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A lazy day in downtown Chihuahua

We were sitting outside a friend’s shop on the edge of Chihuahua’s central plaza. A few doors down was a restaurant where local mariachi bands played, the singers in enormous sombreros and braided black jackets wailing in glorious anguish over a backing of violins and sobbing trumpets. Between the shows, gangs of off-duty mariachis, resplendent in their gleaming silver buttons and sharply creased trousers, would spill out into the street and hang around the lines of parked cars, furtively glugging beer from fat brown bottles. These they wrapped in sweatshirts or plastic bags to conceal them from the watchful eyes of the police, who do next to nothing to check the dominance of the drug gangs but are ever-vigilant when it comes to enforcing the law that prohibits drinking on the streets. In Mexico you can break any law you like as long as it’s a big law and you do it with a bit of aplomb. In general, the more minor your crimes, the more likely you are to get punished. Although to an extent this is probably true in all countries, Mexico is undeniably more flamboyant about it than most. In a country where El Chapo, the most notorious drug baron in the world, ‘escaped’ from maximum security prison in a laundry cart, most of the police cells are full of men serving their compulsory 36 hours for public drinking.

In the plaza opposite, a young couple canoodled self-consciously under a bronze statue of a man in a 10-gallon hat being bucked off a horse, and cheerful, bun-faced men in the elotes stalls sold steaming cups of sweet corn mixed with cream, cheese, chilli and lime. Above them all, the Angel de la Independencia spread its wings in triumph atop its soaring white column. It was a little smaller and less impressive than the grandiose cousin in the centre of Mexico City on which it was modelled – a fact that Chihuahua had compensated for by arming its angel with a poison-green laser beam which it would fire at random around the city in a casually threatening manner.

Chihuahua sprawled across the arid plain of north Mexico in the easy way that desert towns have: a city that had nothing to hem it in and could allow itself all the space it needed to get comfortable. Its wide streets all ended in views of the surrounding mountains, and it was a rare building that rose over two storeys high. Lines of houses sagged gently along the sides of the roads, painted in sun-faded colours that chipped off around the corners and door frames to reveal the crumbling concrete beneath. To a newcomer, the whole city had a sleepy feel, as if it were permanently three o’clock on a Sunday afternoon and it had slunk off between the rounded brown hills to doze in the sun.

But like so much of northern Mexico, its relaxed appearance concealed a darker reality. Chihuahua was one of the main hubs on the drug-trafficking route that led from the growing areas in the Sierra Madre to the Juárez border four hours’ drive to the north. And although Chihuahua had nothing like Juárez’s bleak, warzone atmosphere or level of senseless brutality, it too was hopelessly tied up in the escalating carnage of the cartel wars. It had a reputation as a lawless, Wild West kind of place where you could be shot on the whim of a bored 15-year-old and local police chiefs crawled obsequiously for the favour of the drug lords.

Despite this, there was something curiously likeable about Chihuahua. The city was well aware of its own reputation and seemed to be constantly acknowledging it with a nod and a sly wink, turning everything about it into a sort of crude parody of itself. Chihuahua was a city with a very Mexican sense of humour.

The door of Jorge’s house was always open, in the welcoming manner of houses where there is nothing to steal. Local landmarks included the gloomy hulk of a disused factory, a pole-dancing club, and a restaurant where six men had been machine-gunned down a few months previously. It was a fairly representative Chihuahua barrio.

The house was a squat grey building. As you walked past it, the pavement started heading uphill but left the house behind on the level below, giving the disconcerting impression that the whole structure was leaning sideways. It had five tiny rooms, a clutter of dusty furniture, and a floating population of inhabitants that ranged from three to however many it was possible to squeeze in.

The first of these was Jorge’s mother, Elena. She rarely spoke, and would shuffle through the house in apathetic silence, avoiding eye contact with those around her. She had a short, shapeless haircut, a shapeless body, and always dressed in shapeless tracksuits in dark colours. The impression was that of a woman who wanted nothing more than to become invisible. Most of the day she sat at the kitchen table, drinking from two-litre bottles of Coca-Cola and drawing on endless cigarettes. Every few hours she would swallow a huge, capsule-shaped pill.

Then there was Gabriela, the eldest of Jorge’s sisters. She was 20, slender and pale, with a quiet manner and sorrowful grey eyes. She had recently gone back to school and was studying hard, but was frail and constantly tired, and when at home would spend most of her time asleep.

Last of the permanent residents was Laura, Jorge’s youngest sister. Only 17 but of formidable stature and hefty build, she was as robust as her sister was delicate and as loud as her mother was silent. One of Hele’s favourite stories of life with the family was of one evening she had been walking home with Jorge and they had bumped into one of his friends, a local guy of about 25, sprinting towards them in a state of wide-eyed terror. Alarmed, they had entreated him to tell them what was wrong, but he had barely managed to stutter a couple of words before hiding behind Jorge in panic as Laura came storming around the corner in pursuit, swinging her sizeable fists and bellowing, ‘CHINGA TU PUTA MADRE, CABRÓN!!!’ (‘Fuck your whore mother, asshole!’) In a region where machismo and marianismo – the idea that a woman should be as subservient and compliant as the Virgin Mary – were still accepted as a matter of course, Laura was a refreshing, if rather intimidating, character.

The occasional residents of the house were an ancient grandmother, who every now and then would materialise in the bed that stood in the darkened recess between the living room and the kitchen, and then vanish a couple of days later as mysteriously as she had arrived; Jorge and Hele, whenever they returned from their frequent travels; and finally, the drunk uncle. He wasn’t, strictly speaking, an inhabitant as he wasn’t allowed in the house, but he spent all day, every day on the pavement outside, drinking relentlessly and accosting anyone who went in or out with interminably long and completely unintelligible rambles.

Some form of drunk uncle was a common feature of the poorer barrios of northern Mexico. Employment opportunities and average wages were so low that many families were forced to function on a trickle-down of wealth. There would be one family at the top (often long-since emigrated to Houston or San Diego or some other city in the southern United States), who would be helping to support the more respectable of their relations south of the border. These relations would have a car, and a house with carpets, and a front door that they closed when not in use. They, in turn, would be helping to support their struggling cousins in barrios such as this one. At the bottom of the pecking order were the drunk uncles, who would loiter outside the houses of their extended family, in the hope of food, or company, or possibly just the reassurance of still having family, even if they were no longer welcome in their houses.

Catriona Rainsford’s book on her two years in Mexico is brilliant. Read the rest of the Urban Circus by buying it.

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