When Carlos Leon offered me a shot of tequila, I don't think he was expecting me to say yes—because then he had to take a closer look at the shot glass that sat next to the cash register. The inside of the glass was coated with dust.
"Hold on," he said. "Let me go wash this off."
And off he went to the back of his shop, Don Quixote, a low-key Mexican handicrafts store in the heart of Nogales, Sonora's tourist district off Avenida Obregon, a few blocks south of Calle Campillo.
Admittedly, it's a Friday afternoon—not known to be a prime time for a shopping-in-Nogi excursion.
"It will be a little busier tomorrow," he says, putting the now-clean shot glass down and looking for the bottle of tequila behind the counter.
Judging from the dust, tourist traffic has been slow on the weekends, too. Our neighbors to the south have definitely seen better days.
Trouble for Nogales started when the U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory, warning U.S. citizens to stay away from Nogales after gun battles in October 2008 between Mexican federal police and members of a drug cartel left 10 cartel members dead.
Gun battles aren't a regular occurrence in Nogales. However, this past year, the border city with a population of more than 200,000 has seen 115 murders. A perception has developed that Nogales and other parts of Mexico aren't safe destinations—and that the violence could easily spill across the border.
In reaction, the UA Dean of Students Office issued a warning in mid-February advising students and staff members to avoid travel to Mexico, especially for spring break. In March, Mexican officials met with the UA to get the office to rescind the warning, to no avail.
Then in late April came reports of swine flu in Mexico City. The UA issued another travel advisory to students and staff.
Pouring my shot of tequila, Leon says stores and restaurants on Avenida Obregon started to close late last year, and they've continued to close.
"There hasn't been one documented case of swine flu in Sonora. Tell the people in Tucson that we need their business right now. There are no problems."
"Es calma," Leon adds, his hands sweeping in the air to bring home his point.
Calm and order was the norm the day several weeks ago when I traveled over with my mother. I'm a fifth-generation Tucsonan and a self-described pocho, so I decided to take my gray-haired, bilingual mother over the border with me. In Leon's shop, she said no to a shot of tequila, but lamented to Leon in Spanish how sad she still is that Elvira's Restaurant closed the end of last year.
Elvira's was the place my grandfather took my mother and her two sisters when they went over the border to buy food during the rationing days of World War II. When I was a young girl, Elvira's was the restaurant I went to when I crossed over with my mother and other family members. I realized looking down Calle Campillo and Avenida Obregon that those are memories of a different border region—when people traveled back and forth with few restrictions and little caution.
When my mother and I crossed over for this trip, we both noticed two boys, probably between 10 and 12 years old, sitting on the concrete floor just beyond the Mexican border-security area. They looked at each person who crossed through the gate, their faces filled with worry, with one boy's eyes filled with tears. They were waiting, in a panic, for someone—who, exactly, I don't know.
The other sign that this wasn't the border of my youth: the hundreds of white wooden crosses hung along the Sonoran side of the border fence, with a name written on each one. These serve as reminders of the people who've died crossing the border. The crosses were accompanied by large messages, such as los paredes vueltas de lado son puentes. When you turn a wall on its side, it becomes a bridge.
Meanwhile, Nogales seems to be reflecting the problems facing its U.S. compadres, like the rising costs of medical care. In Mexico, anyone can walk into a pharmacy and buy any medication without a prescription. In Nogales, there were only a couple of pharmacies I recall when I was a kid, and they were a block past the tourist district, hidden in a residential area.
Now, pharmacies seem to be located in every other building. The other new areas of business growth are dental offices touting low-cost dental care by English-speaking dentists who take insurance.
When we leave Leon's shop, we look across the street at The Continental—a building that I identify with as much as my mother identifies with Elvira's. The Continental building is a flagship spot in Nogales, with several floors, a beautiful tile exterior and a cool, kitschy sign hanging from the side of the building.
Inside, there used to be Mexican arts and crafts, from those cool but tacky black velvet paintings of Elvis and Pancho Villa, to exquisite Mata Ortiz pottery. My family has spent a lot of time in this building over the years. Inside, we'd buy Coca-Cola while looking around or sitting at a fountain to cool off.
I remember with great fondness my mother and her sisters talking in Spanish to the woman behind the counter as if they'd known her for 100 years. Actually, every visit to Nogales seemed like a family visit to see friends we'd known forever.
But on this day, my mother and I stood there in shock: The Continental was now home to several pharmacies and a dental practice. Leon smiled at us and said it had been that way now for almost eight years. The former owner had moved her store down the street.
Instead of looking for the store, we walked down the street, and there was Javier Lopez, who stopped us to look at the merchandise at his sunglass stall.
It's a slow season—the slowest he's ever seen, Lopez tell us.
"That swine flu is in Mexico City. Mexico City is very far away from Sonora," he says.
When we stop to talk to a shop owner a few blocks down, several other shop owners gather around, inviting us to come to their stores and take a look.
"What can it hurt just to take a look?" one man says.
In the past, shopkeepers in Nogales have always been eager to invite potential customers to find a great deal; this time, they are a little more aggressive than usual.
"What are you looking for?" Luis Reyes says to me as I look across the street.
"I'm just looking around," I tell him.
"Well, are you looking for something in particular that I can help you with?" he adds.
"No, really, I'm just looking at the street."
I am almost hand-escorted in his store, while another shopkeeper offers my mother a chair and spot of shade. This is in an alley lined with stores just north of Avenida Obregon. I confess to Reyes that I'm writing a story about traveling to Nogales. His eyebrows go up; his smile goes away, and he reaches under his chair to take out a Spanish-language newspaper.
