An International Tale of Two Cities : Separated by a Border, They Are United by History

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Times Staff Writer

In the early morning and late afternoon a steady stream of boys and girls cross the international line here going to and from school.

More than 400 students from Nogales, Sonora, Mexico, walk or are driven by their parents each day across the border to attend classes in Nogales, Ariz.

And, about 100 students who live in Nogales, Ariz., pass by the border guards en route to and from grade and high schools in Nogales, Sonora.


“Many parents from the Mexican side want their children to learn English in America, to be educated in the United States,” explained Sister Rosa Maria, 45, principal of Sacred Heart Elementary School, Nogales, Ariz.

“Conversely many parents in Arizona want their children to learn Spanish in Mexico, to be educated in the Sonora schools.”

Residents of the twin cities say the student exchange is but one of many examples of the spirit of ambos Nogales (Nogales together) that has existed since the two cities with the same name sprang up in the wilderness in 1880 when railways from Kansas City and Guaymas met at the international border.

The name Nogales comes from los nogales, the walnut trees, which grew in the area.

In many ways it is like one city with a fence through the middle. The two nations are across the street from one another. Of the 17,000 people living in Nogales, Ariz., 85% are Spanish-speaking. Nogales, Sonora, has a population of 180,000.

“There is a relationship here that is much stronger, I believe, than that of any other twin cities along the U.S.-Mexican line,” said Marcelino Varona, 34, assistant principal of Nogales High School and mayor of Nogales, Ariz.

“In many ways we are like one big family. Many of us have relatives on both sides of the border.”


Varona’s father, a florist, was born in Nogales, Sonora.

“The two cities are good examples for U.S.-Mexico relations,” said Cesar Dabdoub, 39, mayor of Nogales, Sonora. “Cooperation here is better than at any of the other twin cities along the border.”

Recently a sewer leak flowed downhill from the Mexican city under the fence through downtown Nogales, Ariz.

“We could have gone through the usual bureaucracy, appealed to the border commission for help and waited for weeks or months,” Varona recalled. “Instead, Mayor Dabdoub and I met, as we often do. We discussed the problem and resolved it.”

Pipes were hooked up on both sides of the border diverting the sewer leak into the waste water plant on the American side.

Throughout the history of the two Nogales, firefighters have answered alarms from either side.

“When we have a major fire we call over there for help,” explained Joe de la Ossa, 50, Nogales, Ariz., fire chief for the past eight years.


The Sonora firefighters roll through the international gate when needed on the American side. Until two years ago, the Nogales, Ariz., fire department rolled on major fires crossing into Mexico when requested to do so by the Nogales, Sonora, fire department.

“We ran our trucks over there until our liability insurance went sky high and we had to quit,” De la Ossa said. “Nogales, Sonora, has ample manpower and good equipment but they don’t have sufficient water pressure or enough water.”

Now, when serious fires occur in Nogales, Sonora, the Nogales, Ariz., fire department tank trucks roll to the fence and American firemen pass hose lines across the border. If the fire is within 1,000 feet of the border, Mexican firefighters use the U.S. hoses to fight the blaze.

If the fire is more distant, water from American fire trucks is pumped into Mexican tank trucks and rushed to the scene.

Sister Rosa Maria of Sacred Heart elementary school said nuns who teach on both sides of the border meet from time to time to discuss the needs of the children who attend Sacred Heart elementary school and Lourdes Academy in Nogales, Ariz., and Padre Kino elementary school and Gante Catholic high school in Nogales, Sonora.

“It is a challenge to learn to live in two cultures, to learn to accept them both and respect them both. We look for the best in both cultures,” said Sister Rosa Maria, who has lived here all her life and was educated both in Mexico and the United States.


Half of the 385 pre-kindergarten to eighth grade students at Sacred Heart, two blocks from the border, are from Nogales, Sonora, noted the nun. At Lourdes Academy, a ninth- and 10th-grade high school, 200 of the 300 students are from Nogales, Sonora. Many are young women who come to learn English in order to become bilingual secretaries in Nogales, Sonora.

Analourdes Casillas, 12, a seventh-grader at Sacred Heart, and her brother Jorge, 10, a fifth-grader, walk through the international gate at 7:30 in the morning after being dropped off by their mother following a 15-minute drive from their home.

