The Binational Raft at the 2011 Laredos Riofest.

By Eric Ellman

When it comes to the U.S.-Mexico Border perhaps it's natural for the media to focus on bad news. But residents of Laredo are having none of it. For 18 years, their third Saturday of October has been "El Dia del Rio." For the last three of them, the Laredos Riofest Race has been its showcase event. Falling on October 20, the 33-mile race offers $15,000 in cash prizes and complementary activities this year. For the first time ever, U.S. and Mexican Olympians, including two-time gold medalist Greg Barton, will offer paddling clinics in both countries, turning the Rio Grande into an international playground and demonstrating to the world that there's more to this corner of Texas than cartel shoot-em ups.

Indeed, while the national news trumpets bad guy on bad guy killings that plague Nuevo Laredo and other Mexican towns beleaguered by our nation’s appetite for illicit drugs, the scene in Laredo is something other. Using the City’s recently renovated Civic Center pool and a nearby State Park for training, people possessed of a vision are making "the Big River" their own: a local engineering firm works with the high school Future Farmers of America to build a 16′ x 16′ dock that will host musicians in mid-river. One classroom down, welding students put the finishing touches on a kayak trailer built from a salvaged truck chassis. All of it will be transported by a City of Laredo bus donated for use by the non-profit that coordinates their efforts.

Ben Kvanli, coach of the San Antonio-based “Wounded Warriors,” rolls into town on October 13. He’ll cross the bridge to Mexico where Nuevo Laredo city officials welcome him to start making their city into the adaptive sports capital of Mexico. With a river whose potential is virtually untapped, one million residents looking for respite from the heat, and a growing population of soldiers wounded in their own internal war, why not? Especially when America’s only ACA Adaptive Paddling Instructor Educator makes his home in San Antonio, just two hours away?

Two Nations, One River drawing by Eduardo Castro

High School Art Teacher Joann Sanchez asked her classes to contribute ideas for a t-shirt design to capture the mood. Eighteen year old Eduardo Castro contributed the winning design. Depicting Laredo's iconic San Agustin Church on one bank, the biggest flag in Mexico on the other, and the nation's oldest international trestle linking them, he entitled it "Two Nations. One River." And paddle sports are what binds them.