An aerial view of Guanajuato city, Mexico.
An aerial view of Guanajuato city, Mexico. Public Domain

Guanajuato, a city of around 170,000 people smack in the middle of Mexico, has been hosting a summer festival for decades, when it crowns one young woman its queen. Since 1969, those queens have had an additional duty: joining the city’s official delegation to Ashland, Oregon, to help celebrate the Fourth of July. That year, Guanajuato and Ashland “twinned,” or became “sister cities,” despite Ashland having just one-eighth the population. (Guanajuato, in a serious case of high-order multiple birth, has 17 other “twin” cities.) For nearly 50 years, festival queens have taken a seat in an open convertible for the Ashland celebrations and waved to thousands of cheering American spectators.

But in 1980, something went wrong. Guanajuato officials failed to make the necessary arrangements, and the year’s summer festival queen, Gabriela Cardenas, a 19-year-old grade school teacher, slipped through the cracks. She didn’t go that year, or the next, or the next. In fact, it would be 33 years before she finally made it to Oregon, as director general of the Guanajuato Municipal System of Integral Family Development. Last month was Cardenas’s second visit to Ashland, now as a Guanajuato city councillor. And she finally took a seat in the parade, flanked by this year’s festival queen.

Ashland and Guanajuato have an unusually strong bond, as sister cities go. Many “twins” do little more than namecheck one another on signs. In fact, Cardenas recently wrote in an email to the Ashland Daily Tidings that Ashland “is the only city that maintains such strong bonds of friendship, fraternity, and—most of all—solidarity with Guanajuato’s most needy citizens.”

The main plaza of Ashland, Oregon.
The main plaza of Ashland, Oregon. Demi Ashland/CC BY-SA 3.0

This year is the 60th anniversary of widespread practice of city twinning. In the wake of World War II, it was thought of as a good way to kindle international cooperation and generally help thaw frostiness between former foes. For example, Coventry, Stalingrad, and later Dresden composed a sorority of cities heavily bombed during the war, as an act of reconciliation.

In theory, the relationship between such cities should look like Ashland and Guanajuato’s, with regular opportunities for people from both places to mingle and mix. But it doesn’t always work out: Bishop’s Stortford, a village in Hertfordshire, England, voted in 2011 to consciously uncouple from Friedberg in Germany, after 46 years of sisterhood.

Sometimes, the city pairs offer an opportunity to be a little snooty. Paris and Rome are an exclusive twosome, with the accompanying motto: “Only Paris is worthy of Rome; only Rome is worthy of Paris.” Other sister cities have been chosen because of some perceived similarity in their urban DNA. Oxford, for instance, calls university cities Bonn, Leiden, and Grenoble its sisters, while a number of Welsh towns have partnerships with formerly Celtic Brittany, in western France. Occasionally, these relationships allow urban planners and councillors to let their hair down. In 2012, the Scottish village of Dull agreed to twin with Boring, Oregon. They’ve since welcomed Bland, Australia, to the fold.