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BIG BEND NATIONAL PARK, Texas — A formal border crossing with Mexico will open soon, linking Rio Grande Village — located inside Big Bend National Park in Texas — and the village of Boquillas, Mexico. Documents have now been sent to the government printing office, one of the final steps before a new border station opens. This story is part of the Fronteras Desk project, a reporting initiative led by a consortium of NPR stations in the southwest.
People on either side used to cross freely to exchange goods and services. But after 9-11, the United States declared all informal crossings such as this one illegal. There are hopes on both sides of the border that this legal border crossing will bring economic revival.
The border may be sealed at Boquillas, Mexico. But the solitary sound of a Mexican man singing — his name is Victor Valdez — soars across the river. He asks, “Want to hear another song?”
Valdez is 30 feet away in Boquillas — a village economically crippled since unregulated border crossings were banned after 9-11. Before, Valdez said he’d cross this slow-moving sliver of the Rio Grande on foot or by canoe to buy staples in Big Bend National Park in West Texas. His family earned a living in the village selling soft drinks to visitors. Tourists on the U.S. side flocked to Boquillas to savor Mexico for a few hours.
Before the border was sealed, 300 people lived in Boquillas. Today there are 120.
It’s more risky but people still do cross. This man is a Mexican national. He’s on the U.S. side, offering rides on his burro. When he spots the Border Patrol, he said, he easily crosses back. He said he does what he does because his village offers no options.
“There’s no work, no one’s left,” he said in Spanish, referring to the village’s decline.
“As you can see the gate is locked and a number of security cameras are in place,” said John Waters. He publishes the Big Bend Gazette weekly and is also a former National Park Service biologist here.
Waters has filed several Freedom of Information Act Requests to learn why the government has repeatedly delayed opening the station, which cost $3.7 million to build.
“A Mexican national I was speaking to said, ‘Señor Bin Laden changed things,’” Waters said.
Waters says real world politics has intervened in what used to be prolific, local cross-border trade. Now he wonders if the United States might have lost something in the process.
“A number of Park employees have told me that prior to the border being closed that there was a greater amount of intelligence by having an open border,” Waters said.
The Boquillas station will be unmanned. Entering the U.S. you’ll pick up the phone and show your documents on a video link to customs officials in El Paso.
But the traffic will likely be in one direction — south. Boquillas will get a short-term economic injection from tourists. But the flow back into Texas will be a comparative trickle. People will still need documents. And passports are difficult to get in rural Mexico.
“Years ago there was a Good Neighbor Day every year where people came down to the river, folks from both sides, and they celebrated together. ‘Good Neighbor Day?’ Not gonna happen,” Waters said.
“There’s nothing here,” Boquillas resident Jesus Padilla said in Spanish. He’s 60 years old, standing ankle-deep in the river with a faded baseball cap and red checkered shirt billowing in the unrelenting winds that dance across Boquillas Canyon.
“If they open the border here in Boquillas,” Padilla said, “People will benefit. Visitors will buy food and souvenirs in the village and I’ll be able to buy things in the U.S.”
And it’s not just in Mexico. In this secluded slice of southwest Texas, tourism — a vital economic driver — has collapsed. And even with a formal border crossing finally opening up, people here say their once heavily intermingled economy will improve — but never be what it once was.