Border Patrol construction crews have created a limited “public access area” inside Friendship Park that would prevent visitors on the U.S. side from drawing closer than five feet to the international boundary. A sign posted at the entrance to the park lists “rules for entry,” among them: “Physical contact with individuals in Mexico is not permitted.” Local coalition leaders are calling for a new design allowing visitors easily to see, hear and touch each other at the historic border park.
Friendship Park is a small bi-national plaza, at the center of which stands a monument marking the spot where in 1849 representatives from both nations first met at the end of the U.S.-Mexico War to begin marking the new international boundary. For over one hundred and sixty years, residents from both nations have been able to approach the monument, share a picnic with family and shake hands with new friends on the other side of the border.
Friendship Park on the Pacific Ocean became a place for cross-border weddings, church services, Christmas parties and even yoga classes when opened in 1971 by then U.S. first lady Pat Nixon. Planned as a U.S. park with access for people on both sides of the frontier, picnic tables and swings were put out of Mexicans’ reach in 1994 when the United States raised a mesh fence. But families could sit on either side of the fence to kiss through it, talk and touch one another … the fence became a popular spot for separated lovers who would pass notes on Valentine’s Day. But the U.S. government’s second, larger barrier has sensors, lighting, radars and cameras on the edge of the park. Officials built a patrol road through it and fenced off access to the old mesh fence that abutted onto Mexico.
“While the rest of the world is celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall and the restoration of relationships shattered by that wall,” said Seisen Saunders, a member of the local coalition, “people here at Friendship Park can’t even touch each other.
The park has also been the celebrated location for bi-national gatherings featuring everything from yoga classes to salsa dancing lessons to religious services, including the sharing of communion. Since 1994 hundreds of residents from both nations have gathered at Friendship Park for “La Posada Sin Fronteras,” a Christmas-time celebration in which residents of Mexico and the United States re-enact Mary and Joseph’s search for a dwelling place (“posada” in Spanish) on the night of Jesus’ birth.
“I’m not sure how you can celebrate “La Posada” at Friendship Park if people are unable to touch each other and exchange gifts,” said Rosemary Johnston, a long-time organizer of the annual event.