08/05/2013 05:19 pm ET Updated Oct 05, 2013

Detroit Is America's Ciudad Juarez

Even before there was a war in Ciudad Juarez, I remember that Juarez, like much of the border in my childhood '90s, had the feel of a war zone -- sublime, heavy, preternaturally charged in its own, unique way. Few other places resonate with the same kind of intensity as Ciudad Juarez. As a child, I swear you could actually feel it, this buzzing tinnitus that framed even the most innocuous of moments: shopping at the Soriana with your mother; watching the Simpson's in black and white with your too many cousins; drinking hot coffee in the morning first thing out of bed, your throat already ignited with morning thirst; the long drives around the periferico; graffiti on the walls outside the car window; young boys and men (and girls) walking to nowhere in particular. It wasn't until I visited Detroit for the first time that I rediscovered this feeling all over again.

Like most young writers/artists/creators who entertain the idea of moving to Detroit, I visited for all of the reasons Patti Smith told me to and also because I'd found a house for one dollar through a Re/Max agent on the Internet. I called to ensure the price wasn't a misprint. The agent never called me back but his secretary did. "Yes, the house is really for one dollar," she said, "but of course there will be filing fees. A $1,000 deposit and then a $240 inspector fee. You'll need to make repairs, of course," she said. "Some of the houses have solid foundations but mostly they're shells, you know. No back taxes, nothing like that. Altogether, it'll set you back maybe $1,500. Would you like to start the process right now?"

If her canned spiel sounded tired, it's because it was. I asked her, frankly, how many calls like mine she'd typically field in a single day. "Too many," she said and left it at that.

The list she sent me was over 30 pages long. I ticked off my potential homes as I drove, choosing the homes I thought sounded best by the street names they were on, street names that my fiancé would maybe like if I told her I'd spontaneously bought us a house in Detroit: Elmhurst, Cherrylawn, Caldwell, Iris Street.


It would be foolish to say that Ciudad Juarez and Detroit are in the same boat -- they're not -- though it's undeniably true that they're similar. Both are border cities, both rank near the top in most violent cities in the world (Ciudad Juarez at #19 and Detroit at #21), and both, in their own right, are victims of globalization under NAFTA , a trade agreement ratified in 1994 by Canada, Mexico, and the United States that eliminated trade tariffs between the countries in an effort to spur economic growth through trade.

Under NAFTA, The United States and Canada hoped that the purchasing power parity between their own currencies and Mexico's Peso would allow their respective multinational corporations to manufacture goods on Mexican soil for cheap, while at the same time being able to export to goods, tariff free, within the NAFTA trade bloc to bolster profits via the Multiplier Effect. Mexico, in turn, hoped that the agreement would eliminate tariffs on its own exports while at the same time joining an already extant trade bloc between the United States and Canada in order to hedge the fluctuating Mexican Peso against other world currencies while, at the same time, bringing jobs to Mexican soil.

So, what could go wrong?

Ask any Mexican farmer whose bushels of corn or gallons of milk couldn't compete with subsidized U.S. produce; ask any United Auto Worker union member in Detroit where his or her jobs has gone and you'll likely get a better idea.


Back on the road, my F-150 lumbers into Dearborn, Michigan, my tank nearly empty. I liked the idea of coming full circle, of bringing Fat Elvis (I call her Fat Elvis) back to the place she was made. Dearborn. My father drove a pickup. My grandfather too. For a lot of Mexicans it's a status symbol I guess you could say. Manual labor is still strong in my own family. You're either driving the pickup to the worksite or you're not.

I stop to eat at Tasty Pizza on Ford road. This could be my pizza joint, I think. This could be my dry cleaners. This could be my grocery store. What would my grandfather say about all of this? Homeownership. Suburbia. An F150 right up next to the plant in which it was built. Tasty Pizza.

I spread out the pages of home listings over the nicked and lacquered tabletops of the pizzeria. The teenaged kid who brings me my slice looks at me with this kind of apprehension, like he wants to say something but can't. I can only imagine he's seen this scene a thousand times before -- some schmuck with these papers spread out, looking for a home. "What is it?" I ask, probably too forcefully. In his awkwardness, he blurts out what we've both secretly been thinking all along. "I wouldn't do that," he says like some problem-child line from the movies.

I hand him the 30 pages, which he takes between his floury fingers. He ticks off all the properties that are absolutely out of the question. "This might be a good one," he says and circles a house selling for five thousand dollars. "Or this one. Maybe this one. This is by where I live, kind of," he says. "It's probably a safe bet."

I call the Re/Max agent and he tells me that he'll meet me at the property in 25 minutes but he never comes.

When I get to the house the boy circled, I'm surprised to find that it is barely standing. The paint is nearly chipped off. The home is all jagged slats that look like splintered teeth splayed every which way. Inside the house the walls are gone, the copper piping stripped from inside the plaster. The roof sags. The walls leak. The windows whistle with their untempered glass hanging jagged on the pane, the wind just pushing through without every lifting so much as a speck of dust.

And in the front yard I wait and wait, that feeling creeping back again, that feeling I'd always thought was so unique to Ciudad Juarez. I hush those feelings in my gut. I try to stymy that tinnitus building momentum between my ears. This is not Juarez, I tell myself. This is not Juarez. But then what if it is? Or if not, then what if it's something similar? An American Juarez? It could happen here too, I think.

It's just before dark when I decide that I decide to leave. My wheels turn past all of the road debris that crunches and pops beneath my tires: blue bottles of dot 3 steering fluid, Styrofoam cups, U.S. Postal Service boxes cartwheeling in the wind.

My gas light flips and I stop for fuel. I'm the only one there besides a group of teenaged boys, three pumps down, filling up milk jugs with gasoline. One of them barks at me. The others bark too. This is not Juarez. This is not Juarez.

I watch as they cross the street to an overgrown park. I watch them pour gasoline over the playground. I watch them as they set the whole damn thing ablaze, just about the same time the stars come out. It's true that even in some cities you can see stars.

This piece is a creative reflection on the realities of NAFTA's economic impact on two cities. It is a creative take on a true story.