Paso, have been working to bring new perspectives on art and on the region to Borderplex residents. Housing the second-largest collection of retablos in the U.S., the museum has a beautiful show of retablos up through May 12, Joy and Suffering, which shows how retablos santos were used in the home, while ex-votos occupied a more public, commemorative function. I’m most excited to see the museum’s collection reinstalled in 2020, and I’m eagerly anticipating Clandestino, an exhibition by Juárez-based collective Animales de Poder that examines the secretive, transactional ethos that undergirds the movement of people and goods across the border, what the group calls “narcofuturism” (opening March 2020). The EPMA continues to organize the Transborder Biennial; its next iteration will occur in 2020 and is not to be missed.
Unnamed Feminist House
and Art Venue
Though this space is frequently open to the public for art exhibitions, performances, concerts, and flea markets, when we visited, it was closed. Luckily, one of the residents let us in to explore and to see the remains of an art-deco mansion that has been taken over by artists and activists.
Galería Cinco Puntos
822 N Piedras street, El Paso
Alchemy of Light and Dark Moments: Federico Villalba, Ricardo Castro, Vallarie Enriquez and her husband Arturo M. Enriquez, Estrella Posada, Barry Levine, and Patrick Craig
A delightfully small space, Galería Cinco Puntos occupies the vestibule of a building and its cave-like basement. When we visited, a show of over one hundred photos by seven El Paso/Juárez photographers covered the walls with seven distinct perspectives on visual culture in the cities. Its five founders, Jacqueline Aguirre, a journalism student at UTEP; Carlos Humphreys, a local community college librarian; Javier Hernandez, an auto shop mechanic; Eddie Reyes, local filmmaker; and Aryk Gardea, an SFAI alum, used to meet at a neighboring coffee shop and wanted to find a way to utilize the space next door. Alchemy came down in mid-April, but their next show, Gráfica Migrante, opens April 25, 2019. It features Puro Borde, which is a project run by Aron Venegas and ten other printmaking artists that brings artwork done by people who do not have visas to travel from Mexico or vice-versa, and the exhibition travels to a destination of the group’s choosing.
Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juárez
Avenida Lincoln y Coyoacán s/n,
Cromática by Tania Candiani, through June 16, 2019
A stunning, strange building locals call the spaceship, the Museo de Arte de Ciudad Juárez is a work of art unto itself. Seeing Cromática, a show about the making of color pigments for dyeing textiles, was heightened by the space: its glowing amber-colored dome that allows for incredible echoes, which enhanced the several sound components of the show, and the color and clarity of the natural light on the undyed and dyed wool. It’s a small museum, and the show felt intimate because of that—and also because we were allowed to touch many of the installations. I ground a red pigment on a stone, leaving a pile of blood-colored powder on the floor and staining my fingertips like I’d been eating blackberries. The work centered on the labor as well as the materiality of color. I’m eager to see another show in this enchanting space.
2812 N Piedras Street, El Paso
Ale Carrillo-Estrada: Itinerant Dialogues
(through May 10, 2019)
When I first saw Ale Carrillo-Estrada’s Itinerant Dialogues, the works felt almost too sweet, too gentle for the subject they engaged. Jewelry-like metal ladders climb the sides of a ten-inch-high metal wall that winds through one room of the gallery, perched in sand. Some ladders have fallen or become buried in the sand, suggesting a failed attempt to cross. Many are curved or rounded, looking both handmade and frail, fragile. The ladders come from both sides of the wall, as though crossing is a mutual desire, a reciprocal process. In another room, one of these ladders has grown to life size, its rounded metal parts less jewelry-like but still soft. The ladder leans against a wall, the top of which has been covered with images of a blue sky. A climb to freedom, heaven, a new life, or sheer upward mobility. Envelopes addressed to the artist cover a table, labeled “correspondence with refugees.” Again, the delicate materiality, the in-betweenness of an unopened letter, like a ladder, suggests a connection almost forged, or an attempted outreach. Some of my favorite works in the show were huipiles made of metal, which looked more like miniature fashion statements than the armor you might expect them to conjure. Carrillo-Estrada works in jewelry, metalsmithing, and performance, and I’m excited to see where her work takes her. Xolo Gallery, a new space, has ambitions to create a focus on emerging artists in El Paso.
