Hundreds of people gathered recently along the banks of the Rio Grande for the second Voices From Both Sides festival held along the edge of Lajitas, Texas, and Paso Lajitas, in the Mexican state of Chihuahua.
On the American side, three Border Patrol vehicles watched from an overpass as festivalgoers waded back and forth through the thigh-deep water, crossing an international border.
“What’s happening here may be technically illegal,” said the Brewster County sheriff, Ronny Dodson, who did not seem inclined to interfere. “It’s just a friendship deal.”
The celebration reunited the unincorporated Texas town of Lajitas (its population is less than 100) with its even smaller Mexican neighbor. For decades the American and Mexican towns enjoyed an easy interdependence. That changed after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, when the American government tightened border security. Over Mother’s Day weekend in May of 2002, Border Patrol agents detained about twenty people in Lajitas on immigration charges, signaling that unauthorized passage across the river would no longer be allowed. Families with members on both sides of the river were effectively separated; before long, businesses in Paso Lajitas catering to Americans closed.
In 2013, after more than a decade of strict border enforcement, Jeff Haislip and Collie Ryan, residents of Terlingua, another small Texas town ten miles farther east along the Rio Grande, wanted to host a Mother’s Day protest. But then they decided that a party would be more fitting.
“We didn’t just want to protest the border being closed, we wanted to show all the wonderful things that were lost when it was,” Haislip said. And so they began planning Voices From Both Sides as an international “fiesta protesta.”
Haislip and Ryan joined the leaders of Paso Lajitas and San Carlos, a larger Mexican town fifteen miles south of the Rio Grande, in organizing the effort.
“We want to show the importance of opening this passage, for cultural and economic reasons,” the mayor of San Carlos, Benjamin Ortiz, said through a translator.
For decades, the Paso Lajitas crossing, used by a range of people, from Comanches to nineteenth-century quicksilver miners to tourists, was one of several “unpatrolled ports of entry” in this rugged, sparsely populated Big Bend region of Texas. In the nineties, that designation was removed, but unofficial border crossings persisted, tacitly permitted by local and federal authorities. Lee Penland, chief of the Big Bend Valley Volunteer Fire Department, recalled exploring Paso Lajitas during fishing expeditions with his children during the nineties. “You could just come and go. There never were any problems,” Penland said.