The signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848 established the Rio Grande as the boundary between the United States and Mexico. Over the following years, as the river channel naturally changed course through what is now El Paso-Ciudad Juarez, the location of the border became unclear. Citizens of Mexico, cut off from their land by the river’s southerly tendencies, turned to their government to answer questions about the status of their land. Mexico and the United States began a conversation. Does the border move with the river when it moves? If the border is to stay where it was in 1848, how do we manage a static, invisible boundary along a river that continually – often abruptly and widely – changes course? Leaders of the two countries had to answer these questions and more before deciding on land ownership claims along the shifting river, and it was no easy task. Over the years, various treaties began to answer questions about how to deal with using a river for a border, but they did not agree on ownership of the Chamizal, privately owned Mexican land that had shifted north of the river due primarily to a flood in 1864. For the next century, the two countries disputed the Chamizal.
It wasn’t until 1962, during John F. Kennedy’s administration, that he and his Mexican counterpart, President Adolfo López Mateos, agreed to commit their governments to finding a solution, and the Chamizal Treaty was signed on August 29, 1963. President Johnson's administration continued to work with President López Mateos and his successor, Gustavo Díaz Ordaz, to carry out the terms of the treaty. The United States returned much of the disputed land to Mexico, and both countries worked together to relocate four miles of the river through a concrete lined channel. In the process, Mexico transferred to the United States a piece of undisputed land, a portion of which was set aside as Chamizal National Memorial.
On June 30, 1966, Congress established Chamizal National Memorial as part of the National Park Service to, “commemorate the harmonious settlement of the long-standing boundary dispute between the United States and Mexico concerning the Chamizal…” To fulfill that mission today, the park offers a history museum to learn about the intricate story of this international dispute and its resolution. Visitors can walk the grounds and contemplate the history with a view of the border as it is today. The park recognizes the sacrifice of more than 5,000 U.S. residents of the disputed Chamizal area, who were forced to relocate by the terms of the treaty, and serves today as a space in the heart of El Paso for families to gather, recreate, and build community. While U.S. and Mexican presidents tried for a century to resolve the Chamizal dispute, only Kennedy and Lopez Mateos achieved it. Their ability to do so was due, at least in part, to their mutual respect and determination to understand and cooperate with each other. To commemorate their spirit of diplomacy, Chamizal National Memorial offers visual and performing arts as cultural exchange to promote appreciation between groups of people, and with appreciation, the same mutual respect that allows for such “harmonious” relationships.
Your Links to History
The history of the Chamizal dispute and its resolution is long and complex. Learn a little more about the people, places, and stories involved. Find out more about the historic objects around the park and in our collections, and learn about our oral histories project.
Cultural Opportunities Today
Chamizal National Memorial is uncommon among more than 400 other national parks, both as an urban park and because of its full performance theater, which seats almost 500 people. This indoor theater and an outdoor amphitheater are stages for sharing the park’s history and borderland culture during various major events and other programs throughout the year. When not being used by rangers to fulfill the park’s mission, other groups with programs or performances that provide relevant history or cultural experiences may apply for a permit to use the theater. There is something to do almost every weekend at Chamizal National Memorial.
Visual Arts and Exhibits
One of the first things you will see when you come to the park is the Nuestra Herencia mural depicting elements of history and culture reflected in this area and the Chamizal story. Inside the Cultural Center you will find paintings and an exhibit of the Traditional Dress of Mexico in addition to our history museum, and temporary exhibits are on display in the Franklin G. Smith Gallery.