Detroit: America’s Ciudad Juárez


Even before there was a war in Ciudad Juárez, I remember that Juárez, like much of the border during my childhood in the’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 Juárez. 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 Simpsons 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 periférico; 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 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 $1000 deposit and then a $240 inspector fee. You’ll need to make repairs, of course. 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 $1500. 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 thirty 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 fiancée 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 Juárez and Detroit are in the same boat—they’re not—but it’s undeniably true that they’re similar. Both are border cities, both rank among the most violent cities in the world (Ciudad Juárez 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 three 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 letting them export goods, tariff-free, within the NAFTA trade bloc, bolstering profits via what’s called 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. The agreement would also hopefully bring jobs to Mexican soil.

What could go wrong? Ask any Mexican farmer whose bushels of corn or gallons of milk couldn’t compete with subsidized U.S. exports. Ask any United Auto Workers union member in Detroit where his or her job has gone, and you’ll likely get a better idea.



Back on the road, my F150 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 city where she was made. 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 cleaner’s. 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 thirty 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. 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 twenty-five minutes. 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 from the frame, the wind just pushing through without ever lifting so much as a speck of dust.

Tinnitus.600pxAnd in the front yard, I wait and wait for a Re/Max agent who will never show up, that feeling creeping back again, that feeling I’d always thought was so unique to Ciudad Juárez. I hush those feelings in my gut. I try to stymie the tinnitus building momentum between my ears. This is not Juárez, I tell myself. This is not Juárez. But then, what if it is? Or if not, then what if it’s something similar? An American Juárez? It could happen here too, I think. The sublimity of it is already here.

It’s just before dark when 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 brake fluid, Styrofoam cups, US Postal Service boxes cartwheeling in the wind.

My gaslight 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 Juárez. This is not Juárez.

I watch as they cross the street to an overgrown park and 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.


Rumpus original art by Mark Armstrong.

Daniel Peña teaches in the Department of English at Louisiana State University. Formerly, he was a Fulbright-Garcia Robles Scholar and Lecturer at Cornell University. His work can be seen in Ploughshares, the Kenyon Review, The Rumpus, and Huizache among other outlets. He’s a regular contributor to The Guardian and the Ploughshares Blog. He’s originally from Austin, Texas. More from this author →