The Real Housewives of Ciudad Juárez

Living double lives in the shadow of the border

Emily and Gordo
Emily and Gordo (Photo by Christ Chavez)

They don't slouch in high heels on plush sofas. They do not bitch about their husbands or each other while fluffing their designer hair and quaffing carafes of Chablis. There's no wardrobe mistress or makeup artist. No casting call – what unites them is not TV. Instead, they've come together because of the federal government and some very bad immigration policy. They are the Real Housewives of Ciudad Juárez.

The group's inadvertent founder was Lynn (the Chronicle is using her middle name to protect her privacy). A big, blue-eyed blonde, she hails from one of those stalwartly white little towns between the East Coast and Midwest whose votes Demo­crats worry about during presidential elections. Thirteen years ago, Lynn was working at a convenience store, where she started making eyes at a good-looking customer, a 26-year-old Mexican farmworker named José. The first time José asked another store employee if he could speak with Lynn, Lynn felt so shy that she locked herself in a storeroom. Eventually she came out; soon she and José were in love. They married, though José was undocumented. They started having kids.

As a U.S. citizen, Lynn figured she'd quickly be able to get José a green card and that he could remain in America while the paperwork was processed. She was mistaken: She didn't know that back in 1996, immigration law had changed and now required undocumented people like José, newly married to U.S. citizens, to return to their home countries while waiting to be legalized. Some of those people would have to wait only weeks or months before being admitted back into the U.S. Others, who'd previously returned home only briefly – say, to visit their family in Mexico for Christmas – would have to leave again and wait 10 years before coming back legally.

Others had it even worse. An undocumented spouse who'd been caught and deported, but had then re-entered, was banned for life from returning to the U.S. It was possible to file a "hardship waiver," arguing that the applicant's absence from America was harming the U.S.-citizen spouse. But it took 10 years before one could file a waiver – 10 years outside of the country. And filing was no guarantee that the waiver would be granted.

At first – rather than return to Mexico for a decade – José took his chances as an undocumented husband and father. But he kept getting picked up by immigration officials and booted south of the border. Left behind, Lynn and the children became so depressed and desperate that, in 2007, Lynn piled everyone into the car and drove for three days – to Juárez, Mexico. At an immigration hearing there, José was told definitively, by U.S. consular officials, that he was banned for life and would have to wait the requisite 10 years to apply for a waiver. Lynn was left with two choices. She could leave José and return north with the kids. Or she and her husband could try to make a life for the entire family in Juárez.

They took the second option.

Finding a Community

Immediately they ran into problems.

Harvesting cabbage and tending cows as an undocumented farmworker in America, José had earned a few hundred dollars a week. Working full time on an ultra-modern assembly line at a maquiladora (factory) in Juárez, he made $50. A week.

But across from Juárez, Chihuahua, is El Paso, Texas, to which U.S.-citizen Lynn could cross everyday. There were jobs in El Paso, in call centers and medical billing agencies. They paid minimum wage. But the U.S. minimum is 10 times that of Mexico, and in Juárez it was a living – sort of. With five children to support, Lynn and José are still poor.

When they first arrived in Juárez, Lynn set out to make sure her U.S.-citizen children would be educated in English. Though it wasn't exactly legal, she joined with some other Juárez women – Mexicans and Mexi­can Americans – who wanted their kids to study in El Paso. Together they rented a small, cheap house in a poor neighborhood in El Paso. Using the address to claim residency, they enrolled their children in nearby schools. Back in Juárez, Lynn began waking the kids every day at 4:30am. Now, Mondays through Fridays at 6am, still half asleep in the car, they flash their passports, mutter declarations of citizenship, and cross the international bridge to the U.S. In the afternoon the trip is reversed. The kids have learned not to tell teachers and schoolmates that they live across the border.

