EL PASO, TEXAS — It's a sunny but crisp winter morning as a group of high school boys in Nikes and coveralls get down to restoring a 160-year-old whitewashed mission on the north side of the US-Mexico border.
At this alternative school where they landed after various scrapes with trouble, the boys are learning to make adobe bricks, plumb a wall, and consider what went into the making of the place they call home before strip malls and highways dominated the landscape. "Some day I'd like to come by here with my son and say, 'This old church has been a part of this area for a long time, and your daddy once did something to help keep it alive,' " says Ismael Martnez, working on a sagging adobe pillar.
Working under a New Mexico community-development program called Cornerstones, the boys' work on the Socorro mission is one piece in a joint plan between the United States and Mexico to restore as a historical attraction the Camino Real, the central trade route that stretched like a backbone through colonial Mexico.
The idea is to couple community projects on both sides of the border with binational exhibits, academic contacts, and a string of museums and historic sites along the 1,300-mile trail. The project aims to Incorporate "public history" and "heritage tourism" -two hot concepts among historians and tourism developers, as in the successful Ellis Island Center in New York. The Camino Real project is also part of a US government plan to highlight the many historic trails that shaped the country's development.
Beginning in Mexico City and ending in present-day New Mexico, the Camino Real flourished for 300 years until the mid-19th century. It connected the seat of Mexican authority with mining centers and small religious and trading outposts far to the north. Today the trail, the "King's Road" in English, is almost forgotten, replaced by railroads, air travel, and expanding highways.
But the new Camino Real project has one distinguishing - and problematic - twist: It's a binational project spanning an international border with a deteriorating image. Increasingly, observers lament, the border is associated with violence, drug smuggling, and illegal immigration.
The case of the "narcograves" dug up by Mexican and US officials in Ciudad Jurez last November and a wave of killings in Baja, Calif. are just two recent events contributing to the border's unsavory reputation.
Tourists aren't known for flocking to such sites. But advocates who say the border's negative image is unwarranted see a restoration of the Camino Real as a way of promoting a better understanding not just of the past, but of the border's present. Historians, economic-development officials, and sociologists from both countries say the project can encourage understanding and joint community action between the two sides of an increasingly closed and tense border.
"Behind this project is the idea that with an awareness of their history, people will realize that the north-south movement and interchange that always have been, need to continue," says John Amistae, director of border studies at the University of Texas at El Paso. A key promoter of the Camino Real project, Dr. Amistae adds, "So many factors today are pushing toward a hard border. The hope ... is that more cross-border contacts and attention to a common cultural heritage can alter that."
On the Mexican side, officials see the project as a way to both address the border region's image and to develop a kind of community involvement in cultural affairs that has not always been a strong feature in Mexico - especially in relation to the country's colonial period.
For decades Mexican historical and archaeological studies were dominated by the country's fabulous pre-Columbian heritage. "Our pre-Hispanic culture is internationally known and universally appreciated by Mexicans," says Miguel Angel Mendoza, director of the Ciudad Jurez History Museum. "For many Mexicans the colonial period meant taking up the [Spanish] conquest ... but we've come to realize more that the colonial period is also an integral part of our development as Mexicans."
The Mexican authority charged with working with officials on the US side to "rescue" the old missions along the historic trail, Mendoza says the Camino Real was of central importance to the development - and particularly the Hispanic development -of both countries.
Mr. Mendoza says that borders are "often sites with perverse reputations," but encouraging binational and community involvement in something like the Camino Real project can foster the understanding needed to improve a bad image. The Ciudad Jurez History Museum is undergoing a complete overhaul. Two priorities - the city's role on the Camino Real, and community-involvement projects like a poster contest for area schoolchildren - top Mendoza's renovation list.
Pointing to increased trade under NAFTA and more binational cultural contacts, Mendoza says he sees the Camino Real project as a reminder that the need for trade and interchange that stood behind the trail's creation is still alive today.
"In some ways there are more roadblocks to cross-border contacts and mutual understanding." says Mendoza. "But at the same time, we're seeing barriers coming down."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society