Yesterday was the third annual Voices on Both Sides gathering at the historic Lajitas Crossing. It was a celebration of the connections and friendships that exist between the communities of Terlingua and Lajitas on the Texas side and Paso Lajitas on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. One day each year, since 2013, the clock is rolled back (sort of) and friends and family on both sides of the river gather for a day of music, dancing, and general socializing. At that first celebration, I watched as two of my students got to see and hug their grandmother for the first time in over a year, and there were many joyous reunions this year, as well.
On May 10, 2002, the Friday before Mother’s Day weekend, the Border Patrol began, without warning, to enforce the law forbidding entry into the United States at places that had previously been considered “traditional use” crossings. They arrested twenty-one people for illegal entry. Before then, that law had been unenforced by Border Patrol and other agencies for hundreds of years, but on that day, residents in Terlingua and Lajitas were cut off from friends and family members living in the Mexican villages of Paso Lajitas, just across the river, and San Carlos, about 15 miles further into Mexico. It is a date that is burned into the memory of any area resident, Texan or Mexican, who lived here before life was changed so drastically.
Before the closing, children from Paso Lajitas came to school in Terlingua, residents of Paso Lajitas crossed the river to shop at The Trading Post in Lajitas, and residents of Terlingua and Lajitas, as well as tourists, crossed over to Paso to eat at the restaurants there. Tourists visiting Big Bend National Park would cross to the villages of Boquillas and Santa Elena for a meal and cold beer. We even had a Terlingua baseball team, The Goatsuckers, that played the Paso Boys. Games were usually held on the ball field in Paso and supporters of both teams gathered to cheer and drink some beer. Some of the Paso guys would occasionally come over to Terlingua to visit and play in horseshoe tournaments at the pit in the Ghost Town. I guess this may seem strange if you’re not familiar with the area, but we really were one big community that stretched on both sides of the Rio Grande.
On May 10, 2002, however, that all changed. Suddenly, we were no longer a community that just happened to have a river running through it, but one that was divided by what was suddenly a border rather than a simple river. Students from Paso could no longer come to school, community ball games could no longer be played, tourists no longer visited the Mexican villages to provide much needed income, and families with members living on both sides could no longer easily visit. A few minutes wade across the river was replaced with an hours long drive on really bad dirt roads through the closest legal crossing, 50 miles west, between Presidio and Ojinaga. With no income, no opportunity for their kids to go to school, and no access to stores or other needed services, most of the residents of Paso Lajitas moved away, and the village became a lifeless ghost town.
A couple of years ago, the Boquillas crossing in Big Bend National Park was opened on a limited basis with a kiosk to contact Customs and reenter the U.S., and people are moving back to Boquillas and reopening businesses. The Lajitas/Paso Lajitas crossing, however, remains closed. But yesterday, children and adults alike played and danced in the middle of the river, ate some really good food, and in general spent a great day visiting with friends and family. All of us, on both sides, know that regardless of some line down the middle of the river, we are still one community of friends – maybe temporarily separated, but still one. I sincerely hope that, someday, the crossing will be reopened – thirteen years of closure is too long; until then, we will all look forward to la cuarta edicion de Voces de Ambos Lados en Mayo proximo.