The Chamizal dispute between Mexico and the United States was a land and boundary conflict caused by the meanderings of the Rio Grande between El Paso, Texas, and Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua. The conflict involved about 600 acres regionally known as “El Chamizal” (Spanish for "Chamiza Thicket") located in El Paso, Texas, between the bed of the Rio Grande as surveyed in 1852 and the present channel of the river. About 100 acres of the tract fell within the business district of the city. The dispute was based on the interpretation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo of 1848 and the Treaty of 1884. These agreements specified that the boundary should be down the middle of the river along the deepest channel, regardless of any alterations in the banks or channels. The Treaty of 1884 also provided that the alterations had to result from such gradual natural causes as the erosion of alluvium and not from the cutting off of land by floods or sudden changes in the river's course. This provision followed the long-established doctrine of international law known as “the law of accretion” that stipulates when changes in the course of a boundary river are caused by a deposit of alluvium (a process called accretion), the boundary changes with the river, but when changes are due to avulsion, the old channel remains the boundary.
Throughout history and well after the river’s designation as the U. S.-Mexico boundary, the Río Grande meandered back and forth across its alluvial plain during seasonal floods. Following the 1852 bi-national survey of the boundary, the river began “transferring” to its northern bank land that had been south of the river in 1848. This land was known to residents of El Paso del Norte (now named Ciudad Juárez) as the Chamizal land grant and the property of Pedro Ignacio Garcia del Barrio, a Mexican farmer whose claim to the land grant dated to 1827. The property itself, however, dated back to 1818 when the Spanish Crown granted the property as a communal edjio to several Spanish citizens in the region—including Ricardo Brusuelas who is often credited for developing the prosperous ranch that would later become El Paso’s First Ward of Chihuahuita. Less known, however, is that the Chamizal land grant provided the namesake for El Paso del Norte’s most northern district, Partido Chamizal, in which the land grant was located where Chihuahuaita is presently.
Shifts in the river in this region continued until 1897, with the most radical shift in the river occurring after a flood in 1864. When Benito Juárez, Mexico’s first indigenous president, came to El Paso del Norte in 1866, Garcia del Barrio and other property owners in Partido Chamizal met with Juárez, and the meeting resulted in the sending of a “letter of concern” to the American government.
By 1873 the Rio Grande had moved approximately 600 acres north of the river. As the river continued to meander, this growing disputed tract came to include both the Chamizal land grant and most of Partido Chamizal. Eventually, this tract of land became known as “El Chamizal” or the “Chamizal Zone.” While El Chamizal is often quantified at 600 acres, the tract is likely much larger. The renowned borderlands historian Leon Metz once suggested that El Chamizal made up 1,200 acres. Local El Paso historian Cleofas Calleros once claimed the zone began at San Antonio Street and extended as far south as Cuidad Juárez’s Calle de Mejía—at one time known by its former name, Calle del Chamizal. In his 1954 book El Paso—Then and Now, Calleros identified the intersection of Mesa Avenue and Sixth Street as the center of the Chamizal Zone. Historians have also suggested that El Chamizal may contain some of the Ponce de León land grant.
When the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad arrived to El Paso in 1881 and began its construction through Garcia del Barrio’s property, railroad representatives argued that the area was open for settlement under the 1884 Treaty and the law of accretion.
With the convening of the International Boundary Commission (IBC) (see INTERNATIONAL BOUNDARY AND WATER COMMISSION) in 1895, Garcia del Barrio submitted to the commission a letter of complaint in which he blamed the transfer of his property on an “abrupt and sudden change” in the Río Grande in 1873. The IBC accepted the case in 1896 and referred to it in their official proceedings as Chamizal Case Number 4. Only after weeks of debate did the U. S. commissioner to the IBC, Anson Mills, agree with his Mexican counterpart, Javier Osorno, that the issue of El Chamizal was not simply the case of Garcia del Barrio claiming a small parcel of private property, but rather an international land and boundary dispute in which Mexico was claiming on behalf of Garcia del Barrio hundreds of acres within El Paso del Norte’s Partido Chamizal—an area the city of El Paso had recently incorporated as its First and Second wards (the latter more commonly known as Segundo Barrio) when the city was divided into four wards in the mid-1880s.
Mills and Osorno agreed that the only way to solve the dispute was to determine whether the change in the Río Grande’s course from its 1852 location was the result of gradual accretion or sudden avulsion. But because both argued the law of accretion rendered El Chamizal their own (Mills arguing the river had moved gradually and Osorno arguing it had moved suddenly), the 1884 Treaty did little to clarify the issue of El Chamizal. Consequently, the commission began hearing testimonies from longtime residents on both sides of the boundary to determine when and how the river had changed its course. These testimonies were crucial in determining 1864 as the year the river had dramatically shifted its course. However, the commission was ultimately unable to definitely determine whether the river had moved by accretion or avulsion. Mills and Osorno tabled the case until a tribunal could meet at a later date. Garcia del Barrio continued calling for the return of his property until his death in 1911. His son, Raymundo S. Garcia, his grandson, Pedro Nestor Garcia Martinez, and later his great-grandson, Victor M. Guzman, took up this struggle.
