After a couple of days in the Big Bend area, I was beginning to forget that I was very close to the international border with Mexico. At first, it seemed like a big deal, and I spent a lot of time thinking “That’s Mexico, right over there!”. But as time went on, that line seemed less important. The communities I visited on the American side seemed very American, not foreign. People spoke English. And I didn’t see anyone sneaking across the border. The divide between the US and Mexico may be talked about a lot throughout the rest of the country, but here it was no big deal.
So it was quite shocking when I met my first Mexicans, and saw my first illegal border crossing, at Boquillas Canyon. More about that in a moment. Let’s start…
… with the canyon itself. Boquillas Canyon shares a lot in common with its upstream neighbor, Santa Elena Canyon. I suspect it doesn’t get as many visitors as Santa Elena, though, because of its remote location, in the southeastern corner of Big Bend National Park. The canyons are equally dramatic, with towering cliffs overlooking the calm river.
You can’t see the mouth of the canyon from the parking area. A short trail begins here, that takes you up and over a small hill, where you get your first look at the Rio Grande.
The trail drops down the other side, and leads to the edge of the river, then takes you a short distance into the canyon.
As I headed down the hill, I came across a small display of jewelry and hand-painted hiking sticks, along with a sign saying that money would go to help school children in Boquillas del Carmen, an isolated Mexican town on the other side of the river.
“I wonder how those got over here?” I thought.
Then I walked a little further, and the singing began. It was that “Ay, ay, ay, ay” song. You know, the most generic Mexican song you can think of, the one you’ve heard a million times.
I quickly learned that I was hearing Victor, the singing Mexican. He was seated in the shade, over on the Mexican side of the river. Several empty cans had been placed along the path to collect donations.
“I wonder how he collects his money from over there?” I thought.
Victor said thanks when I gave him a dollar, and asked if I was interested in the walking sticks.
“On the way back!” I yelled.
The trail led up to the river’s edge, where I found the only sign of a “border fence” I had seen anywhere along the Rio Grande. A couple of pieces of barbed wire were draped over that stick. And they say the borders aren’t secure!
The trail headed on into the canyon, first crossing a grassy patch…
… then heading into a small forest of some sort of tall river grass, or maybe bamboo.
After fighting my way through the vegetation along the overgrown trail, I reached a dead-end. There was nowhere else to go on the American side.
Turning around, I headed back towards the mouth of the canyon to make my purchase.
By the time I made it back to the area where I had heard Victor, a Mexican man greeted me. I don’t know if he was Victor, or someone else, but obviously he was there to sell me a variety of merchandise, from rocks to jewelry to those walking sticks, which I had seen earlier. I showed an interest in the sticks, and he made me a deal: $5. Now, this was hardly a hiking pole I would take on a demanding trail, but for just five dollars, the hand-painted stick was a bargain, and an excellent souvenir from a town I couldn’t visit, just a mile or so away.
As I paid for my keepsake, and wandered how I would get it onto the plane to take home, the man asked me if I had any Coca Cola in a cooler in my car.
“Yes, I do.”
“Do you have any sandwiches?”
“Chips? or Granola Bar?”
“I probably have something.”
I figured, since I was getting near to the end of my vacation, I had some food in the car that would probably be thrown away in a day or two anyhow. Why not give it to these guys? And a Coke? I couldn’t imagine being out here, in the miserable heat and bright sun all day, without a cold drink.
He offered me a chunk of quartz rock in exchange for the snacks and drinks, then summoned Jose from across the river. Jose was a teenager, who gladly splashed across the Rio Grande to the American side, then walked with me to my car to retrieve the goodies.
As we walked, I practiced my feeble Spanish, and he attempted a few phrases in English. All the while, I couldn’t help thinking I was doing something very wrong. I had just witnessed an illegal border crossing, which I was beginning to realize must happen regularly at this spot. And now, I was going to provide food and drink to this illegal. What if a border agent showed up? Or, is this some kind of scam, to rob me and then run back across the border?
I guess I’ve spent too much time in cities, where you have to assume the worst to avoid trouble. Jose didn’t follow me all the way to the car, he waited at the top of the hill until he saw that I was carrying through on my side of the bargain, then met me halfway to receive the half-full bag of Sun Chips (ironic, I suppose, since I felt like we were very close to the surface of the sun) and two ice-cold Cokes.
A day later, I was talking to a park ranger, who explained that border patrol agents look the other way at Boquillas, at least to some degree. Crossing the river to sell trinkets is common, and since the people who cross always go back to their homes on the Mexican side, there’s no harm done.
[tmt_info =””]The strengthened border crossing rules, enacted in 2002, devastated the town of Boquillas del Carmen. Tourists used to cross the river for $1, then have lunch or spend the night in a bed and breakfast. Almost all of the town’s supplies came from the American side. Shutting down the crossing caused an economic collapse in Boquillas, and most people moved away. Things are changing, though. In early 2011, an effort began to build a high-tech miniature border crossing station, and re-start ferry service with a park-approved concessionaire. Tourists could begin crossing to Boquillas, and spending much-needed money there, by 2012. This NPR story has the details.[/tmt_info]
[tmt_info =””]It turns out, Victor the Singing Mexican is a famous fixture of the Boquillas Canyon area. A YouTube search shows a dozen or more videos of people who have met Victor and enjoyed his voice. Victor was also featured in an NPR story.[/tmt_info]