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Laughlin's caught up in the boom sweeping the United States and Mexican border

Because she lives less than seven miles from Mexico. Senior Airman Kylie Roberts crosses the Rio Grande from Del Rio, Texas, into Ciudad Acuna a few times a month.

She loves going there to ear her favorite dessert fried ice cream. To shop. And to hang out with friends at bars and restaurants that cater to "gringos."

It's a short and easy trip for the health services troop from Laughlin Air Force Base in Del Rio. Just a mile from Acuna -- what locals call it -- in the state of Coahuila.

Just a bridge away -- but a whole world apart. A foreign land with a rich history.

"Mexico's fun. There's so much to do," she said. "I take my family there when they come to visit. Shopping there is so much cheaper. And the food is, too."

The trip across the border is second nature for Roberts and for most people at Laughlin.

Like it is for millions of Americans and Mexicans. Because the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border isn't what it used to be. It's evolving. Communities on both sides, from California to Texas, are expanding. As these border towns grow closer to each other, they're developing a new, more joint, identity.

Clear contrasts that once separated the two lands are eroding, blurring. Today -- except for the Rio Grande, a bridge, a road checkpoint or a border agent -- it's hard to tell where one country ends and the other starts.

"There's a link between Del Rio and Acuna you can feel," said Airman 1st Class Heinzel Jno-Baptiste, a medical equipment repairman at Laughlin. "Both cities are involved with everything the other does."

It's the same all along the border -- and with good reason. Key among them: booming business between the countries that grows more each day. Mexico will soon be one of the United States' biggest trading partners. That means money. And cash breaks down old barriers.

There are more reasons. Hispanics -- most of Mexican descent -- are the biggest minority in the United States. So the views Mexicans and Americans have had for each other are shifting. Some Americans live in Mexico because living there is cheaper. And each day more Mexicans are visiting "el Norte," the north.

"Spanglish," an English-Spanish mix, is the borderland's new tongue. Radio disk jockeys speak it. Plus merchants, tourists and school-aged kids. So do many of the millions of people who have family on both sides of the border.

"And if you don't speak Spanish, no problem," Roberts said. "There's always someone who speaks some English."

The shift is leading to the gradual blending of two peoples, their cultures, traditions and languages. They're be coming bicultural, bilingual and bilateral.

"We're the new Americans," said Jeffrey Mahl, a Del Rio lawyer. His father is American and his mother's from Acuna. "We're so interwoven as communities that you can't separate us."

Just as Laughlin is part of Del Rio, he said.

Victor Valadez, a furniture and curio shop owner in Acuna, said it's like living along a new frontier. "We're becoming more alike each day," he said.

A borderland melting pot.

That's good, said Dora Alcala, Del Rio's spunky mayor. Good for relations between the two countries. Good for the people. And good for business. She said both cities must think about the future, which shines brightly.

"So many opportunities lie ahead for both cities," Alcala said. "We must work together to get the most from them." And since Laughlin is Del Rio's largest employer, it will play a big part in that future.

Changes are more widespread in bigger border towns. Like El Paso, Texas, and Juarez. Or Calexico, Calif., and Mexicali. But Del Rio, with its 40,000 residents and Acuna, with its 120,000, are catching up.

Bilateral boom

But there must be a plan to direct all the change, said Alcala, who was an Air Force civilian for 37 years. A team effort. Something Alcala said already exists between Del Rio's and Acuna's city governments. Because only by working together will border communities clean up the "wild and crazy, anything goes" image of their past.

One-on-one contacts are what will spearhead change.

That's something leaders agreed on. So in 1995 their chambers of commerce -- which already worked together -- formed a joint bilateral committee. The group promotes communication and closer ties, helps solve problems and spurs business in both cities.

Laughlin has a voting member in the group, a sign it's not just an airplane patch six miles out of town, said Mike Williams, owner of a Del Rio insurance agency.

"We don't make a distinction," he said. "Laughlin is a part of Del Rio."

The committee was up and working three years before the United States and Mexico agreed to a long-term plan to turn the border into a model area of bilateral cooperation.

For airmen at Laughlin, the committee's most important role is the informal, yet direct, link it set up between the communities, said Jim Teet, base community relations chief.

