LAS LAJITAS, Texas—“Es el agua de la libertad” (It's the water of freedom) shouted a Mexican man, standing knee-deep in the middle of the murky Rio Grande as part of the fourth annual "Voices from Both Sides" border festival.
The yearly celebration, which was started in 2013 as a form of peaceful protest over stricter border controls following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, drew crowds to the Texas border town of Lajitas and its Mexican neighbor, Paso Lajitas.
The event, done with the permission of U.S. border patrol, was monitored only by a few Mexican police officers, who carried assault rifles and watched from the southern bank of the river.
A band played on the Texas side as people danced ruddy-cheeked and tipsy along the riverbank under the glaringly hot sun. Just across the border, a Mexican crowd of elderly people observed from beneath the shade of a gazebo, as young children slid down the muddy bank to the river's edge.
Some people were there for the party. But others came because it's one of the only opportunities they have each year to see their family members on the other side of the border.
Dania Elizabeth Blankenburg, a cheerful 19-year-old Texan dressed in an orange t-shirt and joined by 25 family members, says the day serves as an annual reminder that blood is thicker than politics.
“I’m here visiting family that I don’t ever get to see,” she said. “I don’t have a passport and they live in Mexico—they’re not allowed to come to the U.S.”
For Blankenburg and her family, it was a happy but emotional encounter. “Lots of crying,” she said. “We meet in the middle [of the river] and hug each other and cry.”
She said she rarely makes the journey into Mexico for fear that she'll get stuck on the other side of the border without a passport. “I’m scared to go over there,” she told me.
Blankenburg said she was only a little girl when the airplanes hit the World Trade Center, but the post 9/11 policies implemented at the border in response to those terrorist attacks have defined her adolescence. She says she didn't see her aunt until she was in seventh grade, when her sister took her across the border without a passport, risking capture by Customs and Border Protection (CBP). “She would not let go of me,” said Blankenburg, referring to the first time her aunt saw her.
But on Saturday, there was no border; people were once again free to cross the river, oblivious to their wet jeans and boots, and without fear of being detained for lack of proper documentation. Border patrol seemed to turn a blind eye to the party.
Festival-goers say the scene is reminiscent of a time prior to 9/11, before unauthorized border crossings like the one that once connected Lajitas and Paso Lajitas were closed.
“You used to be able to go back and forth at will,” said Jeff Haislip, one of the founders of the festival. “There was a guy who had a boat. You’d pay him a dollar or two and he’d row you across. You’d walk up a half a mile into town, have a few beers real cheap, and they’d take you back. It was just nice.”
He added, “Since they closed the border… you saw how the culture changed.”
The change wasn’t just cultural. Domingo Valdez, a U.S. resident who was born and raised in the Mexican side, says tougher border security has choked historic supply flows to the small community of Paso Lajitas, a town without a gas station. He says people used to come across the river to fill up their gas tanks because “the gas was cheaper and there was better gas.”
Now Mexicans have to drive lengthy distances along the rough desert terrain to get gas and other provisions that previously were accessible just minutes across the river.
Paso Lajitas is one of many small border towns that have been most affected by consequences of laws enacted by policymakers in Washington, D.C. A border that was once porous is now nearly impermeable, and the interdependent communities on both sides became divided.
But Saturday was a day of union, joy and remembrance, as Spanish and English mixed in a boisterous din and the border once again became as fluid as the river that marks it.