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Chamizal National Memorial
El Paso, Texas
In between the Texas-Mexican border stands a memorial where the American and Mexican flags fly together as a symbol of the historic treaty that ended a century-long dispute between the United States and Mexico. A testament to what two nations can accomplish when they work together to understand their differences and find common ground, Chamizal National Memorial commemorates the milestone in both nations' diplomatic relations and its influence over the United States' and Mexico’s shared heritage and border culture.
The century-long boundary dispute between the United States and Mexico began in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo. Signaling the conclusion of the Mexican-American war, this treaty established the Texas-Mexican border along the Rio Grande, which would later become the source of the Chamizal dispute. The border stretched over 2,000 miles and separated the densely populated cities of El Paso, Texas and Juarez, Mexico. According to the treaty, the Rio Grande would not only serve as a guide to define where the border began and where it ended, but would also act as the physical border between the United States and Mexico. Eventually, reliance on the Rio Grande as a border proved difficult since rivers move naturally over time causing the borderline to change each time the Rio Grande shifted its course.
When the floods caused the Rio Grande to move the borderline further south, families living near the river began to suffer the consequences as the new border left part of their property on the other side of the river. Those whose lands were located on the north benefited from the changes, while families living on the Mexican side of the border suffered from the river’s gradual shifts to the south. Land disputes arose in the region that began to strain the relationship between the United States and Mexico. Among the disputed lands was Pedro Ignacio de Garcia’s 600 acres that Texas acquired toward the end of the 19th century. Garcia’s land became the contested area known as the Chamizal that would cause tensions between the United States and Mexico for more than 100 years.
The Chamizal dispute officially began in 1895, when Garcia informed the Mexican government that the Rio Grande floods had placed his property completely on the other side of the border. Mexican officials then brought Garcia’s case to the International Boundary Commission (IBC), which in 1910 established an arbitration committee to resolve the Chamizal dispute. In 1911, the committee consisting of three officials--one from the United States, one from Mexico, and one from Canada--met in El Paso, Texas to decide whether the boundary established in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo still applied. All three committee members-- Fernando Beltran y Puga, Anson Mills, and Eugene Lafleur-- agreed that the Rio Grande slowly and gradually moved the border from 1848 to 1863, but they disagreed on the border’s location following the massive flood of 1864.
Until 1863, the Chamizal tract belonging to Garcia was still located on the Mexican side of the border and would not become a part of Texas until the Rio Grande rapidly shifted its course the following year. The Mexican and Canadian representatives agreed that the international boundary should be located along the river channel of 1863, whereas the American official Anson Mills believed that the correct borderline was the one established by the massive flood of 1864. To resolve their disagreement, the committee in a two to one vote proposed to settle the land dispute by dividing the Chamizal tract between Texas and Mexico. Although the proposal received a majority of votes, the United States refused to accept the vote since the settlement did not conform to the terms of the International Boundary Commission arbitration in 1910.
The rejection of the committee's resolution of the Chamizal dispute by the United States resulted in a stalemate that lasted for more than 50 years. The Chamizal tract and the neighboring territory known as Cordova Island became havens for smuggling alcohol during prohibition. In addition, the region witnessed a rise in drug trafficking and illegal immigration. By the time of the Great Depression, with no improvement of conditions in the region, especially at Cordova Island, Mexican and American officials agreed to build a fence along the border to improve security. Although the physical border made the area safer, it did not stop drug trafficking or illegal immigration in the area or resolve land disputes between Juarez, Mexico and El Paso, Texas.
Diplomatic negotiations resumed in the early 1960s, when at the height of the Cold War the United States recognized that, if left unresolved, the Chamizal dispute posed a greater threat to the Texas border than illegal immigration and drug trafficking. As tensions with the Soviet Union increased, the United States realized the possibility of a communist influence in neighboring Latin American nations. If Mexico fell under Soviet influence, the United States would have to fight communism directly in its backyard. In an effort to improve relations with the nation’s Latin American neighbors, President John F. Kennedy traveled to Mexico City, where he met with President Lopez Mateos to discuss the Chamizal dispute.
Following Kennedy’s meeting, Mexican and U.S. officials met in Mexico City for the Chamizal Convention of 1963. The Chamizal issue officially ended in January of 1964, when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the treaty in Washington, DC. Although President Kennedy was a key player in the resolution of the Chamizal issue, Mexican and US officials were unable to finalize the treaty before his assassination. On September 25, 1964, known today as Chamizal Day, President Johnson and Mexico’s President Adolfo Lopez Mateos met in between El Paso and Ciudad Juarez, where crowds from both cities gathered to witness the historic event and celebrate the end of the border dispute.Today, Chamizal National Memorial serves as cultural center that offers visitors an opportunity to learn about the border culture, history, and heritage that Americans and Mexicans continue to share. At the Memorial, visitors may walk the Cordova Island trail that offers a wonderful view of the El Paso skyline and international bridge.