50 Years Ago, A Fluid Border Made The U.S. 1 Square Mile Smaller Since Texas became a state, the Rio Grande has marked the border between the U.S. and Mexico. But, like rivers do, it moved. In 1964, the U.S. finally gave back 437 acres of land.

50 Years Ago, A Fluid Border Made The U.S. 1 Square Mile Smaller

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Fifty years ago today, the United States got just a little bit smaller. In El Paso, Texas, President Lyndon Johnson announced an agreement between the U.S. and Mexico.


PRESIDENT LYNDON JOHNSON: Two free and growing nations have resolved an old and divisive grievance.

MARTIN: That grievance began and ended at the Rio Grande River. Ever since Texas became a state, the river has been the border between the U.S. and Mexico. The problem is rivers can move, and that's exactly what happened back in the 19th century. Torrential rains caused the river to jump its banks and go south. All of a sudden, the border was in a different place. Texas had gained a square mile of land called the Chamizal. It was a thorn in the side of U.S.-Mexico relations for a century.

Finally, on this day in 1964, the U.S. officially gave the land back to Mexico and began a four-year project to force the river back into its original channel. But over the years, thousands of people had made the Chamizal their home. Sarah Kate Kramer and Joe Richman of Radio Diaries bring you their story.

MARIA EUGENIA TRILLO: My name is Maria Eugenia Trillo. I grew up in the Chamizal area during the '50s and '60s. I lived one street away from the river, which was the division between the two countries. The river was just more like a highway that you had to cross to get to where you needed to be. There was a baseball team on the Mexican side, and then there was a team on the El Paso side. And they would just signal each other through whistles. And then they would cross (laughter). It was just life - life with a river between us.

MICHELLE GOMILLA: This is an interview. It's part of the Chamizal oral history project. So Mr. Hinojosa, could I ask you to describe the neighborhood?

HINOJOSA: Yes. There were a lot of tenements and a lot of small - I hate to say shacks, but that's what they were. They didn't have any electricity nor running water. But you built one room, and then you built another room. And then you built another room - one room after the others. They become, I guess, better off.

VICTOR GUZMAN GARCIA: My name is Victor Guzman Garcia. The Garcia clan goes back to about 386 years in this area. A lot of Mexicans from the interior thought that Chamizal, which was basically just a square mile of land - they thought it was as large as California and that it probably had oil and gold. So every time there was an issue between two countries, Mexico would, of course, bring up the Chamizal.

PAUL KRAMER: My name is Paul Kramer, and I'm a historian at Vanderbilt University researching the history of the Chamizal. In Mexico, the Chamizal represented illegally occupied territory, but in the United States, very few Americans had even heard of it. And then in the 1960s, that all changed in a really unexpected way.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: And this is NBC News, presenting today a new special - "Crisis In Cuba."

PRESIDENT JOHN F KENNEDY: This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military buildup on the island of Cuba.

KRAMER: With the Cuban Missile Crisis and specifically the fact that Mexico does not cut off its ties to Castro, the Kennedy administration becomes very concerned that Mexico could be vulnerable in the Cold War. Suddenly, there's a real willingness to remedy the Chamizal dispute, to use it as a kind of bargaining chip. And so the big question is, the residents of this tiny patch of land - what's going to happen to them?

TRILLO: This is a letter from the International Boundary and Water Commission to Mr. Luis Rivera.

(Reading) Dear Sir, we advise that the appraisal of your property would be undertaken as soon as practical, preparatory to acquisition by the federal government. It's authorized...

As kids are kids, we were eavesdropping, and we heard there was going to be removal. We remember our father stomping around the kitchen saying, (speaking Spanish). No, they can't. People were given a choice of going back to Mexico, and only one man that we know of actually accepted to go back. Everybody else said no, but we all had to be out by October 1964.

GOMILLA: This is an interview with W.E. Wood, former government real estate appraiser during the Chamizal settlement.

How did most of the people feel about leaving their homes?

W.E. WOOD: It was mixed. There's one case that I can recall. Now, this lady had a very nice home, better than the rest of them in the neighborhood. And she was not going to let us in, and she couldn't speak English.

GOMILLA: Do you speak Spanish?

WOOD: Yes, enough to get by. And she told me that she was not going to give her house to those goddamn Mexicans in Mexico and that they can go to hell, and I'm going to keep my house. And I will get my guns out, and I will fight. Then the day when it came to move, the United States marshals picked her up bodily and put her in a car and put her furniture in storage.

ANGIE NUNEZ: My name is Angie Nunez. It was a very big disappointment because they did not pay for the house. They paid us for the land. My father had just built four extra rooms in our house. We had central heating. He even had the bricks made special, adobe with the hay because the house was going to be that much thicker, that much warmer, that much whatever. And we had to leave all that.

TRILLO: One by one, the families started moving out. And what was left behind were empty shells of homes. And the windows were all boarded up, and then yellow ribbon was placed on them so that we couldn't even go into the backyards. So it looked like a crime scene with this yellow tape all over, until the only family left was ours. Ours, historically, was the last one. And I remember my dad said, don't look back. You are from forbidden from looking back.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: An enthusiastic welcome at the U.S.-Mexican border for President Johnson and Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, arriving together to settle a century-old border dispute.

GARCIA: I remember thousands and thousands of people on top of the bridge and everything. And I could see Johnson. I could see him sitting at the table and Diaz Ordaz.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Speaking Spanish).

GARCIA: Pretty much the whole of the White House, with congressmen and senators and everybody was here. I mean, this was a big thing.


JOHNSON: An unpredictable river has been converted into a controlled source of water for Mexicans and Americans alike.



KRAMER: By December 1968, Mexico and the United States jointly sponsor the digging of a cement-lined channel that will make the river go where the authorities want it to go in terms of maintaining the boundary that they want.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: After speeches, the two men walked over to press the buttons that would detonate a retaining wall about a mile away and send the water down its new channel.

KRAMER: At the appointed time, the two presidents approached this black box that's been set up on the bridge which has these two red buttons. And they're supposed hit the buttons and detonate these explosives to release the mighty Rio Grande into its new channel.


KRAMER: In fact, there's just a puff of smoke. Nothing happens. And so very quickly, technicians bulldoze the dam and release the river, completing the ceremony.


JACK PERKINS: It's taken a hundred years, but it's finally done. Mexico has its piece of scruff land back, though perhaps it hasn't decided what to do with it. And the river is once again the international boundary. It cost $40 million, but it's very tidy this way. Jack Perkins, NBC News, El Paso.

TRILLO: Well, I'll show you. The river is now encased in cement, that poor thing. It's about 5 feet across. It looks like a muddy creek. Where we used to go, it was wide. Sometimes it had quite a bit of water and it would ripple across.

There's only so much control a man can do on a river. Sooner or later, I personally think that river is going to do what Mother Nature has taught it to do - to move.

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