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In The Big Bend, Coronavirus Pandemic Stifles Tourism On Both Sides Of The Border

Courtesy of Edgar Ureste
In Boquillas at least one vendor is making embroidered facemasks to help recoup money they would normally see this time of the year.

The residents of Boquillas del Carmen have long been known for the hand-sewn koozies, carved walking sticks and glittering figures of Ocotillo and roadrunners they sell on the banks of the Rio Grande and on the streets of their rural Mexican village.

But now, some Boquillans have added a new item to their repertoire — facemasks embroidered with a colorful floral pattern. However, with the only way to access the Mexican town from the U.S. closed, at least one vendor is heading online to sell them in hopes of recouping some of the money residents would normally see this time of the year. 

“It’s a help, but it’s not the same,” Boquillas resident Edgar Ureste writes to Marfa Public Radio. “March is the best time of the year for tourism.”

Boquillas is a rural community in the Mexican state of Coahuila. The town is stone’s throw from a curving overlook in Big Bend National Park and largely depends on tourism. During the busiest time for Boquillas, hundreds of American visitors will take canoe rides across the Rio Grande, pay to climb dusty hills on the backs of burros and stop by the town for a cold margarita — all of which are important means of income for residents.

However, the financial lifeline the tourism season brings to the nearly 250 residents in Boquillas was cut short this year. In mid-March, officials at Big Bend National Park began implementing restrictions and partial closures to slow the spread of the coronavirus. The first round of precautions included closing off the port of entry to Boquillas on March 18 — a measure U.S. Customs and Border Protection took at the national park’s request.

“The fact the park closed during the best time of the year for tourism is a really bad thing,” Ureste writes, adding that families in Boquillas hope to make their money during the springtime, so they can weather tourism dry spells. 

This isn’t the first time the Boquillas crossing has been closed. For more than a decade after 9/11, the crossing was completely shut. And more recently, a government shutdown that lasted for 35 days left Boquillas residents adrift. Both times, including the recent closure spurred by the coronavirus, are stark reminders of what can happen when the rural Mexican community is cut off from the park

Marfa Public Radio
The Boquillas Crossing takes you down a dirt road that leads to a small port of entry run by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

When deciding to close the Boquillas port in March, officials at the national park reached out to the government in Ocampo — the municipality Boquillas belongs to. Park officials say Ocampo's leadership was supportive of the decision. The move, says Big Bend National Park’s Tom VandenBerg says, was done to protect not just visitors, but also the residents in Boquillas. The town has a clinic, but no full-time doctor or nurse and the nearest hospital in Mexico is hours away. Officials say, if a coronavirus outbreak were to reach the town, the situation would quickly turn dire. 

“This time of the year, there'd be hundreds of people in Boquillas every day,” said Vandenberg. “Probably not a good situation for both visitors and residents of Boquillas.”

Just two days after the Boquillas port closed, the Trump administration would close all border traffic to non-essential travel. And a few weeks later, Big Bend National Park would completely close its doors to all visitors.

Prior to the closures, for the nearly three weeks Boquillas was open to tourist traffic, there were some 2,600 visitors who traveled to the rural Mexican village, according to numbers from Customs and Border Protection. But all that traffic came grinding to a halt as concerns over transmission of the coronavirus grew. 

When the crossing closed

Outside of economic losses, the travel restrictions have hit Boquillas particularly hard. The rural community sits along the northern edge of the Mexican state of Coahuila, a nearly four-hour drive — some of it on a bumpy dirt road — to the nearest city, Múzquiz.

To help residents holdover, the Ocampo municipality this month began distributing hundreds of boxes of supplies to the region’s more rural communities and vulnerable populations, including Boquillas. Pictures of the packages show bags filled with a roll or two of paper towels and toilet paper, some cooking oil, rice and beans. 

As of this week, the Coahuila government says there are 266 confirmed cases of the coronavirus and 23 related deaths. None have been reported in Boquillas. 

Like officials in the Big Bend, the Coahuila government is encouraging residents to stay inside and to limit their travel for essential reasons. 

Right now, some in the community have access to basic supplies, but their reserves are depleting. Generally, the town stocks up ahead of the tourism season to prepare for the influx of visitors. But with border closures likely continuing, it’s unclear how long those rations will last before some will need to make that 160-mile journey to the nearest city. 

Relief efforts for Boquillas

It’s now been more than a month since the port of entry to Boquillas closed. While Boquillas resident Edgar Ureste is selling his family's wares online to make ends meet, a separate community group is putting together a fundraiser for the entire town.

“The immediate goal is to make sure our neighbors in Boquillas have adequate food and supplies during the COVID-19 crisis,” reads a GoFundMe page for Boquillas residents. 

Within two days of being created, people from all over Texas and the country donated some $5,000 for the relief effort

Terlingua resident Mike Davidson and Boquillas native Lilia Falcon are behind the fundraiser. Davidson is a familiar presence in the Big Bend and runs the concession that oversees the boat rides into Boquillas. Falcon operates and runs Jose Falcon’s Restaurant, one of the well-known tourist stops in the community.  The two say they’ll use the money to travel to Múzquiz and purchase basic necessities and any prescription medicines Boquillans may need. They're also thinking of reserving some of the funds for any future needs.

“It's good to leave some for an emergency," said Falcon. We don't know if we have to make another trip to the city to get more groceries. Who knows how this is going to be?"

According to GoFundMe page, the effort to provide for the hard-hit residents of Boquillas will continue throughout the pandemic until the town “gears back up to safely receive visitors, whenever that may be.”

Carlos Morales is Marfa Public Radio's News Director.