That's vital since there's no status of forces agreement with Mexico like overseas bases have with host countries. These accords define the legal position of military members living in a foreign country. They tell how local laws apply to service members. Without such a pact, airmen are on their own while in Mexico.

"If the police in Acuna arrest you for something, it's not likely they're going to call your commander or first sergeant to come and get you," Teet said.

Until recently, Americans had to deal directly with the U.S. consulate in Nuevo Laredo, 180 miles away, for any concern or problem. The committee saw that with all the visitors to Acuna it needed a U.S. counsel. The group convinced the U.S. State Department to establish a consular agent office in Acuna, which is expected to open its doors later this year.

"That will help not only our people, but any American who needs help in Acuna," Teet said.

The committee meets each month. It's a key way Laughlin works problems and issues that affect airmen in Del Rio and Acuna. But the committee works in low-key fashion, without fanfare, Teet said. Businessmen, officials or the mayors solve most issues, behind the scenes. Laughlin airmen usually don't realize that any change has taken place.

But what the committee spearheads does impact the base, home to 4,400 military, civilian and family members. It's where the 47th Flying Training Wing trains pilots.

Wing commander Col. Jack Egginton said the fact the committee has a Laughlin member proves the base's importance to Del Rio, Acuria and their futures. He first served at Laughlin from 1978 to 1982. There's a much better relationship between Del Rio and Laughlin today, he said.

That bond "is just as strong with our neighbors across the border." That's a plus for a base with a host of young airmen and pilot trainees who love to venture across the border.

"There are times when one of our young troops runs into trouble in Acuria, either self-initiated or because of poor judgment," Egginton said. "The bilateral committee helps smooth the skids in those situations." It's a comforting thought, he said.

In Acuria, Mayor Jose Eduardo Ramon Valdez wants to cut the number of incidents to zero. Most incidents involve visitors, but not from the base, he said. He said it's fortunate Laughlin is in Del Rio. That helps U.S.-Mexican relations because base people help contribute to the better understanding other Americans have of Mexico and its people.

"Laughlin airmen and their families come from all over the United States," said Valdez, who went to college in Texas. "They get to know our people and culture. And when they come here and have positive experiences, they go home and tell their families and friends. We need that."

Valdez is a strong backer of the bilateral committee. He said it helps both countries maintain an open and flexible relationship that allows people to interact.

Over the bridge

It's also easier for airmen to enjoy what Acuna has to offer, said Staff Sgt. Dan Grabski. The night life, restaurants and shopping are what attract the allergy and immunizations troop and his wife, Staff Sgt. Stacy Grabski, a medical administrator.

"We've had no hassles there. Everyone is so friendly," Dan said. "And when something does happen -- and that's rare -- we hear about it at the base the next day."

Stacy said the communities need the bilateral committee. And though it's hard to control how people act, she said, "The fact you don't hear about all the stupid things people might be doing is proof the committee is helping make things better for visitors to both cities."

Good relations are a must, Valadez said, who likes doing business with people from the base. People can't miss his store; it's on the main street into Acuna. So he makes it his business to only stock quality goods. Other business owners in Acuna are following suit. And they're also working to better their "people skills," he said.

Valadez hopes to see the day when the two countries will share an open border. And if he doesn't? "I know my children will," he said.

Roberts isn't thinking about that. She likes the fact she can cross a bridge, be in another country and back at Laughlin in a few hours.

"I feel totally comfortable there," she said.

That's just the way the bilateral committee wants everyone who visits the cities to feel.

Plus, each time Roberts and others at Laughlin make a run into Mexico, they bring back a bit of the country with them. They pass on what they learn, which helps others better understand Mexico and its people.

That makes the bilateral committee's job -- spreading better understanding -- a lot easier, said Mahl, its co-chairman.

"It helps our cities and our people grow closer," he said.

So what was the norm even five years ago for Del Rio, Acuna and Laughlin doesn't apply much today, Valadez said. Suspicion and mistrust are disappearing.

"Finally, people along the border have come to realize that they need each other," he said. "Not just to face tomorrow, but to make a good living for themselves and their families."
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Author:A. Arana-Barradas, Master Sgt. Louis
Date:Sep 1, 2001
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