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Juárez Resurrection

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Photo by Mónica Ortiz Uribe

The Kentucky Club in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, has been part of local lore since 1920.

CIUDAD JUÁREZ, Mexico -- Finding an empty chair at the Kentucky Club in Ciudad Juárez last Saturday night was close to impossible. In five years I'd never seen the place so full. Once inside there was no getting to the bathroom or the jukebox without a series of shoulder twists and elbow jabs.

Perhaps at any other bar, this might be reason to turn around and take your crew elsewhere. But at the Kentucky Club on Saturday night, this was reason to celebrate.

You may have read about the tough times in Juárez: a wave of horrific drug violence sweeping up eight lives a day via massacres, daylight shootings and beheadings. I've written about it more times than I care to admit. But I've also written about how, in the last two years, the city is slowly healing. Saturday night at the Kentucky Club was just another affirmation of a Juárez comeback.

The bar has survived since 1920 with initial help from thirsty Americans in an era of prohibition. The waiters like to brag about how the margarita was invented there (a disputed claim) and how Marilyn Monroe pranced through the doors after her third divorce.

I was there to mark a small, but locally significant, piece of history. My friend, a celebrated author and native of the border, is the first Latino writer to win the prestigious PEN/Faulkner award. This legendary Juárez bar was a centerpiece in Benjamin Alire Sáenz's collection of short stories titled, " Everything Begins and Ends at the Kentucky Club."

Like any good radio reporter I had to bring him back to the Kentucky Club to interview him about the book. And what good journalist travels to a favorite bar without a posse of fellow journalists? All together we were six, four journalists and two writers. All of us have personal and professional ties to Mexico and lived or worked in Juárez during the city's toughest moments. Now we are marveling at signs of the city's resurrection.

Ben's book is not about the Kentucky Club. Its characters all gravitate, even if just briefly, at the bar sometime during their story. The book is really about life's struggles, whether they be love, drug addition, or self-identity. The setting is the U.S.-Mexico border. For readers who live on the border, Ben's tales are just that — tales. But for readers outside this region, they can be a fascinating study of life on the edge of two countries. The border has an inescapable presence in nearly all his work.

I hope my microphone did justice to that very special Saturday night at the Kentucky Club. To find out, you'll have to wait and listen. That night is partially the subject of my next story.