various locations, El Paso
When we crossed back across the bridge that spans the empty Rio Grande between El Paso and Juárez, to our right we saw a large group of people standing outside in the cold. They were behind chain-link fencing, and many were wrapped in foil blankets. These are the migrants we hear so much about, those who have managed to present themselves to U.S. Border Patrol as asylum seekers (despite a recent extension of the border onto the Mexican side of the bridge, where agents attempt to prevent asylum seekers from having an opportunity to declare themselves). Annunciation House works to house migrants who have been released from detention centers, and this year they purchased a warehouse, which gives a sense of the number of people affected. To make the space more hospitable, Annunciation House organized several work parties in the new building the weekend we were in town, with artists creating murals and volunteers painting the walls. Artists are being asked to donate prints for the walls of the space to make it more welcoming—reach out to @kateggreen and @kerrydoyle2010 on Instagram to participate.
various locations, El Paso
and Ciudad Juárez
How do you take back a city? Public art is one way. Over and over, Juarenses told me there are no art galleries or art spaces in Juárez. Those that pop up don’t last, and public space can’t be used the way it is in most cities. Art openings would be viewed by police as parties to break up. This hasn’t stopped public art in the form of murals and the work of collectives (nor has it shuttered the art museum). Our new friends insisted that we see the mural of Juan Gabriel, a pop star and the still-beating heart of Juárez, before we go to karaoke (where most of the songs chosen by locals were his). The 480-square-foot mural by Arturo Damasco is lit by night, changing the whole tone of the neighborhood where it perches. In a city whose nightlife has been stolen from it by the cartels and the ensuing crackdown on all activity, Gabriel gives off an almost guardian-angel-like presence and offers an overwhelmingly positive, shared offering of joy to residents and visitors.
At the Armijo branch of the El Paso Public Library (620 E 7th Street, El Paso), you’ll find, tucked in a sort of interior courtyard, a massive mural by Carlos Callejo called Discover the Secrets of the Universe through Your Library. The library was built around this mural to preserve it, and the mural depicts Indigenous people and artifacts in space.
The Kalavera Culture Shop (601 N Oregon Street, El Paso) is a new space that caters to public artists, selling affordably-priced supplies, creating community and offering public art bike tours with Cimi, Jesus “CIMI” Alvarado, a prominent local graffiti artist.
Literarity (5411 N Mesa St, El Paso) is a fantastic bookstore filled with small press and local author titles as well as classics and more mainstream favorites. The owner seems to know every person who walks in the door.
Food + Drink + Lodging
325 N Kansas Street, El Paso
In a building that once housed the 1960s Downtowner Motor Inn, Hotel Indigo is modern but cozy, and if you visit at an off season, you might just get upgraded to a suite!
Hotel Paseo del Norte
114 El Paso Street, El Paso
Currently under renovations, this Trost & Trost building has a stained glass dome and a long history (which includes visitors “watching” the Mexican Revolution across the border from its roof).
1201 N Oregon Street, El Paso
I’ve visited El Paso twice, and I’ve eaten at Savage Goods both times. Centrally located, serving incredible breakfast burritos and doughnuts, this is a perfect spot to start the day.
408 E San Antonio Avenue, El Paso
A great place in downtown El Paso to grab a beer and some chips and salsa after visiting the museum.
Calle Constitución 179 Sur, Ciudad Juárez
While my friends claimed the steak was to die for, I was delighted by a vegetarian feast: nopales, quesadillas con hongos, guacamole, and tortillas made by hand in front of me.
A fluffy gray and white dog carried through customs, while actual human beings were caged outside.