Ciudad, Cuidado: the Spanish words for “city” and “Be careful.” They sound so much alike, they could be twins. I think whoever created them was a prophet or a mystic, a Spanish wordsmith who saw 21st century Mexico and wanted to leave a warning for every future resident: Be careful in the city. Ciudad. Cuidado.
I’m 16 and live in El Paso, Texas, right across the Río Grande from Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where every day I hear the distant explosions of drug traffickers’ car bombs and bullets. A river and an unfinished border fence are all that stand between me and the world’s deadliest drug war. Ciudad Juárez is why last year for my Quinceañera, my parents bought me a semi-automatic hunting rifle that can kill a deer, or a man, from 100 yards. Every Saturday I go with my father to the fields outside the city for target practice. Almost every day Mami tells me, “Remember, Sofi: If you see anything in this house that Papi and I didn’t let inside, whether it has four legs or two, take your gun and blast it back to Juárez.”
Narcos murdered over 2,500 people in Ciudad Juárez last year, but the real number has to be higher, because the cartels have ways of disintegrating certain corpses so they’re never found. Some people drink warm milk or count sheep to fall asleep. I count Ciudad Juárez’s dead. Some nights I think it’d be easier to count the infinite stars in the Texas sky.
Tonight I think about my older sister Daniela, who moved to Oklahoma three years ago. She bought a one-way bus ticket to Tulsa, because she’d had enough of El Paso and el torrente sanguíneo, the bloodstream, her nickname for Ciudad Juárez.
I’m remembering Daniela’s voice when I hear a rustling in the backyard. I jump from the bed, grab my rifle, and peer through the window. A guy in blue jeans and a black shirt plucks a head of my mother’s cabbage from the garden. Then he pulls three tomatoes from a vine and slips them all into a backpack.
He’s waited for night to cross the river and flee Ciudad Juárez. Whether he’s a dealer or an innocent man, I can’t say. I flip the safety off the rifle, raise the window and aim at his back. I speak through the darkness and say in Spanish, “I have a gun, and if you make another move, I will kill you.”
The thief drops the bag. In a voice shaking with fear, he says, “No, no, por favor…”
I keep him in my crosshairs, but tell him to keep the food and go. He does, racing into the night.
Only after I put the rifle back do I feel tears streaming down my face. Only then do I look across the river and realize how grateful I am to have seen anybody escape the bloodstream city alive.
published 3 May 2012