The grownups dawdle in the shade between the one-story home and the splashing kids. They gossip, tease and chat. It's like any Father's Day gathering on the continent, except for the Juárez moments: A bug bite scratched open leaves a trail of blood on the neck of a friend from Mexico City. "Look," someone says, "all you have to do is show up in Juárez and you start bleeding!"

The crowd doubles over with laughter, but the smiles subside as the conversation turns to the stories that are never lacking here: the co-worker shot in front of his wife and children because his brother hadn't paid his debts; the time when everyone hit the floor at a baptism service because fireworks were mistaken for gunshots; the worries, above all else, of the little ones in the pool.

Esteban bobs in the water as he gives his younger sister, Ana Clara, a ride on his back. He says he learned to swim when he was 6. While on summer vacation, he was in a large pool and his life jacket slipped off. "I got really scared," he says, eyes widening with the memory. "But the next day, I wasn't scared anymore. I jumped into the pool and gave my life jacket to my little sister," he says.

Childhood in Juárez is often spent hiding behind closed doors, fleeing assassins’ fire
and seeing ghosts.
Luis Aguilar
Childhood in Juárez is often spent hiding behind closed doors, fleeing assassins’ fire and seeing ghosts.
More than 250,000 (100,000 north into El Paso; 150,000 south, deeper into Mexico) residents have left Juárez because of the sinking economy and fear of
increased violence, leaving behind houses such as these.
Luis Aguilar
More than 250,000 (100,000 north into El Paso; 150,000 south, deeper into Mexico) residents have left Juárez because of the sinking economy and fear of increased violence, leaving behind houses such as these.

It was the same year Esteban saw the broken glass and the silver-dollar-size bullet holes and the bloodied bodies. But talk to him about his sixth year of life, and the swimming memory is the one that rises to the top. Does he ever want to leave Juárez? "No," he says, scrunching his face at the suggestion. "Why would I want to do that?"

Some of the names in this piece have been changed, and some last names have been omitted, as requested to protect the identity of those who spoke with the reporter. The Bernard van Leer Foundation helped pay for the trip to report this story.

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