an illustration depicting a map of the Rio Grande river
Madison McVeigh/CityLab

In El Paso, we call it the Rio Grande; our neighbors in Juárez know it as Río Bravo. It’s supposed to be a national border, but the river had its own ideas.

A meander is the ribbon-like waveform that a powerful river can take when sediment builds up on the inside edge of its flow, bending its course. Over time, as more dirt and rocks pack on, the river keeps meandering, pushing the water into fresh curve shapes. Sometimes the bend will complete as a loop, known as an oxbow.

This phenomenon is a reminder that no river wants to be stationary. Its singular desire is to reach its destination—an ocean, a sea, a lake, or another river. And it will overcome most barriers to do so.

Ten years ago, I spotted a set of “meander maps” made by Harold Fisk, an Army Corps of Engineers cartographer and geologist, at a USGS store in California. I knew I had to have one. Drawn in 1944, Fisk’s maps illustrate all of the bowing courses that the Lower Mississippi had taken over the previous 150-plus years, stretching from Southern Illinois to Southern Louisiana. Each meander is represented by a dynamic pattern and a bright and distinct color. I bought one of Fisk’s plates and hung it in our living room. I still look at it daily, marveling at the way the Mississippi is tangled up in a way that undercuts the simplistic authority of other maps.

But the map I have more recently needed to see is one of the river at the edge of my hometown. In Mexico, this river is known as the Río Bravo; as a child I only knew it by its other name, the Rio Grande. I grew up in El Paso, Texas, and the river forms our border with the Mexican city of Juárez and parts of New Mexico. Now I work as an artist, often drawing on personal and historical connections to water bodies as subjects for my short films and installations. Maps often play a role.

The status of my binational hometown, perched on the edge of this wavering, fluid border, is now the focus of growing national attention. Much of this attention comes from the border anxieties that have defined the Trump era. Most recently, the city has been the site of anti-immigrant violence perpetrated by one of the president’s supporters. But to me, the story of the river of two names has always belied the idea that two neighboring countries can ever really be fully separated—much less that the passage of people in between them can be controlled.

One of Fisk’s 144 Mississippi meander maps for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. (USAC)

When we first moved to El Paso, my mother explained that the river’s water level played a big part in determining whether people would be able to cross to the U.S. side, find work, or be with their families. On a visit home about five years ago, I found that the river was completely empty—shut off at Elephant Butte Dam, 120 miles away in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico. The flow was restricted because of the summer irrigation schedule. I stood in the center of the river, like a boundary marker, imagining all the lines that had been drawn and erased and redrawn on that patch of riverbed over a century.

A few years ago, when I began work on a film about growing up along that river border, I decided I wanted to make my own version of Fisk’s beautiful document. As I immersed myself in researching the history of the Rio Grande/Río Bravo and its many meanders, it was clear that I would need a map that communicated its will.

The job was complicated. Since 1848, when the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo determined that the two-named river would mark the international border with Mexico, its course had changed many times. By 1864, the river had shifted southward almost 600 acres across the international boundary marker; one of its oxbows, known as Cordova Island, was surrounded on three sides by the United States. It would take a century before the two countries would resolve that land dispute.

I went to work, reading each treaty and convention between the U.S. and Mexico that divided the river, ordered it to be channelized, and allocated its water. Each agreement tried to reconcile the nations’ boundaries, a difficult task in part because Texas is the last recipient (before Mexico) in water allocation from the Rio Grande/Río Bravo, after it traverses three states and thirteen dams. Each time, the river would always change course, defying the binding nature of these agreements. Again and again throughout the last century, its agency brought politicians back to the table to renegotiate the boundary line.

Tamed repeatedly to ensure a fortified boundary, the Rio Grande/Río Bravo became as it is now: almost non-existent. The states upriver continue to defend dam construction, claiming dams are good for water storage and reclamation. In reality, the dams themselves are like border walls, designed to restrict flow and agency of the river.

And in my hometown, the barrier that the river provides is joined by real border fences, reinforced by razor-wire-topped pylons and cameras that run right along the water’s natural flow and its concrete channels. The U.S. government watches every move below, while the people living along the river with two names can barely see the water, or our neighbors on the other side. Each day brings new policies to block or detain asylum seekers and migrants from legal entry, adding new challenges and terror imposed on the fronterizx—people from both El Paso and Juárez—who have always crossed and made a life on both sides.

After an unusually productive snowpack from the Rocky Mountains, this summer’s heavy streamflow has benefited some ecosystems along the river. But it has been deadly for migrants, who frequently cross the water far from designated checkpoints, because of their fear of being forcibly separated from their families. The deceptively shallow river conceals dangerous currents; nine bodies were found in irrigation canals and stormwater drains in June in El Paso. The troubling photograph of an El Salvadorian father, Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, is a testament to this: Their bodies were found tethered to each other on a riverbank in Matamoros, Mexico; the child was tucked into the father’s shirt so that they wouldn’t be separated when they crossed.

It’s hard now to look at the river with its many barricades, for water or people, and see it as anything other than an expansive border checkpoint. In so many ways, the flow of this river has been engineered to match state and federal policies as well as international treaties. In one lifetime, a river has been torn in two, and that bifurcation is now a trap.

A clip of Antebi’s animation of historical meanders of the Rio Grande/Río Bravo from 1827 through 1960. The base image is a survey map from 1896 that proposed an international dam where New Mexico, Mexico, and Texas meet. (Courtesy of Nicole Antebi)

Once my research was complete, I picked up my watercolors, cut paper, and filmed each historical course using stop-motion animation. The arduous nature of the work attunes my attention to how things tend to move naturally: Like a geological process, stop-motion is a slow accretion of small movements into something bigger. The film has screened in various states of incompletion in New Mexico and New York. I am working toward a final cut this fall.

For me, a meander map is like a moving image. My animation, I hope, is a record not only of historical shifts, but a snapshot of the actual life of the river. It is the story of the river’s agency and changing place in the world. Like the unmoving lines of a traditional map, the border imprints one idea of how the river should move onto the landscape. But that is not the same as the water’s true path. A “frozen” map cannot do justice to the will of a river, just as a border can’t hold back the will of people who need to cross.

Did this story remind you of a map that’s been important in your life? Tell us your story by filling out this form. We’ll publish a selection of reader-submitted stories later in the series.

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