Ink, after drawn, can blur, but a pen can tear through paper. Borders are a human invention. At times, they stand in the way of geography. But like many other abstract human creations, they have great and terrible consequences.
I’ve passed through many borders. Some hardly seem to exist: you’re riding down a road and, at some point, unnoticed, pass over an invisible line. One country to another, passport still tucked away. Other borders are chaotic: long walks over dirt roads, popping in one building after another, unsteadily securing visas, customs forms, stamps. There are other borders, torn down borders, whose remains I have stared at: a concrete wall which held a no man’s land, crosses line the grass today. Some borders kill slowly, some kill quickly, others just are – depending on your situation, of course.
I spent ten days gazing at Mexico. Much of the land I could see was Mexico. A striped cliff rose on the horizon: that was Mexico. And yet, I spent only a few hours in Mexico, just this despite spending a night within fifty feet of that winding border, an easily traversed river. People do illegally swim or wade across, bringing trinkets stateside, clinging to trust as their goods lay unattended by trails, next to a money jar. This money goes back to a village of about two hundred people, where half of the homes only recently acquired solar electricity thanks to the federal government of Mexico, where there are only a few telephones. This village is Boquillas.
In a way, Boquillas is one of the lucky ones in the global power game. Santa Elena and San Vicente also lie across the Rio Grande from Big Bend National Park. All three villages formerly had informal crossing spots. And then, thousands of miles away, two towers were felled and a curtain came down indiscriminately.
These three villages are incredibly remote – even relative to each other, given the abundance of mountains and the dearth of roads. From Boquillas, one has to travel 150 miles on oft-unpaved roads within Mexico to get gas. Just across the border, in Rio Grande Village, there is a gas station and a small convenience store. Though no bridge spans the river to Boquillas, goods could – and would – be ferried across by boat. And there was tourism, national park visitors checking out the two restaurants in town, facing each other across the dirt road running through the center. Men from Boquillas even made up an international wildfire fighting squad, Los Diablos. For many decades, the border had been hazy. We drove the River Road, our guidebook pointing out the ruins where a Mexican goat herder had made a little house, where a Mexican family lived.
The border crossings to Boquillas, San Vicente, and Santa Elena all closed in 2002. Suddenly, not just convenience, but necessities, livelihoods, were severed. As I said, Boquillas was lucky in a way one should not have to be lucky. The village population halved, its income largely sustained by some daring and innovative souls, but in 2013 the crossing reopened. The village stuttered back. San Vicente and Santa Elena remain off-limits to those who would not violate the law and take a little swim.
To cross to Boquillas, this is what you do. Wednesday through Sunday, from 9am to 6pm, you can enter the U.S. Port of Entry Building. A national park ranger explains what you cannot bring back to the states (alcohol, plant or animal parts) and then you exit the side of the building, to the river’s edge. There is a little rowboat, which is ferried back and forth under the sun by a Boquillas man, working against the current. After the one minute boat ride, you can ride a cute burro – or, to make faster time, walk – under a mile down the dirt road into town. And there you are. Souvenir stands are scattered about, where you can purchase wire figurines, hats, bracelets, and tortilla bags embroidered with the town’s name. At least one of the restaurants, and probably the other, serves a strong margarita if you don’t want to check out the one bar. It takes just a few minutes to walk the length of the village, its brightly painted buildings beckoning you further and further. Oh yeah, there’s a Mexican immigration point too, in the village, but sometimes it is closed. We almost missed it as we walked by.
To cross back into the States, you take the rowboat again, showing your ticket stub from the first ride you purchased. We spoke (or in my case, verbally stumbled) in Spanish with the man rowing us across, Ben explaining it had been well over a decade since he’d last visited, prior to the border closing. It was very hard, the ferryman sighed, it’s so good now that the crossing is open again! Feliz Año Nuevo, we wished as we parted, though internally my stomach coiled: new year, new president… new wall? Not so feliz, really. Scrambling up the riverbank, we queued up to re-enter our country. The park ranger searched through our bags, ascertaining my pill bottle was mine, comparing the label to my passport. Then we scanned our passports at a kiosk and spoke on the phone to a U.S. border agent located in El Paso (irony lies in the name) to be re-accepted into the United States.
Let me reiterate: I scanned a passport. About two thirds of Americans do not have passports, nor do many of the residents of Boquillas. The border is happily reopened but, unlike before, this specific form of ID, and this form only, is required to cross, leaving a smaller pool of tourists who can enter Boquillas, and a smaller group of Boquillas residents who can easily cross for something so simple as purchasing a can of gasoline.
Boquillas is, for now, rebounding. It is known what a border closing can do, however, and the two villages further down the river are still bent under the impact. All this, when really it’s a short swim dividing us, nothing more. But again, for now. I will testify that a wall across the Rio Grande, cutting through canyons, would be a foul and unnatural thing indeed. Just as is drawing a line in the sand that dictates who shall receive, and who shall be barred.
I ate my bean tacos in Boquillas. My passport was in my purse. I could flit back and forth, scattering my money as I went. Really, I am the lucky one, for whom borders generally mean inconvenience rather than a question of survival in my home, procurement of goods, income, even life. I know I am one of the few. We make it so. Borders aren’t real until we make them so. And then they may be as real and hard as a wall with your face smashed up against it as you struggle to breathe.