During their first three years there, Lynn and her family knew no other Americans in Juárez. Their first three Novembers, they celebrated Thanksgiving by themselves. Then Lynn discovered an Internet site – – a self-help forum for couples experiencing the same immigration difficulties as she and José were having. Lynn also dipped into Facebook. On both sites she learned that couples consisting of a U.S.-citizen spouse (usually the wife) and an undocumented Mexican spouse (the husband) were living all along the border and deep into Mexico's interior.

That's how Lynn met Emily Bonderer Cruz, the second member of the group and the one who gave it its nickname.

Falling in Love

Emily loves to talk about how she met her husband, a quiet man whom she lovingly calls "Gordo" – though he's not fat.

When the couple met in 2005, Emily was a methamphetamine addict, living in a suburb near Phoenix. She was in her early 20s and could barely hold a job, but when she was high she thought she was the cleverest, most beautiful woman in the world. Her previous boyfriends, also addicts, agreed with her. Gordo didn't. He "would tell me I was a fucking idiot for doing drugs," Emily recalled recently.

She tried to deceive him about her habit. "I would wait until he was fast asleep before I crept out to the living room to get high," she has written. "I would smoke bowl after bowl, hiding behind the couch. I would slip into bed an hour or so before I thought he would wake up and sing songs to myself in my head and make plans to be a famous something or other."

But Gordo wasn't stupid, and Emily "decided that it was his fault that I couldn't stop using." She left him for a few days and woke up one morning knowing something had changed. She grabbed a pen, picked up a calendar – printed with an image of the Virgin Mary – and drew an X on that day's date. It was the day she decided to stop using drugs, and she has ever since been clean. She credits Gordo for saving her life then, though he barely spoke English and she hardly knew Spanish. They were married in 2007.

Three years later, they were feeling terrorized by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Arizona Senate Bill 1070, a law giving police the authority to stop people to check their immigration status. Gordo was undocumented and afraid to leave the house. As the wife of a man without papers, Emily felt she was being made to feel as lowlife as the drug dealers from whom she'd once bought product.

She used the Internet to research living in Mexico, and online she ran into Lynn. Lynn said she'd help with a move to Juárez. In the summer of 2010, along with their Pomeranian and miniature pinscher, Emily and Gordo drove for six hours from Arizona to El Paso. Lynn met them at the international bridge and helped them cross south.

Her first night in Juárez, Emily wept into her pillow, mostly in fear for her life. By 2010, an average of almost 300 people a month were being murdered in Juárez – nine or 10 each day – and the media was calling the city the "murder capital" of the world. Soon after her arrival Emily spotted a corpse on the street, obviously a homicide. It was a neighborhood vendor; Gordo had just bought a newspaper from him. Emily feared she'd see hundreds more corpses while she and her husband waited to be readmitted to America. She wondered if they would join the body count. It was no idle fear – just months after Emily's arrival, another young U.S. citizen, Jake Reyes-Neal, would be fatally shot more than 80 times in the home he shared with Tania Nava, his deported Mexican wife, who was waiting out her own 10 years in Juárez.

Emily was also disheartened by the child beggars on the streets, and by her growing realization that most people making $50 a week did not have a spouse picking up the slack in El Paso. In fact, she realized, many people in Juárez were destitute and hungry.

But to Emily's surprise, within weeks she was overcoming her fear and disappointment, and learning to love Juárez – starting with the city's mouthwatering street food.

Heaven and Hell

There was the hamburguesa hawaiana, which put McDonald's to shame. It was lovingly composed by a man with a little cart, who took a sirloin patty, grilled pineapple, American cheese, and carne bistec, wedged them between a buttered bun, then finished everything on a grill. And there were freshly made tacos, available right on a nearby corner, beckoning Emily and Gordo when they took a stroll at 10 o'clock at night.

