Seated calmly in the sunshine outside the Perry-Castaneda Library, Daniel Ozuna looks perfectly at home in Austin. With his relaxed demeanor and perpetual smile, it comes as a surprise that this UT student grew up in one of the most violent cities in the world.
The reputation of Ciudad Juarez, a northern border city in Chihuahua, Mexico, is something 25-year-old Ozuna has been confronted with since the drug violence rose to an all time high in 2009. Ozuna was born in El Paso, but grew up in his family’s home of Juarez.
“If I go to Mexico City or anywhere in the South, they know it is my accent, so they tell me ‘Oh, your accent is weird, where are you from?,’ ‘I’m from Juarez.’ ‘Oh, where they kill people?’” said Ozuna, emulating conversation he has shared again and again with people after they discover he is from Juarez. “So, pretty much we all are used to it.”
Ozuna spoke lightly of his city’s distorted identity in between apologies for what he believes to be sub-par English. His recollection of Juarez is not of a city of violence, but a city of culture.
“I really liked the music scene in Juarez,” Ozuna said. “There were plenty of music festivals and concerts both local and nationally known. I remember one ‘[Chihuahua International Festival]’ that took place in Juarez.”
Ozuna remains dedicated to his education, the driving force behind his move from Juarez to Austin. His high school, Centro de Bachillerato Tecnologico industrial y de servicios #114, was where he was first introduced to computer science. He received his bachelor’s degree in computer science from UT-El Paso, and is currently attending UT-Austin for a second bachelor’s degree in astronomy.
As for the future, Ozuna plans to enter the doctorate program for computer science at UT with a specialization in artificial intelligence, which he will use to enter the specialized profession of astroinformatics.
Finding solace in his education was harder with the media’s constant coverage of the violence in Juarez. There were few sources of information, outside of a textbook, that didn’t stream the city’s tragic news day in and day out.
“I tried to live my life without fear,” Ozuna said. “Whenever I hear someone talk about the cartel and things, it reminds me of the news. That’s all they talk about — that’s why I stopped watching television when I was 15, 16.”
It wasn’t the information delivered by the news that displeased Ozuna, but rather, the way it was delivered.
“I don’t watch the news because they sensationalize and exaggerate the facts,” Ozuna said. “People like dark stuff. There was one specific show, ‘La Mala Nota,’ that literally means ‘The Bad Note.’ Everything inside of that single show was negative. A whole show, for half an hour, just bad news, bad news, bad news. It was disgusting.”
Ozuna’s sister-in-law Adriana Lopez, who still lives in Juarez along with the rest of Ozuna’s family, understands the violence in a similar way.
“I know a lot of people died, but it wasn’t like in every corner you would see someone murdered,” Lopez said. “I wasn’t scared or anything because I knew I wasn’t involved with any of the cartels and all the drug violence. I knew that I was safe.”
Neither Lopez nor Ozuna have experienced Juarez’s violence personally, but even those who have share their positive view of the city. Isabel Martinez, a friend of Ozuna’s who is still living in Juarez and attending college to study literature, believes Juarez to be a special place despite her family falling victim to the violence.
“There are people who work honestly day after day,” Martinez said. “We have a lot of courage, and even though there is violence that is hurting my city, there are people like me who live our lives, have fun and go to school.”
While the violence didn’t personally affect Ozuna, he realized his perspective on campus has been influenced by his lifetime spent in Juarez.
“I was walking to my car the other day and it was dark,” Ozuna said. “I was just listening to my iPod and stuff and I was thinking, ‘If I was in Juarez, I wouldn’t be walking at night by myself.’ I am able to enjoy little details that people who grew up here wouldn’t appreciate. In that sense, I feel lucky. If you don’t experience bad things you cannot measure happiness.”
The violence in Juarez has curbed considerably in the last three years, which is welcomed news to people from Juarez — known as Juarenses — such as Daniel Ozuna, who believe the drug war to be a smokescreen masking the city they call home.
“Juarez is a good place, Juarez is not a scary place,” Ozuna said. “We all have ideas about different places, but we don’t know for sure until we live it.”