And still they worry
I am a proud graduate of New Mexico State University, as are my sister and brother before me. Attending NMSU comes with certain…er…traditions. Unavoidable. A right of passage. Integral to one’s education in the relatively sleepy town of Las Cruces.
You see, there ain’t a lot going on in Las Cruces. It’s a lovely town, mild, temperate, a great place to retire. It’s hard to be a fresh-faced college kid of, oh say, eighteen, away from home for the first time and looking to find a little fun. In the U.S., you have to be 21 to get into the clubs, but just across the border, being eighteen gets you in the door.
On that fateful day my parents dropped me off at school, as the engine of our old blue Blazer fired up, my mom admonished me, for about the one millionth time, to “stay away from Juarez“. Convinced, was she, of bad doings and some sort of old fashioned notion of “white slavery” rings running rampant.
I, being the most behaved of the three children in our family did, in fact, stay away from Juarez…at least for a while. But soon enough, the lure was too tempting. “All the kids were doing it”, as they say, and so I loaded up with a group of irresponsible, ne’er do wells that I’d met in the dorms. Off we went careening into the night down I-25 to I-10, slipping through downtown El Paso, parking near the train tracks, walking through a pretty seedy neighborhood, and across the bridge at the Avenue of the Americas, up and over the Rio Grande.
I remember huffing and puffing across the bridge (it’s a fairly steep span), and looking down at the water, thinking it not like any other part of the Rio Grande I’d ever seen. Halfway over the bridge you officially cross into Mexico. We paid our toll on the other end to get through the border station, a few coins, I recall, and then there we were. In another country. The stop signs read “alto” and I wondered what in the hell a kid like me, pretty sheltered in my upbringing, was doing there, and how I’d get home. Nothing that a two dollar bucket of Coronas and a bunch of tequila poppers couldn’t get me past…..
Ah, I remember it clearly now, some twenty years hence, the sharp sound of shot glasses slamming into the wooden bar, non-stop, all night long while crazy disco club music played in the background.
I can’t imagine now, in my adult conservatism, actually walking DOWN the weirdly blown-foam padded-wall tunnel of the place I think was called The Alive that was essentially underground ( : shudder: ). The place next door, I remember, sold yards of beer (the boys always went in for that. I couldn’t drink beer that way, the foam would make me feel claustrophobic). Those places were right over the border. There was a place, farther in, run by a man everyone just referred to as “the albino”. Everyone knew who he was. An American who owned a bar in Juarez and catered to the college kids, even selling a concoction called “The Aggie” that almost no one I knew drank. They also sold these nice poor boy sandwiches that were tasty, and good to help absorb some of the tequila and Corona coursing through the veins.
Luckily for me, I’ve never enjoyed being over the top drunk, and I was just scared enough (thanks to very, very tough parents) that I never let myself get too out of control, fearful of what might happen. School legends of poor treatment at the hands of the Federales ran through my head. What that means, of course, is that I was in charge of my friends who didn’t have the self-control that I tried to have.
I have dragged many a drunk friend over the border, slapped them back to consciousness and demanded they repeat the words “United States Citizen!”, the secret password to get back into the States. I have kicked and smacked at small children who tried to steal the rings off the hand of my friend (I, myself, never wore jewelry when I went to Juarez. That advice, along with “wear shoes you can run in” stuck with me, and I always followed both). I have ridden home in cars with people driving that I knew probably shouldn’t be driving.
And when I think back on how stupid I was, how stupid we all were, I’m thankful, like drop-to-my-knees-and-give-thanks-to-whatever-entity-you-choose thankful that I made it out alive, unscathed, and here to write wistfully about it on the other side.
So what got me to step into the “way back machine” and have a memory jaunt this evening? Well, ABQjournal blogger Bruce Daniels has a piece today titled “Aggies Back in Class”. In it, he references two articles from the Las Cruces Sun News that are printed in keeping with annual traditions. Classes have begun again at NMSU, and with the surge of incoming Freshman, the articles are aimed at keeping kids from slipping across the border and enjoying all the delights the Mexican border town has to offer.
Some kids might heed the warning. Parents will be fearful. And kids will still go. I remember tales while in school of many a kid not making it home. Cars rolled on I-10. Boys who got in fights and were tossed in jail. Friends who got the crap beat out of them trying to cross back over. A lot of scary shit. And still, it won’t keep kids from going. For better or worse, it’s a rite of passage.
I hope, tonight, from the safety of my red couch, that these newbs, these fresh-faced kids, these young folks with everything ahead and little to lose will keep it safe. Enjoy the freedom of being eighteen and away from parental control and explore the bounds of adulthood. Figure out how much tequila is too much, respect yourself enough to get yourself safely home. And most of all, have fun (while wearing shoes that make it possible to run, if necessary).
In a weird way, after all these memories, I crave a shot of tequila topped by Seven-Up, slammed into the bar, rapidly consumed and chased by a cheap Coronita.
By the by…the epilogue to my story is thus…..
It took me many years post-graduation and into adulthood until I finally figured out how my Puritanical mom seemed to know *so* much about Juarez. One day she sheepishly admitted that she and her roommate (my mom lived in Albuquerque when she was eighteen, working as a secretary) used to jump in the car on a Friday afternoon, zoom down to El Paso, find a couple military guys from Fort Bliss, and have themselves a party over the border. I’m sure it was all innocent fun back in the 1950’s, but still kids went across the border to have a little dangerous fun. She knows that during my college years I went to Juarez, but we choose not to talk about such things…….