The film “Sicario,” with much of the action set right here in Ciudad Juárez, premiered this weekend. K and I went to see it yesterday. It’s not a bad movie. It keeps you on the edge of your seat. Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, and Josh Brolin live up to their reputations. The director does fantastic things with music, light, and perspective. The critics seem to agree that it’s a good movie. It earned a long standing ovation at the Cannes Film Festival, and it is currently pulling a 93% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I enjoyed the movie, but it also made me a little bit sad.
It’s no secret that Ciudad Juárez has been through some rough times in recent years. The extended war between two of Mexico’s most powerful drug cartels left thousands of Juarenses dead, and even more of them bereaved and orphaned. Everyone was afraid. You never knew what terrible thing you would read in the paper, or who might not show up at work or around the neighborhood the next day. Ciudad Juárez earned the reputation of being the “Murder Capital of the World” and that is the Juárez that is depicted in the film. It’s dark, grim, gory, violent, and wholly unwelcoming.
But that’s not the Juárez that I’ve been getting to know in the three months that I’ve been living here. There is an awful lot that didn’t make it into the movie.
I know a Juárez where neighbors greet each other with a smile and wave to one another as they pull into and out of their driveways. It’s a city where I am daily greeted by a friendly “good morning” or “good afternoon” from complete strangers as I walk down the street. I talk regularly with the parking lot attendants as I walk home from work every day. They aren’t making any money off of me, but they love to shoot the breeze and exchange a few jokes.
I know a Juárez where soccer fans pack the stands in the middle of a torrential rainstorm to jump up and down, sing, dance, shout, and do everything they can to spur their beloved Bravos on to victory.
I know a Juárez where the man who sells burritos out of the trunk of his car remembers what I like to order, and throws a chili pepper in the bag with the order every time, remembering that I said I like some spice.
I know a Juárez in which my Mexican colleagues at the U.S. Consulate show up to work hard every day on behalf of the citizens of a country that is not their own. They kept showing up even during the bad years, when driving your car from home to work sometimes meant taking a risk. They showed up to work when thousands were fleeing the city, and even as they lost colleagues. They have gone through a lot, and have every reason to become bitter and lose hope. Yet they still smile, and graciously help me as I clumsily learn how to do my job.
I know a Juárez that is beautiful, energetic, and resilient, full of people who are beautiful, energetic and resilient. It’s a community whose leaders recognized the problems, and have been working hard ever since to mend them. They’ve been bringing together police, elected officials, non-profit leaders, businesses, citizens, and anyone who wants to participate to figure out how to bring back their city.
The movie made me sad because I know that most of the millions of people who see it will never be able to see the Ciudad Juárez that I know, because they will never come here. They will only know what they see on the screen, and they will allow it to shape what they think the truth is. I suppose I can’t be too critical of them. I have never been to Iraq, Syria, or Afghanistan, but I probably have some preconceived notions of what those places are like based on what I see on the news. Juárez is not perfect*, but it’s also not the horrible place depicted in the movie. The truth is more complex. There is tremendous beauty here, as I know that there also is in the Middle East (see some brilliant insights on this here, here, and many other places as well).
I hope that you reading this (as well as the millions who see the movie) will remember to think critically, and not allow your perspective or judgment of a place to be shaped by what you see on the big screen. Talk to someone who is from one of these places. Go for a visit to somewhere you might otherwise be afraid to. Or at least suspend judgment until you do. Ciudad Juárez, the Middle East, Detroit, Milwaukee, and so many other places that many of us fear are actually treasure troves of wonderful people and experiences waiting to be enjoyed. Just think how many wonderful friendships (and burritos) I might have missed out on had I allowed fear of the border to keep me from coming to come here.
*Crime and violence are still problems, with rates that are comparable to New Orleans or Detroit. The Consulate is pretty strict about security. The house and the office are like fortresses, and there are lots of neighborhoods where we just aren’t allowed to go.