Last week my wife and I went to Juarez. While it was a short hop to our neighbor “sister” city, this was not a trip made lightly. It was subject to a number of “friendly” husband-wife conversations, phone calls with family, and not a little angst. Normally, in years past, this would have been a no-brainer, a short journey to a colorful city where in past years we had spent many afternoons and evenings with friends and families enjoying the unique pleasures of this ancient town. The drug violence of the last several years have totally changed this. Ultimately, we made the journey and we are glad we did.
The purpose was to help our friends celebrate their daughter’s graduation from the University of Juarez (the “Autónoma” or UACJ) held at the Gimnasio Universitario just a few short kilometers inside the city from the border. This was not our first graduation at the Gimnasio, having seen our friends’ oldest daughter graduate as valedictorian from all of Juarez’s public high schools–that daughter went on to be a top ten graduate in business from the University of Texas at El Paso. This day, however, belonged to their youngest daughter who was getting her degree (licenciatura) in nutritional sciences. She was joined by almost 600 of her fellow graduates getting their degrees in such diverse areas as architecture, design & arts, biomedical sciences, and engineering & technology, including masters and doctoral level degrees.
Our friends do not come from a life of wealth and luxury. The mother works as a housecleaner, crossing the border daily–a one to two hour trek, negotiating the concrete and political barriers created by our governments to ensure safety and security, but hampering the more than $390 Billion1 in legitimate annual trade between our two countries. Her husband works as a truck driver moving goods on both sides of the border. They live in one of the more modest barrios of Juarez, working hard to support their young family and looking for a better life for their children than the one they lead. By the looks of the several thousand friends and supporters at the graduation ceremony, they also represented the more modest side of Juarez–Mexico’s notoriously small “middle class”. The wealthy of Mexico do not send their sons and daughters to the local public schools; they attend more prestigious, private universities elsewhere in Mexico or abroad.
The graduation ceremony was not unlike many others I have attended in the U.S. over the years–cap & gowns with colorful school/college colors, appropriate pomp and ceremony with a drum and bugle corps, the city’s symphony and university’s chorale, officials’ speeches about future endeavors, a squirming crowd of family, young siblings and graduates ready to get to the end and move on to other things, a new life. The graduates were lined up by college and degree; each one was announced as they received the piece of paper signifying a major achievement– a degree, perhaps the first in their family. Each was greeted with handshakes from the podium dignitaries, with handshakes and hugs (abrazos) and a turning of their tassels from the faculty. From the stands came joyful noises: cheers from friends and family, sirens, whistles, drum rolls, a happy bedlam that seemed to build as the long lines eventually neared the last of the graduates. Finally, pandemonium did break out and the new graduates cheered, threw confetti, donned silly hats and rushed to find family and friends for more congratulations, photos, and simply smiles of joy and happiness.
As my wife and I waited in the inevitable lines at the international bridge crossing back into the US, I realized that I had witnessed something that while ordinary by normal standards, was extraordinary when seen in the context of the turmoil and violence heaving through Mexico’s border and interior regions. In Juarez alone some 10,500 have died over the past four years, including innocent men, women and children, many having nothing to do with the drug wars that permeate their streets. With quiet patience and courage Juarenses go about their lives, nurturing their families, protecting them as well as possible and believing that a better education will lead to a better life. While only a small fraction of the estimated 1.5 million inhabitants of Juarez, these 600 graduates represent the best in Mexico. They hope for a future that holds promise and opportunity, not only for themselves, but for their neighbors, their city, and the border region. Hopefully the current violence will subside, and these young men and women will become tomorrow’s leaders, driving a more fruitful and beneficial life for all of us living in the border crossroads. They are Mexico’s future. –Paul Maxwell
U.S. Dept of Commerce, Census Bureau, Foreign Trade Statistics, 2011