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Quickie Divorces Granted in Juárez
Article first published in Vol. 13, 1995.
By Katie Cisneros
Love and marriage. War. Stress and divorce. These words share a common bond. Unfortunately, war often strains a marriage when one spouse is separated from loved ones for long periods of time. Divorce in some cases is inevitable.
Juárez city hall where divorces were granted in the late 1940's. Photo by Martha Minjarez
Many soldiers returning home during and after the end of World War II were greeted with petitions for divorce because of war-related stress. In addition, more jobs opened up for women, the composition of the country became more culturally, economically and religiously diverse, and divorce became more socially acceptable.
In 1940, some 264,000 divorces were granted in the U.S. Five years later in 1945, 485,000 divorces were granted, an increase of 221,000, or 83.7%. Despite the big increase in divorce in just five years, U.S. divorce laws in the 1940s were rather restrictive. Americans, however, discovered that it was possible to obtain “quickie” divorces on the border at Juárez, Mexico, and flocked there by the thousands.
English tradition influenced divorce laws in the United States. The most effective way to protect the bond of marriage was to restrict access to divorce. Marriage was considered a permanent and cherished bond that was to be protected by both the church and the state.
Cruelty, desertion and adultery were the bases for divorce in the 1940s in all states, and divorces were granted only the innocent spouse who was considered the victim.
If both the husband and wife had committed serious marital offenses, then neither would be granted a divorce. In this instance, if they wanted a divorce, spouses concealed the fact that one had grounds for divorce. The traditional American divorce law supposedly ensured justice for those who fulfilled their marital obligations.
The two basic conditions which had to be met by the spouse who sought an American divorce were (1) to establish legal residency in the state granting the divorce and (2) to fulfill the state’s residency requirement. To meet these requisites, a person must have intended to live in the state permanently or must have stayed in the state a definite amount of time.
In the 1940s, the residency requirements in the U.S. varied from state to state, ranging from 60 days to three years. If legal residency was not met, the divorce would not be granted.
If individuals had difficulty obtaining a divorce in their own state, they would then go to another state and try there. Americans searched for the easiest and quickest ways to obtain divorces.
It is no wonder that between 1940 and 1960, half a million estranged couples converged on Juárez, Mexico, for “quickie” divorces. Jesus Cisneros, who lived in El Paso during the 1940s, remembers these divorces were also called migratory divorces and divorcios al vapor (divorces that were granted quickly as marriages evaporated).
The divorces obtained in Juárez, appealed to many Americans because of Mexico’s easy residency requirements. A Juárez divorce took less than a day. Jesus Cisneros recalls, “For a ‘quickie’ divorce, a person would go to the city hall, pay a fee and get a divorce in about three hours.”
Many American travel agencies offered package deals which included legal representation, round trip airfare, transportation, room and board and, sometimes, a cocktail. Others preferred a fast flight to El Paso, a trip across the Rio Grande and a flight home the next day. Besides ordinary Americans, movie stars and other celebrities from the U.S. and abroad traveled to Mexico for the fast divorces.
There were a couple of ways the “quickie” divorce was advertised to the public. Cisneros remembers that the newspaper ads and flyers were the most common promotions. He remembers lawyers handing out flyers to people as they crossed the border between El Paso and Juárez. He recalls the ad said something like “I divorce you the same day. Call (phone number).” Although Mexican divorces were advertised in American papers, and many Americans were granted these divorces, it was unsafe to assume the divorces were valid in the United States.
District Judge David Mulcahy of El Paso believed that Juárez divorce laws only applied to citizens of Mexico. He was quoted in an El Paso Timesarticle in 1943 as saying, “Texas will not yield to a foreign jurisdiction the exclusive right to determine the status of one of its residents.”
Many of the Mexican divorces were invalidated in American courts where only one spouse had participated. Other courts throughout the U.S. did uphold Mexican divorces, but each state court decided whether or not to validate foreign divorces. This added to the confusion of already complex U.S. divorce laws.
To cash in on the thriving divorce business, some people took advantage of the Americans flocking to Juárez. Officials from the United States and Chihuahua investigated a counterfeiting organization that was issuing fake Mexican divorce decrees to U.S. couples. In 1940, a Juárez judge informed U.S. Postal Inspectors of at least 48 fake certificates with Chihuahua judges’ signatures on them. The certificates were impressive and contained all the details of an original decree, except the judges who signed them were minor court judges not authorized to grant divorces.
Partly as a result of foreign divorce mills, divorce laws in the U.S. became more liberal. Legal residency periods became more reasonable, less serious grounds were established and either spouse could obtain a divorce. Today the U.S. grants more than 750,000 divorces a year, one of the highest rates in the world.
Before the liberalization of the U.S. divorce law, many Americans were relieved that they had somewhere to go to obtain divorces so easily. The Mexican people were also thankful for the tourism that brought American money into the economy.
The governments of both countries, however, disliked “quickie” divorces. Mexico did not like being known as a divorce mill. The United States did not like another country settling the domestic disputes of its citizens. Today a travel package to Mexico may include round trip fare, hotel and meals and the welcoming margarita. It will not include a “quickie” divorce.