I was hesitant to go in the first place. Chamizal National Memorial could be one more National Park site to check off my list, and it pretty much was in route, but it would require a slight detour right into the heart of El Paso, Texas.
On a definitive burst of whimsy, I decided I’d do it. I would go to Chamizal. First I decided to stock up on a few food supplies at an El Paso Walmart. In the parking lot, just as I was about to turn the car on, a man came tapping on my window. He motioned me to roll down my window. Nuh uh, not doing it, I spoke in my mind. It sounds like a great way to be mugged. I didn’t move and kept my composure. He held a receipt up to the window. “Return for me, this. I have receipt.” His English was broken. He proceeded to showcase a pair of shoes. Does this even require an explanation? There was no need for me to return an item for him. Something smelled fishy in the hot Texas air.
Being back in Southern Texas brought back poignant sensations. I was accustomed to this type of environment and behavior. I had lived in Houston, Texas for a year. It was my first year out of college. When I stop to remember this time, it seems like some vague dream, and I often do have dreams about Houston drawn from the catacombs of my memory. But I had lost acquaintance with the true Southern Texas vibes until I arrived here in El Paso. It was here in was assured will all certainty that my experiences in Houston were but a breath away. Cities of Southern Texas have their own unique identity, feeling like their own entity- a foreign place to the rest of the United States.
I was fortunate to live in a nice part of Houston, although in a humble apartment tucked in between towers of luxury. But I worked south of the city in the rundown poverty stricken area in which I served in a charter high school funded in part by the Federal government as a school of choice but also a school to send juveniles who were kicked out of public school and were on probation. A number of students were in gangs, working for the Mexican drug cartels, and on judicial trial.
Among this population I learned where some immigrants bought pirated social security cards, how they worked around the legal immigration system, and how they took advantage of the welfare system. It was a very rough environment. It was gritty, but I loved it. Things went downhill, however, when both our principals resigned and things became dangerous. I decided to pack my bags, leave, and head back to the Bluegrass. But now 5 years later, I was getting reacquainted with Texas.
It was midday and the southern Texas sun was bright and hot. My memory has everything painted over in a pale brown, with a bit of desert dust and barb wire. Businesses I’d seen had steal bars over the windows. Signs advertised Mexican auto insurance and money transfers. I had found myself on Highway 85, the CanAm Highway.
When the road was clear and afforded me the opportunity, I looked out the window to my right at the houses so tightly packed, square and simple, made of cinderblocks flowing up and down the hills. It reminded me a lot of the poorer parts of Mexico, like on the outskirts of Mexico City in the Estado de Mexico. Then I took a double take. No Way! This was Mexico right to my left. Nearly an arms reach away was the border fence. I had mistook it for a common highway barrier, but this was it. There was a ravine in between the fence and these houses. It was the Rio Grande River! I knew I was getting close to Mexico. I could sense it. I didn’t know I was this close.
These houses literally had their front windows pointing into the United States. They could look upon the modern developing city of El Paso, upon its malls, museums, and universities, but for many this place would be unreachable. Some would have to look at it, but could never go. It would be out their window, perhaps for their whole life, so close but never attainable. Looking at it day after day, stuck in a neighborhood of narrow dirty streets and cinder block houses, is just profound to think about. I can’t even begin to imagine the desire and curiosity that builds up in these people to want to see what is on the other side so close, yet in so many cases, forbidden.
Within moments I was pulling off the highway into Chamizal National Memorial. I knew little about this place, but I was here to learn, perhaps this could further my perspective which was already beginning to grow. I have for a long time, taken a great interest in Mexico. Although my allegiance is pledged to the United States, I also have a deep admiration for Mexico. I completed some of my undergraduate education in Mexico City as an international student. I spent some of my most formative years there and really felt like I came of age while living in Mexico. It is there where I developed my own personal independence and sense of self. I have visited Mexico many summers, applied for many jobs there and even for a visa to work and live more permanently in Mexico. I’ve explored much of central Mexico, made many friend there, and identified with the culture and people as I lived there. I knew this memorial would speak to the relationship between Mexico and the U.S., and now I had arrived.
