Río Rico, in the state of Tamaulipas, is a small Mexican border town with a rich history.
Although it’s hard to imagine today, at one point it was like a little Las Vegas. And before that, it was part of the United States. But they all forgot.
How it happened?
Straightening the river
Borders often change, either violently due to war, or peacefully when land is exchanged or purchased.
But neither of those were the case: it was a company, now long forgotten, that rewrote the history of the two nations’ border.
The Rio Grande, for those to the south, or Rio Bravo, for those to the north, has marked the border between the US and Mexico since 1848.
To resolve the disputes that arose from the frequent changes in the river’s course, the 1884 a Treaty was signed, which recognized only those deviations resulting from natural events.
In the early 1900s, the American Rio Grande Land and Irrigation Company had a pumping station on the American side that took water from the river for distribution to local farmers.
However, the company became concerned that the river might change course, so, without any authorization, in 1906 it dug a canal, which isolated 419 acres south of the river, 1.67 km² of territory, known as Banco Horcón.
“There are consequences of trying to control nature,” says Joe Vidales of the McAllen Heritage Center, Texas.
Although the tract of land was still legally part of the US, its location, now south of the river, placed it under the jurisdiction of Mexican authorities.
The American Rio Grande Land and Irrigation Company had violated several treaties and was fined, but the status of the territory was left in legal limbo.
The residents quickly adapted to becoming part of Mexico.
In 1920, Prohibition was introduced throughout the United States.
“If you were in South Texas and you wanted to have a beer or a margarita, you couldn’t do it on that side of the river, but you could paddle across it, swim, sometimes even walk across it, and indulge yourself.”
And Rio Rico, which had been left on the right side of the river for such purposes after the artificial and illegal diversion by the US irrigation company, was happy to supply its neighbors to the north with whatever they wanted.
“In 1928 they began the construction of a bridge to cross the Rio Rico,” says Vidales.
The local newspapers reported not only on the grand opening but also on everything else the place had to offer.
“They had casinos and gambling. The Tivoli nightclub had a dance floor the size of a basketball court. There were cockfights and bordellos. 250 of the fastest dogs showed up for the Rio Rico Kennel Club’s inaugural race.
Prohibition made the economy of Rio Rico flourish, and the name that sounded was that of Al Capone.
“There is no official record that he was there. But it is assumed that his henchmen were in charge of pumping money into Rio Rico to turn it into a tourist area.”
Alma Bernal, from Rio Rico, remembers that “there was a hotel and a theater where my grandparents could see Pedro Infante and Sara García, very important artists in Mexican history.
“A lot of people traveled to Rio Rico just to see these artists.”
Rio Rico went back to being any sleepy border town, recalls Mike England, who works for the England Cattle Company and grew up on the US side of the river.
For him, the border was never something that separated people.
“Growing up there on the river was heaven: I would go fishing and hunting every day with some kids from across the river, who would come to our house like family.
“I also swam the river and went south and met their families just like they met mine.
“It’s a bit strange. They talk about illegals on this side… I guess I was illegal on that side too, but no one cared.”
By then, and for several decades, the people of Río Rico had largely forgotten that they were ever US citizens.
Until 1967, when a geography professor named James Hill found out what had happened.
“I was born in Rio Rico!”
Hill did extensive research on this area and created some well-done maps documented that they designated, the owners in all these 419 acres (170 hectares) where the cut of the river was”, relates Vidales.
The case of “the lost Americans” captivated the public.
One of those who took a particular interest in the investigation was the lawyer Laurier McDonald.
He was representing a client named Homero Cantu, who was in the process of being deported from the US.
McDonald was able to prove that because his client was born in Rio Rico, he was a US citizen.
“It is the 14th amendment of the Constitution: if you are born within the territory of the United States, you are a citizen,” says Vidales.
That caused a lot of confusion.
“People from all over Mexico, from Europe, even from China came to say: ‘I was born in Río Rico.'”
With so many seeking U.S. citizenship claiming they were born in Rio Rico, lawyers had to evaluate their claims.
“We had clients whose situation depended on the room they were born in, because the house itself was on the international border line,” recalls Robert Crane, an immigration attorney.
“You have to remember that none of those who lived there were aware of that, so the lots were subdivided, and the houses were built.”
Identity document of someone who was born in Rio Rico before 1970.
In the end, the United States officially ceded Banco Horcón to Mexico and accepted the claims of some 250 people.
Most of them immigrated to the US, leaving Rio Rico a shadow of its former self.
“It may be hard to believe that it was once a very active city,” says Bernal.
Rio Rico is a quiet place now.
The few families that remain are farmers, and the visitors who come are on their way to the border, one of the most heavily guarded in the world.
“That river doesn’t separate people,” England says. “We are still brothers; we are still all people.”
* This article is based on the BBC Reel video “The border town that ‘forgot’ it was part of the US”. If you want to see it, click here.