Boquillas, Mexico, a riverside hamlet of 90 people, sits a minute by foot across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park in Texas, a boundless tapestry of rock and high desert. Mexicans used to cross to work, buy supplies in the park or visit family. Americans would wade across the river to savor Mexico for a few hours. The border, at least here, was an abstract, one that people on either side ignored. But that was before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. After, this part of the border was sealed.
The only thing entering the U.S. along this emerald sliver of the Rio Grande was the sound of 62-year-old Victor Valdez singing. His voice echoed across the canyon, his corridos telling stories of lost love and the fight to survive in a harsh, beautiful land.
“I stay on the other side singing songs for them, but I don’t see their faces or their smile. But I’m glad now I’m going to see them face by face,” Valdez says.
“It’s a miracle,” says Marcelino Sanchez, looking at U.S. visitors in the village plaza. Small intertwined economies on both sides have been damaged or wiped out. In Boquillas, people eked out a living by crossing into the U.S. at night and leaving souvenirs and crudely painted signs asking tourists at Big Bend National Park to leave money on the honor system, all illegal and generally overlooked. Now 20,000 visitors a year are expected in Boquillas.
Lilia Falcon says that once the border was sealed, Falcon missed what she terms her family.
“There were a lot of times I called Big Bend just to say hello or just to say, ‘Is there any news about the opening?’ and whoever answered the phone always remembered us in Boquillas,” Falcon says.
The opening became official when four senior U.S. Border Patrol agents in uniform waded across the Rio Grande. After embracing their Mexican counterparts, a final meeting took place on the riverbank to coordinate hours and days of operation.
The crossing may translate into an intelligence edge for the U.S. As it happens, one of the best wildfire firefighting crews in the world lives in Boquillas. They’re regularly called in north of the border. One member of the team, Gabriel Oreste, says the U.S. has just gained a new set of eyes and ears.
“Things will be more secure because we know we all if someone bad shows up. We know who is coming and going,” he says in Spanish.
There’s little doubt that the local economy in Boquillas will benefit in the short term because of the new crossing. And now, people on either side are hoping that what happens here becomes a model for reviving small intertwined economies along this section of the border.