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Chamizal Dispute Settled Peacefully
Article first published in Vol. 14, 1996.
By Juan Rios, Christian Bueno, Cynthia Luna, Erika Ortega and Cong Huu Nguyen
The Chamizal National Memorial is a multicultural artistic center on South Marcial Street in El Paso. The visitor centers on a lush green lawn against a backdrop of majestic mountains and blue sky. Although the Chamizal was initially designed to commemorate the signing of the Chamizal Treaty of 1963, it has become a unit of the National Park Service that is dedicated to the arts.
Flags of two nations fly in front of Chamizal National Memorial. Photo by Cong Huu Nguyen
The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo officially ended the war between Mexico and the U.S. from 1845 to 1848. The treaty provided that the new international boundary was to be the center of the deepest channel of the Rio Grande. Mexico and the United States shares relative peace from 1848 until 1864. By that time, flooding and gradual southbound shifting of the Rio Grande left a new section of land on the Texas side of the river.
The newly exposed land, made up of several hundred acres, came to be known as El Chamizal. Both Mexico and the United States claimed the land, and many American citizens were living in that area. In 1895, Mexican citizens filed suit in the Juárez Primary Court of Claims to reclaim the land. The issue, however, was not settled until 1963.
Part of the land located in the middle of the river came to be known as Cordova Island. In a sense it was an island belonging to Mexico inside U.S. territory; thus, there was little or no control by the local authorities which created a haven for crime and opportunities for illegal crossings.
This atmosphere caused a lot of tension, especially at the local level. Enedina Rosales, a Juárez newspaper employee and resident of the area, said, "Being somewhat neglected by the American government gave us a sense of resentment which seemed to sweep the city every time conflict erupted between both communities.
In an attempt to resolve the land dispute, the International Boundary Commission was created in 1910. It was comprised of a Mexican, an American and a Canadian. The Canadian juror, who had to mediate between opposing sides, divided Cordova Island equally between the two nations and the Chamizal was awarded to Mexico. The United States rejected the decision.
The conflict dragged on until 1962, when Mexican President Adolfo López Mateos invited President John F. Kennedy to look into the matter with the warning that relations between the United States and Mexico would never run smoothly until the problem was solved.
On August 29, 1963, the United States wiped away what John F. Kennedy referred to as "the black mark" by signing the Chamizal Convention. The agreement gave Mexico a total of 630 acres, 366 from the original Chamizal and 264 east of Cordova. Cordova Island itself was divided equally with each side receiving 193 acres. The conflict was over, and what remained was for Mexico and the United States to take the steps to make sure that history would never again repeat itself.
One of the aims of the Chamizal Convention was to build a man-made channel to prevent the Rio Grande from blurring the international boundary in the future. The channel was constructed of concrete, 167 feet in width at the top and 15 feet deep. The two governments shared the cost of the channel, along with the cost of three new bridges.
The Chamizal National Memorial on the U.S. side was created to celebrate the blending of two cultures. Luis Torres, author of the publication "Chamizal National Memorial" says, "Its focus on the arts provides an avenue for cross-cultural understanding and enrichment that transcends barriers of race, ethnicity and language." The Chamizal contains a museum which displays all official documents concerning the Chamizal conflict. Outside on the museum walls are murals that represent the United States and its mixture of races. A mural at the front of the museum honors Presidents Kennedy and Mateos. Inside the memorial building are a theater, museum, bookstore and Los Paisanos Gallery.
The park also provides seasonal entertainment that families from both sides of the border can enjoy. Nestled on 55 acres, the Chamizal has an outdoor amphitheater. Here the summer Music Under The Stars concerts provide a wide variety of music ranging from jazz, country, and Mexican to classical. The Border Folk Festival is held every October with performances both in the theater and throughout the grounds.
The Siglo del Oro drama festival, two weeks of plays from Spain's Golden Age, is held every March in the Chamizal's 500-seat theater which hosts other plays, musicals and recitals throughout the year. The International Zarzuela Festival is held every August, and residents of both countries enjoy the annual firework display on July 4.
On the Mexican side, the Monumento Conmemorativo en El Chamizal is made up of over 600 acres with large picnic areas and a reflecting pool. On one side of the park an archeology museum leads to a garden where fiberglass reproductions of pre-Columbian statues line the walkways.
The Chamizal memorials symbolize the commitment of the United States and Mexico to working in harmony and honors the peaceful settlement of a hostile dispute spanning over 100 years.