WHEN I WAS 37, I resigned from a tenured position in academic medicine to join the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Four semesters later, I graduated but was almost broke. It was 1991 and I was ready to practice medicine again and to write. An ad for an infectious disease position in a public hospital in El Paso, Texas, caught my fancy. “El Paso” had a ring to it. The Pass. On the map, the city sat on the U.S. border with Mexico and so far west that it was in a different time zone than the rest of Texas. That’s all I knew other than what I recalled from Marty Robbins’ famous song:
Out in the West Texas town of El Paso
I fell in love with a Mexican girl
Nighttime would find me in Rosa’s Cantina
Music would play and Feleena would whirl
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I flew down to scout out the position. The hospital was a stone’s throw from the Rio Grande. From its top floor (indeed, from just about any elevation looking south), El Paso’s twin city, Juárez, was visible. And from anywhere in either city, you couldn’t miss the giant white letters painted on the face of the mountain that flanks Juárez: LA BIBLIA ES LA VERDAD LEELA (“The bible is the truth; read it”).
That first evening of my arrival, with my formal interviews scheduled for the next day, I drove up the Franklin Mountains, which formed an intimate backdrop to the city of El Paso; on its upper reaches, exotic luxury homes perched precariously. I parked at a spot where I had a breathtaking view of the limitless horizon; it dwarfed anything I’d ever seen. I watched the sun set on the western edge of the world and the cloudless sky catch fire. That spectacle was the closest thing I’ve had to a religious experience. It was hard to imagine that it could be repeated the next day and the day after that.
I watched the sun set on the western edge of the world and the cloudless sky catch fire. It was hard to imagine that it could be repeated the next day and the day after that.
Once it was dark, a carpet of winking lights gradually emerged, outlining a single, seamless, sprawling city stretching for miles on both sides of the river, before abruptly giving way to blackness in the distance where the Chihuahuan Desert began. Centuries ago, all of this would have been underwater, covered by a primordial ocean, the Sea of Cortez. (On a later hike in the mountains, my guide showed me the clear outline of fossilized crustacean shells entombed in the rock.) I now understood my hotel concierge’s cryptic earlier remark that “the border is artificial.”
For many residents of El Paso and Juárez, the border was a recent imposition. Families had lived on these lands for generations, residents of one city had relatives in the other, and family members crossed freely in both directions, adding to the commercial traffic — the crush of day workers, students, and shoppers coming from Juárez, and diners and revelers from El Paso headed to Juárez at night. The U.S. and Mexico were separate countries, but in this spot, culture and geography said otherwise.
I’d been there less than 24 hours but already felt the landscape had expanded my consciousness and freed my imagination. This border felt conducive to writing and to practicing medicine. I wasn’t the first novelist to feel this magic: Raymond Carver had once lived and taught in El Paso. And Cormac McCarthy now lived here and was a visible presence in town, a frequenter of the greyhound races in Juárez, or so I was told. McCarthy’s “Border Trilogy” clearly drew on the richness and heritage of this shared geography.
The next afternoon, after my job talk and many meetings, I walked across the pedestrian bridge and entered Mexico for the first time. The scene that met my eyes on Avenida Juárez felt eerily familiar: a bustling, thriving, bazaar-like atmosphere thick with humanity; the blare of ranchera and salsa music from competing bars; the tantalizing aroma of fajitas being grilled, of fresh tortillas, and other mouthwatering scents from food carts and restaurants; the cacophony of vendors and touts competing for attention; and the raucous voices of the uninhibited young gringo bridge crossers who were getting a head start on the party. I was transported back to the markets in Africa — the continent on which I had spent my childhood — and to the fairs and bazaars in India, the land my parents hailed from.
I made my way leisurely through the gauntlet of temptations catering to tourists. I am sure I had a silly grin on my face as I peered past doors and through windows. I soaked in this novel sensation: the exhilarating feeling of being abroad while barely having left the States. Images of the Virgin of Guadalupe were displayed on a mural and on souvenirs, while rosaries dangled from every car’s rearview mirror. But I also saw a sign for a curandera who dispensed life-extending potions and removed curses. In the trays full of glittery baubles carried around by vendors and mixed in with the crucifixes and the holy icons, I saw representations of what I understood to be the fallen saints, the patrons of the black arts.
