Border Wall

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Donald Trump:
“We’re going to build a wall. It’s going to be a real wall. See that ceiling up there? I mean this is a wall that if you get up there, you’re not coming down very easily. It’s true. It’s true.” (crowd cheers)

Roman Mars:
One week into his presidency, Donald Trump signed an executive order to begin building a wall between the US and Mexico. Trump says that will be quote, “an impenetrable physical, tall, powerful, beautiful Southern border wall.”

Joe Richman:
But campaign slogans are easy. Reality is harder.

Roman Mars:
That’s Joe Richmond from Radio Diaries, and on this episode, with the help of Radio Diaries, we’re going to tell a few stories about the physical border on the Southern edge of the United States.

Joe Richman:
And what happens when instead of people crossing the border, the border crosses the people.

Roman Mars:
Joe Richmond will take it from here.

Joe Richman:
In 2006, President Bush signed a law to begin building an 18-foot high fence along a few key parts of the US Mexico border. The project went by different names. Operation Gatekeeper in California. Operation Safeguard in Arizona. And in Texas, they called it Operation Hold the Line. Today that fence looks like a somewhat random dotted line, covers about a third of the entire border. And the border fence has always been controversial. But it’s based on a very human impulse to have an actual physical barrier that marks the imaginary one on the map. It’s a simple idea and like most things, it turned out to not be so simple.

Pamela Taylor:
“Hello.”

Joe Richman:
“Hello. Is this Pamela Taylor?”

Pamela Taylor:
“It is.”

Joe Richman:
“So can you tell me where you are right now?”

Pamela Taylor:
“I’m in my living room. I’m looking out the window. I see my front yard and beyond that is the fence. It is a huge iron, about 20 feet tall. The fence was put in there by Homeland Security.”

Joe Richman:
Pamela Taylor is 86 years old. You may have noticed she has a slight British accent, but she’s an American citizen. After World War II, she married an American and they moved to a small brick house outside of Brownsville, Texas. That’s the house she’s in right now and she has been there for more than 60 years. Now that house is technically in the US but for the past six years, it’s been on the wrong side of the fence.

Pamela Taylor:
“We’re on the Mexican side. The fence is in front of my home.”

Joe Richman:
So let me just go over this. For many people thinking about the border fence, they just assume it’s on the border.

Pamela Taylor:
“No, it’s not true.”

Joe Richman:
The Rio Grande river is the legal border between the US and Mexico, but the border fence doesn’t follow all the natural contours of that river.

Pamela Taylor:
“If they followed the river, it would be a winding fence, whereas now it is a straight fence and therefore they did not need to install that much fence. And in the beginning, we were told this fence was going to go right through my living room.”

Joe Richman:
Luckily they ended up building it about a mile North. Today Taylor has about a half dozen neighbors and the exact same situation as her. Down the road, there’s also a farm, and a golf course, all on the Mexican side of the fence.

Pamela Taylor:
“We’ve gotten used to it. Now we just can’t go on and be miserable about it.”

Joe Richman:
“So how would you describe where you are living?”

Pamela Taylor:
“Well, actually it’s a no man’s land and I firmly believe that I shouldn’t be paying taxes.”

Joe Richman:
A no man’s land between two countries. That’s what our next story is about.

News Recordings:
“The United States is not as big today as it was at this time yesterday. President Johnson and President Diaz Ordaz of Mexico met at the border today and ended an old dispute.”

Joe Richman:
The Rio Grande river has been the border between the US and Mexico ever since Texas became a state. The problem is rivers can move and that’s exactly what happened in 1864. Torrential rains caused the river to jump its banks and go south. All of a sudden the border was in a different place. What that meant is that Texas had gained a square mile of land. It was called the Chamizal, named for the scrubby desert plant that grew there. The Chamizal was a thorn in the side of US Mexico relations for a century. And then finally, 50 years ago, the US gave the land back to Mexico. But by that time thousands of people had moved to the Chamizal and made it their home. And that is where this story begins.

Maria Eugenia Trillo:
My name is Maria Eugenia Trillo. I grew up in the Chamizal area during the fifties and sixties. 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. (laughs) It was just life. Life with the river between us.

Interviewer:
“This is an interview as part of the Chamizal oral history project. So Mr. Hinojosa, could I ask you to describe the neighborhood?

Mr. Hinojosa:
“Yes. They were a lot of tenements in a lot of small, I hate to say shacks, but that’s what they were. They didn’t have any electricity, no running water. But you built one room, and then you build another room, and then you build 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 the 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.

Joe Richman:
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.

NBC recording:
“This is NBC News presenting today a new special, Crisis in Cuba.”

