What do Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua and Brimfield Massachusetts have in common? Precious little, save for one important link: tianguis, or open-air markets. Here in Massachusetts, Brimfield — about seventy miles west of Boston — is famous for thrice-annual open-air “antique” fairs held in May, July, and September. And it was at the July fair, accompanied by my good friend, “G,” where I encountered a set of postcards from the late 30’s from Ciudad Juarez. Given my love of all things Mexican, I couldn’t pass them up, and for a dollar they were mine. And now, for free, they’re yours too.
Though I can’t date the postcards exactly, based on the pictures of the cars, my official “point estimate” is 1939. And cards, in plural, doesn’t quite describe the set accurately. What I got was a folded piece of paper, with a long strip of folded paper inside, printed on both sides with 18 images plus the two on the cover for a total of 20.
The pictures themselves appear to be a mix of hand-colored photographs or drawings made from photographs, in that kind of faded old-postcard color. The subjects include various scenes around town, vendors, and quite a number of pictures of various aspects of bullfights.
Given the ups and downs poor Juarez has experienced since 1939, I thought I’d try to do some “virtual tourism” via Google Streetview to see if I could find the same sites today. Surprisingly, I managed to locate a number of them, and learned a little bit about Ciudad Juarez in the process.
Until recently when it became too dangerous, Ciudad Juarez had a reputation as a place to go for wild times. Though the US went through prohibition, there was no restriction on the flow of tequila in Juarez. And the city became famous for nightclubs, brothels, gay bars, and other illicit pleasures that were not available in more puritan America.
According to Lonely Planet: The Revolution devastated the Mexican economy, but Juárez began its boom years around this time thanks to the USA’s Prohibition era (1920–33). Thirsty Americans came from far and wide to enjoy Juárez’ lively entertainment, both illicit and classy, and even when beer came back many Americans continued to live it up south of the border.
So I present to you the postcards from the past, and a comparison with the present.
Below, I think the second building on the right is the same as in 1939, though no longer a theater. Most of the rest of the buildings look newer.
Though now the Museum of the Revolution on the Frontier, the old Customs House is a handsome building and remains largely unchanged.
Unfortunately, the park next to it is long gone.
The old shot shows the Mission in the background, but I was somewhat confused looking for it. On Streetview, you can clearly see the Metropolitan Cathedral right next to it, and it looks old, yet isn’t in the post card. A little research revealed that the Cathedral was built in the late 40’s, well after the publication of my postcards.
Here’s the postcard of the Mission.
And below shows how she looks today. I’m thinking the artist of the postcard took some artistic license as the likeness is far from perfect. Note the cathedral is the bigger building to the right.
Recall that in 1939, not only had the Great Depression barely ended, but Americans in general were little-traveled. To the author/editor of my little set of postcards, Ciudad Juarez was quite an exotic destination. What follows is the text printed on the inside of the cover.
Juarez, Old Mexico
Pronounced Huáres, this old town is the most famous frontier town in Mexico.
Originally called Paso del Norte (Pass of the North) because above El Paso, and Juarex [sic] Mexico, the Rio Grande flows through the only water pass in the Rocky Mountains. The town was renamed for Benito Juarez after this President and Liberator made his headquarters in the town of Juarez.
Being the principle port of entry into Mexico, Juarez has long been the most important commercial town on the Mexican border.
The atmosphere, architecture, people, and customs of this quaint Mexican city, centuries old and six minutes away from the city of El Paso, Texas, are as foreign as one will find at the end of a 3000-mile ocean voyage. Its beautiful Mission Guadalupe was built with timbers carried on the backs of toiling Indians 100 miles across the desert. In its market place are luscious tropical fruits, hand-made pottery and woven baskets of weird and primitive design. Wax figures that rival the work of a Cellini may be seen, admired and purchased for a few centavos.
Bullet riddled adobe walls bear mute evidence of former revolutions. The Church, the Juzgado, the bull ring and custom house — all are battle scarred. Yet these remarkable people carry on — from behind curtained windows can be heard the sweet music of mandolins and guitars and the rhythmic click of castanets. Intriguing to the occidental mind.
On Sunday one may attend a bull fight. On week days a chicken fight, and the night life — cafes and cabarets are unequaled on the American continent.
You may feel absolutely safe in visiting Juarez, Old Mexico, pronounced Huáres.
This little bit of text is so full of bizarre cultural assumptions, and quaint notions that it’s hard to know where to start a critique. Conveniently omitted is the fact that those “toiling Indians,” were basically enslaved by the Spanish. And “woven baskets of weird and primitive design?!?” How about indigenous cultural artisanry that was, despite the Spanish, still in evidence? And “occidental mind?” As if Mexico were, despite its location on the southern US border, somehow part of Asia? And repeating the pronunciation of “Juarez?!?” LOL. This whole spiel gave me a chuckle.
But the last line rang a little bittersweet. Though the people of Ciudad Juarez remain remarkably resilient, that last line is no longer true. Though I wouldn’t make a dedicated trip, if I were in El Paso, I ‘d certainly like to see the old Centro Historico of Ciudad Juarez. But these days I wouldn’t feel safe doing so.
And I found a sad commentary on that fact in the form of a T-Shirt.
However, by all accounts, the worst of the violence is over, having peaked in 2010, and I did find a number of newspaper articles to the effect that “Ciudad Juarez is back!” Let’s hope so, for the sake of the folks who still live there.
Though bullfighting is a dying sport even in strongholds like Mexico and Spain, it was likely in its heyday in 1939, and still captures the imagination today. Out of the twenty images in my set of post cards a full five, or a quarter, deal with images of bullfighting. Here’s the old Plaza de Toros, with the mountains of El Paso in the background.
The new plaza is much larger, but seems to have been designed solely with pragmatism in mind.
The postcards showing various aspects of the bullfight certainly show the pageantry of the sport.
To me the picture below looks more like a hand-colored photograph than a drawing.
And we all know how bullfights end.
And there were also the typical shopping scenes, which are still important today. However, I don’t have any modern-day shopping shots.
My postcard refers to Benito Juarez as the “George Washington of Mexico,” though he was Mexico’s 26th president, not the first. Here’s the monument to the man who gave his name to the city.
In my view, the fence below is not an improvement.
And if you misbehaved in Ciudad Juarez of 1939, there was a lovely (at least on the outside) public jail where you could spend the rest of your Mexican vacation, perhaps even longer.
Online, I searched high and low trying to find out any information about this jail. While I found a lot of similar photos, I could not learn definitively of its fate, though I think it has been replaced with an exceptionally ugly state archive building. If that’s the case, it is extremely sad that they did not at least preserve the facade, as the replacement building is no higher than this jail, so there’s no reason they couldn’t have re-used the facade.
(As an aside, here in Boston we have a very beautiful 19th century jail, next to Mass General, which a few years ago was converted into a hotel named with purposeful irony: The Liberty Hotel.)
Oddly, the one important building that this postcard set did not feature was the Palacio Municipal, now a municipal center for the arts. It sits behind the Mission of Guadalupe, and forms one end of the historic center.
And finally, despite the oddly blonde “señorita” on the cover of the postcard set, there’s also a shot of a more Mexican-looking woman in traditional attire. Unfortunately, there were no such shots of men, unless you include the shopkeeper.
I hope you enjoyed our little trip back to the Ciudad Juarez of 1939. I certainly enjoyed digging around for new photos and learning a bit more about a city that I’m currently afraid to visit. But Google Streetview, along with the rest of the internet, makes being a virtual tourist safe, easy, and fun.