Why towns separated by U.S.-Mexico border closings are fighting back

In rural West Texas, residents held a mid-river “fiesta protesta” calling for easier access to their Mexican neighbors

Watch parts one and two of Lori Jane Gliha’s report.

LAJITAS, Texas – On a blistering 101-degree May day, Brisa Garcia’s two daughters bounced in anticipation along the banks of the Rio Grande River in far West Texas.

It was the first time in a year that the two girls would see their grandmother and aunt, and they were dressed for the occasion. Both donned long matching French braids, one topped by a khaki Gucci baseball hat and the other by a straw hat with a big fuchsia bow.

Catching sight of their relatives on the other side of the river, they exploded into wide smiles and waded in, yelling and waving while trying to hold onto the bouquets of red roses they had for the women.

Eventually, dozens of other Texans and Mexicans followed suit, albeit with a little more hesitation, given that U.S. Border Patrol agents lingered above on a hill. By the end of the day, relatives and friends packed that corner of the river dancing, singing and grilling on both sides. It was – at least for a few hours – a return to a time before their lives became so complicated.

Technically, the “fiesta protesta,” or protest party, they were a part of on May 11 took place between two countries: Lajitas in Texas and Paso Lajitas in Mexico. These two towns were once close-knit communities, but since 9/11, when several informal border crossings were effectively closed,  the Paso Lajitas side had become a ghost town.

Crossing between the towns used to mean a couple of minutes wading across the river. Residents now face a four-hour trek through the nearest official crossing. People on both sides say the heightened border control has kept mothers from daughters and businesses from customers – a loss that’s costing them their community. So now they are pushing back: asking for less – not more – border control.

A different situation

Local residents focused on re-opening the border crossing organized the fiesta protesta, dubbed “Voices from Both Sides,” so that people could share music from the banks of the Rio Grande while protesting the crossing’s closure years ago.

“All we’ve got to do is start the conversation,” said Jeff Haislip, one of the group’s leaders. He even spoke to the Border Patrol ahead of time about the plans for the protest and has an ongoing petition for locals to sign that he plans to give to the U.S. State Department, which must be involved in any re-opening.

The musician also crossed to the other side during the protest to dance to the Texas-based band Los Pinche Gringos.

Revelers dance during the
Revelers dance during the “Voices from Both Sides” protest.

 America Tonight

Mike Davidson is a singer and guitarist for the band, as well as director for the regional tourism council. “If you go up and down the border, residents, politicians and a lot of the towns are not happy with status quo right now,” he said.

Collie Ryan, a songwriter and artist who performed at the fiesta protesta, has lived near the banks of the Rio Grande in the Lajitas area for more than three decades. She said the area shouldn’t be treated like other border regions. Its total isolation – thanks to miles of rugged desert and volcanic cliffs – leave residents uniquely protected.

 “It’s a totally different situation here,” she said. “We don’t have the same problems that they have [in other border communities], and they have legitimate problems and legitimate reasons for closing.”

Situated in the Chihuahuan desert in far West Texas, it takes a four-hour drive to get to the nearest airport. Its rough terrain makes it an unpopular route for migrants. The number of undocumented immigrants apprehended here is lowest of any other part along the Southwestern border.

Losing community

After the border closed and American tourists stopped crossing the river, those living in Texas saw their friends and family on the southern side lose their jobs and businesses. Many, like members of the Garcia family, who had once lived in Paso Lajitas, were forced to abandon their homes and businesses to move deeper into the United States or Mexico.

Garcia and her daughters now live in Midland, Texas, because she can no longer make a living in Paso Lajitas. Only two families of the 60-70 people who once lived in Paso Lajitas still live there .

The same thing happened in the nearby area of Boquillas, Mexico, when its border was closed in 2002.

“When they closed, it was sad,” resident Max Sanchez told America Tonight. “There was nothing. Just like deserted, a ghost town.”

Lilia Falcon began crying remembering the day she found her mom packing up the Falcon’s Restaurant, a business her dad had built for 30 years. She was shocked and frustrated when the crossing and her customers disappeared.

“We paid the consequences of people we don’t even know who they are,” she said, referring to the attacks by terrorists on on 9/11.  The attacks provoked a historic surge in border security, though many locals including Falcon are quick to point out that none of the terrorists entered the United States from Mexico.

A re-opening

Seeing Boquillas and Paso Lajitas residents struggle to make a living, locals, Big Bend National Park officials and others began pushing for a re-opening.