They attend school in the United States, Analourdes said, “Because our parents think this Catholic school is better than the schools in Nogales, Sonora.”

Fernando Mendoza, 23, a motel reservation clerk in Nogales, Ariz., is a lifelong U.S. citizen. He was born in Nogales, Ariz., but had all of his schooling in Nogales, Sonora.

“This is kind of a crazy place,” he said. “Many kids from Arizona go to school over there, and many kids from Sonora come here. Both my mother and dad went to school in Sonora and they wanted me to go to the schools they went to.

Quality Education

“I think the quality of education is as good there as it is here. I went to the University of Arizona two years and had no problem being accepted or keeping up with everyone else.”


Mendoza said most residents of Nogales, Ariz., speak Spanglish, half Spanish, half English.

Mayor Dabdoub’s five children all go to school on the Arizona side. One attends Pima College in Tucson, two go to Nogales High School, where 50 students are from Nogales, Sonora, and two go to Sacred Heart.

Dabdoub’s parents migrated to Nogales, Sonora, from Bethlehem, Palestine, in 1903. The mayor said there are about 300 Arab-Mexicans living in Nogales, Sonora.

Not many cities in America have city officials who are not Americans. Nogales, Ariz., does.

Rene Cons, 46, the city’s financial director, is a Mexican citizen. Before coming to work for the city of Nogales four years ago, he was assistant manager for Banco de Londres (Bank of London) in Nogales, Sonora, where he has lived his entire life.

Refugio Quinonez, 41, the city’s assistant personnel director, is also a Mexican citizen from Nogales, Sonora.


Police Chief Manuel Treto Jr., 41, born and raised in Nogales, Ariz., on the force 18 years and chief six, said the Drug Enforcement Administration, U.S. Customs and the border patrol do the majority of the work in border-involved transgressions.

“But as far as city police work goes, the two departments have a mutual relationship. We provide assistance to Nogales, Sonora, in areas of training and investigation. Our people go over there to learn and understand their system. There is close cooperation between the two departments,” Treto said.

“The fact that there are so many family ties on both sides of the border enhances the relationship between the two communities.”

Many American citizens live in Nogales, Sonora, but work in Nogales, Ariz. They live in Mexico because it is cheaper.

Income of City

Mayor Dabdoub noted that half the income generated in his city comes from 52 assembly plants owned by U.S. firms, companies like Samsonite, General Electric and G. G. Conn, producers of flutes, saxophones, clarinets and other musical instruments. More than 17,000 residents of Nogales, Sonora, work in the U.S. factories in that Mexican city.

High school bands from both sides of the line cross the border from time to time to perform. High school and grade school soccer, basketball, baseball and volleyball teams from both cities play international games.


Americans go to Mexico to visit dentists and doctors, to shop and eat. Similarly, Mexicans come to America for the same reasons.

There is no movie theater in Nogales, Ariz. There are several in Nogales, Sonora, featuring American, Mexican, European and South American films. Many moviegoers come from the U.S. side.

For years the city-owned water company in Nogales, Ariz., has supplied water to about a dozen customers in Nogales, Sonora, including the Mexican city’s only “skyscraper,” the 10-story Fray Marco de Niza hotel.

Service clubs in Nogales, Ariz., support orphanages in Nogales, Sonora, and sponsor medical clinics such as the annual Lions Club eye clinic, which performed 18 eye surgeries Jan. 25 on patients from the Mexican city.

Jose L. Canchola, 54, who owns the McDonald’s in Nogales, Ariz., each Christmas treats boys and girls under 10 from the poorest families in Nogales, Sonora, to a Quarter Pounder, French fries, milk shake and cookies. Last Christmas he fed 1,287 youngsters bused to his McDonald’s by the Nogales Rotary Club.

“I’m a product of a barrio. I know what it’s like to be poor,” Canchola said. “These are two special cities. People here still say ‘good morning’ and ‘good evening’ to friends and strangers alike.”


Realtor and Insurance Man

Pierre Baffert, 34, a Nogales, Ariz., realtor and insurance man and president of the Lions Club, is a fifth-generation Nogales resident. Like many others, he has relatives on both sides. His wife Ana Maria is a Mexican citizen from Nogales, Sonora.

“We are very united here. In many ways we don’t feel the border. The situation here is like a plate of spaghetti. You can’t separate one from the other.”