It's been two years since I've ventured into Nuevo Laredo. Even at that the last visit was prompted only because one of my dearest and most beloved relatives, mi Tia Eva, had been hospitalized and was going to get surgery. But prior to that and for the two years after that day, Mexico was essentially off limits.
The stories of cartel violence, murder, and extortion were enough to drive even the most staunch of Nuevo Laredoans to cross the border to a safer place--those that could afford it that is. The rest of the city, those that refuse to leave or that couldn't leave for legal or financial issued were forced to cope with a culture of violence, fear and constant militant presence. The corruption and fear instilled in the people of the government and law enforcement made it difficult to trust those who were not close to you and--for an outsider--left a terrifying mystique around a city whose culture use to by synonymous with our own. The once vibrant and lucid sister city to Laredo, Texas was always boastful of its rich culture, its superb nightlife and tourism, its customs and traditions, it's outgoing and entrepreneurial people, and its excellent, excellent food. It's American counterpart had always been somewhat lacking in all of those areas leaning towards commercialism and the American way. But now, Nuevo Laredo stood as a shadow of its former self. The jovial ambiance replaced with despondency, fear and worry. The busy hustling and bustling replaced with quick shuffles in and out of shops never before sunset.
For a long time, it seemed that things would not be getting any time soon. There were times when even my students that hailed from Mexico would not want to cross the border in fear of their own home town. Things looked pretty dim.
Flash forward two years and two months to the present day. When my sister told me about her intention of going to Nuevo Laredo to get a dental procedure I must admit that I was more worried than I would admit to myself. When she said my mom was going and invited me along I couldn't pass up the chance to spend some time with my family in a city and area where I had so many found memories of just across the Rio Grande. It being summer and having a free schedule I decided to tag along.
We left early in the morning---well, early in the morning for my sister and I--dropped off my niece at daycare and went to my mom's house. My mom was going to drive us in her car. This also marked the first time in more than two years that we had actually ventured by car across--the limited times we had scurried across the border were on foot and were quick excursions.
As we crossed the border into Mexico we took in the familiar sights: the white structure where the Mexican government inspects vehicles, the Casa de cambio, the soldiers with their automatic weapons and camo ready to go at a moments notice. These things had been seen a hundred times before and were nothing different and nothing out of the ordinary. What was different about today, and I might be idealizing this a bit, is the ambiance and the feel of the city. As we depart the first road into Mexico and turn onto Guerrero street it seemed like the Nuevo Laredo of old. People of all ages and sizes busily walked in and out of shops, buying elotes, tacos, aguas, sodas, crossing the street without looking in any direction, the big bulky, noisy buses trammed along like amusement park rides. The atmosphere was relaxed. The soldiers that previously occupied every corner of the downtown area were not there. Sure, there were some soldiers, but their appearance was hardly noticeable. The police state of Nuevo Laredo has significantly been decreased. As I kept looking around we see plenty of cars with both American and Mexican license plates driving like maniacs up and down the main roads in downtown. We like so many others scoured the curbs for open parking spaces, a helpful guide always willing to help us find a spot, reverse, and take care of our care in the hopes of getting a few pesos as compensation when we left.
My sister's dental procedure went by remarkably fast and we were on our way to the shops soon after. My mom, my sister, and I drove and walked down the very streets where I would walk in as a child, my hand in my mom's or dad's. We wandered past shops that have been there for years, decades even before I was even born. We even made a few purchases.
Soon after the shops, we stopped by La Siberia, a Nuevo Laredo staple and a family favorite. The menu is limited: tostadas, tacos, or caldo. That's it. Three items, few variations, all delicious. In a throwback to my youth, I ordered a tostada and a Joya de manzana. My mom ordered the same and my sister ordered a soup--poor soul, I know she really wanted a tostada but she did just have dental surgery. We sat there. We ate. We laughed. We reminisced. We watched the lunch rush come in and quickly fill out the place.
On the way back to the car, we stumbled across a nieve de barril and I had to get one of the famous nieve de limon. My sister and I agreed to share and we made our purchase and like when we were younger, followed our mom back to her car.
As we made our way back to the bridge, turning and weaving across long forlorn but familiar streets I couldn't help but smile. These streets with their pinata shops, and fruit stands, and photography studios, it's beggars and it's salesman, the tourists and the locals all seemed normal again. This looked and felt like the Nuevo Laredo of old. And while things aren't exactly as they were, things are getting back to what they should be. Nuevo Laredo appears to me, from this short visit, but be recovering, it's people getting back into the groove of a new-old 'normal'. Whatever the cause, I hope it's true and I hope it lasts. Nuevo Laredo deserves it's second chance. Nuevo Laredo deserves its renaissance.