In 1910, in an effort to determine proper title to the land, Mexico and the United States agreed on rules of arbitration. A third member, a Canadian, was added to the International Boundary Commission to complete the task. The tribunal was to decide whether or not the change in the river's course had been gradual, whether or not the boundaries set by treaties in 1848 and 1853 were fixed, and whether or not the river had moved by accretion or avulsion. As before, Mexico claimed that the boundary had changed by avulsion and therefore that the Chamizal Zone was technically Mexican territory; United States, on the other hand, claimed that the boundary was the result of gradual erosion, and that the Chamizal Zone therefore belonged to the United States. While it was never publicly acknowledged, the principles of accretion and avulsion ultimately proved unworkable in its application to the Río Grande. This was largely because the law of accretion was based on precedents from Western Europe, the eastern United States, and rivers in humid regions of the world.
On June 10, 1911, the tri-national arbitration tribunal issued its official ruling in El Paso. According to its proposed settlement, the part of the disputed tract lying between the riverbed, as surveyed in 1852, and the middle of the river in 1864 was declared United States territory; the remainder of the tract was declared part of Mexico. Since this decision divided the Chamizal between the two countries, Mills argued that the proposal did not conform to the terms of the arbitration and refused to accept it. Headlines spoke of the commission as an utter failure. Mexicans regarded the American refusal to accept the verdict as evidence of unwillingness to negotiate in good faith on matters that did not meet United States interests.
Between 1911 and 1963 several more initiatives were undertaken by different presidential administrations to solve the Chamizal debate. One suggested compromise was that the United States would forgive Mexico's default on the Pious Fund of the Californias, which was intended for the perpetual support of missions and spread of Christianity in California, in exchange for El Chamizal. Other proposed compromises included exchange of other territory along the Rio Grande for the Chamizal, direct purchase of the tract, and inclusion of the Chamizal in the Rio Grande Rectification Project. None of these propositions were accepted by Mexico.
Mexico continued to call for the return of El Chamizal. The entire tract was under the jurisdiction of the United States and the state of Texas throughout the majority of the twentieth century. No suits for delinquent taxes were contested, on the grounds that the property was in disputed territory and therefore not subject to taxation. In fact, aside from the question of guaranteed titles to the land in the tract, no distinction was made between it and the rest of El Paso. The dispute continued to affect Mexico-United States relations adversely until President John F. Kennedy agreed to settle it on the basis of the 1911 arbitration award. It was hoped that settlement of the dispute would strengthen the "Alliance for Progress" and solidify the Organization of American States.
The dispute was formally settled on January 14, 1963, when the United States and Mexico ratified a treaty that generally followed the 1911 arbitration recommendations. The agreement awarded to Mexico 366 acres of the Chamizal area and seventy-one acres east of the adjacent Cordova Island. Although no payments were made between the two governments, the United States received compensation from a private Mexican bank for 382 structures included in the transfer. The United States also received 193 acres of Cordova Island from Mexico, and the two nations agreed to share equally in the cost of streamlining the river through a concrete canal along a newly agreed-upon boundary between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.
The U.S. federal government spent $44.9 million to execute the details of the settlement. This included constructing the canal and relocating 1,386 commercial, public, and residential properties south of the now-established 1864 channel. These residential properties were those of five working-class South El Paso subdivisions—Rio Linda, Cotton Mill, Cordova Gardens, El Jardin, and the two most southerly blocks of Segundo Barrio—that the November 3, 1967, issue of Time magazine described as a “thicket of slums.” More than 5,600 mostly Mexican American residents were displaced from their homes in these condemned neighborhoods. Many were World War II or Korean War veterans and first-time property owners who had used VA loans to purchase their property.
When the U. S. federal government announced it would buy-out the condemned properties at their tax value, one resident, Elvira Villa Lacarra (later known as Elvira Escajeda), began organizing her neighbors to demand fair-market appraisals. By 1963 she had established the Chamizal Civic Association—an advocacy group made up of Chamizal residents and allies. As a result of the association’s activism, the federal government eventually agreed to appraise homes at their fair-market value. Though most residents agreed to the federal government’s final appraisals, some residents disagreed with the government’s appraisals and took their cases to court. Others who refused to negotiate or leave their homes were removed through eminent domain. One resident who signed a contract agreeing to the government’s offer later reported he was misled by the government’s Spanish translator. Reports of misleading or inaccurate Spanish translations were widespread. Perhaps this is why Abelardo “Lalo” Delgado, who was from El Paso and living there are the time, worked as a translator for the Chamizal Relocation Project.
