By Lauren Villagran/El Paso Times
Kelly Maing, 46, has spent much of her life working in the Downtown El Paso clothing store started 33 years ago by her parents, who emigrated from South Korea.
“See how sad it is? It’s so quiet,” she said on a recent weekday, wearing a blue work apron and a face mask. “We’re basically surviving. … A lot of stores closed.”
The store she manages, Pinochio, sells an array of women’s purses, necklaces, bracelets, other accessories and clothing. She and other Korean American store owners on South El Paso Street catered to Mexican customers, who regularly crossed the Paso del Norte, or Santa Fe, bridge connecting the downtown shopping districts of El Paso and Juárez.
Under normal circumstances, about 22,000 shoppers per day visited El Paso from northern Mexico, according to pre-pandemic survey data by the city of El Paso International Bridges Department.
They accounted for as much as 14% of total retail sales in El Paso, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. In 2019, that translated into $1 billion in what are known as “retail exports.”
The loss of those sales hit Downtown shops especially hard.
Maing said about 80% of her sales before the pandemic were to Mexican customers, including many Juarez business owners who bought merchandise for their own stores, she said.
“We don’t make money without them,” Maing said.
Although many of Maing’s customers have been texting her to confirm that the bridges really are reopening on Nov. 8, she’s anxious.
“The worry is we’re expecting so much,” she said, “but we might get disappointed.”
Cindy Ramos-Davidson, chief executive officer for El Paso’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said retailers are expressing a mix of excitement and skepticism.
Could there be another border closure at the last second? Will there be enough products for the shoppers visiting from Juárez? Will they return in the numbers from before?
“Right now, retailers in that arena are really scrambling on where to get certain products that they would normally be in abundance with during this time,” Ramos-Davidson said. “But they are apprehensive to take a risk to rank up because they weren’t sure that the border would open because it’s been closed for 19 months.”
Children crossing on their own
El Pasoan Maritza Lozano, 27, said she worries every school day about her 15-year-old cousin, a U.S. citizen and El Paso High sophomore who has been crossing the bridge from Juárez alone since in-person classes came back in session.
“My uncle used to get up early to take her but now she has to find a way to come walking by herself,” Lozano said. “She sometimes stays with me. And right now that it’s getting cold, I tell her she should stay.”
The border restrictions forced many U.S. citizen children to grow up fast, as they found themselves crossing the border on their own, responsible for getting themselves to school.
Lozano worries during the gap when her cousin is out of touch, waiting in the Santa Fe bridge line inside the customs house, where cellphone use is prohibited. She worries about her cousin crossing busy streets Downtown and taking the city bus to school.
“I’m always texting her, asking her ‘ya cruzaste?‘ or where are you?” she said. “I know sometimes they don’t let you use your phones.”
Lozano said it’s been hard for her extended family to be divided physically and not able to see much of each other, as well.
“My aunt lives over there by herself. She got depressed about three weeks ago and was taken to the hospital,” she said. “So now my cousin has been staying over there so (her mother) won’t be alone.”
Diverging pandemic strategies
When the U.S. Department of Homeland Security announced the border restrictions on March 20, 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic was plunging the world into uncertainty over a deadly and unpredictable virus. Authorities on both sides of the border quickly followed the restrictions with stay-at-home orders and mask mandates.
But the neighbors’ strategies to fight the pandemic soon diverged, creating friction in the Borderland.
Drawing on seemingly limitless resources, the United States relied on testing and, eventually, massive distribution of vaccines to curb the virus. Slow to buy vaccines in a competitive global market, Mexico used the blunt tools of business shutdowns, restrictions on large gatherings and mask mandates. The inequality came to bear this spring, when Juárez faced a wave of contagion even as El Paso was vaccinating residents by the thousands per day.
Mexicans in the Borderland 18 and older gained access to shots over the summer, thanks in part to U.S. vaccine donations to Mexico and local efforts to vaccinate Juárez factory workers at the Tornillo port of entry.
“There should be lots of lessons learned,” said. U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, who has called for a unified binational strategy to fight pandemics. “We have to create standardized policies to keep the public health interest at the forefront.”
Return of a binational weekend ritual
Mike Santillanes used to rise early on weekends and bike from his home in Juárez to the Bridge of the Americas. There he would meet other Mexican cyclists to ride across the bridge into the United States. They would pick up more cyclists along Copia Street in El Paso and then start their training ride.
