40 years of sisterhood

Ashland will experience a little slice of Mexico next week when at least 70 delegates from Guanajuato visit in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the sister-city relationship between the two towns.

Since the relationship began in 1969, it has grown into an exchange of cultures, ideas and friendships.

Next week will be no different, with Guanajuatense professors, teachers, judges, doctors, city officials and business people — to name a few — meeting with their Ashland counterparts. In late summer, delegates from Ashland will travel to Guanajuato.

"Mostly people are coming for a reason," said Meredith Reynolds, an administrator in Southern Oregon University's school of business and the coordinator of SOU's Master's in Business program in Guanajuato. "Not just to have fun but to meet people and set goals and plans."

The delegates will follow different schedules according to their interests, including visits to Reeder Reservoir and the sewage treatment plant, tours of schools and churches, snowshoeing at Crater Lake, riding the ski lift at Mount Ashland, eating lunch at Callahan's and seeing "The Music Man" at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, Reynolds said. Ashlanders who want to join the fun can attend lectures, movie showings and concerts next week.

Since its inception, the relationship between the cities has been about much more than a governmental agreement, said Chela Kocks, who initiated the sister cityship and is more commonly known as "Señora Chela" in both towns.

"All different levels (of people) are coming, and they're exchanging ideas and friendship," she said. "Because that's what this is, it's people to people."

The beginning

The relationship really started with Señora Chela (Tapp) Kocks, Reynolds said. Then a Spanish professor at SOU, Kocks began taking students on trips to Guanajuato in the 1960s during winter break.

"She had discovered Guanajuato on her own years before that and thought it was a wonderful city and would love to find a town that was worthy of Guanajuato," Reynolds said.

Nestled in the mountains of central Mexico, Guanajuato serves as a cultural center for its region, with several museums, the Festival Cervantino and the Universidad de Guanajuato. The city was founded primarily on mining, but tourism now plays a major role in Guananjuato's economy.

"So when she came to Ashland, she said this is it," Reynolds said.

In 1969, the City of Guanajuato and the Universidad de Guanajuato sent representatives to Ashland, and SOU and UG signed an agreement establishing the Amistad student exchange program. The sister-city pact became official through Sister Cities International in the early 1970s.

Since then, the cities have seen exchanges between students, officials, clubs, businesspeople, artists and musicians. Every June, a couple of Ashland High School girls travel to Guanajuato for the Fiestas de San Juan y la Presa de la Olla, and every summer Guananjuatenese travel to Ashland to represent their city in the Fourth of July parade.

In 1990, Ashland's fire department donated a used ambulance to Guanajuato's fire department.

Although the connections between the cities are numerous, the relationship between Guanajuato and Ashland can be summed up in three areas: the sister-city affiliation between the government and chambers of commerce, the Amistad exchange program between the two universities, and citizen-to-citizen contact through the Amigo Club and Ashland's service clubs.

Of course, there are also the friendships.

"Every year there isn't a week that passes when someone from Guanajuato isn't here, unofficially, because people have made so many friends," Kocks said.

At last count, 78 marriages have occurred as a result of the sister-city relationship, Kocks said, many of them students who have met each other through exchanges.

Since 1970, more than 800 SOU students and 200 UG students have studied at the other university, and numerous faculty members have also taken part in exchanges.

Students from both cities return to their communities bilingual and culturally diverse, Kocks said, as the exchange "gives them a three-dimensional view of the world, instead of a one-dimensional view."

While exchanges make students more aware of other cultures, they also help them appreciate their own culture more, Reynolds said.

"You realize you take your own way of living totally for granted," she said. "It makes you aware that there are different ways of thinking. It really makes you understand yourself so much better."

There are exchange programs all over the world, but the one between Ashland and Guanajuato has to be one of the most successful, Reynolds said, not just because of the number of students, but because of the community involvement.

"It started out of the passion and vision of Señora Chela," Reynolds said. "Her goal was to create people who understand each other, who have fun together and see each other through each other's eyes."

Kira Rubenthaler can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 225 or krubenthaler@dailytidings.com.

Share This Story