In March 2020, the small port of entry connecting the town of Boquillas to Big Bend National Park shut down completely, separating the community from the tourists who sustained it. Over the last 20 months, residents have had to get creative to make ends meet. Now, after watching restrictions lift along the rest of the border earlier this month, they’re celebrating the reopening of their own port. | Lea esta nota en español
By Annie Rosenthal
On a recent afternoon, Beronica Ureste rode into the middle of the Rio Grande on horseback, carrying a bag of the crafts she’d made for American tourists: aprons and purses embroidered with the flora and fauna of the borderlands.
“Ocotillos, roadrunners, donkeys — that’s what we sell,” she explained, leaning over the water to show off the designs.
The riparian rendezvous is a little inconvenient, but for nearly two years, it’s been Ureste’s main option when she wants to meet with someone in the U.S. She lives in Boquillas del Carmen, a community of just about 250 on the Mexican side. In March 2020, the small border crossing that usually connects Boquillas to the park shut down completely — a pandemic measure meant to protect both the rural village and visitors to Big Bend. And while communities along the Rio Grande have celebrated the lifting of COVID travel restrictions, the crossing here won’t open until tomorrow — the soonest that staff were available to man the small port.
Ureste says it’s hard to see other ports open while she continues to wait. “But,” she says, “we understand that we are a small town and our crossing is different.”
The international port of entry at Boquillas is unique in a few ways. The kiosk is staffed by park rangers and monitored remotely by customs officers in Presidio or El Paso. And while U.S. citizens and “essential” workers were still allowed to cross through other ports during the pandemic, there were no such exceptions here. Bob Krumenaker, Superintendent of Big Bend National Park, says that’s partly to do with economics.
“Let’s compare Boquillas at one end of the spectrum to El Paso-Juarez at the other, where there’s major highways, there’s rail lines, there’s a tremendous amount of freight and business traffic,” he says. “Boquillas is probably the first to close and the last to open of all the ports, because from an economic point of view on a global basis, there’s not much going on.”
Not on a global basis — but for people like Ureste, the crossing is vital. Pre-pandemic, Boquillas played host to thousands of visitors a year: tourists from the national park who would cross in a riverboat and ride a donkey up to the village for a taste of rural Mexican life. So when the crossing closed, Ureste and her neighbors found themselves cut off from their financial lifeline — and totally isolated. While the Rio Grande Village store is just a few minutes up the trail on the U.S. side, the closest grocery store in Mexico is four hours from Boquillas, in the city of Músquiz.
“We are a community so far away from the other cities,” Ureste says. “And right now it’s hard.”
This isn’t the first time Boquillas residents have found themselves stranded. After 9/11, the crossing here was closed for more than a decade. More recently, when stalled budget negotiations in Congress prompted a government shutdown, the port was closed for over a month.
The community has learned to get creative to make ends meet. Some men in town still cross the river to leave crafts on an overlook on the American side, where tourists leave payment in coffee cans. Other residents, like Ureste, have moved their businesses online, to platforms like Facebook.
“First, I was very scared,” she says. “I barely used Facebook, and I didn’t even know how to do it. Even how to post.”
Over time, though, she’s built up a clientele around the state of Texas. Her father, who lives in Marfa, regularly makes the full day’s trip down through the Presidio port of entry to pick up the goods in Boquillas and bring them back to buyers in Marfa and Alpine. Now, Ureste has customers as far away as San Antonio and Dallas.
Neighbors in nearby Terlingua have also pitched in to help. “We raised about $20,000 that went towards emergency supplies and food, diapers, baby food, everything that they needed,” says Mike Davidson, who runs the Boquillas International Ferry, the rowboat that takes people across the river in normal times.
The U.S. government quietly lent a hand as well: Ureste says that over the summer, Americans in uniform beckoned Boquillas residents to the river’s bank to be vaccinated.
This spirit of help is what’s made these last two years bearable, Ureste says. She explains that the closure has been particularly hard on women in Boquillas, many of whom were used to meeting customers right outside their houses and prefer not to risk discreet trips across the river when they have kids to take care of. And it’s not just about work: as a mother of two, she says, she’s found it hard to see her kids unable to play with their cousins on the U.S. side.
Krumenaker is also looking forward to the reopening on Wednesday. “Visiting a small Mexican village is part of the typical Big Bend National Park visitor’s experience,” he says. The Boquillas port saw more than 18,000 crossings a year before the pandemic, and Krumenaker says 2020 was on track to be a record year before the shutdown.
“There’s no other national park or arguably experience you can have in the United States where, as part of a fairly safe, well-managed recreational or conservation experience, you can also experience a small piece of another country,” he adds.
Presidio Port Director Jesus Luis Chavez says customs officers will be on site to help manage the reopening on Wednesday. For the winter, the crossing will be open Wednesday through Sunday, from 9 am to 4 pm. In keeping with new Department of Homeland Security guidelines, visitors who are not citizens of the U.S. will have to show proof of vaccination to re-enter the country there.
Standing in the river, Ureste says she’s excited to welcome visitors back to Boquillas on Wednesday. Despite the many challenges of the pandemic closure, she says, the community has remained largely intact. During the decade-long closure after 9/11, she estimates that all but 15 families moved away –– but this time, almost no one has left town. Ureste, too, plans to stick around.
“I love my town,” she says. “I have gone out and lived in big cities and I don’t like it. I love it here.”
This story was reported in collaboration with Alfredo Corchado of the Dallas Morning News.