Juárez businessman Jose Luis Mauricio Esparza isn't afraid of traveling in one of the most violent cities in the Americas without a bodyguard or an armored vehicle. Ask him why and he pulls a rosary from his coat pocket and says he's a man of faith.
“Fear is paralyzing,” he says.
The magazine publisher carries that same faith into his latest venture, a group he founded called “LaRED” — as in: the net — composed of Mexican professionals who have banded together and are networking in El Paso as a result of the violence that’s ravaged its sister city across the border.
“It’s one thing to seek other avenues to expand your business or network. It’s another to be forced to do it,” Mauricio says. “It was the latter. A lot of us had to leave and take our business and find another market. In El Paso, we found a place where we could have our clients and maintain our businesses.”
Weekly LaRED breakfasts are held at Paco Wong’s, a restaurant founded by the owners of Juárez landmark La Shangri-la. Wong is a member of the group, which makes it a natural fit to have meetings there, Mauricio says, since members have pledged to support one another. The large venue is necessary because of LaRED’s growth — from a few dozen ex-pats at its inception in March to about 300 today.
LaRED become a safe haven of sorts for people like Judith Torres, a jeweler from Chihuahua City, about a two-hour drive from Juárez. The owner of 16 stores in the state capital, Torres has been in El Paso for almost two months and opened a jewelry store on El Paso’s affluent west side earlier this week. She didn’t know anything about LaRED, she says — but found it to be a pleasant surprise after connecting with Mauricio.
“I feel very comfortable, because you feel like you are in your house,” she said at a recent LaRED breakfast. Speaking in Spanish, the de facto official language of all LaRED meetings, she tells tales of repeated thefts and extortion attempts that drove her out of the city. “[Criminals] started making threatening phone calls," she recalls. "When it was merely material things, we weren’t that bothered, but when the extortions started, we became very scared.”
Like Mauricio, several LaRED members are naturalized U.S. citizens. Others were born in the U.S. and treated El Paso and Juárez as one large metropolis until cartel wars made Juárez inaccessible. Still others vying for membership in the group — which charges about $340 in annual dues — have no ties to Juárez or the violence affecting it.
“These entrepreneurs are willing to do business with the people here. That’s what I really liked about it,” said Angie Rodriguez, publisher of The Journal and The Women’s Journal, publications geared toward the El Paso business community. “We are all people, and we are all trying to make a living. The more, the merrier.”
While LaRED is primarily about business, politics is inevitably a topic of conversation. The group's nonprofit status keeps it from endorsing candidates for office, but elected officials are already dropping in on a regular basis. State Rep. Joe Moody, one of El Paso's Democratic House members, and the man who defeated him on Election Day, Republican Dee Margo, each spoke to the group during the campaign. U.S. Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-El Paso, also made an appearance. Mauricio admits he isn’t the most familiar with the way politics work in Austin but says he knows enough to think Gov. Rick Perry is “misinformed” when it comes to El Paso.
“He was saying that car bombs were going off in El Paso,” he says, referring to the governor’s mistake on the campaign trail (the car bomb was in Juárez). “The problem with El Paso is that because it is a Democratic stronghold, he doesn’t show any interest in El Paso.” It's is up to Margo, Mauricio says, to make sure El Paso is well represented this session in the Republican-dominated House.
If Mauricio had his way, the group, which he said is already exploring chapters in San Antonio, Chicago and Los Angeles, would evolve to such a force that it exerts the same political pull as Cubans in Miami. “How does the Cuban in Miami do it? He does it working for and in the United States, in Miami, but without losing sight of the fact that he is a Cuban,” he says. “Why can’t we, as Mexicans, about 30 million strong, unite and form a binational agenda? Instead of building multimillion-dollar walls, why don’t we invest that in the development of Mexico?”
He credits the lack of clout in government, at least partly, for the cultural purgatory in which some citizens of Mexican descent are forced to meander.
“There is a difference between Mexican from Mexico and the Mexican American, the third-generation Chicano who can’t think like a Mexican and that can’t think like an American,” he says. “Why does the agent searching your car at the port of entry whose last name is Hernandez treat you worse than an agent whose last name is Brown? It’s part of the hate. They think ‘No. I am not Mexican. You’re a Mexican.’”
With LaRED’s connection to Mexico, where businesses and the government are known to have ties to organized crime, Mauricio acknowledges there's a chance one of the group's members could be part of the problem.
“Here you are investigated, when you become a citizen, when you apply to become a resident. So that’s a filter,” he says. “There are people that are coming from [the Mexican cities of] Nuevo Casa Grandes, Delicias, Monterrey, Guadalajara, Torreón. They are people that we don’t know well, but at the same time they have to be offered the same [opportunity]. And we have to see over time who they are and what they are about.”