While the federal government began evacuating Chamizal residents, El Paso mayor Judson Williams seized this opportunity to simultaneously prepare his administration to push through his “Four Point Program”: a series of urban planning initiatives tied to the Chamizal Treaty with the explicit goal of modernizing the city of El Paso. One of those initiatives was the Cesar Chavez Border Highway, which was designed to facilitate commerce from and across Ciudad Juárez and El Paso’s agricultural valley downriver. So closely associated were the Chamizal Treaty and border highway that many preliminary reports referenced the proposed highway as the “Chamizal Memorial Highway”—though it did not officially take on this name. Even so, in the 2020s it is still known by locals as the “Chamizal Freeway” and runs directly through the former neighborhoods where condemned homes in Cordova Gardens, El Jardin, Cotton Mill, and Segundo Barrio once stood. The family home of Chicano poet Ricardo Sanchez was one of these homes. Though the federally-reported number of 5,600 displaced by the Chamizal Treaty is widely accepted, it does not account for the additional fifty-six acres in South El Paso that were seized to make room for Williams’s Four Point Program. Local and national news reports heralded the settlement and Williams’s Four Point Program as opening “the door to progress” in the region.
In 1964 President Adolfo López Mateos and President Lyndon B. Johnson met on the border to end the dispute officially. On September 17, 1963, Senator John Sparkman of Alabama introduced in Congress the American-Mexican Chamizal Convention Act of 1964, which finally settled the matter. The 437 acres returned as the Chamizal Zone were officially ceded to and became incorporated into the Republic of Mexico on October 28, 1967. That day Johnson met with Mexican president Gustavo Díaz Ordaz on the border and formally proclaimed the settlement. The land was converted into a public park known as Parque Chamizal. On the northern side of the border, directly across from Parque Chamizal, is the Chamizal National Memorial, which was added to the National Register of Historic Places as well as the National Park Service in 1974. Descendants of Garcia del Barrio were never compensated for Garcia del Barrio’s loss of property. See alsoBANCOS OF THE RIO GRANDE, BOUNDARIES.
Thaddeus Amat, Transcript of Record of Proceedings before the Mexican and American Mixed Claims Commission with Relation to "The Pious Fund of the Californias" (Washington: GPO, 1902). Austin American-Statesman, October 29, 1967. Cleofas Calleros, “¿El Chamizal—Qué Es?” Southwest Vertical Files, El Paso Public Library. Cleofas Calleros, El Paso—Then and Now (El Paso: American Printing Company, 1954). Chamizal Arbitration: Appendix to the Case of the United States before the International Boundary Commission United States-Mexico Hon. Eugene LaFleur, Presiding under the Provisions of the Convention Between the United States of America and the United States of Mexico, Concluded June 24, 1910, Vol. 1 (Washington: Government Printing Office,1911). Chamizal Title Company Papers, 1733–1908, MS 978, Arizona Historical Society, Tucson, Arizona. El Paso Herald-Post, July 18, 1963; December 27, 1963; October 27, 1967; January 29, 1968. Victor M. Guzman Garcia, “The Legacy of Captain Alonso Garcia I,” Password 43 (Winter, 1998). In the Matter of the Claim of certain Mexican Citizens to Lands on the Rio Grande known by the name of District of “El Chamizal”, Republic of Mexico, Secretary of Foreign Relations (New York: Louis Weiss & Co., Printers, ), Library of Congress. Alan C. Lamborn, Statecraft, Domestic Politics, and Foreign Policy Making: The El Chamizal Dispute (Boulder: Westview Press, 1988). Sheldon B. Liss, A Century of Disagreement: The Chamizal Conflict, 1864–1964 (University Press of Washington, D.C., 1965). Leon Metz, El Paso Chronicles: A Record of Historical Events in El Paso, Texas, (El Paso: Mangan Books, 1993). New York Times, September 26, 1987. Paula Rebert, La Gran Línea: Mapping the United States-Mexico Boundary, 1849–1857 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001). César Sepúlveda, La Frontera Norte de México, historia, conflictos, 1762–1982 (Mexico City: Editorial Porrúa, 1983). Southwest Vertical Files: Border Heritage Center, El Paso Public Library, El Paso, Texas. Time, November 3, 1967. María Eugenia Trillo, The Code-switching Patterns of the Rio Linda Community of El Chamizal in El Paso, Texas: An Ethnic Perspective of Syntactic Constraints (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Mexico, 2002).
Boundaries and Cartography
Boundary Disputes and Ethnic Conflict
Politics and Government
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