Once the Mexican customs house in Ciudad Juárez, this building at the corner of 16 de Septiembre and Avenida Benito Juárez now houses the Museum of the Border Revolution. (Photo courtesy of Jose Felix Garcia under Creative Commons license. License details below)
Museum holds treasures of border history
Next, month Ciudad Juárez’s new historical-cultural gem will celebrate its first anniversary. Built as part of the 2010 Bicentennial/Centennial commemoration of the 1810 War of Independence and 1910 Revolution, the Museum of the Border Revolution (Muref) offers visitors a unique glimpse of Mexico’s early 20th century revolutionary upheaval, especially the strategic role Ciudad Juarez played in events that transformed a nation.
Housed in the 122-year-old customs building in downtown Ciudad Juárez, the museum is administered by the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH). Still a work-in-progress, the Muref is supported by a combination of public and private sector funds.
Inside an elegantly-crafted structure set alongside the city’s railroad tracks, visitors will relive part of the history that ushered in a new era for Mexico. Old photographs, letters, films, interactive exhibits and more bring to life personalities such as General Pascual Orozco, a Chihuahuan revolutionary who was instrumental in the revolution’s early years and, of course, the better-known Francisco “Pancho” Villa.
Perhaps if anything stands out in the museum, it’s the rich array of photographs that document the bloody conflict. And similar to contemporary times, the images and stories of foreign journalists included in the museum’s collections constitute an indelible part of the historical record of a pivotal era when violence made international headlines and formed popular, global impressions of a troubled nation.
The 1910 Revolution, said Ciudad Juárez historian Alfredo Salazar, “was the most photographed revolution” until the time. A volunteer guide and cultural promoter for the museum, Salazar generously gave his time and insights to FNS on a recent day.
The most important photo in his institution’s treasure trove, he said, is not one of battlefield carnage but of a huge scene of solemn-looking group of men captured in stark, black and white. Taken as the rebel army overthrew the long dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz in 1911, the photo shows Venustiano Carranza, Francisco Villa, Pascual Orozco, Francisco Madero, the Italian internationalist Garibaldi assembled in temporary unity.
In one way or another, the group depicted in the photo would shape Mexico for decades to come, sometimes as allies and sometimes as enemies.
Ciudad Juarez, and specifically the 1911 fight over the city, also has a surprising place in early cinematic history. Among its treasures, the museum has a 101-year-old film that details battle damage to buildings. In one scene, viewers can see the Asarco smelter just across the Rio Grande in El Paso. Back then, the now-mothballed smelter had four stacks instead of the two towering ones that still dominate the borderland’s skyline in anticipation of a possible, upcoming demolition.
The Battle of Ciudad Juarez, El Paso historian David Romo told FNS, was “decisive” in the initial stage of the revolution. The defeat of Diaz’s forces by the pro-Madero army, coupled with the border city’s sensitive location that made it vulnerable to U.S.-based influences, convinced the old strongman that his time had finally come, Romo said.
“It toppled the government. Juarez was such a strategic point in terms of bringing in weapons into the country, Porfirio Diaz felt like he couldn’t sustain the government, ” the borderland scholar and author said.
In a chapter of history unknown to most US citizens, El Paso was an integral part of the Mexican Revolution in many ways, not the least of which was arms smuggling.
“El Paso profited from the Mexican Revolution. It went through an economic boom because of the arms trade,” Romo said. An example of the profiteering, he added, was the dealings of El Paso Chamber of Commerce President Adolph Krakauer, who sold barbed wire to government forces and wire-cutters to rebels.
“The history of El Paso and Juarez are united. You can’t separate it,” Salazar said. And as Salazar’s own personal experience attests, the same could be said of the U.S. and Mexico in general. Salazar once worked processing pollock, cod, king crab, tuna, and salmon in Alaska. His Mexican hands helped ensure that the plates of sea-food crazy gringos were kept full. According to Salazar, Mexicans also worked the small fishing boats which undertook hazardous expeditions in profit-plentiful but fatally freezing waters.
“It’s very dangerous. Every year, people fall overboard and aren’t recovered,” Salazar recalled. Nowadays, the history specialist witnesses a kind of reverse migration. A trickle of U.S. visitors, especially Chicanos from California, has visited the museum searching for their “identities” and roots, he noted.
Apart from the 200 or so local school children who tour the Muref every day during the week, the building has hosted a number of highly-organized and well-prepared tour groups from Europe and Brazil, according to Salazar. The INAH estimates that more than 70,000 visitors strolled through the Muref’s doors from May 2011 to early March 2012.
So far, few neighbors from El Paso or New Mexico have made the trek to see the exhibits. The big reason is the criminal violence that’s ripped apart Ciudad Juarez since 2008, and even Salazar’s own brothers who reside in El Paso are fearful to visit their home town, he chuckled. In 2012, the violence is significantly lower than 2011 or 2010, but still considerably above pre-2008 levels.
“There are more people in the streets, less deaths, even though the economy still isn’t good. Many businesses have closed,” Salazar said. “We go out with more tranquility.. there’s still a ways to go but it’s better.”
For Romo, who’s collaborated with the INAH on such projects as the now-mobile Museo Urbano, Ciudad Juarez’s modern violence has reaped much more than the obvious physical and economic destruction. Much less discernible at first, years of mayhem have severely weakened the cultural umbilical chord between two sister cities.
Romo remembered the time not too long ago when easier border crossings cemented a closer collaboration between educators, artists and activists. And even on a mundane level, the simple act of going from El Paso to Juarez and interacting with the common people constantly reinforced a dynamic cultural bond in language, culture, food and the constant making of the fronterizo, or borderlander. “You’re losing the daily routine of reasons why people went to Ciudad Juarez,” Romo observed.
Despite the trying times, Ciudad Juarez’s Museum of the Border Revolution plans to weather the storm and attract visitors from this side of the border.
Located near the intersection of Avenida Juarez and 16 de Septiembre, the museum is open from Tuesday to Sunday. Admission is free. A guided tour and theatrical performance have been part of Sunday’s schedule. For upcoming special events, interested persons can check the Muref’s website at muref.org. Photos of the museum and its collections can also be viewed on the Muref’s Facebook page.
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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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