by Kimi Eisele, photos by Nieves Montaño
Most folklorists know food as a gateway into culture, place, and tradition. Sometimes, though, it’s just what gets you across the border.
That was the case one Saturday in mid-June when I set out on a food tour of Agua Prieta, Sonora. My travel companions—a videographer, a photographer, and radio journalist—were as new to Agua Prieta as I was, but curious and game just the same.
We arrived mid-morning in Douglas, Arizona with its nearly forgotten main street, noticeably clean and empty, with the Gadsden Hotel in full view. Recent revitalization efforts, arts and cultural events, and an enthusiastic new mayor, are helping to bring this once-company town back, so it’s definitely worth a stop. But on this day, we were headed just across the line to its much bigger and more populated Mexican neighbor.
From a parking lot, I called my single source, Keoki Skinner, 68, a former American journalist now offering Agua Prieta tours on everything from food to architecture to local industry (and sometimes all three, as we’d soon discover). A few minutes later he pulled up in an old yellow Volvo station wagon. A small, electric fan mounted on the dashboard blew out hot air as we climbed in and headed south into “APSon.” (APSon is slang for Agua Prieta and also the name of a both 1960s Mexican rock band that got its start in the town and a popular taquería in Tucson.)
Skinner arrived in Agua Prieta in 1986 as reporter for The Arizona Republic and a stringer for the New York Times and never left. He married a local woman and together they had five children. He later became a “fixer,” helping other journalists to source stories, and for 16 years ran a fresh juice shop called “El Mitote” on Calle 6. He still sells fresh juice from a mobile food truck across the border in Douglas on summer weeknights and for special events.
Un mitote, Skinner explained, “when used as noun is a hubbub where there’s a bunch of activity. The verb mitotear means to gossip, synonymous with chismear.” He’s known local as the güero mitotero, or the gringo gossiper, a name he was given from one of his first employees who said, “Tu no eres un reportero, tu eres un mitotero”—You’re not a reporter you’re a nosy one.
“The name really took off and struck a nerve down here,” Skinner said. “I ask a lot of questions.”
Our first stop wasn’t for tacos but “for folklore.” A few hundred yards past the international border is Barber Shop Internacional (210 Panamericana), which doubles as El Primer Museo de Agua Prieta.
On every inch of wall hang old photos–some original, some clipped from newspapers–of significant Mexican figures and historical moments. Old typewriters, disco balls, teapots, trophies, lanterns, antlers, and more than a dozen taxidermic animals that have seen better days, fill countertops and shelves.
In one corner of the room, the shop owner was cutting a client’s hair. “El Negro” Chavez has run the shop since 1976, accumulating photos and artifacts from friends and visitors.
“Agua Prieta was the center of Mexico at one point,” Skinner said, pointing to a photo of Pancho Villa, the Mexican revolutionary who staged an nighttime attack in Agua Prieta in November 1915 but was unsuccessful in thwarting Venustiano Carranza’s rise to the Mexican presidency. (Later, however, the signing of the 1920 Plan of Agua Prieta ended Carranza’s presidency).
After the museum we walked to Plaza Azueta, a full city block lined with trees and centered with a concrete gazebo. Skinner seemed to know everyone on the street, offering up “Hola, que tal?” and “Como andas, hermano,” to those we passed.
Sometimes the plaza is full of Oaxaqueños selling crafts from their home state, Skinner told us. That day, though, it was relatively empty but for a shoe shiner blasting música banda from his corner kiosk and a few passersby.
Skinner said what he likes most about living in Agua Prieta is the pace of life, which is laid back and family oriented. “It has been a beautiful place to raise my children. It’s a very kid-oriented place, like all of Mexico,” he said.
Much larger than Douglas, Agua Prieta also has a more robust economy. Its early life came from both the Phelps Dodge Corporation, which ran a smelter in Douglas until 1987, drawing workers from both sides of the border, and the railroad, which transported minerals through the town to and from Douglas and both Nacozari and Cananea, Sonora.
In the 1980s and 90s the trafficking of drugs and humans were the city’s chief economic activities, Skinner said. Chapo Guzman and the Sinaloan Cartel built the first drug tunnel under the international border here, bringing not just notoriety, but also prosperity. “There was so much money here it was incredible. In a town like this, trickle down economics works—it all filters down to everyone, even to the guys that wash the cars,” Skinner said.
His juice business thrived. “People were coming in with 100 dollar bills all the time. I had to have a lot of change on hand at all times,” he said.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration discovered and shut down the tunnel in 1990. Soon after, the city became a staging area for high numbers undocumented migrants crossing into the U.S, Skinner said.
Increased border militarization, U.S. policies, along with humanitarian ministries, responded to that crisis in various ways. And while some of the migrant traffic through Agua Prieta has slowed, Skinner says, summer remains a treacherous time for crossing the border in the desert.
“I always say it’s an illegal universe here,” Skinner said. “Drugs are what fuel this economy. Smuggling of people. Contraband.”
Agua Prieta’s main economic engine is still drug trafficking, but maquilas like Takata and Velcro, a new thermal-electric power plant (one of only three in the world), and a host of service industries also provide economic opportunities.
After the mini economic lesson, we make our first food stop, at Maria Bonita (Calle 12 y Avenida 11) for traditional Sonoran fare.
Entering Maria Bonita feels a little like walking into an old building in central Mexico—walls are painted ochre yellow and covered with green vines. But the place was built relatively recently by a local Agua Prieta family. The interior is cheerful, also with yellow walls and substantial wooden tables, and friendly efficient service.
The Tacos Michoacanos—corn tortillas stuffed with shredded beef and then fried—arrived topped with healthy dollops of guacamole. The beef was lemony and flavorful. Also delicious were the Chilaquiles, with a smooth, tangy red enchilada sauce.
