Every year in the tiny border town of Lajitas — located about 300 miles east of El Paso — hundreds gather to celebrate, remember and protest the closing of the area’s border passage.
For decades, U.S. tourists and locals used to cross freely over the Rio Grande into Pasos Lajitas, Mexico. But that changed in May of 2002, when the federal government abruptly closed the informal passage. The small community Lajitas shared with its Mexican neighbor was cut in half.
But the annual Voices From Both Sides — a one-day event is in its sixth year — serves as a reunion.
It’s 100 degrees on the day before Mother’s Day, the day of the festival.
Dozens of people are cooling off in the Rio Grande. Kids splash in the muddy water as groups of adults casually wade by. People are cooking tacos and burgers under the tents that dot the river’s edge on both sides.
Music fills the normally quiet valley between the Texas town of Lajitas, which has a population of 100, and its Mexican neighbor, Paso Lajitas.
Jeff Haislip, a long-term resident of the area, founded the Voices from Both Sides festival six years ago. He lives 12 miles up the road in Terlingua.
Haislip said he started the festival — also known as Fiesta Protesta — to draw attention to the impact of the border’s closing. He said it changed the culture of the tight-knit community.
“It’s real subtle that people who used to know each other don’t know each other any more and that is a result of what we’ve done,” Haislip said.
The first year of the festival was in 2013, more than a decade after the border was closed as part of a government crackdown on homeland security after 9-11. People were at first wary of crossing the river because it’s illegal, Haislip says.
“It was just question marks in people’s heads because no one knew what was going to go on,” he says.
Six years later, it appears people no longer have any reservations about crossing as hundreds swim and back forth throughout the day.
According to Haislip, something else that’s changed is that border issues are in the national spotlight, thanks to the Trump administration.
“Immigration, and actually illegal immigration is what they’re interested in,” he said.
In recent weeks, the White House has deployed National Guard troops to the Texas-Mexico border. Their purpose is to free up more border patrol agents so they can keep a closer eye on illegal immigration.
But federal agents don’t appear to be keeping close tabs on this festival.
Border Patrol officials say previous festivals have been without incident and don’t think the community event poses a huge risk to the border security.
The Brewster County Sheriff’s Department is present at the event. Sheriff Rodney Dodson says they’re just here to keep the peace.
“The crossing back and forth over the river is not our issue,” Dodson said. “We don’t enforce any kind of immigration laws and stuff like that.”
Dodson has attended the festival every year. He said he’s watched it grow from around 100 people to more than a thousand this year.
“This started out as a small celebration of the neighbors across the border and as you see, even I was amazed when I stepped over the hill and saw all these cars. It’s starting to gain great numbers,” he said.
Dodson remembers when the passage was closed. He said, on the U.S. side, the school in Terlingua was the hardest hit.
“A lot of kids came over every morning and they took them to school here,” he said. “That was the biggest part of it is hurting the school district.”
Midland resident Georgina Villa saw this when she was 8 years old, as a student in Terlingua when the crossing closed.
“I lost a lot of friends because of it,” Villa said. “And I just had to see a lot of homes be abandoned when this happened. So it was real hard.”
Villa said at the time she and her mother were working towards getting their green cards, and the closing meant they could no longer cross the river to see her family in San Carlos. The town is just 15 miles south of the border. Federal agents kept a close eye on the area.
“We couldn’t even get close to the river to where we could see my grandma and some of her family and family from my parents side as well,” Villa said.
Villa said because the crossing is still closed, she and her husband have to make separate trips to Terlingua and San Carlos from their home in Midland to see family. This is challenging with three young girls, she said.
But Villa says she is now a U.S. citizen and feels fortunate to be able to cross the border freely. She said friends who are under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program cannot. Their family members from Mexico visit them at the festival.
“They wait for this event to come and see their mother, their brother or sister, aunts or uncles,” Villa said.
On the Mexican side, the border’s closing devastated the town of Paso Lajitas, which depended on tourists. The 20 families living there soon moved away, and it’s essentially a ghost town now.
Residents on both sides have to drive an hour and a half to the nearest border checkpoint to legally cross.
Alpine resident James Neil Trammell said when he was a student at nearby Sul Ross University, he visited Paso Lajitas once a month. The experience became a sort of cultural exchange for the Fort Worth native.
“We would go cross and go eat enchiladas and drink Carta Blanca,” Trammell said. “Everybody was friendly. Everybody was nice. We would get tutored in Spanish, and we would tutor in English. We’d work it out and have a good time.”
In 2013, the federal government reopened the crossing from Big Bend National Park to Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico, about 70 miles east of Lajitas. This crossing was also closed after 9/11.
It has a lone border protection agent and two automatic kiosks. Visitors cross by paying $5 to take a rowboat across the Rio Grande.
But it’s unclear if the crossing at Lajitas will ever reopen. The federal government hasn’t given any indication it plans to do so.
So for now, residents on both sides will have to settle for the one-day reunion at the Fiesta Protesta.
Natalie Krebs is a contributor for TPR