Singularity | Commentary

Wondering what the future might look like? Take a look at Juarez, Mexico, just across the border from El Paso — though it seems like another world.

The Millennium Cucaracha by Lucius Shepard

Here in the United States, we are insulated from much painful reality. Though sections of our nation’s cities are terrifying, bloody places, we have achieved a philosophical distance from bloodshed and terror. The images we see on computer and television screens of mutilated corpses and unbearable poverty and pitiless oppression, of a world in which ruthlessness is environmental, as unwavering and powerful a constant as the shining of the sun . . . they seem to come from far away, and we feel toward them a certain nostalgia. Perhaps we recall similar images from a war in whch we once fought; or perhaps we remember the violent stories of a father, an uncle, an older brother; or perhaps we have read about such things in a book, or seen them in a movie. They are not, it seems, our images; they belong to a world whose fate we believe we have escaped, and thus we perceive them as a sort of grievous theater, tragedies afflicting men and women so removed from our conceptual base, they might be occurring in another part of the galaxy, rising to us like bubbles from the imponderable depths of the universe-ocean atop which we float.

But in truth, the source of these images is not far away at all, and the tide of affliction that has flooded the greater part of the world is already lapping at our feet.

Economists and other social scientists point to charts and figures and statistical verities, claiming them to be evidence that the human race is ascendant, that despite the way things appear, despite famine, genocide, plague, and the proliferation of less spectacular, more victim-specific cruelties, the living conditions of the average planetary citizen are actually on the improve. Sure, they will tell you, when an economy undergoes change, you’re going to get some unfortunate fallout; but you’ve got to look at the charts, the numbers, the trends. In order to arrive at an informed judgment on the subject, however, there is another kind of evidence we need to examine, and to do so, we need look no farther than Juarez, Mexico, a city of two million on the southern side of the Rio Grande, directly across from the river from El Paso . . . and America.

Most of us do not have the time or energy or inclination to visit Juarez, but happily, an alternative exists in the form of a book — Charles Bowden’s Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future. It is a cross between a coffee table book of photographs and a passionate, expert, inspired work of journalism, and it documents Bowden’s time among a group of Mexican photographers who risk their lives in order to document the horror of life in their city. They are not well paid for their work; this is their mission, not their livelihood. They are compelled in the way poets sometimes have felt compelled to challenge, to excoriate, to lay bare, and it is their photographs that illuminate Bowden’s book.

The text of the book is eloquent, poetic, rife with fact, serving to provide a historical background and to lend personal dimension to the work of these street artists (and artists they are, in the most subversive sense of the word); but the photographs could stand alone as a portrait of a place and time. There are images contained herein that I will carry with me for the rest of my days: the face of a raped and murdered woman transformed into an eerie bronze mask by the process of mummification; a man suspended beneath an electrical pole, electrocuted as he tried to steal power by tapping into the lines; a child in the midst of an immolated colonia (suburb) of wood-and-cardboard houses, sitting atop a smoke-blackened bicycle; the sun-dappled body of an American woman killed by drug dealers, serene-looking despite the blood that has flowed from her nose and mouth. These images do not record extraordinary events — though the larger event of which they form a part, the economic collapse of a nation, perhaps of a world, may qualify as extraordinary; they are the nightmarish ikons of the ordinary in Juarez, they reflect the city’s lawlessness, the casual cruelty of its daily bloodletting, and the spiritual fatigue of its living victims.

Not long ago I was speaking to a young doctor who worked in a Juarez free clinic. She was talking about catastrophic birth defects in the colonias, describing an infant born with its head attached to its chest, its brain undeveloped. This was, she said, the sort of thing she mght have expected to see once in a career; but in Juarez, one of the most polluted cities of the earth, she sees this same defect several times a month. Freed of regulation, the maquiladoras — foreign-owned factories that have proliferated in the city since NAFTA (375 of them as of two years ago), an agreement designed to profit investment banks not people, transforming Mexico into a new and cheaper Southeast Asia — these factories spew poison into the air, the water, without regard for human consequences. Thousands of young women, most between the ages of 16 and 24, work at the maquiladoras, rising before dawn to labor for a pitiful wage building television sets and computer games and various other toys of privilege that are exported to the States and elsewhere. Because they go to work while it is yet dark, while the worst of the city’s predators are on the prowl, large numbers of these women are kidnapped, raped, and murdered, their bodies left in the desert, in an area known as Lote Bravo.

