The Town of Lonely Dentists
Palomas, Mexico -- This is the little border town that discount dentistry built. There are the usual liquor stores and curio venders, and even a cantina with a Statute of Liberty on the roof. But mostly the streets are lined with storefront clinics offering crowns, dentures, cleanings. Walk-ins welcome! As the sign promises: “American standards at Mexican prices,” where a porcelain filling and a shot of Novocain will set you back about $60.
We went looking for dentists to talk about the hard times created by the storms of violence along the border. In the video, you can meet Jesus Jasso Salazar, who came here a decade ago to make his living with a drill and learned to say “open wide” in English. Most of his patients were Americans, until they got scared away by sudden surge in kidnappings and killings. Jasso used to be busy all day long in his two-chair clinic. Now he sits reading books in his own waiting room.
That’s the thing about drug violence. It can hollow out a place. Dentists have been the bedrock of this community for years. Now they’re moving on.
Palomas is an historic site because right across the border, during the Mexican Revolution, Pancho Villa and a force of 1000 men raided a small town east of the boot heel of New Mexico called Columbus. They killed 18 people and burned the town before they rode out. It was the only foreign military invasion on U.S. soil in modern times.
A year ago, the chief of the Palomas police, Emilio Perez, ran over to the U.S. side, seeking the safety of political asylum after his deputies suddenly quit, fearful that they might soon become one of the corpses that were dumped on the edge of town.
While in Jasso’s waiting room, we spoke with Rosa Rodriguez. We asked her, casually, if she thought violence had changed the border much. “They killed my son,” she replied. Her boy, Marco Antonio Saenz, was 17 years old and a high school senior in Deming, N.M, about 30 miles north of here. “He went to a party and some gangsters picked a fight and hit him in the head with a bottle,” his mom said. He died a few hours after the attack. That was two years ago. “He was a good boy,” Rodriguez said. “He liked to babysit.” She had his picture in her wallet.
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