Cortney DeBolt-Sanchez with husband Phil and the couple's daughter
Cortney DeBolt-Sanchez with husband Phil and the couple's daughter (Photo by Christ Chavez)

Best of all, Emily says, was that she could live, drive, and just walk around with Gordo without the constant fear of being arrested. Juárez seemed like "a hell on Earth but also a heaven," she says. "It was the first place that opened its arms to my husband and me and allowed us to be together, to make a life for ourselves without worrying about one of us being taken away. The Spanish word I feel for Juárez means something like 'love' in English, but also something more. The word is cariño."

Emily began blogging – – about what she was seeing and living: the murders and the poverty, yes; but also, as one of her first posts put it, "the weather, the food, the people, the ambiance." She loved it all. She got so comfortable that she stopped having full-blown panic attacks during hours-long waits at the international bridge while commuting every day to El Paso.

"The line doesn't get to me as much anymore," she wrote on her new blog. "I've fallen into a nice routine of crossing and then falling asleep for an hour in the Walmart parking lot. I have my pillow, my blanket, I'm set. Then on the way home I read trashy magazines like Life & Style or Ok! It's quite fun, really. Soothing. The trashy magazines I mean. I've always been a celebrity gossip whore."

She blogged about her relationship with Gordo. Some of her writing was sentimental.

When I married my husband it was till death do us part. There were no stipulations in our vows as to where we got to live till death. So maybe we are living in the murder capital of the world, maybe I have to wait 2 hours to cross the border for work, and maybe my husband only makes $250 US dollars a month. But we love each other, we are together, we are living our lives, and that is all that matters.

And some was edgy:

He makes the best corn tortillas from scratch and doesn't even use a press. He was born and raised in a country full of machismo yet never complains when he mops the floor or does the laundry. ... My husband and I yell at each other. Practically all the time. That's how we communicate. We swear and say malas razones. We talk to each other like we are compas or homeboys or whatever. Do not confuse our tone with anger. Just because one of us just said, "No mames, cállase a la chingada," and the other responded with, "Fuck you guey," doesn't mean we don't follow it up with laughter and a make out session. That's how we roll.

Snappy blog posts called for a snappy blog name. Emily coined one: "The Real Housewife of Ciudad Juárez." She worked on the blog at night, ensconced in a little computer room upstairs, while, downstairs, Gordo petted the dogs and watched Mexican cooking shows and narco telenovelas with titles like "Pablo Escobar."

It didn't take long for other local gringas in Emily's situation to discover her blog and email her. Soon they were meeting in person over coffee. They started organizing family gatherings for Thanksgiving and in the city's parks and Peter Piper Pizzas. The women formed a tight-knit support group. They helped each other find jobs in El Paso and medical care in Mexico. They comforted each other about their homesickness for family, friends, and everyday life in America. They commiserated about the interminable bridge crossing and laughed about their touch-and-go Spanish. They marveled over the astounding kindness and generosity of their neighbors, even the poor ones. They joked about being plural: The Real Housewives of Ciudad Juárez.

Two Sides to Life

One of the "housewives" is Erika, formerly a schoolteacher in Arizona, whose Mormon husband is banned for life from the U.S. because he once walked over a bridge and falsely claimed he was an Ameri­can citizen. And there's a woman from the Appalachian coal fields, with a matching twang in her voice. Her Mexican husband wears cowboy hats and looks as though he could accompany his wife if they were ever to sing C&W duets in Nashville.

A short-term housewife of Juárez was Cortney DeBolt-Sanchez, 24, formerly a beautician from the Detroit suburbs. She'd married Phil, from her high school class, who'd been brought illegally from Mexico as a very young child, and who speaks Eng­lish with a Michigan accent thick enough to cut with a knife. When the couple arrived in Juárez in late 2010* with their baby daughter, Cortney knew no Spanish. She was grateful that in a strange and frightening land, Emily and the other "housewives" helped her to feel like something more than a frightened stranger. Although Phil had never left the U.S. since being smuggled in as a child, it still took nearly two years for Cortney to get a hardship waiver; she and Phil immediately returned north.

