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Cross-Border Couples Tie Knot by the Rio Grande

No-man's land, between the river and the border, plays host to weddings for many couples from opposite sides of U.S.-Mexican divide.

June 29, 2003|Lynn Brezosky | Associated Press Writer

BROWNSVILLE, Texas — It's 102 degrees on a Friday afternoon, and exhaust from trucks crossing the old B&M International Bridge spanning into Mexico blends with the gentle breezes stirred up by the Rio Grande.

Justice of the Peace Oscar Tullos zips up his judge's robe as he strides toward the bridge, holding the fancy-lettered marriage license of Erasmo Galvan, 21, and Nely Alvarado, 22.

The wedding is at 3 p.m., and Tullos is not one to be late.

The bride is a U.S. citizen; the groom is from Mexico. Both are store clerks -- she in Brownsville, he in Matamoros, the city just across the river. They met at a dance about a year and a half ago and have fallen in love.

Rather than battle the seemingly formidable paperwork to allow Galvan to cross to the United States to marry, the couple decided to do as many here have done: tie the knot in what is essentially a no man's land -- the 200-foot patch of land just north of the bridge and south of the U.S. Customs building.

Tullos isn't sure when the bridge weddings started. He only knows that his predecessor did them and he was in office more than 20 years. But Tullos does know he enjoys the weddings and takes them seriously. He's lost track of how many he's performed.

"It's an honor for me to be able to marry them. I find it important to do," he said. "Love crosses all boundaries."

Some justices won't do bridge weddings, and Tullos agrees it may be because of the heat, which usually causes him to sweat clear through the shirt beneath his robe. Unlike many JPs, he always starts with a prayer.

The couples are of all ages. Some brides come dressed in gowns, others in shorts. One of the snapshots outside Tullos' office shows a woman in a full white gown, her hair curled in tendrils, marrying a gruff-looking man in a faded red T-shirt.

On this day, the bride is dressed in a simple rayon dress and black wedge sandals, her hair damp and twisted into a loose bun. The groom wears blue jeans with cream-colored cowboy boots and an embroidered leather belt to match. They have brought the rings in a pretty paper box.

Tullos directs the couple and their parents to a spot below three palm trees, the only bit of shade around. Both smile shyly as the jovial Tullos directs them in Spanish to hold hands and look into one another's eyes as they repeat their vows.

At the end, Tullos booms the declaration: "Marido y mujer!"

Tullos does little more than provide a civil service. To get the license, Alvarado, the U.S. half of the couple, has already had to provide the county clerk with documentation about her future spouse. From there, the waiting period begins for a green card.

During the six-month wait, he can't live in the United States. The couple's situation will continue much as it did in their courtship, with her walking back across the bridge to see him.

After two years of marriage, that conditional residency card (green card) can be exchanged for a permanent residency card. And after five years, the naturalization process can begin.

Erica De la Torre, a clerk at the Cameron County courthouse, said about 60% of the courthouse weddings involved one person from the United States and the other from Mexico. Last year, there were 3,015 marriages.

"There hasn't been a day we don't have anyone coming in to apply," she said. "When it's a busy day, we have 25 people coming in. When it's a slow day, we're talking six or seven."

As the newlywed Galvans cross back to Matamoros for their wedding night, Tullos said they seem typical of the cross-border couples he joins.

In many cases, he said, the mother of the U.S. spouse had made certain to give birth in the United States, so her child would be a U.S. citizen even if life is lived mostly in Matamoros.

The pay earned at minimum wage jobs in Texas can jolt a Mexican family to a sort of middle income, he said. And by gaining citizenship, the new spouse often can get a U.S. job, even if family ties lead them to choose a permanent home in Mexico.

"The border area is so closely tied in," he said as drove back to his office, where he'll hang his robe until the next wedding. "So many threads going back and forth."

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