AN ISLAND IN THE DESERT

El Paso and Ciudad Juarez are part of the Rio Grande or Rio Bravo watershed, a landscape that covers the geography of 3 American and 4 Mexican states. Surrounded  by the Chihuahua desert and isolated by vast distances from state and national centers, the two cities feed off and complement each other. 

 

The river is more than the geographical and political fact that determines the border, it is the ecological and cultural backbone of a region that transgresses a two-dimensional dividing line between the two countries. It has historically been the sole water resource of the region, and in its current state is highly intervened. The river is the protagonist that introduces us to the stories that are a part of this fascinating border region...

AN ISLAND IN THE DESERT

Postcard from:

Pablo, Architectural Designer

Postcard from:

Eric, CEO of El Paso Community Foundation

THE RIVER AS A RESOURCE

With the implementation of the NAFTA international treaty in the 1990’s, the industrialization process in the region accelerated. As a consequence, water demand and pollution on the river’s watershed increased, creating a need for a multi-state response in the development of new control and management structures. However, the approach taken to address these issues was to undertake hard infrastructure projects such as dams and canals. These responses increased the damage on the river’s natural systems and its environment. Today, the river is no longer the region’s largest water resource, and the stress on its natural systems have extended to its aquifers.

 

At the triple border between New Mexico, Texas and Chihuahua, these disruptions are evident. Here, a skinny stream manages to cross the International Diversion Dam, diverting its waters toward the Franklin canal on the American side — creating a small natural environment. Wetland pastures and a few cranes tell us about the potential for life and a living environment. The only people we see are a pair of Mexican soldiers walking a few meters from a monolith which marks the border. High-security metal fences, towers, and surveillance infrastructure rise from the hills and banks. All of which reminds us that we are in one of the busiest — and most conflictive — borders in the world...

THE RIVER AS A RESOURCE

Postcard from:

TracyCEO at Paso del Norte C. Foundation

THE RIVER AS A BORDER

In 1864 a large storm changed the course of the river dramatically, transforming the landscape. 283-hectares of Mexican territory suddenly jumped to the American side of the border, prompting  a century of border disputes and negotiations to redefine the borderline. This unforeseen event demonstrated that the act of bordering can be a relative and dynamic event.

 

Finally, in 1963, the Chamizal Treaty put an end to disputes by fixing the border at an intermediate point. The course of the river was again modified — this time artificially — canalized between concrete walls to control its strayed nature. In the following decades, progressive investment in hard infrastructure and security would further transform the river and reinforce a landscape of barriers. Here, two highways on each side, in addition to the fences and surveillance infrastructure mentioned earlier, and the presence of soldiers and border patrol, create an intransgressible strip. It is within this aggressive landscape that the bridges take on an unexpected civic role...

THE RIVER AS A BORDER

Postcard from:

Luis Enrique, Hope Border Institute

CONTESTED BRIDGES

In January 1917, a riot broke out on the international bridge connecting El Paso and Ciudad Juarez. Hundreds of Mexican migrant travelers, led by a 17 year old Juarense, protested the inhumane conditions imposed by American authorities in crossing the border. With the unjustified excuse of avoiding the spread of typhus in the United States, facilities for chemical baths had been constructed, and hundreds of Mexican men and women who crossed the border daily to work were forced to take “disinfecting” baths. The practice was carried out for decades, despite protests. The bridge thus became not only a site of security and control, but also of demonstration and contestation, asking us continuously to confront our own humanity.   

 

Much of this dichotomy still persists in the nature of the border bridge. It operates as a gradient between a space of encounter and separation, of informality and control. Here, activities in the public realm are charged by the physical presence of the line. On one side, vendors are free to take advantage of daily traffic. On the other, however, meeting or loitering is not allowed. Border bridges are spaces for transit and waiting at once, and this condition inevitably gives them an important role as a space in constant friction...

CONTESTED BRIDGES

Postcard from:

Jazmin, architect

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WAITING AMONG FUMES

Three to four times a week, Fernando wakes up at 4:00 am to cross to El Paso as early as possible to avoid long lines on the bridge, which could take up to 2 hours at rush hour. Fernando crosses for business — he buys motor oil from El Paso, which he then sells and distributes to different motor repair shops in Ciudad Juarez. It is small-scale economics, but trips like Fernando’s mobilize thousands of crossings every day. In a similar manner, people cross the border daily for work, school, shopping, services, or to visit family and friends. Waiting on the bridge inside the car is an everyday occurrence, but not many are aware of the toxicity of such waiting. The daily toll of thousands of cars in long lines and long hours contribute to rising pollution levels on the border, raising issues of environmental justice...

WAITING AMONG FUMES

Postcard from:

Fernando, car oil merchant

Postcard from:

Daniel, Uber driver

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Postcard from:

Amy, shopkeeper

Postcard from:

Yeya, shop owner

BI-NATIONAL CORRIDOR - EL PASO STREET

In 1974, the trolley that connected El Paso Street with the other side of the border ended its operation. A once vibrant avenue of historic theaters and hotels lost a vital source. However, economic revitalization plans focused on encouraging border crossing for  family oriented tourism and shopping gave it a new economic boost. Today, El Paso Street feels like an open shopping mall. Store merchandise extends onto sidewalks and canopies blurring the lines between interior and exterior. The sidewalks become commercial space, but of a less transactional nature —the public nature of the street encourages not only the exchange of money and products, but also stories and experiences. El Paso Street has fixed operating hours. Stores begin to close by 6:00 pm, and activity begins to dwindle until the streets are completely deserted. The same effect occurs on weekends, in contrast with its sister street on the other side of the bridge. While El Paso Street takes a nap, Av. 16 de Septiembre in Juarez is celebrating...