He points to a story about the U.S. reaction to swine flu being tied to racism, and he points to the last sentence of the story.
"No one has had swine flu in Sonora," he says.
Then Reyes offers up another observation: "I heard that Janet Napolitano was telling people not to go over the border (to places like Nogales), but that it was OK to go to Puerto Peñasco," he says, not trying to hide the contempt he feels.
I leave to find my mother chatting with several other store owners, and we joke that right now, it seems like we are the only tourists walking the streets.
"It must be time for us to have lunch," my mother says.
We'd heard that La Roca is open, but we've never been to the restaurant before; there was never any need when we had Elvira's, we joke. I'd been told the restaurant is across the train tracks, so we start walking in that direction, bringing us close to the border crossing. We got lost and walked into a pharmacy to ask for directions, and learned that we were going the right way—toward the border-crossing area and the hills on the other side of Highway 15, which goes from Arizona and through Nogales into Sonora.
We see a La Roca sign and an arrow. We head that way, and again, someone asks us what we're looking for.
"We're going to La Roca," I tell him.
"Well, you're going the wrong way."
We're feeling a little uneasy; after all, we saw the sign, and we're now far from the tourist district and in a small residential area.
"I'll take you there," he insists.
We argue with him a little bit as we follow him—but there it is, the entrance to La Roca, a white colonial monolith that's home to a restaurant and bar upstairs. He asks if he can be paid for helping us out, and we each give him a dollar.
Inside the restaurant, it is cool and beautiful. The waiters seem like a blast from the past, all wearing white dinner jackets and black bowties. They carry a board to each table with the menu, but all I wanted at that moment was a cold Mexican Coca-Cola, the kind I loved to slurp at The Continental. I get that, plus chicken mole; my mother orders chiles rellenos, and we talk about how our visit has gone so far. We can't stop thinking about Luis Reyes and how angry he is that people have given up on Nogales.
"Is it possible that it seems poorer?" I ask my mom.
"Poverty has always been here," she recalls.
I remind her of the little boys we saw waiting for someone to cross over the border, and that shopkeepers seemed more desperate than usual.
"I'm amazed at how many pharmacies there are now, and the dentists," she says.
On our way out, I ask a man working near the bar how the season is going for La Roca. He'll only identify himself as the sales manager. There's hardly anyone in the restaurant, but my question seems to annoy him.
"This is for an article about the summer?" he asks as if I'm crazy. "We hardly had a tourist season this year, and now that season is ending. Hardly anyone comes here during the summer. I don't know how some of these businesses are going to survive."
"Will La Roca survive?" I ask.
"Yes," he sighs. "The locals are supporting us. We will be here."
Summer has arrived, and that means winter visitors have left for cooler climes. But if you go farther south, to ocean destinations like Puerto Peñasco, the next few months are the best time to head down. (To make Mr. Reyes of Nogales happier, consider making a pit stop in Nogales for a few hours.)
Peggy Turk Boyer, director of the Intercultural Center for the Study of Deserts and Oceans (CEDO), confirms that before the monsoons arrive, Rocky Point's weather is perfect. Right now may also be the best time to visit CEDO's center, which has taught tourists and students about the desert and life in the Sea of Cortez since 1980.
The center has seen a drop in tourists just like Nogales. A new CEDO project, the NaturArte Ecotourism Corridor, has not gotten the tourists for which CEDO had hoped. Turk Boyer says the point of NaturArte is to bring tourists to the local environment and sustainable businesses, such as a trip to a local oyster cooperative and restaurant.
"We want to show alternatives to the mass development of the beaches and the marinas, to give local land owners an extra income and show them other ways to be responsible for the local ecology," she explains.
It's also been a good way to show tourists that there is more to Rocky Point than just those condos and bars.
Another example of CEDO's work is a week-long children's summer camp. This is the first year the camp's eight spots haven't been filled before school ends.
"This is also the first time we advertised. ... Four have signed up, but given what's happening in Mexico, we're not sure if we're going to fill it this year. We have our doubts," Turk Boyer says.
While the economy may have a bit to do with the low numbers of tourists CEDO has seen at its center, Turk Boyer says she thinks it has to do more with the U.S. travel advisory.
Turk Boyer says people need to understand that violence is not something they've experienced at CEDO and Rocky Point, and she wants tourism in the area to turn around.
"Right now, I can't pay the salary of our gift-store employee," she quips. "Nothing has changed. Rocky Point is still one of the best family vacation spots near Tucson."
When I share the news with my mother, she shrugs her shoulders and says, "Why not?" when I mention a weekend at Puerto Peñasco.
But it's getting hard, visiting all these suffering old friends in Nogales and Rocky Point, she says. Will we be able to find the Happy Dolphin, one of the best restaurants in Puerto Peñasco? Or Manny's, which serves up the best fish and chips outside? They are still open, I've been assured.
"Well, OK," my mother says. "Vamos."
TRAVEL TIPS TO NOGALES
• Park along the border on the U.S. side at the Burger King, or in another of the public lots near the crossing. Burger King charged us $4 for the day.
• When we left Mexico to head back to our car, I got out my license and birth certificate. The U.S. officer told me to keep in mind that on June 1, we are all going to need passports to cross and come back.
• If you buy a prescription medication from a Nogales pharmacy, and you don't have a prescription, be warned: When you go through Customs, your bag may be checked, and the drugs may be confiscated.
TRAVEL TIPS TO PUERTO PEÑASCO/ROCKY POINT
• For hotel or condo information, just Google "Rocky Point rentals," and you'll find a number of brokers who work with owners to rent condos for a week or a weekend.
• For more information on CEDO, their children's summer camp and their ecotourism project, visit www.cedointercultural.org.