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With Border Crossing Open for a Year, Hopes are High in Boquillas del Carmen

A man rows tourists across the small stretch of the Rio Grande linking Big Bend National Park and Boquillas Del Carmen (Travis Bubenik/KRTS)

It's been a year since a formal border crossing linking Big Bend National Park and the tiny Mexican village of Boquillas del Carmen was opened.

For generations, Boquillas was a popular tourist stop for visitors to the national park, but the crossing was sealed after the 9-11 terrorist attacks.

Over the last decade the economy in Boquillas crumbled - families moved away looking for work, businesses shut down and houses were left to the elements.

But now that tourist dollars have started flowing south again, people in Boquillas say the town is coming back to life.

It seemed oddly quiet as we crossed the Rio Grande into Boquillas on a sweltering Friday evening. Customs authorities says this crossing's averaged about 30 people a day since it opened last April, pretty much all of them coming from the US side.

And that's a welcome change for this tourism-dependent town that's had its economic lifeline essentially cut off for more than a decade.

“Everybody's real happy, everybody's started coming back,” says Ventura Falcon. He was born and raised here - his last name is painted on the walls of the restaurant he and his wife run.

He says just about all the families that left after 9/11 have come back.

Most of the people that left headed to Santa Rosa de Múzquiz, the nearest Mexican city about 160 miles away.

They went there for jobs in the factories, but as Falcon tells it, life there turned out to be harder than it was in Boquillas. Wages at the factory were too low - families with four or five kids were barely getting by.

And besides, Múzquiz just wasn't home.

“They have to work in town but they don't have any nothing over there,” he says, “and in here they got all this life, all these houses and everything.”

In the past, Boquillas didn't see many Mexican tourists, but Falcon says more families have been drawn here from Mexico by how safe it is compared to other parts of the country.

Here's a telling sign of just how dependent this town was on American tourists: Falcon says if you talk to the kids here under 12 years old, they don't speak a word of English.

That’s because those kids were just born or were just about a year old when the crossing closed, and they haven’t spent their formative years talking to tourists. If you talk to the older generations, growing up bilingual was the norm.

The Mexican government's funneled money and resources into Boquillas, hoping to bring more tourists here from both sides, and to build a more sustainable life for the people that live here.

A new kindergarten has been set up, along with a new clinic, and there are plans to pave the town's roads and build a solar farm. The state's governor here says that farm will be up and running by next January.

But rumors circulated that the Mexican government was pulling out for the summer, so I asked Ventura about that.

“Lots of people ask me that question,” he says, so he asked the Mexican customs officials stationed in Boquillas about it. They said simply no, we’re not leaving.

Even with the upgrades here, it's still a rugged life.

Michael Lavandeira is one of the town's two doctors. He says pregnant women still have to make the long trek to Múzquiz to give birth, because there’s not a sterile enough environment in Boquillas to deliver babies.

Serving up coffee at the restaurant across the street from the Falcon's, Bernado Rogel tells me the other challenge is simply letting people know the town's here – the town needs more promotion.

He and Falcon both say they've watched American tourists show up ready to cross the river, only to realize they don't have the passport they need to get back.

Generally speaking, this unmanned, experimental border crossing so far is being hailed as a success. Big Bend National Park Superintendent Cindy Ott-Jones told me simply, “so far, so good.”

Officials with US Customs and Border Protection say they expect the numbers to grow, but it's not just tourism they're interested in.

The agency says the new port fills what it calls a “void” in security on this nearly 300-mile stretch of border between Presidio and Del Rio, Texas.

Boquillas isn't the only place that's been shut off from the US with the tightening of the border in recent years. In 2008, the Border Patrol took down a rickety foot bridge linking San Antonio del Bravo in Mexico with the small Texas town of Candelaria.

The fact that two federal agencies are praising this experiment just a year later begs the question: could this type of crossing open somewhere else?

Presidio Port of Entry Director Esteban Mesa says it's too soon to know.

“Maybe somewhere's down the road it's possible that they might look at it as a prototype, but I don't know, we’re still in the learning phases,” he says.

What is clear is that the people of Boquillas will keep up their work remodeling houses and restaurants, repainting the old bar and welcoming tourists with open arms.

Travis Bubenik is All Things Considered Host and Big Bend Reporter at Marfa Public Radio.