Maria Bonita is also a hotel. From the dining room, a steep spiral staircase leads upstairs to another dining area and 11 guest rooms, each with shiny tile floors and hand-made ironwork. All the rooms open onto a well-kept courtyard, where vines cover exterior walls and provide shade and perch for a nesting pair of swallows. “Our favorite guests,” joked owner Señora Gastellum, who said they also welcome visitors from everywhere.
Since we weren’t spending the night, we headed off for some coffee at Café Justo (Calle 11 y Avenida 19), which roasts, sells, and markets fair trade coffee grown by farmers in Chiapas, Nayarit, and Veracruz. The business was initiated in 2004 by Presbyterian border ministries who noted the numbers of migrants coming from Southern Mexico to work on the border or to cross. Curious about their lives, Reverend Mark Adams of the Frontera de Cristo Church and others visited Chiapas. When they saw how coffee growers there were being exploited by middlemen, they helped organize cooperatives to ensure growers themselves could profit. This enabled people to stay in Mexico, where they wanted to be, instead of migrating north. Initial funding from the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) helped the ministries build a commercial roaster and shipping facility in Agua Prieta, where the processed beans arrive and are then sent out to U.S. locations.
“I really like the concept behind this. Instead of building walls and militarizing the border, these people on a small scale went right to the source of migration and cut it out and solved it.” Skinner said.
While the fair trade coffee business has been operating from Agua Prieta for over a decade, the café itself is just a year old. Modern and clean with high stools and tables, it was empty early Saturday afternoon, but Skinner said it draws crowds in the mornings and evenings for gatherings and public events. “It’s like a local Starbucks, but better,” he said.
My iced dark roast Arabica coffee was exceptional, and the ice was made from actual frozen coffee—a plus! Our photographer ordered a slice of strawberry yogurt pie, which was smooth, cold, creamy, and sweet.
After coffee we headed to a seafood place, called “Rugus” on the sign out front but known by everyone as La Palapa (Calle 6 y Avenida 11) for its bonafide thatched roof. Early Saturday afternoon, it was packed, and we were lucky to get a table near the back entrance, not far from a large fish tank.
Amidst the lunch crowd was a wandering guitarist playing ballads and a sports announcer calling a soccer game on a television screen. Every table has five kinds of salsa and napkin canisters, which come in handy if you order the fish or shrimp ceviche tostada, with its marisco juice and nice sea-salty flavor. We also ordered tacos de cahuamanta, manta ray, and camaron, shrimp, basic and tasty on corn tortillas. Most interesting, however, was the quesadilla de marlin, shredded fish soaked in red chile sauce and stuffed inside a tortilla. Though smaller than expected (but still made me think of Ernest Hemingway), it was delicious.
Mid-afternoon we were ready for ice cream at Neveria Silvia (Calle 6 y Avendia 20), an APSon mainstay since 1951. Inside a half dozen women in neon green shirts, red visors, black hairnets were waiting for the afternoon rush. We all ordered the homemade nieve de garrafa, a handmade Mexican sorbet of fruit, sugar, salt, ice, and sometimes milk. The name “garrafa” refers to the stainless steel container it’s made in. That day’s flavors were vanilla, mango, and passion fruit, which you can order by the scoop, up to five of them!
We sat on tiny colorful stools at tiny, yellow tables next to kiddie rides and ate our nieve, watching as families came in with children for specialty ice cream sodas served in big Styrofoam cups topped with fruit syrups and whipped cream. Even a clown came in and wanted her picture taken with us.
By late afternoon, Skinner pointed out other eateries, but our bellies were too full to stop:
Bonanza’s Steakhouse & Bar (Calle 10 y Avenida 20) for Sonoran cuts of rib eye and coyotas (empandada-like cookies filled with with panocha, brown sugar) for desert.
El Sinaloaense (Calle 6 y Avenida 7), for mesquite-grilled chicken and traditional frijoles charros, or cowboy beans.
Kabuki Sushi Grill (Calle 1 y Avenida 6), one of several sushi places in the city, with fresh catch from Guaymas, Sonora.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The town of almost 200,000 seemed to have a taquería or raspado place on every corner. You won’t go hungry.
Before crossing back into Douglas, we drove along Calle Internacional, towards a section of town filled with “narquitectura,” or narco-architecture, the reported homes of wealthy drug traffickers. These large, private mansions have footprints that often take up a whole city block. Some are built in Mexican baroque style—castle-like with domes and minarets, looming smooth walls, oversized wooden doors, gargoyles. Others are built in modern, minimalist styles.
We continued west along the border wall towards the port of entry, passing the site where the drug tunnel was. It’s now home to a social service agency. Right across the street is the border wall, a steel fence nearly 20 feet high.
Not long ago Agua Prieta began a beautification effort here, complete with benches, trees, exercise equipment, and artwork—an effort to humanize the area, Skinner said.
We parked at a shrine to 19-year-old Carlos Reynaldo Lamadrid Guerrero, a U.S. citizen who was killed by the U.S. Border Patrol in 2011 while trying to climb the fence back into Mexico. Nearby a series of murals painted on the wall: giant orange monarch butterflies, rolling yellow grasslands, a pair of Sistine Chapel-like hands.
Through open slats in the fence, you can look past the murals and into the United States, where a concrete canal and a second wall lined with concertina wire seems to say quite clearly, “Don’t come here.”
But the day was over and so Skinner dropped us off at the port of entry. And because we had passports, we crossed to the north easily, not unlike the butterflies, or even drugs, or the aroma of carne asada and the sound of banda beats booming from speakers on a street-side taco stand.
Keoki Skinner offers 3-4 hour tours of Agua Prieta. You can reach him at 520-456-5362 or firstname.lastname@example.org.