There is probably no place on earth where the contrast between the developing world and the major industrial world is so striking than the border between the cities of El Paso, Texas, and Juarez, Mexico. On one side, there is the clean and orderly city of El Paso, that, in spite of its old west reputation, is now statistically the third safest U.S. city of 500,000 or more population. On the other side of the Rio Grande river is Juarez, where crime has become a major preoccupation for the more than one million residents. But, it was not always that way.
There was a time when Juarez was fashionable and fun. American movie stars were among those who came there looking for a quick, cheap divorce back before the Mexican laws were changed in the 1970's. But there was more than divorce - there were bull fights, clubs, music, excitement.
El Paso-based singer/songwriter Tom Russell's latest album "Borderland" contains several songs that explore the culture of the border and the nostalgia for a time when things were better there. "Back in the fifties and sixties, Juarez and El Paso were more linked. It was not a big deal. I mean, the night clubs over there were just as good as the nightclubs here and, in fact, better," he says. "You could make 50 bucks a night playing in a piano bar in El Paso and 100 bucks in Juarez. There was more happening. Everyone went over there to party. Drinks were half price. It was the place to be."
Such well-known American entertainers as Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole once played the clubs of Juarez. Tom Russell's girlfriend's uncle, Tommy Gabriel, used to play piano in Juarez clubs back then. The singer says the idea for one of the songs on his album came from a conversation he had with Uncle Tommy. "I was walking through the pecan orchard one day with Uncle Tommy and he turned to me apropos of nothing and said, 'You know, everything has gone straight to hell since Sinatra played Juarez.' I thought it was a great line. I always remembered it and I built the song around that," he says.
The days when a figure like Frank Sinatra would perform in Juarez are long gone. Although the city has prospered by developing its industrial zones, most of the residential growth has been chaotic and unplanned. Tens of thousands of people from impoverished areas farther to the south in Mexico have come to Juarez seeking jobs in assembly plants known as maquiladoras. For the most part, they live in shantytowns in the dusty hills, where there is no sanitation and no running water.
Meantime, drug traffickers and immigrant smugglers ply the border area and crime runs rampant. Shootings, even in broad daylight at busy intersections, have become commonplace in Juarez. In the past several years there have been over 500 drug-related murders and over 300 disappearances.
That is why Tom Russell says Uncle Tommy and many other El Pasoans no longer cross the bridge into Juarez even for a visit. "He has not been over there in ten years because of the drug wars and the shootouts that have gone on in the last ten years," he says. "It is quite impoverished over there and it is quite dangerous and it is just for the fact that there may be a million and a half people over there. It is quite crowded and there is a huge amount of poverty."
Tom Russell crosses the bridge all the time, hanging out often at the Kentucky Club known in his song as "the old Kentucky bar." He thinks the fear of going into Juarez is exaggerated and he has found a great source of creative inspiration among his Mexican friends. Still, his song expresses the sense of loss that is felt not only by people like Uncle Tommy, but also by many people south of the border who can only dream of the way it used to be back when Sinatra played Juarez.