Once free of the tourist zone near the bridge, I found myself in a mixed residential and commercial section of the city. But my sense of slipping back in time still lingered. I made my way to the vicinity of the cathedral and the central square around it. At an outdoor bar, I had my first icy michelada: think bloody mary, but for vodka substitute your favorite Mexican lager; and instead of tomato juice, use a fiery, chili-pepper-infused lemonade (or Clamato juice); serve it in a frozen, salt-rimmed beer stein as big as a child’s head. It was just what the doctor ordered — two was the right therapeutic dose. The afternoon’s zero-humidity, bone-dry desert heat gave way to evening air that was crisp and refreshing. The dark-eyed beauties that Marty Robbins encountered abounded on both sides of the river, as did cowboys with sun-creased, leathery mustachioed faces under Stetsons of felt or straw. Many locals had pale white skin and blue eyes, and could have passed for those originating from Madrid or Barcelona. But most faces I saw were mestizo — that handsome amalgamation of the Spanish and Indigenous American.
The U.S. and Mexico were separate countries, but in this spot, culture and geography said otherwise.
A simple musical trio entertained me tableside. The ballads were new to me yet hauntingly familiar, evoking universal emotions that transcended the limitations of language. The music echoed the many histories and mythologies of Mexico: first, that of the Indigenous people, the first dwellers in this land; then, those of the invading conquistadores and their accompanying priests and missionaries who traveled up El Camino Real to Santa Fe, converting the willing and the unwilling, setting up their pueblos and missions, and naming settlements after saints — a legacy that lingers all over the American Southwest. Then came the narratives of the Mexican revolutionaries who fought for and finally won their independence from Spain in 1821. In the unstable decades that followed independence came the newer narratives and mythologies that layered over and wove themselves into the extant ones: the Texians, the Anglo-American settlers in Mexico who fought to create the Republic of Texas before being assimilated into the United States; the German settlers who came in that same period and whose polkas linger in ranchera music; the American cowboys, rustlers, and bounty hunters embodied in the tales of Billy the Kid, Louis L’Amour novels, and Hollywood Westerns. More recently are the narratives and myths encompassed by the maquiladoras employing thousands of Mexicans who assemble goods for large U.S. firms; the narcos, who engendered their own legendary ballads; and, of course, the illegal crossers and the coyotes who are their guides, playing cat and mouse with the migras (Border Patrol) who await them.
Sitting on that outdoor patio, entertained by my very own personal trio for as long as my money lasted, I felt the ballads embraced not only those old mythologies and narratives, but my journey too. In the imperfect harmony of the trio, I found an attitude I could borrow, a way to accept life’s vicissitudes, and a blueprint for this new phase of my life. Seated on America and Mexico’s imperfect and porous border with all its weaving narratives, there was room for my own, for this African-born, Indian-origin, naturalized U.S. citizen to spin his own mythology. This new attitude, my acquired frame of reference, would be how I would explore Mexico’s interior in the coming years. It took time and many years to feel I knew something of Juárez and its haunts. I learned in the best way possible: through friends and colleagues who lived bicameral lives straddling both cities; even their speech switched between Spanish and English mid-sentence. Over the ensuing decades, I sought out Mexico’s scenic beaches, making many visits to Mazatlán, Cabo, Puerto Vallarta, and the small hamlets and villages in their environs. One travels to discover oneself, to see oneself anew, and to reinvent oneself in new experiences. The variety of experiences is limitless in Mexico, ranging from unspoiled beaches or old, quaint colonial towns like San Miguel de Allende to the visceral experience that is Mexico City (which is itself an amalgamation of neighborhoods, each with its unique flavor and feel, and with untold treasures in its museums and galleries), and every variety in between. My exploration of Mexico had only just begun that evening on the border. But I had established a method of entry, and it was through music, regional cuisine, and by bringing an open heart and a curiosity to learn more about the history of this land and its people. It was, I already knew, the beginning of a long love affair. Of course I took the job.
Abraham Verghese Writer
Abraham Verghese, M.D., is the Linda R. Meier and Joan F. Lane Provost Professor and vice chair for the Theory and Practice of Medicine at the Department of Medicine at Stanford University. He is also a best-selling author and a physician with a reputation for his focus on the patient-physician relationship in an era where technology often overwhelms the human side of medicine. He received the Heinz Award in 2014 and was awarded the National Humanities Medal, presented by former President Barack Obama, in 2015. His books include “My Own Country,” “The Tennis Partner,” and “Cutting for Stone.” His forthcoming novel, “The Covenant of Water,” is due in 2023.
Skye Parrott is the executive editor of Departures. A magazine editor, photographer, writer, and creative consultant, she was previously a founder of the arts and culture journal Dossier, and editor in chief for the relaunch of Playgirl as a modern, feminist publication.