Emily sometimes fantasizes about leaving Juárez and returning to America with her husband. Real Housewife has described their imaginary repatriation:

I look at the familiar window washers and the men who have been offering me burritos and sub-par newspapers and sodas every morning . ... For some reason they look different today but I can't quite put my finger on it. Maybe because I know I won't see them every day anymore?...

[I]t's our turn and we pull up to be inspected.... [I]t's an agent that I know. ... He's surprised to see someone else in my car. ... He asks me where we're going...

We're going to the United States.

I can see he's a bit teary eyed when I introduce him to my husband for the first time after so many years... I begin sobbing uncontrollably with joy.

It's unlikely her fantasy will become real any time soon. Last January, the Obama administration changed the rules for the undocumented spouses of U.S. citizens. A reform now allows them to remain in the U.S. while authorities decide whether or not to grant them waivers to deportation. The change is a godsend for many. But it applies only to those who still live in the United States and are just starting their paperwork. It does not help the Cruzes – Gordo left the U.S. three years ago and cannot be grandfathered.

In June the U.S. Senate passed a sweeping immigration reform bill that might help some Real Housewives. It would allow the Department of Homeland Security to assess, case by case, the hardships U.S.-citizen spouses have suffered from their undocumented partners being deported – and if the hardship is bad enough, to immediately repatriate the partners. But the bill has stalled in the House, and been further delayed by the government shutdown. Another family reunification bill, promoted by El Paso Congressman Beto O'Rourke, has also stalled.

But even if the bills were to eventually pass, Emily doubts she and Gordo would benefit from making hardship arguments. Thanks to "The Real Housewife of Ciudad Juárez," she has spent years publicly and enthusiastically proclaiming that for her, living in Juárez is not exactly a hardship. "I love it here," she trumpets on her blog.

Lynn's is a more complicated situation. Juárez has clearly been a hardship. Her children have seen shootouts and dead bodies. The street they live on is lined with 40 tiny houses that look like matchboxes, with pastel-colored curlicues swirled into the plaster. The houses, one of which Lynn and José bought, look at once cute and frightening. Several are abandoned and have been trashed, their windows broken, wiring stolen, and curlicues marred with graffiti. The tiny yards of others are filled with furiously barking dogs. That's because burglary and robbery are major problems on the block, including at Lynn's place. Last year, she and the children returned home to find that everything of value, from the kids' bicycles to the cell phones to José's toolbox, had been stolen while they were away.

Lynn's daughter Rosario was in middle school last fall and didn't understand about the neighborhood dogs and why their owners want them vicious. Thinking one was cute, she tried to pet it though a fence. The dog bit off half the back of her hand. For weeks after a trip to the emergency room in El Paso, the hand was bandaged and dripping.

Yet Rosario seems like a junior Real House­wife: She loves Juárez and greatly prefers it to El Paso. In Juárez, she notes, "You have a whole bunch of friends because the houses are not too far away." People are kinder in Juárez. In El Paso the 7-Elevens and Circle-Ks are few and far between. In Juárez there are vendors with street food, right in front of your house. "They take their bicycles and ring the bells. That's how you know someone's coming with chicharrones."

And most of all, there's José, called Papi by Rosario and her siblings. Papi can never come to El Paso, they say. But Papi is always with them in Juárez. Lynn wonders if they should ever go north again. "The United States did this to us," she says. "So why should we come back?"

Lynn's eldest daughter is in high school now and thinking about college in the United States. She understands there are two sides to her life and always will be. At church one day in El Paso, someone gave her a rubber bracelet, and for a time she wore it constantly. "For me it supports my dad," she said, holding her forearm aloft. "Hope for the border," the bracelet said, as strongly as Emily's blog.

*The Chronicle originally reported that Cortney DeBolt-Sanchez and her family arrived in Ciudad Juarez in 2011. They got there in late 2010 and waited almost two years until Cortney's husband got authorization to return, legally, to the US.

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