Cities of sisterly love

GUANAJUATO, Mexico — The recent influenza epidemic and ongoing drug violence may be keeping most Americans from visiting Mexico these days, but at least one group of Americans from a small city in southern Oregon will not be kept away.

For 40 years residents of Ashland, Ore., have traveled to the city of Guanajuato in the heart of central Mexico — and this year would be no different.

The two are sister cities, and by any measure, the Guanajuato-Ashland relationship is one of the most successful in the world. While other cross-continental matchings are largely symbolic, this relationship has fostered academic and musical exchanges, helped build houses — and even led to 79 marriages.

It has been forged and nurtured over four decades by officials of both city governments, university and high school administrators and teachers, actors, artists, police officers, firemen, service clubs and — most of all — families.

“No walls or fences will divide us,” said Luis Alberto Cortez, the president of Guanajuato’s Lions Club of Marfil. The connection between Ashland, a city of 20,000 near the southern Oregon border with California, and Guanajuato, a colonial mining center that is five times the size of Ashland, began with a university exchange in 1969. Both cities are educational centers and cultural oases.

Since 1969, several thousand people have taken part in exchanges between the two cities. Collaborative programs have been established between the cities' universities, theater programs and government services.

University students from Guanajuato come to Ashland to study business administration and teaching programs, as well as to perfect their English. Ashlanders largely study language and literature.

Eduardo Romero Hicks, the mayor of Guanajuato, said the two cities “have united their destinies forever.” The Ashland-Guanajuato tie “goes beyond any sister-city relationship in the world,” said Mary Cullinan, president of Southern Oregon University (SOU).

Earlier this year a delegation from Guanajuato visited Ashland, and during the week before Labor Day, Ashlanders traveled to Guanajuato to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the bond between the two cities and their people.

“What we have been doing these 40 years has been visionary,” said Ashland Mayor John Stromberg.

As with many visions, one person is widely credited with the success and the durability of the connection — retired SOU Spanish professor Chela Tapp. Half-Cherokee and half-Spanish, and with longstanding ties to Mexico, Tapp is known by all simply as Senora Chela. When Tapp moved to Ashland and enrolled a son in elementary school, he was assaulted on the first days of school by Ashland children shouting racial epithets. School officials at the time, she said, did little to alleviate her worries about the boy’s safety.

“I thought, ‘Ashland needs a good dose of Guanajuato,’” Tapp said. So she began a one-person campaign to educate Ashlanders about Guanajuato and Mexico. Ashland has gotten much more than a dose of Mexico since then.

Students from Ashland now regularly spend a year in Guanajuato and return fluent in Spanish and in love with Mexican culture and people. Guanajuatenses find it more difficult, and expensive, to study in Ashland, but with scholarships from the University of Guanajuato and homestays offered by Ashland families, they have sent several students each year to study at SOU and Ashland's middle and high schools.

The Ashland Rotary Club raises funds for Guanajuato’s social services agency to help poor people in Guanajuato build their own homes. Musical groups, artists, bureaucrats and business people regularly travel between the two cities.

One of the biggest and most permanent impacts has been on Guanajuato families who have sent their children to Oregon. Take the Rodriguez Nieto family, for instance: Ruben Rodriguez Nieto was 12 years old when his father took a sabbatical from the University of Guanajuato and moved with his family to Ashland. He sold a small property to be able to afford the year abroad.

Today Ruben's brother lives in Texas and Ruben plans to send his son to Ashland next year if he can work out the visa requirements and figure out how to pay for the year. He’s already had an offer from an Ashland family to host his son. Those who were around at the beginning say the program is unique.

“It opens up the world to future generations,” said Leo Van Dijk, of Ashland, who has supported the relationship and hosted many visitors from Mexico since 1969. “They realize it is one world, and we no longer live in an isolated country.”

As with any relationship, there have been some problems over the years. After the World Trade Center attacks of 2001, visa requirements were tightened and many Guanajuato residents have not been allowed into the United States. That has dampened but not extinguished the enthusiasm of many of the program’s supporters. Budget cuts in Ashland also have hurt the program.

Also, several years ago, three students from Ashland on exchange in Guanajuato got drunk in a local bar. One was hospitalized in serious condition. As a result, the school superintendent in Ashland suspended that part of the program. Teachers and students hope to re-establish it soon.

Supporters say such problems won’t stop the program.

“The most important thing is the family relationships that we’ve maintained for 40 years,” said Tapp. “It’s people to people connecting with their city, their lives, their love, their passion. It has a life of its own.”