Erin Hogan Goes to Juárez
Erin Hogan in Spiral Jetta, her memoir of a road trip to see landscape art in the American West, writes of an ill-planned day-trip to Juárez she took one afternoon. It’s a brief detour chapter that begins with the naïf’s fear of the unseen:
I wanted a soda but saw them swimming in water and ice I knew would make me sick. I thought about picking a can out of the cooler, getting that water on my hands. I thought about microscopic drops of that water seeping into the membranes of my mouth. I thought about inadvertently rubbing my eye with a finger that had been in that water; I thought about eating food with the hand that had been in the water. I visualized the epic battle between the bad water and my sheltered gringa immune system. I felt the flush of fever, the cramps of diarrhea. I skipped the soda.
In Juárez, however, there are bigger things to worry about, which it doesn’t take her long to discover:
The streets we were taking back to the border were filled with clubs of a questionable nature. “American disco!” was painted on the shutters of one; “cheap beer,” read a sign hanging from the second-floor balcony of another. The buildings looked worn and distressed, trying to rouse themselves for yet another Friday night in a border city. The crowds continued to move in waves with something sinister at their base. Todd and I were trying to keep track of where we were going without losing each other, but we kept getting separated. Todd was on the left, closest to the buildings. A teenage girl in filthy clothes passed us going in the opposite direction; I looked at her face as she moved past us and saw a gaping hole where her left eye should have been. My gaze was drawn to a gap in the crowd on the other side of the street. At its center was a man stumbling and shuffling toward the cathedral. He was shirtless and covered with dried blood; a flap of skin hung from his chest like a pocket ripped from a shirt in a bar fight. The sidewalk traffic simply parted for him.
It’s not the most flattering self-portrait Hogan gives—and I prefix portrait with self- purposefully here—but I think that’s to her credit. Rather than pretend hard-won expertise (even despite the fact she later says she read about the city voraciously after returning home) she allows her own character to be overwhelmed and unprepared, ill at ease because of it. There is a certain courage in admitting, in writing, exactly where the limits of your experience and comfort—your very courage—happen to be.