Two Nations Together Again at Boquillas

by Joe Holley

Boquillas Crossing—On a cold, gray afternoon in Big Bend National Park, the rugged peaks and buttes wreathed by graceful low-hanging clouds, thirty or so American tourists are slouched against walls or sitting cross-legged on the hard floor of a small building manned by the National Park Service. We’ve all spent a portion of our day in the dusty little village across the Rio Grande—kids among us have brought back antenna-wire scorpions as souvenirs—but now balky technology connecting the park building to U.S. Customs and Border Protection three hundred miles away in El Paso is preventing us from reentering the United States. We’re supposed to scan our passports at a kiosk and talk by phone to an agent, but the park ranger informs us that the cold weather is messing with the machine. “Don’t forget to tell everybody it’s Homeland Security, not the National Park Service,” she says, smiling.

Everyone’s good-natured about the holdup, even though some of us have waited more than an hour, and we’re all worried about possible ice on the roads. It suddenly hits me as I sit on the floor: What’s an hour compared to nearly a dozen years? That’s how long the people of Boquillas had to wait for their fickle neighbors to the north to get over their fears.

The two hundred or so people who live in the old mining community are five hours and 160 miles—half
that distance unpaved—from the nearest town of any size, Musquiz. They’re five minutes from the national park across the river. In addition to hard cash from the American tourist trade, they always got their food, gasoline and mail from the other side and had friends and relatives just across the river. The hundred-yard span of water was less an international border than a minor inconvenience.

All that changed in the wake of 9/11, when, in May 2002, the United States closed all unofficial border crossings along the Rio Grande. Deprived of tourism dollars and prevented from buying groceries or visiting doctors across the river, families had little choice but to move away.

Boquillas (Spanish for “nozzles”) became a ghost town. Winter and summer for the past several years, the wind has scoured the walls of abandoned adobe huts and whipped up dust along the village’s unpaved main street. About the only other sound was the wail of coyotes echoing at night off the majestic cliffs of the Sierra del Carmen.

Lilia Falcon and her family were among those who had to leave. Her parents, José and Ofelia Falcon, ran
the popular Falcon’s Restaurant and Bar. Even though a pickup accident left her father using a wheelchair, “he loved to greet the customers, show them the curio shop and tell them about Boquillas and the area,” she recalls. “He was a man with a big heart, respected and loved by many people on both sides of the Rio Grande.”

For years, American tourists crossed the river in a rowboat, then rode a donkey or hired a pickup to take
them up the hill to town. Many of us topped off our little Boquillas adventure with a plate of Ofelia Falcon’s bean tacos or burritos and a cold cerveza. Robert Earl Keen got it right after a Boquillas visit: “For a while we knew that life was good / and it was ours to take back home” (from “Gringo Honeymoon”).

Lilia Falcon, forty-three, basically grew up in her parents’ restaurant and expected to carry on the family tradition—her father died in 2000—but with no tourists coming across, she had to close. She has dual citizenship, so she and her husband, Bernardo Rogel, settled in Atlanta, where they ran their own construction company. With their three daughters, they thrived in the United States, and yet they missed dusty little Boquillas. She hated the idea of the empty restaurant, her parents’ pride and joy, caving in on itself as the years went by. The Falcons got their chance to return in April 2013, when the border reopened after years of negotiation between officials from both countries. The reopening coincided with construction of a $3.2 million port of entry, the handsome building where we had to wait for the weather-sensitive kiosk. According to a plaque outside, the building symbolizes “a reunification of the regions and a return to a time when the crossing was seamless.”

Except for the little computer snafu at the end, our crossing was indeed seamless, pretty much the way I
remembered it years ago. After a park ranger explained the rules and reminded us that we needed a passport, we walked along a path shaded by mesquite trees and willows down to the shallow, swiftly flowing river. An oarsman plying his small metal boat against the current took us across for five dollars.
Victor Valdez, a retired boatman huddling with buddies around a charcoal fire, hopped up to greet us
with a Mexican folk song and to explain our options for getting into town, less than a mile up the hill. We opted for the pickup, not the donkey; our driver, eighteen-year old Arturo, also charged five dollars. A Mexican customs agent in a portable trailer took care of our documents quickly and courteously. Most days, he said, Boquillas gets about thirty border-crossers, but on this, the last day of the year, he had processed more than a hundred. To be honest, there’s not a whole lot to do in Boquillas other than stroll around and appreciate the dramatic mountain views, visit a couple of curio shops, drink at the Park Bar or eat at either Lilia Falcon’s brightly painted restaurant—her mother still cooks—or at a brightly painted Falcon’s restaurant across the street, run by a cousin. (I sensed a bit of family tension.)

The border crossing is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, so Falcon and her husband drive to Musquiz
on Sunday evening, buy supplies for the restaurant and curio shop on Monday and get ready on Tuesday to open for the week. “We never know when we’ll get a lot of people, but we try to be ready,” she said. The Mexican government, particularly the governor of the state of Coahuila, has worked to revive Boquillas.

Homes are being remodeled and freshly painted, a new kindergarten and a clinic have opened and the government has installed a solar farm for the community’s energy needs. “We’re blessed to have a governor who’s interested in Boquillas,” Falcon told me as she sat behind the counter and tended to a steady stream of restaurant and curio customers.

Back on the U.S. side, I noticed a plaque lined upwith the majestic cliffs across the river. The inscription
described efforts beginning in the 1930s to create an international park that would welcome visitors to preserved lands on both sides of the river. Nothing has ever come of the idea, a Big Bend spokesman told me this week, and yet peaceful little Boquillas, where people on both sides of the border again come and go with mutual respect and minimal difficulty, is something of an international park in action every day. Except Mondays and Tuesdays, that is.

Written January 10, 2015 and excerpted from the book Hometown Texas. Photograph by Peter Brown. The border crossing is currently closed again due to Covid-19.

Joe Holley was a 2017 Pulitzer Prize finalist for a series of editorials on gun control and the Texas gun culture. A former editor of the Texas Observer, staff writer for the Washington Post, and columnist for The Houston Chronicle, he’s the author of six books, including Hometown Texas, a collection of his weekly “Native Texan” columns, Hurricane Season: The Unforgettable Story of the Houston Astros and the Resilience of a City, and Sutherland Springs: God, Guns, and Hope in a Texas Town. A native Texan himself, he and his wife Laura live in Austin.

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