Sunday's sun comes down despacio, despacito, all along Juárez-El Paso. Ramón and I make the trip teenagers and crazy gabachos do across the river to get some fun. A light breeze welcomes us on the Mexican side of the Río Grande; long shadows walk back and forth, up and down an orange-and-red Juárez Avenue: the strip. It is just the ideal atmosphere to forget the tedious week approaching and the unbearable lightness of being a routine muncher.
Ramón follows me down the strip. We walk by forgotten pachucos now turned into shoeshines and street musicians. We talk about books and hitch-hiking Jews, southbound trips and Mexican roads—the memories of old—while the smell of all the stale drink-and-drown fiestas permeates through the gate of every single joint. Juaritos says hello and "come on, guys, we have fine and sexy ladies waiting for you," says the man with the neon-lighted smile that stands at every single entrance. But we ain't looking for any of those caves. Ours is an upward trip, in search the sacred root.
Juárez hasn't changed a bit: It's still dying. It's a big town afflicted by the same corruption and a great deal of the violence plaguing the entire México-U.S. border. People are friendly nonetheless. The corners are inhabited by taxi men offering "chicas" (girls) the same way they offer a ride. People are friendly nonetheless. Many dru stores offer "Medecinas baratas" (cheap medicines), the of late number one spot for tourists.
One can feel a sense of history trudging around downtown Juárez. Away from the fluorescent signs and the drunken aroma, few bars keep the revolutionary air that hosted Mexican troops, Revolutionary soldados, and spies during the Revolutionary War of 1910. They can tell a story that no one recalls. Jack Johnson's fight is gone. Prohibition is almost a century-old tale; the gringos came, as they still come, to drown searching for the Mexican Dream. But they cannot find what's been right beneath their noses, a drink made for the wandering throats of women and men with a taste for the border elixir: Chuchupastle.
No one is certain about how and when it happened, but some 60 years ago downtown Juárez woke up underwater. Three feet of water made of "El Arbolito" (The Small Tree), a small place embeded right in front of the Plaza del Mariachi on Mariscal Street, a residual water pool. Today "El Arbolito" is receving more water again. Cracks on the ceiling leak some water down to the buckets lying on the floor. Nothing to worry about. Two guys are already drinking there when Ramón and I walk in.
"Buenas tardes, jóvenes; a ver sus i.d.'s, por favor, muchachos," says Conejo(Rabbit), the barman who probably was a teenager when the water came long ago.
Our sight takes a tour from left to right resting on the old chairs, mesas and stools scattered across the place and facing the bar at the bottom. The wooden "barra" hosts miniature versions of a Mayan pyramid and a Virgen de Guadalupe image, old calendars, glasses of various shapes and sizes, and a grey dust-covered register. Right on top of the register, a phallic device dwells mysteriously. "La maraca" has a thin stick some 10 inches long and a sort of balloon at its end. No one can touch it. The word at "El Arbolito" is that "la maraca punishes those people who claim to have no money to pay for their drinks." Conejo says it works. "Nomás uno se nos fue una vez sin pagar."
A Julio César Chávez photo hangs from the wall at the left end of the massive piece of furniture. Tequilas, whiskeys and all the other sorts of liquors align together on the main shelf. Beers rest inside an old fridge right beneath the assortment of bottles. The place is far from being your typical hip-hop club or even an American curious "Mexican classic" cantina. The cracked and badly repaired walls host a horde of hipster college students that pack the place up almost every Friday on their way to some of the "fancier" places. On most days a keyboard-guitar duo accompanies the cheer and laughter of those who gather at El Arbolito. On special occasions (almost every Monday) there's "botana" (snacks) for the early birds. El Arbolito's fame brings people in every single day searching the home place to one of the unknown delicacies of Juárez. But the biggest nicety that brought Ramón and me here is Chuchupastle.
The infusion of Tequila and the root of the Osha plant (Ligusticum porteri)*, Chuchupastle is a strong beverage. Its savor is something between celery and the most pleasant corner of burning Hell. Only a few spots in Juárez sell this liquor in its most original form, and El Arbolito is thought to be its original home. El Arbolito's mix is made with regular Tequila Orendain. The clear liquor acquires a yellowish color thanks to the root's "flavorful and medicinal infusion," said University of Kansas' Botanist Quinn Gabriel Long.
"It is much like many bars in the US make trendy vodka infusions with everything from pomegranate to cucumber," he said.
Ramón says he's thirsty. I just want to drink. The first "chuchu" comes in the hands of Conejo. He serves it in a small shot glass, perhaps a warning of its strength, perhaps a limitation of its enchanting bouquet and strong body. One has to sip it like a fine wine, says the popular word about Chuchupastle. No one stands straight after four of these shots, and I know from experience. As I downed the Chuchu, I feel its grassy flavor bathe my mouth. No sooner had I felt this than a parsimonious burning begins crawling up my body as the Chuchu travels down. It's like realizing I have lungs, arms, feet and hair for the first time. Ramón gasps with his eyes wide open after his first drink. There will be a couple more during the night. A cold beer is a good companion for "el chuchu." Any fría will do. All beers cost 10 pesos, the same as chuchu. And we choose to have "Indio," a dark bock with smooth composition and taste. Just after a few minutes, Ramón and I start talking about whatever comes to our mind. He says to know a guy that did "this" and "that." I answer that something similar happened to a friend of mine. We look at each other with suspicion. Perhaps we revealed too much. Perhaps we need to sip a little more "chuchu."
Almost two hours go by and we are drinking our third round. We keep on talking about "our friends'" stories. Sergio, the son of the late owner, a mature man of about 55 years, plays an Antonio Aguilar cassette on his stereo and Ramón and I sing the little lyrics we know. "Normally, we have musicians come and play all those sad rancheras to cheer people up. Nomás que they didn't come today... They might be drunk," he says.
We had our fifth chuchu a few minutes after. All of a sudden Ramón recalled he had a wife and child to go see. I just laughed and asked for another one. Ramón dragged me out. We finally walked back, passing right next to the prostitutes, travesties and strippers on their way to work.
*Special thanks to University of Kansas Botanist Gabriel Quinn for his knowledge and help.