Border Bike Trip, Day 16: Out in the West Texas Town of El Paso, I Broke My Elbow

We ended up staying in Ciudad Juárez a third night in order to attend a political rally for presidential candidate Maria de Jesus Patricio Martinez, better known as “Marichuy.” The University of Ciudad Juarez hosted the event in a large lecture hall. There was standing room only for the students and press that attended. Local activists kicked us off with an indigenous-style drum line and political rap performance. I couldn’t tell you what any of the lyrics were—none of my translators was on hand at that point—but the assembled indigenous council members, dressed in bright traditional clothes, regarded it with solemn approval.

Marichuy, either 54 or 57 years old, according to differing reports, is a mother of three, a practitioner of traditional medicine—and a Nahua person, whose native language is part of an Aztecan family. She is a protest candidate. The idea that a left-winger outside the mainstream of Mexico’s political system could win the presidency already is far-fetched; given the country’s history, the idea that an indigenous person could win it is ludicrous. But victory isn’t really the goal. The organization behind her, the National Indigenous Congress (CNI), which represents all the indigenous communities throughout Mexico, believes the political symbolism is important.

The CNI was founded by the EZLN, a far-left revolutionary political and militant group commonly known as the Zapatista. In 1994 the Zapatista declared war against the Mexican government and took control of several towns throughout the country. They were quickly defeated and forced back into the jungle, but gained the sympathy of the Mexican people. To this day, they remain armed, potentially dangerous, and therefore independent of the government.

This is the first time the CNI has been able to put up its own candidate. Up until this year’s election, it’s been illegal for independent candidates to run for the Mexican presidency, a restriction the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (part of the Organization of American States) declared unacceptable.

When people go to the polls July 18 they will have a host of candidates to choose from. Marichuy almost certainly won’t be one of them: She must gather more than 860,000 signatures to qualify for the ballot, too much a stretch for someone of her limited reach. But she couldn’t care less. When it came time for questions, Jon asked if she had anything to say to the United States. Her answer, I think, shows she’s transcended the political campaign as we know it.

“We need to organize ourselves against the destruction caused by capitalism and construct a different country that considers all men and women—not just those with money,” she said.

Several months ago Pew released a comparative study of 38 nations across six continents, measuring support for democracy. One of their more depressing, but interesting findings was that just 6 percent of people in Mexico said they were satisfied with their government—less than any other country surveyed. Marichuy won’t win the election, but maybe the fact that she was allowed to try will give certain depressed voters in Mexico hope that change is on the way.

Indigenous presidential candidate Maria de Jesus Patricio Martinez, or “Marichuy,” addresses an audience at the University of Ciudad Juarez. (Photo by Grant Wishard)

After the rally Jon and I crossed into El Paso. I had to withdraw dollars from an ATM to pay Davi for all his time and help these past three weeks, so I ended up walking several miles to different gas stations and back and forth across the border.

Border security between Juárez and El Paso is imposing. Jumping into the United States would involve clambering over a barbed wire fence, crossing the concrete culvert that contains the not-so-mighty Rio Grande, climbing the 30-some-foot border wall, and running across the access road patrolled by CBP vehicles, past the floodlights and cameras spaced at regular intervals.

The port of entry itself is intense. A high bridge with a cage for pedestrians carries you over all the security measures below and commemorates the momentous occasion of passing between the U.S. and Mexico with pairs of flags that you can look up and see through the chain links. I’ve done my best to be too cool for this kind of thing—but I couldn’t resist a selfie when I crossed the first time.

Entering the United States requires identification and quick, non-sweaty answers to a series of questions: How long have you been in Mexico? What was your business there? Do you have anything to declare? Crossing into Mexico requires, in my experience, literally nothing. I saw a few uniformed officers inspecting random cars, but they were outnumbered by the number of people selling souvenirs on the bridge. I watched these merchants stray warily several yards into the United States, like antelope, smart enough to graze just beyond the watching lionesses’ range.

