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When most people think of the Rio Grande on the United States-Mexico border, they imagine illegal immigrant crossings, longstanding water disputes, border patrol agents on boats, and a mostly dirty and dangerous river.
For those who live along the river banks and traverse the two countries on a regular basis, there is an alternate vision, one where activities like kayaking, fishing, bird watching, and binational wedding ceremonies take place along the often demonized body of water.
And soon, border-dwellers on the U.S. side could have the opportunity to experience Ruckus on the Río, a month-long series of events planned to begin on Oct. 9 where Mexican musicians and actors will perform on a 16×16-ft. floating stage on the river.
Eric Ellman, organizer of Big River Projects, spawned the idea for Ruckus on the Río in order to help bridge the cultural and political divide between the two countries and highlight the possibility of healthy, fun, and educational exchanges in the future. But the event can only happen if Ellman raises the necessary funds through his kickstarter campaign.
The total cost of the event, including construction of a lightweight, modular stage is $39,000. Ellman said that the idea is to have cities and companies who benefit from an improved understanding of life along the border help finance future events. But they need the Kickstarter community to finance the first Ruckus.
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If the event comes to fruition, it also will include vendors on the shore, historical tours of Nuevo Laredo, and a canoe race between the Mexican Canoe Federation and U.S. Canoe and Kayak Association paddlers. Ellman helped organize the Big River Festival eight years ago, which brought the two canoe organizations together for the first time. The Laredo Riofest, another friendly kayaking competition, followed in 2009 and attracted more than 200 competitors.
Ruckus on the Rio by Eric Ellman.
The Rio Grande, known in Mexico as the Río Bravo, forms a 1,255-mile segment of the border between Mexico and the U.S. and is the fifth longest river in North America. Currently, communities in Texas and Mexico both use water from the river.
Ellman wants to draw attention to the border’s shared environment and history, instead of demonizing the river that divides the two countries.
“People have this ingrained fear of the river and it’s gotten worse, but it’s not merited because studies have shown crime rates (in Texas border communities) are lower than some cities in the interior,” Ellman said. “Laredo has a lower crime rate than San Antonio for example…with so much law enforcement (on the border) it makes sense, but that’s not the image. The image is that it’s chaotic.”
The idea for Ruckus on the Río is to have “artists from Nuevo Laredo on the floating stage play along with a double brass quintet on the U.S. side (in Laredo),” said Jorge Santana, Ruckus on the Río cultural director. The event team plans to convert a drainage ditch near the river in Laredo into an amphitheater, where the U.S. musicians will play as the Mexican performers float on the water. The backdrop will be the Texas-Mexico railroad bridge, a symbol of interdependence between nations.
Some might be surprised that an event like this is legal, but, in fact, it is. Article seven of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which settled the Mexican-American War, reads: “Navigation shall be free and common to the vessels and citizens of both countries,” meaning anyone can navigate the river bank-to-bank.
“As long as you don’t touch land, it’s legal,” Santana said.
The musical component of the program is being scored by Laredo-born George Saenz, a musician who plays trombone and accordion for artists like Lila Downs, Gregorio Uribe, and others. His double brass quintet made up of five Mexican and five U.S. musicians will accompany an award-winning short play on the river by playwright Luis Edoardo Torres titled Cruzando el Agua.
“The play is about how migration is not only about crossing physical borders but emotional ones,” Torres stated in an email. “We cross borders every day and we all are immigrants somehow, at least metaphorically
Saenz said that the when drug wars along the Texas-Mexico border heightened 10 years ago, people were scared of the river even more.
“There’s always been a general type of apprehension, but in reality, there’s nothing dangerous about the river, especially on the Texas side,” Saenz said. “It’s always been very peaceful. There’s always been this stigma about the river. Truthfully, it’s kind of ridiculous. It’s a beautiful natural resource that we haven’t taken full advantage of.”
Ellman decided to plan the event in October in light of the 2016 Presidential Election in November to draw attention to the negative impact a border wall – an endeavor suggested by Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump – could have by blocking access to the river.
Torres, who lives in London but was born in Mexico, said that Ruckus on the Río is the perfect initiative to bring together “los dos Laredos,” and that due to “the forthcoming presidential election and its possible consequences, we need to show this bond we have had for so long.”
Santana said that ‘”visually and psychologically” it’s the perfect play for the occasion. It takes place 25 years after ‘the wall’ is built and touches upon border issues such as immigration and divided families.
“For me, as somebody who grew up on the border, the ‘line’ is just the bridge we cross to visit friends and family on the other side,” Torres said. “My point is that we don’t feel divided at all. Obviously we understand that we live in different countries, but we’ve made our lives on both sides of the border.”
Saenz said that Spanish is the “unofficial” language in Laredo and that the two neighboring countries’ cultures naturally mix from being so close to each other.
“It’s still the Mexican culture,” he said. “You are just on the U.S. side instead of the Mexican side.”
Ellman said that Ruckus on the Río will serve as the infrastructure for future collaborations. He has identified other sites for binational events at half a dozen cities along the lower 400 miles of the Rio Grande.
“We are creating a ruckus that hopefully has no end,” Ellman said. “We hope to have events every weekend between Oct. 9 and the election. All the transnational river-based activities we see happening now were thanks to the City of Laredo and Webb County (which) helped with funds from 2009-2012.”
Ellman also is looking for musicians to help with the cause and donate their time or items for the kickstarter campaign. He has already received considerable support from local artists and musicians.
Miguel Garcia of San Antonio has been documenting the project’s progress for four years, and has worked with students from the International School of the Americas (ISA) to kickstart the project. This effort originally begun as part of the annual Make a Difference project led by Garcia’s former teacher Mitizi Moore.
Juan Tejeda, the Guadalupe Cultural Arts Center Tejano Conjunto festival director, wrote letters to all Laredo’s City Council members to urge them to support the first “Posada Norteña” four years ago. He is currently reaching out to Tejano music stars and inviting them to donate one CD each to be auctioned off to the highest bidder and, thus, raise funds for Ruckus.
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“Musicians anywhere can help us hit our funding goal by donating as few as one single CD, and agreeing to make a thank-you call to the one fan of theirs who purchases it at the ‘perk level’ where we offer it as a reward,” he said. “If more people get on board with this it will function as media strategy as well as funding strategy.”
Although the Río Grande has hosted a slew of safe activities, its dangers and stories of people who have crossed illegally can’t be ignored.
“Yes, people have drowned, and we can’t deny that, but we are trying to break the taboos. This event is symbolic of cooperation between two countries during the talks about building walls,” Santana said. “Before bridges, people had rafts and pulled each other across with ropes. That’s very interesting, especially for artists (who) can’t come to the U.S. because they don’t have a visa … They will have a U.S. audience.”
Saenz thinks the event will help promote border cities and artists from both sides of the border.
“The fact that it’s happening on the water, on a neutral zone that is not a country … that’s what’s most interesting to me,” he said.
Ruckus on the Río hopes to create awareness for further cooperation efforts and pave the way to a future where both nations interact and take full advantage of the Rio Grande.
*Top image: Street musicians from Mexico and students from the Vidal Miguel Treviño School of Communications and Fine Arts in Laredo perform together during a “Posada Norteña.” Photo courtesy of Eric Ellman.