Last year, the Department of Homeland Security installed a crossing between Big Bend National Park and Boquillas, Mexico. It breathed new life into Boquillas, where tourists can ride a donkey, hang out in a bar or just “get away from it all.”

Kids and adults play in the Rio Grande River during the
Kids and adults play in the Rio Grande River during the “fiesta protesta.”

 America Tonight

Falcon and Sanchez were among several who returned.

David Elkowitz, a Big Bend National Park public information officer, said the new crossing not only makes the area safer because it offers a legal crossing for legitimate commerce, but it also fosters environmental cooperation between Mexico and the United States.

In Lajitas, locals are hoping to see a similar crossing.

Officials from the State Department, Homeland Security and U.S. Customs and Border Protection did not respond to questions about whether they were considering a new crossing in Lajitas.

But for Garcia, that can’t come soon enough. It had been a year since she last hugged her mother. She didn’t want to venture into the waters and risk immigration consequences during the fiesta protesta, so she sent her daughters instead.

“They should open it, so we can be closer and see each other more often,” she said, surrounded – temporarily – by her family from both sides of the border.

“We don’t need security here. I think it’s just fine, just how it was.”

Catherine Rentz was the producer for America Tonight’s report and is affiliated with the Investigative Reporting Workshop in Washington, D.C.

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Bordering on Hope: 2nd Annual Voices From Both Sides

