COMMENTARY: I first met journalist Marisela Ortega Lozano around the turn of the century. It was a critical time in the history of Ciudad Juárez. A wave of feminicides, narco-violence, the 9-11 clampdown and a bout of recession were terrorizing the city and casting shadows on the border, closing down the great flow of people that make the Paso del Norte such a unique and wonderful place.
I remember passing time with Marisela and Hector Oaxaca, the legendary Juárez photojournalist who was more than a generation older than her but had similar traits. Both professionals had brilliant, friendly eyes and were quick with humor to boot. Who could forget that laugh of Marisela’s, which practically boomed across the border?
Marisela and Hector, who died in 2013 at the age of 87, were steeped in the politics, people, history and culture of the Paso del Norte borderland. They possessed wide knowledge learned not in a faddish school of journalism but on the gritty ground of life twirling with sights, sounds, smells, scams and scandals.
Theirs was a world of roving street vendors dangling belts, pirate CDs, flowers and gum. Roaring, rundown city buses jumping potholes and reckless private transporters ferrying low-paid women and men to the factories that produce gadgets of all manner for U.S. consumers. Stern border guards, deportees, ancient street beggars and dashing burrito sellers. Upscale fresas downing cool drinks at the latest in-club, and weathered drunks living a corrido dream in a dive cantina. Las señoras leaving Sunday mass at the downtown Cathedral, Aztec dancers at their feet on the plaza below. Humvees and jalopies, flea market floppies, secondhand shirts, Gucci and Ralph Lauren. Cardboard huts on the hills perched above luxury ranchos teeming with dope, gold and “pet” lions and tigers.
The age of journalism that Marisela and her colleagues inhabited was a time of abducted teenage girls, and of murder victims dumped in trash heaps, tossed in irrigation canals and stuffed in the trunks of beat-up old cars. Official denials, silly spin masters, and heavily armed men with law badges spreading lawlessness.
Unlike many who grow numb to the carnage surrounding them, Marisela never lost her sense of outrage at the latest injustice. She remains one of the unsung heroines of border journalism.
With bilingual talent at her fingertips, Marisela worked the border press circuit of both El Paso and Juárez, struggling the best she could through a churning sea of layoffs, sudden editorial changes and shady financial games that turned the ship of the news world upside down.
Born in El Paso and raised in Juárez, Marisela was a true fronteriza, or borderlander. She wrote for El Mexicano, Norte, Reforma, El Diario, the Associated Press and the El Paso Times, where she was the content editor for the newspaper’s Spanish language supplement El Paso y Más.
A member of the Ciudad Juárez Journalists Association, Marisela was an excellent translator, a hard-nosed reporter and a great companion for a hearty talk over a meal about the state of the world.
We collaborated on several projects, and I am the better for it. About a year before New Mexico State University shut down the news service I edited, Marisela contributed original courtroom dispatches from Juárez about the trial of a group of men accused of systematically disappearing, exploiting and murdering young girls and women whose bodies were recovered from the Navajo Arroyo in the rural Juárez Valley.
The Navajo Arroyo legal proceedings were otherwise scantily covered in the local press and practically ignored by the big media in the U.S., which swoops down on the borderland when it is fashionable — post 9-11, the Juárez drug war, Donald Trump, etc. — but soon departs for the next flashpoint of crisis bubbling up in the news cycle. Yet for Marisela and other borderlanders, stories like the Navajo Arroyo were — and are — a part of their daily lives and wrapped in the fabric of the society they must come to grips with, one way or another.
Marisela had an aesthetically keen and socially perceptive eye, as evidenced by the photos she captured for an essay we did together a couple of years ago.
Immersed in a battle with cancer, Marisela’s byline grew scarcer during the last two years. Among her last endeavors was a story for the French news agency AFP about El Paso’s reaction to Pope Francisco’s February 2016 visit to Juárez. The seasoned border journalist also contributed her editorial skills to the El Paso-based Digie Zone Network.
Marisela Ortega Lozano passed away on Saturday, Sept. 2, 2017, at the young age of 56. She was among the latest in a growing list of Mexican journalists who have died — naturally or unnaturally — in 2017. Others have simply fled the country.
As a long-time reader of the Mexican press, I can attest that the disappearance of journalists the caliber of Marisela has created a huge news hole when we can least afford it. Marisela’s voice faded from this world far too soon, leaving another void in our hearts, heads and hopes. Still, this region and beyond was lucky to witness her presence, marvel at her example, experience her determination, absorb her words, and contemplate her images.
Rest in peace, dear sister.