Not too long ago, violence and unemployment compelled residents of the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez originally from the state of Veracruz to return to their native land.
Nowadays, some Veracruzanos are moving to Juárez in a reverse migration of sorts. Ruben Martinez Gonzalez, for example, counts about four months in Juárez, a place he considers “prosperous” and more secure than his former home in Veracruz, where he says insecurity and economic bad times have left the southern state a “broken” entity.
Martinez and his wife Elsa operate a small shop, Mi Lindo Veracruz (My Beautiful Veracruz), in the interior of the Plaza de las Americas Mall adjacent to Juárez’s Pronaf district.
Struggling to pay the rent, Martinez is nevertheless hopeful about the prospects for a business that offers traditional Veracruz cheeses and drinks, moles, coffee products and artistic creations like the “ecological necklaces” his wife strings together with coconut and coffee beans. Asked about the transition between Veracruz and Juárez, Martinez immediately mentions the food.
“It’s difficult, because the food is different. They use a lot of wheat here,” he says of the difference in popular tortillas. “The chicken here is from the U.S., but it’s local in Veracruz,” he says with a smile that celebrates the fresh taste back home.
Mi Lindo Veracruz is among a growing number of businesses that are refilling the Plaza de las Americas Mall. Situated near the Cordoba Bridge (also known as the Bridge of the Americas) between Juáarez and neighboring El Paso, Texas, the Plaza de las Americas developed as an important commercial center in the 1990s, blessed with a prime location that drew people from both sides of the border.
The indoor mall and surrounding streets that once boasted the liveliest night life in Juárez were among the worst-impacted zones by the great violence of 2008-2012, when murder, extortion and kidnapping forced people to stay at home and shopkeepers to shutter their doors.
From a bustling district of honking traffic, drifting music and bubbling crowds, the zone transformed into one of ghostly, deteriorated buildings and weed-splashed empty lots.
“It’s an unprecedented flow of people. It’s been many years since we had so many people,” Jose Rolando Talavera Sanchez, Plaza de las Americas Mall administrator, told FNS during an April weekend fair which featured product stands, free health screenings and live music and performances like the chanting, drumming and dancing exhibition of Brazilian capoeira. As an individual dressed up like Spider-Man traipsed about the corridors, vendors hawked T-shirts that thanked Pope Francis for his recent visit to Juárez. The event attracted steady crowds of shoppers and onlookers.
In a gesture of great confidence in things to come, 10 million pesos (approximately $600,000) were invested in a major face lift during the month of March alone, including roof repairs, LED lighting, new painting, scrubbed floors and 22 security cameras, Talavera calculates. “People want this place to be the way it was before,” he adds.
According to the mall’s manager, about 50 percent of the 209 storefronts are now occupied or under negotiation, with a food court on the way and the Cinepolis movie theater chain planning to begin construction of a venue by the end of the year.
At one end of the mall another Veracruz-themed business, Cafe Veracruzano, has endured 15 years in a tidy corner where clients jam tables while discussing the state of the world and sipping coffee. Elsewhere, a private English school broadens the mall’s functions. For May, parking lot make-overs are on the agenda, Talavera adds.
Additionally, the mall’s promoters say they hope to reopen the indoor ice-skating rink, while a new Marrakech Hair Salon will complement stores that specialize in perfumes and beauty supplies.
Maintenance worker Mario Jabalera started with the mall three years ago but says the job was initially difficult because business was down and employees were sometimes not paid on time. Since the new management took over, payroll is back on schedule and “everyone is happy” in anticipation of bigger crowds and more work, he says.
Outside the mall proper, other redevelopments are visible in the looping boulevards of the Pronaf and connecting neighborhoods. The Plaza de las Americas Mall’s Grand Dunas Casino joins another newer casino, the Gran Casino de Juárez, just off Paseo del Triunfo de la Republica.
Although the once-throbbing Vaqueras nightclub stands abandoned, the Plaza de Las Americas Mall hosts Tequilas Discoteca, flanked appropriately by a row of agave plants in front of the INBA theater, where a Disney-themed play was staged on a recent Sunday afternoon. The Pronaf area redevelopment is comparable to the revitalization project still underway in downtown Juárez, though the actors involved and the socio-demographic context are a bit different.
Abutting the mass transportation hub of the city, the tianguis-style markets and street stands of downtown attract working-class consumers from the far-flung corners of the city. Though the Plaza de las Americas is accessible by bus from downtown, the Pronaf area is designed around the automobile.
Situated near neighborhoods where residents have largely paid off their homes, the Plaza de Las Americas Mall is convenient for consumers who don’t have budgetary pressures from big mortgages or educational expenses, Talavera says.
Strategically, the mall is surrounded by hospitals, hotels, universities and the Cordoba Bridge to El Paso only minutes away. In this sense, the mall’s biggest attraction, longtime tenant S-Mart, is a golden asset in the hat — especially at a time when the peso is hovering at record lows in relation to the dollar.
According to Talavera, the S-Mart outlet serves many El Paso residents shopping for bargains at the large supermarket; the company invested $1.5 million in its Plaza de Las Americas Mall store during 2015-2016, he adds.
“The plaza has great potential but it wasn’t taken advantage of for awhile,” Talavera sums up. “People are saying, ‘how nice it is that you are renovating it.'”
For the mall’s managers, security is the name of the game in building consumer confidence and assuring safe environment. A native of Argentina who lived in Juárez but moved away because of the rampant insecurity, German Zavala is now back on the border working as the mall’s security monitor. From an office he commands the high-tech PTZ security camera system that constantly pans the parking lots and zooms in on any object of interest. The cameras can capture license plates or the goings on inside an automobile.
The objective, Zavala says, is to prevent crimes while having an efficient tool to assist both private security guards and public law enforcement personnel. The young security man gives a recent example of how the cameras potentially avoided trouble when the system captured two drivers arguing after their cars collided on the mall’s edge. “Thanks to having a security system the transit police were able to come,” Zavala adds.
Zavala agrees with Talavera that the mall is on a promising path in the spring of 2016. “It’s been a radical change,” is how he describes the customer turnout in recent weeks.
Ultimately, an important measure of the mall’s success as a revived commercial center will be gauged by the business outcomes of the small shop owners like Maria Teresa Santander. A warm woman with a ready smile, Santander is among the tough ones who stuck it out through the cataclysm of the previous decade.
“It affected us in sales. We only made enough to eat, just for me and my husband. If we would have had to support children, we wouldn’t have been able to make it,” Santander recalls. “Some days we earned nothing, but we took it and (business) began going up about two years ago.”
A 12-year veteran of the mall, Santander recalls pondering the proverbial, hard choice of whether to abandon or attempt salvaging a sinking ship. The landlord’s decision to not charge Santander and her husband rent for three years greatly helped the harder choice the couple made, she says.
Santander’s colorful store features the artistic talent of Mexico as expressed in Aztec calendars, earrings, blankets and shawls, clay tiles with images of Frida Kahlo and Jesus Christ, and much more. Especially striking are the indigenous dresses from Chiapas, Oaxaca and Puebla.
Santander says she’s recently greeted old, returning customers from El Paso she hadn’t seen for five years or so. “It’s is great thing for me that they remember me,” she beams.
The Juárez shopkeeper credits Pope Francis’ February visit for an upturn in her business. “People that came from other countries realized that Juárez is more peaceful. Let’s hope to God that Juárez continues like this,” Santander says. “Let’s hope investors come to renovate, because it’s an interesting part of Juárez.”