After three weeks in northern Mexico, El Paso cut a striking contrast. When I talked to the mayor of El Paso on the phone while preparing for this trip, he said every time he addresses Congress or the press he always mentions that El Paso is the safest large city in the country. The border has such a bad reputation that nobody believes him, but the city does have much lower rates of violent crime per 100,000 inhabitants than almost all major American cities, per FBI data. El Paso is safe, pristine, and, based on my conversations with people on both sides of the border, has a great relationship with Ciudad Juárez.

Walking from place to place was an incredible experience. The weather was perfect: full sun, white fluffy clouds, and a dry 70 degrees. (Fahrenheit, dammit, finally!)

I was the only one walking around, but the sidewalks were built for a king. The concrete looked like it had just finished drying. There was no dirt in the road or tiger pit-sized holes ready to swallow me up. I could read all the signs. (English, dammit, finally!) Soulless franchises surrounded me on all sides, welcoming me home.

In all seriousness, I felt muscles relax that I didn’t know were tense. I’d never been to El Paso before, but it was familiar and easy. I was home.

Jon and I finished our business across the border and bid a solemn farewell to Davi and Pablo, neither who had visas that would have allowed them to cross.

Our first stop in America was Whattaburger. Both of us were starving, and a take-no-prisoners, high-calorie fast food chain seemed like a fitting way to congratulate ourselves on a job well done (so far). North Mexico doesn’t have many franchises besides the convenience store, OXXO, and the national gas station Pemmex. With the minimum wage at 7 pesos an hour, the best way to make money is to have a family restaurant small enough to illegally avoid taxes. Big corporations, even dollar menu places like McDonalds and Burger King, can’t compete with that kind of entrepreneurial spirit. Coca-Cola is the only American brand we recognized consistently for three weeks. The soda giant has brilliantly provided all the chairs, tables, napkin holders, trays, umbrellas, and everything else a small restaurant could need to its customers. The result is thousands and thousands of eateries across Mexico with nothing in common but the soda selection and a distinctive red and white cursive theme.

But I digress. The sun had set by the time we started pedaling toward a motel, the El Paso Inn. Immediately Jon lost pressure in his back tire. Like every oblivious protagonist, I failed to recognize the literary foreshadowing. We got back on the road.

Turning onto Montana Avenue we got a view of the city and picked up speed going downhill. I heard Jon tell me to take a left. I gave a hand signal to the car in our lane, steered left, and lost control. My front wheel grooved in the new team tracks embedded in the road. I hit the pavement, and Jon hit me. The driver behind us must have been paying close attention because he screeched to a halt five feet from running us both over. I dragged my bike to the curb. I used words my mother doesn’t know I know, but Jon says my first phrase, uttered while lying on my back on the sidewalk, was, “How is the camera, Jon? Is it busted?”

A reluctant Good Samaritan took us and our gear to urgent care in his pickup truck. A full hour after the accident I was insisting I was fine, but then the adrenaline wore off and I had to agree with the medical professionals and their X-rays, which revealed a radial head fracture. My elbow needs to stay in a cast for 6-weeks, but thankfully it won’t need surgery. Doc said it would “hurt like a mother,” gave me some painkillers, and was nice enough to take us to our motel.

The trip is over until I get my trusty ol’ dominant arm back. Rest assured, I appreciate the irony of my tumbleweed impersonation: I survived northern Mexico, one of the most dangerous places in the world, and made it home only to immediately eat pavement. I’m too proud to take my dad’s advice: “training wheels”?

It’s not the glorious ending I imagined, but it was a good stopping point. We completed half the border, as well as all of the miles that we planned to pedal on the Mexican side. If I get a chance to complete the trip, part two will be a grand south Texas adventure along the Rio Grande. If not, I’ll be satisfied with one hell of a ride.

This post originally appeared on Weekly Standard

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