NBC recording:
“This government, as promised, has maintained the closest surveillance of the Soviet military build-up on the island of Cuba. Within the past week…”

Joe Richman:
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?

Maria Eugenia Trillo:
This is a letter from the International Boundary And Water Commission to Mr. Luis Rivera.

Maria Eugenia Trillo:
Dear sir, We advise that the appraisal of your property would be undertaken as soon as practical preparatory to acquisition by the Federal Government, as authorized by the Congress…

Maria Eugenia Trillo:
Ad kids are kids, we were eavesdropping and we heard there was going to be removal. We remember our fathers stomping around the kitchen, saying [foreign language], “No they can’t”. We were Mexican by heritage, but we understood that we were American by nationality. 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.

Interviewer:
“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. 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.”

Interviewer:
“Do you speak Spanish?”

W. E. 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.

Maria Eugenia Trillo:
One by one. The family 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 forbidden from looking back.”

News Recordings:
“An enthusiastic welcome, at the US Mexican border, for President Johnson and Gustavo Diaz Ordaz arriving together to settle a century-old border dispute.”

Victor Guzman 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 Odaz.

News Recordings:
“Senor Presidente de Los Estados Unidos America.”

Victor Guzman Garcia:
Pretty much the whole of the White House, with Congressmen and Senators, and everybody was here. I mean this was a big thing.

News Recordings:
“An unpredictable river has been converted into a controlled source of water for Mexicans and Americans alike.”

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

News Recordings:
“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.”

Joe Richman:
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 to hit the buttons and detonate these explosives to release the mighty Rio Grande into its new channel.

Joe Richman:
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.

News Recordings:
“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.”

Maria Eugenia Trillo:
Well, I’ll show you. The river is now encased in cement. That poor thing. It’s about five 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.

The Chamizal Blues:
“Well, I woke up this morning, to the door I did go. I found that I was living in old Mexico. I got the Chamizal Blues. Just as blue as I can be. Because somebody came and took my house away from me. Well, I was born in America, in El Paso, and now I’m a citizen of old Mexico. I got the Chamizal Blues.”

Roman Mars:
The song you’re hearing right now is called “The Chamizal Blues”, written and recorded by Bob Burns and the Tekewoods in 1963, a year before the Chamizal was handed back to Mexico. This story was produced by Radio Diaries. That’s Joe Richman, Nellie Gilles, Sarah Kate Kramer, Ben Shapiro and Deborah George with help from historian Paul Kramer.

The Chamizal Blues:
“Just as blue as I can. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Because somebody came and took my house away from me.”

Roman Mars:
Radio Diaries is one of the founding members of Radiotopia and one of the true gems of public radio. I implore you to subscribe to their podcast. It’s really for your own good. They produce many historical documentaries, but they specialize in giving recorders to ordinary people with extraordinary stories and turning their audio diaries into unforgettable radio. They basically won every award in journalism and when we started Radiotopia, I was so honored that they wanted to work with us. So if Radio Diaries is not part of your podcast diet. You are missing out. Find them at radiodiaries.org or at radiotopia.fm.

Comments (7)

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  1. Liz Johnson

    I was listening at work when I heard, ” a number of architecture firms submitted designs for boarder walls and other architects submitted blank sheets of paper to waste judges’ time, but ultimately customs and border protection didn’t choose any architects at all. These prototypes, like the vast, vast majority of the built environment, bridges, tunnels, towers, houses, airports, luxury apartments and prisons were mostly made by general contractors.”

    I actually started crying while working on the aesthetic lighting design for a public bridge project.

    Equating the level of aesthetics requirements in the border wall prototype RFP with the requirements for a vast majority of bridges, tunnels and other public projects is disheartening and I think inaccurate. More and more public projects are writing visual quality manuals and requiring aesthetic design team members be part of the GC’s design build team. The aesthetics team on these projects will never have the dictatorial power of a brand name architect on a private project, but we are here, fighting the good fight for public project aesthetic design. Though thankfully, not for that RFP.

  2. Juan

    Is there any site where I can listen or download the full “Chamizal Blues” song? I can’t find it anywhere on the internet.

    1. +1

      I also searched around a bit (Spotify and YouTube) and couldn’t find it–would love to be able to listen to it!

    2. Pedro

      I’m searching a lot!! But there is no clue about it on the internet, unfortunately.

  3. Jonesey

    Minor typos: “cement” should be “concrete”, and “founded” should be “rounded”. Thanks for a great podcast and web site!

  4. Yichao Ren

    I am *really* interested in those ladder designs by the UC Berkeley professor. How much do they cost to build?

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