Bordering on Hope: 2nd Annual Voices From Both Sides

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.

Jeff Haislip discussing this year's Voices From Both Sides

Jeff Haislip discussing this year’s Voices From Both Sides

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, “Collie’s words to ‘The One We Really Are’ 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.

 

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