I was greeted with a colorful mural depicting important moments in Mexican-American history and aspects of Mexican culture. Upon opening the door I was welcomed in Spanish by a National Park Service employee. It was an elderly Latina lady with grey hair, a friendly smile, and an aura of a traditional abuelita. She didn’t reveal that she spoke English, so we just continued in Spanish. I explained this was my first time visiting the memorial. She got up from here chair, enthused yet composed, and explained that there was a museum and film. She guided me over to a rack of brochures where she proceeded to fill my hands with brochures of other National Park units in Texas and neighboring New Mexico. She was funny. I liked her. She authoritatively but sweetly was telling me what I needed to see and what I needed to do. She was a culmination of Mexican hospitality and West Texas friendliness. I thanked her and proceeded to take in the museum. I was fascinated.
I learned through the museum, that this place commemorates the peaceful agreement between Mexico and the U.S. over a land dispute. Two Mexican presidents and two U.S. presidents, JFK and Lyndon B. Johnson, created a peaceful agreement.The issue had been that the Rio Grande river marked the boundary between the two countries, but there was an island on the river after the course of the river changed routes. It was long disputed whom it belonged to. Conclusively the route of the river was solidified in a canal and Mexico gave up its claim of Chamizal. People had to give up their land and that was sad, but overall the museum had a very positive spin on the whole Chamizal agreement
“The Chamizal is a very small tract of land. But the principle is a very great one. Let a troubled world take note that here, on this border, between the United States and Mexico, two free nations, unafraid, have resolved their differences with honor, with dignity, and with justice to the people of both nations.” – President Lyndon B. Johnson, September 25, 1964
I left the museum to check out the small city park out back. There was a group of students perhaps on a field trip. I sought the post marking the prior land border between the two nations. I took a picture of it and then fixed my eyes on my surroundings. There was a bridge encased in fencing. A sign stuck up in the center of it declaring “Bienvenidos a Mexico.” I watched the vehicles flow and back up at the border. Then i noticed the business men walking across the border with their briefcases, returning home from a day in the office in another nation. Then I noticed others so informally coming across the bridge. Was is this easy? My curiosity was sparked. This was supposed to be an all-American National Park road trip, but maybe a side trip to Mexico could add a little spice to the slice. I had to go back in the museum and inquire. I found my little abuelita.
“I noticed people walking across the border, is it really that easy?” I asked
“Oh yes, you just need a passport.”
“What is on the other side?”
“Mexico,” she replied Of course I knew this. I hope abuelita wasn’t trying to be sarcastic with me.
“I know that, but is there a park or something on the other side.”
“Oh, si, hay un parque Chamizal de Mexico y tambien el museo Chamizal Mexicano.”
A Mexican Chamizal museum? I was intrigued. I wondered how Mexico’s museum would portray the whole Chamizal land dispute and agreement. Would they paint it in the same positive light as the U.S., or would it have a more bitter aftertaste after the land loss. I wanted to know and I also wanted a good excuse to cross the bridge to Ciudad Juarez, the city often deemed as one of Mexico’s roughest and most dangerous.
“Is it safe for someone like me?” i didn’t specify exactly what I was referring to, but I thought it obvious: tall, white and gringo… especially in this moment. I was dressed and prepared for my all-American road trip, not a stroll through the streets of Ciudad Juarez. I know how to blend into my environment, but this was going to be tricky given my circumstances.
“In this time of day, you’ll be fine,” Abuelita informed. “You should go, and then come back and tell me what you think.”
She was the final push. I was gonna do it.
I went back to my car, located my passport, and utilized some methods I learned when i used to explore the streets of Mexico City. I hid some cash in my shoes along with a photocopy of my passport. I emptied my wallet to the bare essentials. I strapped my camera string to by belt loop and let it hang on the inside of my pants. I changed from a sleeveless shirt and shorts to a t-shirt and jeans. I took all my typical safety measures. I was excited. Moments ago I had been beginning to question if I had lost my sense of adventure. Certainly not! This was proving it. Curiosity and daring ambition was driving me, and I took off on my journey to Mexico on foot.
This visit to Mexico would be unlike any other I’ve ever had before. It would be eye-opening and informative. In Mexico City they always say never go to the border because it’s really dangerous there. Why did they always say this? Was there validity to it? I would certainly find out.
Check back next Wednesday for the next “episode” in the adventure.
Click here for the previous entry “A Nightmare at White Sands”: https://joshthehodge.wordpress.com/2019/03/13/a-nightmare-at-white-sands/
Check out my book “Among Blue Smoke and Bluegrass” on Amazon: https://www.amazon.com/Among-Blue-Smoke-Bluegrass-Tennessee/dp/1790631297