PALOMAS, Mexico – The Pink Store sparkles even before the first margarita.
Anyone who comes here will tell you this place – a pink-painted emporium and restaurant a block south of the Mexican border – is special. It’s a place where decadeslong crossborder friendships have been forged and feels a million miles from the souring relationship between Washington and Mexico City.
Palomas is a dusty border town with a main drag of dentists, pharmacies and eyewear stores catering to Americans in search of cheap health care. But the Pink Store is a destination of its own, bursting with color and charm and live music.
Friendly staff offer lemonade and margaritas at the door. The lunch crowd can last for hours – mostly Americans and the occasional table of Mexican customs officials.
Sergio and Ivonne Romero run the establishment. They opened the Pink Store in their 20s, nearly 30 years ago, taking the concept from Ivonne’s grandparents, who ran a similar store nearby for 55 years before that.
“I used to stand in the middle of the street and beg people to please come in,” Ivonne said, remembering the early days when they first opened.
“And one day, a group of RVs stopped and asked if we could do a party for them,” Sergio said. “And they still come all the time. They gave us so much promotion.”
The Romeros know their customers by name.
That’s because many of the Americans come down regularly, every week from RV parks between Deming and Columbus; or they drive nearly two hours every few weeks from Las Cruces or El Paso; motorcycle clubs make weekend runs.
They park on the U.S. side in Columbus, walk through the port of entry – an opening in the “wall” of 18-foot steel columns that cuts along the border. They stroll past Mexican customs down the street to the impossible-to-miss Pink Store.
On a recent visit, a trio of musicians calling themselves Los Navegantes – the Navigators – wandered from table to table, taking requests and stopping to play the classic “Cielito Lindo” for a couple while they ate.
Frank Bergeron, a snowbird from Wisconsin, sipped a ceramic mug of coffee. He had about an hour to wait for his glasses to be done at a nearby shop.
“The atmosphere is really nice,” he said. “The people are really friendly, and I like the food. Not too many places in the States where you can get music with your lunch.”
The Pink Store has survived plenty: the 1994 peso devaluation, bouts of drug violence in Palomas, the recent U.S. recession. The Romeros say they expect to survive the current row between the U.S. and Mexican presidents.
President Donald Trump has called for a “border wall” and has demanded Mexico pay for it despite President Enrique Peña Nieto’s insistence that Mexico will do nothing of the kind. The tiff resulted in a canceled meeting between the two men last month.
But at the Pink Store, international relations appeared to be in top form.
Marylin Poel tipped back a margarita, while Ellen Saad giggled about how their server, a man named José Luis, “is the cutest waiter I’ve ever had.” He comes over to give them a hug. The women come every few weeks from El Paso.
“The store brings out the best in all of us,” Saad said. “We always feel so relaxed here.”
“It’s a different world,” Poel said. “We get out of our box.”
The Romeros have had to field calls lately from clients asking if they can still cross the border despite the “wall.” They gently remind people that the port of entry is and will remain open.
“How do we protect all these friendships and crossborder links, so that we don’t end up with bad blood?” Ivonne said. “We have to demonstrate our friendship and respect. You have to walk the walk. One of my favorite sayings is from Benito Juárez,” Mexico’s first indigenous president. “He said, el respeto al derecho ajeno es la paz.”
Respect for the rights of others is peace.
Upon a patron’s request, one of the musicians sits at a keyboard and plays a famous pop song by Juan Gabriel, “Querida,” and its refrain, “Tell me when, tell me when, tell me when you’re coming back.”