‘Civil disobedience with a party’: Voices from Both Sides returns to Lajitas

Last Saturday, locals from both sides of the river in the Big Bend region met for a party marking the community ties transcending the border. Photo by Hannah Gentiles.

LAJITAS — Last Saturday, hundreds of people flocked to the old border crossing between the American town of Lajitas and the Mexican town of Paso Lajitas for food, music and fun. Neighbors and family members reunited in the middle of the Rio Grande while musicians played off of each other from the shore — marking the ninth Voices from Both Sides festival, also known locally as the “Fiesta Protesta.”

The border crossing at Lajitas — used continuously for hundreds of years — was shuttered in the aftermath of 9/11, severing ties between neighbors who could still see each other from across the river. Paso Lajitas dwindled from a bustling village to just five people after locals dependent on crossing for school, work and basic necessities could no longer do so without making an eight-hour round trip routed through Ojinaga.

This year marked the return of the Voices festival after a three-year pandemic hiatus. Rumors swirled that the event would be revived last year, but efforts to revive it didn’t get off the ground in time for Mother’s Day weekend. Jeff Haislip, one of the original organizers of the event, passed away in February — giving the community the much-needed push to bring his vision alive one more time. 

Haislip’s friend and frequent musical collaborator Marc Utter explained that one of Haislip’s goals — beyond throwing a killer party — was to motivate locals to advocate for the reopening of a crossing at Lajitas. He wanted the port of entry to be modeled after the crossing at Boquillas, which was reopened as an experiment between the National Park Service and Customs and Border Protection in 2013. 

Haislip felt that the opening of a foot-and-ferry crossing at Lajitas could revive the tourist economy of Paso Lajitas and nearby Manuel Benavides. “We believe in Texas/Mexico trade, tourism, and reuniting families,” he wrote in a petition signed by over 200 people

Since Voices’ debut in 2012, the event has been covered by numerous publications across the country as a counterexample to popular depictions of the border as a chaotic, war-torn place. The festival even got the Comedy Central treatment in 2019, when Full Frontal with Samantha Bee sent a mock reporter to Lajitas

Haislip treated comedian Michael Rubens to a tour of the grounds: stages set up on opposite sides of the river, expansive tailgating setups and a huge unicorn-shaped raft ferrying attendees back and forth across the Río. “If you’ve never seen the togetherness, then you wouldn’t notice the separation,” he said of the crowd gathered in the water. “This is an act of civil disobedience with a party.”

This year, Border Patrol drones hovered overhead as attendees cooled off in the river, danced to Norteño grooves in the dust — and even attended Communion served from the thwarts of a canoe. “This was one of the best [Voices],” said Utter. “The music was great — there were a few technical difficulties, but that’s to be expected when you’re running on solar and generators.” 

Local law enforcement was initially concerned that hosting the event just days after the lifting of the controversial immigration policy Title 42 might not be the wisest idea, but Brewster County Sheriff Ronny Dodson said the event was a success. “It worked really well — we didn’t have any problems,” he said. 

Dodson even got to have his own family reunion in the river: a marriage back a few steps back in the family tree links him to the Baezas of Paso Lajitas, who have relatives all over the county he now patrols. “[My cousins] came over and I got to take a picture with them,” he said. 

Adriana Sanchez Valdez — a Boquillas mom who makes a living selling handicrafts — attended the festival with her husband and daughter. 

Sanchez Valdez and her family have plenty of friends in Terlingua, thanks to the crossing in the National Park — but had never met anyone from Manuel Benavides, another small, rural town largely dependent on tourism. 

Inspired by photos on social media from years past, the family decided to take the nine-hour trek. (Before the border closures, their journey would have taken around an hour and a half.)

After camping out for the weekend among new friends, she no longer felt like a stranger.

Festival attendees on both sides were eager to tell her about the history and significance of the fiesta protesta. “It was an incredible adventure,” she said. “We saw how families reunited after so long apart — we were moved even though we didn’t know them.”

The whole family enjoyed dancing and splashing in the river — though she said her six-year-old daughter, Camila, was the most excited. 

Camila asked her parents if they could make the journey an annual tradition. The three agreed — and hope to come next year with more family in tow. “That day, two countries became one — and that’s admirable,” Sanchez Valdez said.