The Lost Pueblos
STORY BY Seth Putnam
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Kevin Russ and Duncan Wolfe
"The pueblo is a case study in the life and death of a frontier town."
For $5, a man will row you across the Rio Gr a nde to a tiny Mexican town called Boquillas del Carmen. In truth, the Big River isn’t so big. You could wade across if you wanted to. But it’s running today, so Kevin Russ, Duncan Wolfe, and I pile into a flat-bottomed boat. We shove off, and Victor Valdez’s lilting voice sings us across the river, warbling a song about seagulls looking for love nests that they will never find. The dark-skinned, barrel-bellied 62-year-old croons ballads across the river, making his living off of tips from visitors to the little pueblo.
As we step out of the barquito onto Mexican soil, it’s hard to imagine that only a few weeks ago, what we were doing would have been illegal. Just before we arrived in Texas, the US government re-opened this defunct crossing about 145 miles south of Marfa in the bottom crook of Big Bend National Park. The port of entry had been closed for 11 years—since shortly after the Sept. 11 attacks, a faraway event that bizarrely wrecked life in Boquillas by slamming the door to tourists.
“The people over in the village have a chance to make money now,” Valdez says, explaining that the town’s artisans will finally have customers for their blankets, artwork, and copper scorpions. He walks with us up the river bank, where we have the option of truck, horse, or burro to get into town.
“Just be back by 5:30. That’s when the last boat leaves.”
He means: The border closes at 6 p.m., and if we don’t make it back in time, we’ll be stuck in Mexico for the night.
We choose wheels, and man named Esteban loads us into a rusted Ford pickup, which lurches along a dried up creek into the hills. The tiny town used to cater to Americans who were visiting Big Bend and wanted to pop across, have some tacos and a cerveza, and say they’d been to Mexico. It’s easy to feel cut off simply on account of being outside the country, but we quickly realize that Boquillas is isolated even within its own homeland. As we hand over our passports in the mobile trailer serving as the Customs Office, the lone border patrol agent tells us that he’s an out-of-towner from several hours away, who rotates with other officers to spend a week at a time at this remote outpost.
We head across the street to José Falcon’s Restaurant, one of two food joints in town. Lilia Falcon and her husband, Bernardo Rogel, greet us and quickly produce sweating Carta Blanca beers and fresh bean tacos smothered in cheese and giardiniera.
Falcon explains that she keeps the restaurant open as a tribute to her father, who established and operated it even while he was confined to a wheelchair until he died in 2000. She introduces us to her daughter Josie, who was born exactly a week after the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. The border closed the following May. For the entirety of her life, she’s been unable to see the reason for her hometown’s existence.
A bearded river guide named José Ernesto Hernadez Morales joins us for lunch. His neck is red from the sun, and a green fish-skeleton pendant is visible in the opening of his red polo. (His sign is Pisces, and he doesn’t eat fish.) He’s employed by both the Mexican and US governments through a consulting firm called Solimar International, and he’s on assignment in Boquillas to help the village develop the tourism options into sandboarding, river kayaking, or hiking to Maderas de Carmen, an imposing, jagged rock face that offers unexplored territory.
The pueblo is a case study in the life and death of a frontier town. Accurate records are difficult to find, but Morales says that at Boquillas’ height as a mining outpost at the turn of the 20th century, there were upwards of 2,000 people living there. At its lowest, perhaps three or four people remained. As the slim strains of gold and mercury dried up, the town’s economy transitioned to cattle. But that export would never become particularly profitable, since the nearest market, a town called Múzquiz, is a 150-mile trek, a large part of which traverses washed-out river beds that pass for roads. Just before the US door clanged shut, Morales tells me, 300 people called Boquillas home. Now, there are about 135. Everything here costs $5. The ride into town in the rusted out Ford ? Cinco. The colorful, thread-wrapped ballpoint pens hawked by a gaggle of tanned children? Cinco. A wire scorpion sold by Singing Victor? Cinco. You could haggle. But you’re there to spend money, not get a deal. Say the average visitor spends $20. That goes a long way in a town whose name is Spanish for “little mouths.”
The talk turns to immigration. Sitting in the shade within eyeshot of the deadly blazing wilderness, I ask Morales what leads so many people to risk their lives crossing the border. “It’s desperation,” he says. “Going to Muzquiz is not an option because you have no skills and no education. If you cross the border, there is always the chance to make a dollar. You can do things that maybe Americans don’t want to do anymore.”.
After we finish our tacos, Duncan and I wander into the Park Bar, Boquillas’ lone watering hole. Seventy-year-old Candelario Valdez, Victor’s older brother, pours us shots of mescal as we eye the two pool tables. Based on their dusty, ripped felt, it looks like it’s been a while since they last saw a break shot.
We glance at our watches: 5:50 p.m. Late for Victor’s boat. Shooting the mescal, we careen out the door and sprint for the truck. Everyone we’ve met so far has been beyond hospitable, and if it came to it, we probably could find someone willing to put us up for the night. But by the look of the buildings we pass, abandoned and unfurnished, three beds might be hard to come by. Kevin appears from his walkabout, and the three of us barely make it back to the river in time to hop in the boat.
At the border station on the American side, an electronic kiosk awaits, with a telephone and a camera trained on our faces. We speak to a faceless border agent in El Paso, who asks us a few questions about what we did while we were abroad and whether we’ve brought anything back into the country. We answer that we haven’t. “Free to go,” he says. Then he hangs up. — Seth Putnam