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Musings From Chamizal National Memorial


A massive mural covers the exterior walls of the park's visitor center, honoring both the United States and Mexico/Lee Dalton

I’m willing to bet that right about now there are a lot of Traveler readers who are scratching their heads and asking, “Chamizal? What the heck is a Chamizal?”

Well, good neighbors, it’s a 55-acre chunk of grassy park plunk in the middle of El Paso, Texas, right on the north bank of the Rio Grande. This national memorial commemorates peaceful resolution of a century-old dispute between the United States and Mexico over a piece of land that became detached from Mexico back when the Rio Bravo — or Rio Grande — cut a new channel and left Chamizal as part of an “island” called Cordova on the U.S. side of the river. Part of Mexico that wasn’t a part of Mexico because the silly river decided to meander around a bit.

Turns out that restless rivers don’t make particularly good international boundaries.

Border disputes between the United States and Mexico had been almost as entertaining as bull fights for many years. In 1848, the U.S. gained California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was signed and Mexico agreed to recognize the Rio Grande as the border between our two countries. Then, in 1853, the United States purchased another chunk of land that sent the border south a few miles below present-day Arizona and New Mexico. That was the Gadsden Purchase.

The two countries worked together, cooperating to survey the border established by the purchase. It was a long and difficult job, but it produced a border on solid rock that has stood the test of time.

The river was a whole different story. It literally produced a fluid border.

When, on occasion, the Rio Bravo wandered a bit, settlers on both sides grumbled a while and then adjusted because, in most cases, the shifts were relatively small and only a few acres changed nations. In 1884, an international commission agreed that if the river changes course, the old boundary will remain and the border will not change.

All well and good until 1895, when the river made a big move and left Pedro Garcia's land — the tract known as Chamizal — on the wrong side of the river. Senor Garcia was a loyal Mexican and wanted to live in Mexico. So it was that in 1895, the Mexican government made a claim on behalf of Mr. Garcia, who found it inconvenient to be living on the wrong side of the river.

Politics have been political ever since Adam and Eve were tossed out of the garden, and they sure found fertile ground in the place called Chamizal. Some influential Americans coveted its fertile land, and tensions grew between the two countries. In the 1920s and '30s, Cordova Island, still part of Mexico but north of the river, became a haven for boozers and smugglers during Prohibition. Tensions continued to grow.

Little changed until 1962, when President Kennedy sought to improve relations with Mexico in an effort to solidify relationships during a time of growing tensions over the Cold War. He wanted to mend any rifts to keep Mexico solidly allied with us against the Soviet Union and other threats.

All was going well until that fateful day in Dallas. It was then left to President Johnson to finish the job. So it was that in 1963 a concrete channel was cut through the middle of Cordova Island. The river would henceforth flow between cement banks and the border would remain in place.

Today, in remembrance of the peaceful resolution of the Chamizal question, there are twin parks on the north and south sides of the channel. The Parque de Chamizal lies to the south, and Chamizal National Memorial is to the north. The east boundary of Chamizal National Memorial is Interstate Highway 110, which crosses the Bridge of the Americas and joins Mexican National Highway 45 to the south. It’s a very busy port of entry.

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Besides being a monument to cooperation, the park today is a quiet place of respite in a very busy city. Everything about it reflects two dynamic cultures. Every display and every publication contains matching, side-by-side text in Spanish and in English. The first two park staffers I encountered, both volunteers, were Hispanic, and for this Englishman, their accents were hard to understand. But there was no mistaking their enthusiasm for the place.

Indoor and outdoor theaters are kept active with concerts, modern dance, opera, ballet folklorico, and festivals of all kinds. Music Under the Stars takes advantage of El Paso’s mild summer nights, and the park’s brochure tells us we might see bluegrass fiddlers, mariachies, big bands, rock bands, or dancers. Inside the visitor center were a couple of very impressive galleries of art and photos.

If you can find the place, that is.

When I tried to get to Chamizal one morning in late March, I discovered the entire south end of the city was under construction. Orange barrels and big signs announcing road closures were everywhere. Matilda, the sweet Australian lady who gives voice to most GPS units, was reduced to tears at least twice. Finally, after “recalculating” 400 or 500 times and swearing like a real Australian drover, she managed to find Chamizal’s parking lot. Y’don’t usually hear that kind of language from a GPS, but I sure didn’t blame her.

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No account of Chamizal would be complete without telling of the huge mural that graces three exterior walls of the visitor center. Titled Nuestra Herencia, or Our Heritage, it’s a gift to the memorial from the Junior League of El Paso and the work of one of Mexico’s greatest muralists, Carlos Flores.

The mural pays tribute in huge painted figures to the many aspects of our shared cultures north and south of the border. President Kennedy is prominently wedged between Mexican dancers and early explorers.

On another panel we find the three groups that make up much of the populations of the 50 states north of the river. A European astronaut represents people like me. An American Indian in full headdress is found in front of red and white stripes of a flag. And in the middle, Barack Obama now represents our African American heritage.

When I was handed an NPS brochure about the mural, I noticed immediately that some changes had been recently made. The astronaut replaced Marion Anderson and Obama replaced a generic white man. I had to ask about that. The explanation was that the change was requested by the Junior League following the election of our first African American president and following a visit to Chamizal by Obama.

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The border wall, or fence, in 2017 near Chamizal National Memorial/Lee Dalton

As I drove along Paisano Avenue beside the Rio Grande toward a memorial celebrating unity and cooperation, I couldn’t help but notice irony in abundance. A tall, rust brown steel wall atop the north concrete bank of the Rio Bravo. White and green Border Patrol trucks every few hundred feet. Scads of towers bearing what I’m sure were electronic detection devices of all kinds.

Ugly displays of mistrust and long-lasting conflict between some people in a land of plenty on the north who feel a need to protect themselves from other people who live in a land of want and hardship to the south. An ugly wall that bears mute testimony to ongoing conflict that harshly divides a memorial that commemorates an elusive ideal of harmony.

I couldn’t help but reflect on what we’re witnessing now. Which way will the growing divide between our two nations flow? An interpretive panel reminds us, “Chamizal is a park built on diplomacy. Established to commemorate the peaceful settlement of a long-standing border dispute between the U.S. and Mexico, this memorial reminds us that we should try to settle our differences with each other through friendship and understanding.”

Perhaps today, we need to remember that more than ever.

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I'm willing to bet that right about now there are a lot of Traveler readers who are scratching their heads and asking, "Chamizal? What the heck is a Chamizal?"

Count me among them.  Nice piece, Lee.

I know where it is as we were there some years ago. Wonderful place to learn some little known history.


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