Ángel de San Carlos and event Co-Founder, Collie Ryan.  Photo (c) 2013 Voni Glaves This Sunday, May 11, marks the 2nd Annual Voices From Both Sides.  It was 11 years between the closings of U.S. borders following the attacks of September 11, 2001, and their reopening on April 10, 2013. It was 11 years, almost to the day of the closings, that the first Voices From Both Sides event was held in Lajitas, Texas. When Terlingua resident Jeff Haislip first had the idea for Voices, there had been talk about the border with Mexico being reopened but “talk” was nothing new here. Jeff contacted his friend, Collie Ryan, to discuss the idea. Collie is a well-known musician, artist and long time Terlingua resident. Years ago, prior to the Lajitas Resort’s construction, Collie lived in Lajitas and became friends with the residents of both Paso Lajitas and San Carlos on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. If you accompany Collie to San Carlos today, people come out of their homes and call her their angel. Her efforts to help the people of San Carlos did not end with the closing of the border despite the hardships. She will be the first to belittle those efforts and the last to admit how much they mean to our neighbors and friends on the other side. While San Carlos is a mere 16 miles from Lajitas, down a dusty, dirt road, it takes a minimum of 2 ½ hours to get there since the border’s closing, as the closest entry point into Mexico is the city of Presidio, some 50 miles away, with San Carlos another 50 miles or so from there. Paso Lajitas had been one of 7 informal crossings prior to the passage of The Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act signed into law on May 14, 2002. Since the border closings in May 2003, Paso Lajitas is nothing but a memory to most residents on both sides of the river. Collie and Jeff went to meet with the then Mayor of San Carlos, El Presidente Ramon Garcia, and his response to the idea of holding an event where music was exchanged on both sides of the Rio Grande at Lajitas was a resounding yes. However, he and the other residents of San Carlos with whom Collie and Jeff met wanted to take it one step further – they wanted it to be a protest. They had families and friends on the other side of the river that they hadn’t been able to hug, hold or embrace in years. The compromise was Voices from Both Sides or Voces de Ambos Lados– a Fiesta Protesta. A peaceful protest and a community building international project of music and hope. Jeff said he had no idea what to expect for last year’s event, also held on Sunday, May 11, and that he was overwhelmed with the turnout. Not just the numbers but the emotion and passion that filled the area. Longtime resident, Betty Moore, said that while she really looked forward to Voices, she wasn’t prepared for the emotion that overcame her as she crested the hill down to the river. “We used to just walk across the river and have lunch with our friends . . . to visit . . . and then overnight it became illegal activity. It’s senseless.” On the Mexican side of the Rio Grande families, local officials, musicians, journalists, artists, etc. turned out in good number as they did on the U.S. side of the border. By the time the event ended, the waters of the Rio Grande – the middle of which is the official international border – were as muddied by the dancing and reunions midstream as is the rationale for these border closings. What many residents – not just along the Texas-Mexico border but elsewhere as well – find especially unreasonable is that the action in 2002 was initiated as a result of an attack in New York City by terrorists from the Middle East. Yet Mexico has suffered more as a result of the new border restrictions than any other country. According to Isabel Garcia, Director of the Arizona Human Rights Coalition, “the most indelible effect of the 9/11 attacks is the generalized association of the word “undocumented” with the word “terrorist. For the first time we saw the criminalization of the undocumented immigrant justified, and it continues to be justified.” 15 Mexican citizens were killed in the attacks of 9/11; none were involved in the atrocity other than being victims. But the primary goals of Voices are to bring people together, to highlight and keep in the public eye the human element along the border, and to allow music to serve as the common medium for unity and hope – not only on Sunday but by allowing music teachers to pass between San Carlos and the U.S. uninhibited. A young man who was recently approved as a beneficiary of the DREAM act will be at Lajitas on Sunday. It will be his first visit with his parents since they returned to Mexico. Last year, a woman from Midland attended the event and was able to embrace her brother for the first time in over 5 years. They met in the middle of the river and hugged for “what seemed an eternity at the time but now feels like only a moment.” She and her brother had children 6 and 8 years old who had never met. The current El Presidente of San Carlos is Benjamin Ortiz. He fully supports the event and will be present and representative of Mexico. Neither Lajitas or Terlingua have an official Mayor but Bill Ivey, known to many as the “face” of Terlingua with longstanding familial roots to Lajitas and the Ghost Town, will once again be representative of the U.S. side of the border as will Haislip, Ryan and others. A petition will be available on both sides of the border asking for the formerly ‘informal borders’ to be reopened. The petitions will be in both Spanish and English. Citizens of both countries are asked to sign one of each with one copy going to the Mexican government and one to the U.S. That said, Haislip reiterated that the focus of this event must be on the positive . . . on the presence of grace. He said that a couple who are well known to this area told him a chain of Hispanic churches from Odessa to San Carlos have been praying not only for the success of the event but that a Mothers Day service would be held in the hour preceding the event. It will be. Although Mexico celebrates Mothers Day, it is not always on the same day as it is celebrated in the U.S. This year it is and is one more avenue for unity. My most poignant memory from last year was when a woman fell as she tried to reach the middle of the river to embrace a friend she hadn’t had personal contact with in years. A law enforcement official had been standing on the U.S. side of the river and he went to help her up and across. Someone asked him how he could do that in his position. He looked them squarely in the eye and said, “I’m not from Washington, D.C. I’m from here. I know how to do my job and I know how to treat people with dignity and respect. Today is a reminder that we are all just people. We’re called upon to show our humanity and our grace. It’s as simple as that.” Haislip wrapped up our conversation by saying he doesn’t want this to be a once-a-year event. His greatest hope is that there will no longer be cause for a “special” event next year and that the Voices project simply morphs into the greater good of a deep cultural exchange between the two countries. “You know”, said Haislip, “the words to a song that Collie recently wrote really sum it up.” “There’s bridges made of silk and bridges made of steel, and bridges made out of hearts that really feel.” “Those bridges of hearts . . . those are the kinds of bridges we want between Mexico and the U.S.” For more information on the Voices project, go to Voices From Both Sides. Sharron Reed is a resident of Terlingua and a correspondent for KRTS, Marfa Public Radio. Jeff Haislip, Co-Founder of Voices From Both Sides and Lorne Matalon of KRTS, Marfa Public Radio - 2013 Event Fiesta Protesta Hands and hearts bridging the divide Trevor Reichman, one of the many musicians representing the Texas side of the border Moses Martinez of Terlingua dances with a woman from Mexico along the international boundary of the Rio Grande Jessica Lutz of Terlingua and Marfa dancing in celebration with Moses Martinez of Terlingua Trevor Reichman, Charlotte Teer, Jim Keaveny and Jeff Haislip Musicians on the Mexican side of the border Remembering the day when we could simply cross the border to see our friends on the U.S. side Friends on the Mexican side who used to ride their horses across the river to visit friends on the other side of the border

The Rio Grande - the international boundary that transcends human attempts to control El Presidente of San Carlos, Ramon Garcia and Bill Ivey of Terlingua meet midway in the Rio Grande

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Dateline: Check Out Voices Radio from Terlingua, Texas! April 2, 2014: It is a great time of the year in Big Bend area of west Texas. I am currently working on the Voices From Both Sides project. It is exciting working with all of the musicians who want to play this event on the Rio Grande. On a recent trip to San Carlos,Chihuahua, Mexico I saw the guys from Conjunto Furia Nortana. Not only did they confirm that they were looking forward to playing for their friends from Texas but that they know of people coming from as far as Kansas for this Fiesta Protesta!!! I hope that every hotel in the area is at full occupancy………..”) And a big THANK YOU to Lajitas Golf Resort for letting us use their property (it is private property). Without them this would not be possible.  

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