BI-NATIONAL CORRIDOR - EL PASO STREET
BI-NATIONAL CORRIDOR - AV. 16 DE SEPTIEMBRE

At the beginning of the 90’s a wave of femicides and homicides positioned Ciudad Juarez among the most violent cities in the world. Women working in difficult conditions in maquilas or factories at the outskirts of the towns were the most common victims of this wave of violence and impunity. The dire social and economic conditions and the precariousness that persisted in the daily lives of thousands of Juarenses extended to the public realm. Neighborhoods would empty as people fled violence and uncertainty, but life would continually reveal itself in the streets leading to the plaza.

 

Only 10 minutes away from the international bridge, at the intersection of Juarez and Av. 16 de Septiembre, unique urban activities concentrate. In contrast with El Paso Street, a wider variety of formal and informal activities are on full display — at building facades, street corners, makeshift stalls and seating. Dental services, eye clinics, restaurants, taquerias, margarita stands, bars, cafes operate side by side side stalls catering pedestrian services — selling magazines, clay pots, handcrafted rugs, or shining shoes. On weekends, Pasoans cross over to Juarez to visit family, walk through streets dense with activity, watch performers, or dance to Latin music.

 

However, behind this festive atmosphere, signs in pink indicate that this particular corridor is “safe for women”. Surveillance is deployed, and we are again reminded that we are within a border — being told that beyond these boundaries, violence persists. In Juarez, these pink spaces may help some of those targeted by violence feel less targeted. For many people, the presence of Av. 16 de Septiembre, Plaza de Armas, and the Cathedral together provide a safer community space, a kind of social infrastructure...

BI-NATIONAL CORRIDOR - AV. 16 DE SEPTIEMBRE

Postcard from:

Jose, doctor in Cd. Juarez

Postcard from:

Ramon, professor at UACJ

CATHEDRAL AS SOCIAL INFRASTRUCTURE
CATHEDRAL AS SOCIAL INFRASTRUCTURE

In December of 2018, the US government instituted the “Migration Protection Protocols”, also known as the “Remain in Mexico” policy. This policy states that migrants seeking asylum in the United States must wait in Mexico during their migration process. In November 2019, the Heraldo de Juarez reported that some 19,000 Central Americans and some 3,000 Mexican migrants were in Ciudad Juarez. As a result of this new immigration policy, the number of asylum seekers quickly overwhelmed shelters and facilities in the city, and many were left with no other option but to set up camps in city parks. Faced with this humanitarian crisis, churches have played an important social role. The Cathedral of Juarez, due to its central location, served as a shelter during the worst time of the immigration crisis. Today it has become a community service center providing space for various organizations and volunteers that provide free legal, health, and livelihood services for those who are still waiting and for those who have decided to stay...

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Postcard from:

Rafael, Priest at Juárez Cathedral

Postcard from:

Lorena, secretary at Juarez cathedral

Postcard from:

Ilianasewing group member

Postcard from:

Angelyoung immigrant

Postcard from:

Cristinadirector of "Proyecto Catedral"

Postcard from:

Ivonnesocial worker at Casa del Migrante

LIVES IN TRANSIT - CASA DEL MIGRANTE
LIVES IN TRANSIT - CASA DEL MIGRANTE

Angel, a Salvadoran teenager, was reunited with his parents at La Casa del Migrante after he was separated from them in an improvised detention center under the Paso del Norte Bridge. After spending a few days at the detention center in El Paso, Angel was returned to Juarez with no means to contact his parents. With nothing but what he was wearing and the identification bracelet that immigration officials place on migrant asylum seekers, Angel wandered through the streets of downtown Ciudad Juarez for days. At the cathedral, he managed to find help and was referred to Casa del Migrante, where he was later reunited with his parents by a good turn of fate. 

 

Casa del Migrante is a shelter located in Juarez about  an hour away from Plaza de Armas that shelters migrants alone or in families. At times their patios resemble that of a schoolyard with children playing and running around. Women gather around the play areas or around tables under a clothesline, while the men are sheltered in an opposite and fenced area where more clothes hang drying on fences. The story of Angel, who is no longer in the shelter, is just one of many heartbreaking stories that reveal themselves in these intermittent spaces. Stories of people acting towards a dignified, safe, and shared life with loved ones, who often find themselves on the other side of the border...

Postcard from:

Lesterasylum seeker

Postcard from:

Omarasylum seeker

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BORDER COMMUNITY
BORDER COMMUNITY

When Eric Pearson, CEO of El Paso Community Foundation used the metaphor of an island in the desert, it was inevitable not to think about the dichotomies that define the relationship between Juarez and El Paso — continuities and discontinuities that constantly emerge in the border landscape. Issues of national security policy, immigration, and militarization decided thousands of kilometers away from the border are imposed and materialized on local communities and the landscape. Hate incited in regions far away and unreachable could lead to catastrophic events such as the August 3, 2019 shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso. 

 

Despite this, communities and ecologies and local economies continue to adapt and transgress imposed physical discontinuities. The stories collected in this project lay the groundwork for reimagining the border. The region’s greatest asset is its bi-national social fabric, which must be strengthened with projects and policies that improve and encourage unity. When we asked Nicole Ferrini, Chief of the El Paso Resilience Office about the major stresses facing the region, she answered: “They are primarily social and economic… We talk about the civic environment as a reflection of people. Resilience is about people. That is primary.”