Rio Grande Town Fights for Survival

The tiny village of Boquillas, Mexico, used to rely on visitors who hiked across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park to drink warm cerveza and buy trinkets. But since the U.S. closed all "informal" border crossings, Boquillas began to wither and die.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

We've heard a lot about border security since 9/11 - high-tech fences and troops from the National Guard. But in a little-noticed policy change, all informal border crossings between the United States and Mexico have been shut down. It's a move that has nearly killed the Mexican village of Boquillas, just across the river from Big Bend National Park in Southwest Texas. The village is hanging on, mostly because of an artisans' cooperative and the singular voice of one man.

Here's NPR's John Burnett.

JOHN BURNETT: On the southern boundary of Big Bend National Park, there's a sandy path that leads through Carrizo cane and salt cedar to Boquillas Canyon. There you'll find a plastic jar sitting next to a stone painted with the message: Donation for the singing Mexican, Victor. And then you hear him.

VICTOR VALDEZ: (Singing in foreign language)

BURNETT: A stout smiling man, dark as an Apache, wades waist-deep through the swift current of the Rio Grande. He stands on the U.S. side, his shirttail dripping, careful to keep his blue sneakers in international waters so as not to become an illegal immigrant.

VALDEZ: (Through translator) My name is Victor Valdez and I'm one of the persons who helps the village of Boquillas. I sing songs for the tourists so they can enjoy the canyon, and they give me donations in my tip jar.

BURNETT: Fifty-six-year-old Victor Valdez is a lifelong resident of Boquillas Del Carmen, Mexico. Born as a mining town, Boquillas is better known as the laid-back Mexican village a short burro ride from the national park. It was Valdez who tourists paid to ferry them in his flat-bottom boat across the river where they came to Boquillas to sip a warm beer and eat a taquito in the shadow of the breathtaking Sierra Del Carmen escarpment.

All that changed on May 10th, 2002 when the Department of Homeland Security shut down dozens of informal crossings along the 2,000-mile border. Valdez is still mystified.

VALDEZ: (Through translator) Terrorists will go to a city like Los Angeles or Chicago or New York, not Boquillas. I don't think the terrorists want to cross here on a burro.

BURNETT: Victor Valdez, the riparian balladeer, belts out his sad song with the soaring canyon walls as a natural amphitheater. This ballad, "The Distance Between the Two," written as a lament between lovers, today could describe the state of affairs between two neighboring countries. Fortunately, the fewer than 100 people left in Boquillas have friends on the other side. A nonprofit called Fronteras Unlimited gave them sewing machines and fabric so they can support themselves making textiles and other handicrafts to sell in U.S. shops near the border.

VALDEZ: (Through translator) Everything ended in 2002. The only help we get now is when Cynta comes to buy our walking sticks, copper scorpions, quilts the women make. That's it. Cynta is the only industry we have.

BURNETT: That's Cynta de Narvaez, a suntanned, loose-limbed former river guide who's a volunteer with Fronteras Unlimited. Several times a year, she walks over to Boquillas, then makes the legal 18-hour return trip through the Del Rio port of entry, bringing with her their artwork to sell in Texas. The artisans' co-op is doing well. Today, she planned to bring them $14,000 earned from quilt sales alone.

CYNTA DE NARVAEZ: When they closed the border, the hardworking men in this community who had been able to support their wives and families were given no warning and all of their work was shut off in a matter of a day. And so we tried to give a Mexican village work and this is a town that has picked itself up from absolutely nothing.

BURNETT: Unfortunately, the closing of this rural border crossing has not done anything to deter dope runners, says Marcos Paredes, a park ranger in Big Bend for nearly 20 years.

MARCOS PAREDES: What we have done is created a hardship for those folks that have legitimate reasons to be coming back and forth across here or that have been part of the community and the area here for a long time. Those are the folks that we've impacted the most. We haven't slowed the bad guys down at all.

BURNETT: Perhaps the upside of closing the Boquillas crossing for park visitors is that it's brought Victor Valdez to the river to perform his Mexican love songs in the most unforgettable theater in the borderlands.

VALDEZ: (Singing in foreign language)

BURNETT: John Burnett, NPR News.

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