It is impossible to determine how many women disappear in the city each year . . . or how many people of either sex, for that matter. Many bodies are never found, and given that a considerable portion of the population lives in horrid slums, in habitats made of abandoned boxcars and such, all places where a census-taker would hesitate to go, numbers are at best approximate. But it is safe to say that hundreds of women are murdered in Juarez annually by members of drug cartels, rapists, gangs like Los Harpys and K-13, or by one of the several serial killers estimated to be thriving in the region. As documented by Bowden, death in Juarez is a seasonal thing; in effect, life is measured by death. In November and December, following the harvest, drug murders take the stage. During the holidays people hang themselves, often in the public parks, and throughout the first months of the year, the city is lit by fires and gas explosions that result from the poor attempting to warm themselves — carbon monoxide poisoning resulting from faulty heaters adds to the toll. Spring brings a rash of territorial battles between colonias, as they fight for new ground upon which to build their hovels; and spring is also the time of diseases brought on by the lack of decent sewage treatment. Summer . . . ah, those lazy, hazy, crazy days of water shortages (the city is due to run out of water in less than five years), more disease, and gang killings. And in the fall, the colonias renew their violence. Round and round, year after year.

Bowden tells us that Juarez is a city in which hope does not exist. Economists tell us that Juarez is a growth economy. It seems that both voices may be right, that one does not disprove the other. As Eduardo Galeano puts it in the brief essay that forms a coda for Bowden’s book, “social injustice and scorn for life grow along with the economy.” How can one take heart from upward trends and glowing fiscal projections, when the slums of Juarez have become such a mysterious wasteland, fire departments cannot find certain of the colonias; when the police commit murder for the drug cartels; when the land upon which the maquiladoras are built is owned by the weathiest families of the city; when those factories have an average turnover rate of nearly 100 percent annually, because once a person reaches the age of thirty they can no longer take the pace of the work; when the women who toil in the factories must sell themselves on the weekends for food and drink (according to Bowden, 40% of the Mexican labor force lives off the underground economy “which means, they stand in the street and try to sell things, anything, including themselves . . .”); when murder has become as commonplace as burglary, and is memorialized in magazines and TV shows devoted to pictures of homicide; when everyone who can afford it lives behind high walls with security cameras and goes armed inside their homes; when sizeable portions of the poor have settled the garbage dumps, there competing for food with rats and dogs and starving cattle.

Perhaps you are wondering why I am writing about Bowden’s book in what is essentially a science fiction venue. If so, I refer you to the subtitle of the book: The Laboratory of Our Future. Eleven years ago I wrote a science ficton short story that embraced materials much like those that Bowden treats, at the end of which I invited all those who didn’t give a damn about the human condition in Latin America to take it easy, grab the remote and watch some TV, have another doughnut, because it truly didn’t matter what they thought or felt, the Third World was coming to America, and if you didn’t believe that, hey, just hang around a few more years, because it’ll be happening at your neighborhood multiplex real soon . . . and it’s not a movie. The story was a pissed-off reaction to a conversation I’d had with friends, one in which I had expounded upon the horror of life South of the Border — my friends listened and then rolled their eyes, like, Oh god, there he goes again, as if what I’d said was an embarrassment, as if they knew they had to to put up with my gloomy bullshit fantasies if they were going to hang out with me, but please . . . ! Give it a rest! I feel somewhat vindicated to learn that Charles Bowden has had similar experiences. And I also feel that my slender story is more than validated by his excellent work. To put it bluntly, if you want to get an idea of what the New World Order will really be like — islands of wealth floating upon a sea of misery — grab yourself a flight to Juarez, step off the plane, close your eyes, and take a whiff of the fucking future.

In 1900, there were 100,000 people living on the Mexican side of the U.S. border; today there are more than 12 million. Ten years from now . . . who can say? More are coming all the time, most of them young, lured by the false promise of the maquiladoras, and by the vast gleam of money that radiates from their neighbor to the north. As the border grows increasingly populous, increasingly desperate and desolate, the pollutants and violent culture of Juarez will slop over into Texas and begin to flow north. Indeed, the process has already begun. For now, Bowden’s street photographers may seem to us like cyberpunk characters in search of a Gibson (though it’s doubtful that such an unglamorous and ominous milieu as they inhabit would find great commercial success, thanks to the temerity of writers and publishers alike). But if they are characters, then so are we, for while we live far from Juarez, insulated by privilege and a misguided sense of history and our place in it, protections that will not last, Juarez lives very near to us, and the distance between our two worlds is narrowing at the speed of greed.

Talk of blood is generally wasted on those who have not tasted blood in their mouths. Cries of alarm are usually neglected by those who have not experienced disaster. But now and again a message comes along couched in such poignant terms that whoever sees it will take something significant from it. Charles Bowden’s Juarez: The Laboratory of Our Future embodies such a message. It is likely one of the most important books of the decade, and it is almost certainly the most important book that you will never read.

About the Author

Copyright © 1999 by Lucius Shepard and Event Horizon Web Productions, Inc.