Hanging tough at the Juárez Market

Kent Paterson

Frontera NorteSur

Under the circumstances, even the most stubborn personalities steeled in adversity would probably call it quits. Inside the corridors of the big marketplace, an odd tranquility reigns as the vendors wait for customers. Outside, the day is broken by the occasional sound of ambulances rushing off probably to attend the latest shooting victim.

“Absolutely nothing,” is how Ruben Cazares describes the pace of business at the Juárez Market. “The number of customers is down by 99 percent.”

Now in his 70s, Cazares has spent his life at the historic, indoor marketplace located on September 16 Avenue, not far from two international bridges that connect with El Paso. Cazares comes off as a proud man. An easygoing and amiable fellow, he shows off a bronze plaque resting in his Spartan office. Dated 1944-45, the heavy object announces the founding of the Juárez Market.

In the good old days, the market was a beehive of activity during the festive days of the Christmas and other holiday seasons.

“We got the merchandise ready, and gave the best prices possible. There were enough people and enough customers for the vendors,” Cazares recalled in an interview. “And the mariachi groups contributed to the national tourism. They played very well.”

With its overflowing stands of piñatas, jewelry, leather goods, blankets, candies and almost anything else that could be crafted by Mexican hands, the Juárez Market was the first taste of Mexican culture many a visiting a gringo experienced. A recent tourism brochure produced by the Chihuahua state government clumsily attempted to recapture the mood of a bygone era:

“In the 50s, when the romantic songs like ‘Viajera’ invaded the radio stations, the ladies wore wide skirts, the men used big shoulder jackets and pour grease on their hair. It was very common to find known northamerican families from El Paso Texas and New Mexico walking throught Juárez’ streets. One of our principal attractions was the Mexican Market where food and home-made ice cream could be tasted.”

Reputedly, Liz Taylor and other celluloid heroes were spotted amid the sights, smells and sounds of a lively place.

Several years ago, the world of the merchants who made their living at the Juárez Market was turned upside down. Cazares depicted what could have been a three-headed rattler that crawled in from the Chihuahuan desert and began striking at the population. Criminal violence, the swine flu scare and economic recession all combined to make a potent economic venom. The once boisterous scenes of singing, eating and drinking that swirled around the outdoor tables on the market’s patio faded into memory.

“We never thought this would happen. We weren’t prepared to receive such heavy blows,” said Cazares, who serves as the market’s general secretary. The crisis affected more than just the market vendors themselves, he said, rippling down the economic chain and slicing into the incomes of commodity middle-men and people from as faraway as Oaxaca who actually make the products sold at the stands. Nowadays, the suppliers rarely come, he added.

According to Cazares, upward of 300 vendors were registered to sell at the market, but most have now looked elsewhere in the city to make a living. With 60 years under his belt in the business, Cazares hangs tough along with about two-dozen other vendors who haven’t abandoned the building and wait for customers to stroll in and shop. Yet the current activities of the longtime Juárez resident and his fellow merchants might be characterized more as guard duty than commercial sales.

“Once the economy improves, they are surely going to return,” Cazares said of other merchants who have temporarily abandoned the premises.

Cazares acknowledged that the Juárez Market has stayed open with the support of the Ciudad Juárez and Chihuahua state governments. “Without this, I don’t think it would be possible to continue here,” he said. “We have faith. We believe the city is going to improve — hopefully before too long.”

In a huge way, Cazares is the eternal optimist. Apart from the million-dollar violence question, the fate of the Juárez Market is tied in with the overall revitalization of downtown Ciudad Juárez, a project which has proceeded in fits and starts under different municipal administrations.

Some businesses on nearby Juárez Avenue are fighting a plan to raze their properties. Persistent rumors claim that casinos are in the works for the zone. Warning of the impact on the already disastrous employment situation, signs posted at the historic Kentucky Club and neighboring businesses protest the possible demolition.

Cazares supports a makeover of the broader downtown district. “There were good intentions, but there were problems with the economy and municipality didn’t have money to continue with this,” he said of the on-again, off-again project. “We think next year, in 2012, the revitalization project will be a probability on Juárez Avenue, on Lerdo Avenue, on September 16 Avenue and over on to the Victoria Building and this market.”

For the moment, though, Cazares, said flesh-and-blood customers are needed at the market more than anything else by local merchants who are hunkering down in the city and attempting to support their families. Although the city is undergoing trying times, visitors to the Juárez Market will  find the stands still brimming with plenty of colorful and eclectic goods.

“We invite people to come visit us,” Cazares said in his friendly voice. “We offer the best price possible.”

Frontera NorteSur: on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news
Center for Latin American and Border Studies
New Mexico State University
Las Cruces, New Mexico

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