September 10, 2010
This the tenth time I dial, what’s the deal?
She knows we agreed on 4 pm at her house– but how am I supposed to get to there if I don’t have directions? And how am I supposed to get directions if she doesn’t pick up the pick up the phone??
These were my thoughts today as I was trying to reach a woman I was going to interview. Her psychologist recommended her and set up the meeting. She gave me the woman’s phone number and address, but couldn’t tell me how to get there. No problem I told the psychologist, I’ll just call her and ask. The appointment was this afternoon. I started calling the woman 24 hours beforehand to no avail. And in a city where street names and addresses on homes are optional– more like absent all together– finding a place can make you want to pull your hair out.
So why don’t people answer their phones in Juarez?
Same reason they don’t put out signs announcing their businesses. Tienen miedo. They are afraid.
You may have caught on to a tone of annoyance in this post. I’m not really annoyed. On the contrary, I’m totally sympathetic. I know you’ve heard it before: the people of Juarez live in fear. This is true. But it’s not mass panic like you might imagine. Often their fear is a lot more subtle– like neglecting to answer the phone.
Juarenzes don’t answer their phone because they’re afraid of extortion. That is, a stranger with an unlisted phone number calls and demands money from you. If you are a business, it’s for the infamous cuota or protection. If you are a household, the caller may ask for money or else threaten to harm your family.
So Juarenzes have found a simple solution to this serious problem. Don’t answer the phone when you don’t know who it is. This can get complicated real quick. For one, you may miss your very important appointment with the reporter who’s on deadline. That or you may miss an unexpected visit by a second cousin who you haven’t seen in more than 10 years.
It was 4:25 and after the umpteenth attempt the woman finally answered my call.
“Bueno..?” Her voice was soft and hesitant.
“It’s me! Monica. The reporter you were supposed to meet at 4. I need directions to your house.”
The woman apologized. She been sitting at home listening to the phone ring off the hook. I didn’t want to answer, she told me, the caller ID said it was an unknown caller. Okay, so maybe I was a little annoyed. She knew I was coming and that I’d probably need directions or at least verify that she was home. I told her I knew all about extortion and was glad that she finally answered.
The woman lives on a busy boulevard near the center of the city. Once I found her house I quickly discovered that she was a great interview. I barely had to ask questions. She told me about how life had changed in Juarez. Trips downtown for a walk around the plaza and a hot dog were over. Too risky, she said. You never know what could happen. Now she and her son rarely go further than their front yard where they play hide and seek or stare up at the clouds and guess what animals they’re shaped like.
And she doesn’t answer the phone when it’s from a desconosido or stranger. Plenty of her friends and relatives have been extorted. She once got a suspicious call from a stranger. She pretended to be the ignorant housekeeper. The voice on the other line demanded to speak with her “jefe” or boss. She simply hung up.
When she put the receiver down she said her palms were sweaty and she felt a sudden headache coming on from behind her neck. I don’t do a lot of things I used to do, she said.
People not anwering their phone is nothing new in Juarez. It’s been going on for awhile now. I write about it because I’m afraid I’ll get used to this kind of stuff. I’m afraid I’ll start accepting abnormal behavior as normal. After nearly three years, people in Juarez are certainly growing accustomed to living in a high risk environment. As a reporter you have to pay attention to things like this.
And as a final note: You know you’re crossing the border a little too often when the customs guys at the ports of entry start recognizing you. Officer Endlich scanned my passport at the Americas bridge today.
“I’ve seen you before, haven’t I,” he said.
I smiled and rolled my eyes. Yes, you probably have, I said. He checked his computer.
“Yup,” he said, “About a month ago.”
I looked at his gold name plate. “Endlich, it is? Where is that from?”
German, he said. It means something akin to “finally.” I laughed.
“Yea,” I said, ” ’cause when I see you I can say: Finally! I’ve made it across!”
It’s good to be back in El Paso.