AN ISLAND IN THE DESERT
El Paso and Ciudad Juárez 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, is the ecological and cultural backbone of a region that transgresses the one-dimensionality of the dividing line between the two countries. It has been historically the one water resource, and it is currently highly intervened. The river is the protagonist that introduces us to the stories that are part of this fascinating border region...
Pablo, Architectural Designer
Eric, CEO of El Paso Community Foundation
THE RIVER AS A RESOURCE
With the implementation of the NAFTA international treaty in the 1990s, the industrialization process in the region accelerated. As a consequence, the water demand and pollution of the river 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 like dams and canals. These responses increased the damage of the river's natural systems and its environment. Today, the river is no longer the region's largest water source, and water stress has 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...
Tracy, CEO at Paso del Norte C. Foundation
Luis Enrique, Hope Border Institute
THE RIVER AS A BORDER
In 1864 a large storm changed the course of the river dramatically. 283-hectares of Mexican territory suddenly jumped to the American side. What transpired since was a century of border disputes and negotiations to redefine the borderline. This unforeseen event showed that the border sometimes is 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 - and 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 patrols, create an instrangressible strip. It is within this aggressive landscape that the bridges take on an unexpected civic role...
In January 1917, a protest broke out on the international bridge that connects El Paso and Ciudad Juárez. Hundreds of Mexican immigrants revealed by the unworthy conditions imposed by the American authorities to cross the border. With the excuse of avoiding the spread of typhus in the United States, hundreds of Mexicans who crossed the border daily to work were forced to take disinfecting baths. 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 side, 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 social space in constant friction...
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 and thus avoid the line on the bridge, which can take up to 2 hours at rush hour. Fernando crosses for business reasons. He buys motor oil from El Paso, which he then sells and distributes to different motor repair shops in Ciudad Juárez. It is a small-scale economy, but it mobilizes thousands of crossings every day. Just like Fernando, other people cross the border 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, creating a severe problem of environmental justice...
Fernando, car oil merchant
Daniel, Uber driver
BI-NATIONAL CORRIDOR - EL PASO STREET
In 1974, the trolley that connected El Paso Street with the other side of the border ended operation. A once vibrant avenue of historic theaters and hotels seemed to decline definitely. However, economic revitalization plans and its proximity to the international bridge 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 sidewalk becomes a commercial space, but also one of social interaction where store owners and pedestrians exchange not only 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 has its nap, Av. 16 de Septiembre in Juárez is celebrating...
Yeya, shop owner
BI-NATIONAL CORRIDOR - AV. 16 DE SEPTIEMBRE
At the beginning of the 90's a wave of femicides and homicides positioned Ciudad Juárez among the most violent cities in the world. Women, mainly maquiladora workers, were (and are) the most common victims of this wave of violence and impunity. The precariousness that persists in the daily life of thousands of Juarenses extends to the public realm. The feeling of insecurity just can be counteracted when the streets are full of people.
Only 10 minutes from the international bridge, at the intersection of Juárez and 16 de Septiembre avenues, a unique urban activity is concentrated. In contrast to El Paso Street, there is a wider variety of both formal and informal activities. Services such as dental, eye clinics, restaurants, tacos, bars, and cafes operate side by side stalls and people selling magazines, toys, clay pots, or shining shoes. On weekends, Pasoans cross to Juarez to visit family, walk through streets dense with vendors and activity, watch street performers and dance to latin music. However, in the background of all this festive atmosphere, signs in pink announce that this particular corridor is safe for women. Surveillance is deployed, and we are again reminded that beyond these boundaries violence persists. In Juárez, these spaces can help some of those who may be targeted feel less targeted. For many people the presence of Av. 16 de Septiembre, Plaza de Armas, and Cathedral together provide a safe community space, a kind of social infrastructure...
Jose, doctor in Cd. Juarez
Ramon, professor at UACJ
CATHEDRAL AS SOCIAL INFRASTRUCTURE
In December 2018, the US government announced the “Migration Protection Protocol (MPP),” also known as the “remind 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 Juárez reported that some 19,000 Central Americans and some 3,000 Mexican migrants were in Ciudad Juárez. As a result of this new immigration policy, shelters and facilities in the city were quickly overwhelmed by the number of returnees, and many were left with no other options but to set up camps in city parks. Faced with this humanitarian crisis, churches have played an important social role. The cathedral of Juárez, due to its central location, served as a shelter during the worst time of the crisis. Today it has become a community service center providing space for various organizations and volunteers that provide free legal, health, and livelihood support for those who are still waiting and for those who have decided to stay...
Rafael, Priest at Juárez Cathedral
Lorena, secretary at Juarez cathedral
Angel, young immigrant
Iliana, sewing group member
LIVES IN TRANSIT - CASA DEL MIGRANTE
Angel, a Salvadoran teenager, was reunited with his parents at the 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, Ángel was removed from the US with no means to contact his parents. With nothing but what he was wearing and the identification bracelet that immigration officials place on migrants seeking asylum, Ángel wandered through the streets of downtown Ciudad Juárez for days. At the cathedral, he managed to find help and was referred to the Casa del Migrante, the place 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 are gathered around the play areas or around tables under a clothesline. Daily life reveals itself by clothes hanging on the fences that separate the different areas. The story of Angel, who is no longer in the shelter, is just one of many heartbreaking stories that intertwine here. Stories of people looking for a dignified, safe, and shared life with their loved ones, who often find themselves on the other side of the border...