At the Voices From Both Sides festival on May 12, families wore matching T-shirts as a show of solidarity. The Carrascos wore red. The Rodriguez family wore bright-pink shirts with black lettering: proud to be a rodriguez.
The festival, in its sixth year, drew hundreds from both sides of the US-Mexico border to the muddy banks of the Rio Grande. There, families and friends met in the middle of the river, an international boundary, to celebrate their cross-border community.
Jeff Haislip and Collie Ryan, residents on the Texas side, along with their friend from across the river, Ramon Garcia, founded the party in 2013 as a protest of the tightened border-security measures enacted after 9/11. “There’s a subtle but obvious change in the culture,” said Haislip, who has lived in the region full-time for 10 years but visited frequently for about 30. “It starts with people that used to get to know each other don’t get to know each other anymore. Lajitas is a totally different place now.”
Ryan threw the issue in stark relief: “I lived here downriver when this was one community between two countries. It was such a loving neighborhood,” she said. “Now our country is at war.”
The event takes place between the Texas town turned golf resort, Lajitas, and its Mexican sister city, Paso Lajitas, a name suggestive of the tradition of passage between them. Historically, the swath of river between the two towns served as a key transit point. In the 19th century, the area became a trading post. Until 2002, the stretch between them was one of several unofficial ports of entry, where a lone boatman would ferry people across the river. But during the George W. Bush administration, this and other ports like it were shut down.
These are changes that gradually transformed the dynamics of this border region, and those who live here have made the necessary adjustments to adapt. But this year, amid an administration that wants to fortify the entire border, the atmosphere felt more urgent. The party was bigger than ever, with crowds on both sides of the river; the mood was jovial, with an edge of defiance. A handful of people wore shirts emblazoned with the Spanish words chinga tu muro, or “fuck your wall.”
Some were there for the party. But for others, the event has also become a reunion. Families use the once-a-year crossover as an opportunity to see relatives they otherwise can’t visit due to immigration barriers. Zulma Carrasco, 38, traveled from her home in Houston—a nearly 10-hour drive—to see her parents, who live across the border in Mexico. A Mexican national, Carrasco has a work permit, which enables her to travel freely within Texas, though not across national borders. Meanwhile, her parents lack the paperwork to freely enter the United States. This is a familiar situation for many who attend the festival.