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Cities of sisterly love

A sister-city relationship between a Mexican town and an Oregonian one has led to 79 marriages.

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.