What can twin towns in Mexico and the United States do with a border fence that separates them? Use it as the net for a volleyball match, of course.
Between 1979 and 2007, that's just what residents of Naco, in the Mexican state of Sonora, and Naco, in Arizona, did. They played volleyball over the barbed wire fence and under the easy going watch of border guards.
“There was no tension along the border. In fact, those matches were between municipal officials from both sides,” said Sixto de la Peña, a well-known resident who held several public posts and now, at the age of 70, prefers to be known simply as “the town historian.”
The players had only two problems. “The first is that the barbed wire punctured the balls, so we had to learn how to kind of 'grab and throw' the punctured balls, although later we decided to simply cover the barbed wire with a rubber tarp,” de la Peña recalled.
“The second was that the team that lost three out of five matches had to host a party for the other team. But the fence was there, so we fixed that by cutting a hole in the fence so that the Mexican side, which always won, could go to the party on the American side,” de la Peña said.
“There was no tension along the border. In fact, those matches were between municipal officials from both sides.”
“The match was truly the big event that brought the two towns together – at one point they were just one single town – to celebrate the bi-national feasts,” said María Elena Bohórquez, director of the Historical Museum of Naco on the Mexican side.
But as immigration changes, the cross-border matches started to change, too. The puny old fence marked the border between the north and south, although it was more symbolic because it had a gap, widely known as “El Hoyo' – Spanish for the hole – that residents crawled through if they wanted to buy food on the other side.
“In fact that's where, through El Hoyo, we returned from the volleyball parties when it was late and the (official) border gate had been locked up,” said de la Peña.
Moving the volleyball court
But then came the Clinton Administration's Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, which sought to tighten border controls by deploying more U.S. agents in more visible spots and with clearer instructions to crack down on illegal crossings. The border fence also got a makeover.
“In the late 90s they started to replace the wire fence with enormous metal beams that were welded together,” Bohórquez recalled. “As they put up those beams, we had to move the volleyball games and the parties to places where the ball could still go over the wire fence.”
“Those metal beams had been used to build airplane landing strips during the Gulf War and then were recycled along the border with Mexico, becoming a barrier that radically changed the landscape and drastically affected not only our routine but the environment,” said de la Peña.
As the giant beams sealed off 306 of the 362 miles in the Naco sector of the border, the volleyball players had to move their matches to new and sometimes remote places.
The ball alone could pass freely from one side to the other, a symbol of camaraderie and brotherhood between the two people. But it was also a metaphor for what the towns' residents could no longer do. No more parties were held on the U.S. side, because the Mexicans needed passports to cross.
The last match
The news media was interested in covering the last of the games. In 2007, residents of the two sides gathered in April, used pink chalk to mark the volleyball court on the orange and dusty ground and started trying to keep the ball from hitting the ground.
“Everyone remembers that last game in 2007, but no more,” said Daniel Eduardo Rodríguez, director of sports affairs for the Naco Municipality in Mexico.
De la Peña confirmed that no one plays volleyball today across the taller fence. But he does still get together with friends from the other side, to chat and remember the days when their biggest worry was the barbed wire that could puncture their ball.