Santillanes, 28, has been a competitive road and mountain cyclist for eight years. Better roads and bigger mountains drew him to El Paso.
“The hardest part of being a cyclist in Juárez is the traffic,” he said. “The driving culture in the United States is a little more respectful than in Mexico.”
It has been nearly two years since Santilles, 28, has practiced this binational weekend ritual, and he said he misses the camraderie of the mixed-nationality group. Some of his El Paso friends have crossed to ride in Juárez during the pandemic, but others he has not seen since early 2020.
But when the bridges reopen, Santillanes won’t be making the trek to El Paso. Like thousands of other juarenses whose border crossing cards expired during the pandemic, Santillanes is waiting on the U.S. Consulate in Juárez to renew his visa.
The backlog of visa applications has pushed consular appointments well into 2023.
Once his visa is renewed, he wants to ride over Transmountain gap of the Franklin Mountains, a challenging route that climbs over 2,000 feet.
“It will be great to be able to cross back over,” he said. “We’ve already done all the routes here in Juárez and are ready for a change.”
Family, church visits on the horizon
News of the reopening stoked a flurry of activity in Juárez, as people hunted down their border crossing cards, unused since March 2020, or readied paperwork to renew their visas. Those who will be able to cross made plans to see loved ones in the United States or make their first trips to favorite stores like Walmart, the Cielo Vista Mall or the Ross Dress for Less discount store affectionately known by juarenses as “La Ross.”
Currency exchange houses around Juárez advertised their rates in red and green blinking lights, 19 or 20 pesos to the dollar — the Mexican currency near a record low.
At Grupo Francie storefronts, people lined up with folders and documents in hand, hoping the provider of U.S. and Mexican passport and visa services could get their border crossing cards renewed.
Sergio Tejeda, an industrial engineer, waited outside the Grupo Francie in a strip mall in central Juárez to renew his border crossing card.
“I have family over there,” he said, “My mother, my brothers. They come here but not very often.”
Manuela Castañeda, 63, rattled off her wish list of what she’ll do when the border reopens: go shopping, travel, visit her family. She has close cousins living in Las Cruces that she can’t wait to see. She’ll give it a few days, though, she said.
“We’ll see how the situation is” at the border, she said.
Juárez resident Olga Beatriz Lugo has been crossing the border with her visa on school days to bring her daughter to the Lydia Patterson Institute in the Segundo Barrio, something CBP has tolerated since students are considered “essential.”
But what Lugo is really looking forward to, she said, is crossing again on Sundays to attend church at the Abundant Living Faith Center in El Paso. Sundays were her day to practice her faith and relax into the security she feels in El Paso, she said.
She misses her church community, she said.
After these challenging two years, she said, “what we all need more than anything now is God.”
The ‘small life’ of the border
How U.S. Customs and Border Protection manages the reopening could determine what of “normal” Borderland life is restored and what may be lost, said Joe Heyman, director of the Center for Inter-American and Border Studies at the University of Texas at El Paso.
CBP officials warned last week that travelers should expect longer-than-normal wait times at ports of entry.
El Paso’s CBP field office has been training new customs officers during the pandemic, often doubling up new hires to learn from experienced officers on Sundays. Still, visa holders are being asked to show their COVID-19 vaccination cards, and that will likely slow down border traffic.
It is the crossing that makes this community distinctive, Heyman said. When legitimate border crossing is made difficult — as it often was during the Trump administration and as it has been throughout the pandemic — people tend to stay on “their” side.
“What is lost is the everyday normal, the ‘small’ life of the border,” Heyman said.
The visit to see a cousin in El Paso. The cup of coffee or night out with friends in Juárez. The shopping trip to the mayoreo y menoreo wholesale and retail shops Downtown. The run for a jalapeño Whataburger. Sundays with la abuelita in Juárez.
“The ‘small life’ is only small in each individual act,” he said, “but collectively it adds up.”
Cristina Carreon, Maria Cortes Gonzalez, Anthony Jackson, Vic Kolenc, Trish Long and Martha Pskowski contributed to this report.
Cover photo: Bertha Armendariz, a U.S. visa holder, will have an opportunity to cross into the U.S. to attend a Ricky Martin concert as the border reopens Monday to Mexican citizens. (Omar Ornelas/El Paso Times)