It’s one of my earliest memories: riding my father’s shoulders, as he waded across the Rio Grande. We were headed south toward Boquillas del Carmen, a tiny Mexican village that sits just across the border from Big Bend National Park. We did what all tourists went to do—to buy a few trinkets or polished geodes, to eat tacos al pastor, and to stop in at the town’s one and only saloon. One of my parents’ friends snapped a picture of me, shirtless, perched atop a stool at the bar. My fingers were curled around a dark sarsaparilla bottle but the late light streaming through the window cast me in silhouette and made me look like a hard-drinking four-year-old. It’s my favorite picture of myself during my first years in Texas.
When I was older, I took camping trips to Big Bend as often as possible and always made a point of taking my own friends across to Boquillas. By the nineties, there was a makeshift ferry—a flat-bottomed johnboat piloted by a single paddle for the low fare of $2 roundtrip—but the attractions in the town of nearly 300 remained the same: food and drink, a few souvenirs, and a sense of respite and kinship in the midst of the harsh desert.
In May 2002, the US Government closed that crossing—what it classified as a Class B or tourist crossing—citing homeland security concerns after September 11, 2001. Signs along the rocky American banks of the Rio Grande now warn:
DO NOT CROSS INTO MEXICO. YOU CANNOT LEGALLY REENTER THE UNITED STATES ANYWHERE WITHIN THE PARK. PENALTIES FOR ILLEGAL REENTRY CAN INCLUDE A FINE OF $5,000 AND UP TO A YEAR IN PRISON.
The results have been predictable. The population of Boquillas is now little more than 100 people, and those who remain are struggling to get by. In February, National Geographic writer Joe Nick Patoski reported that villagers once sustained by the tourist trade must travel fifty miles, more than two hours over rough roads, to Sierra del Carmen to find work. Those who work in Sierra rarely come home more than once a week. Others must travel another fifty miles to Musquiz and return only once a month. Boquillas is a shadow of its former self—and soon, if something isn’t done, it may become another desert ghost town.
Despite the obvious impact on the Mexican side of the border, I can’t help thinking that we’re the ones lessened by the closure. Many Americans know the story of nineteenth-century immigration from Europe through the approved port at Castle Garden in Battery Park. They may remember the coincidence that the Statue of Liberty was dedicated just years before that port of entry was moved to Ellis Island and may even be able to recite the famous lines from Emma Lazarus’s prize-winning sonnet “The New Colossus” read at the statue’s dedication, urging the world’s “ancient lands” to send us “your tired, your poor, / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” But few likely recall that the exact borders of the country at that moment remained unclear.
Our international border with Mexico had been established along the Rio Grande and Colorado River, but as the rivers shifted, so too did the border. In 1889, after years of piecemeal agreements, the jointly appointed International Boundary Commission was created to finally settle the wrangling—but, instead, the commission persisted for decades, right up to the resolution of the so-called Chamizal dispute over the boundary between El Paso and Ciudad Juárez in 1963. That particular disagreement arose over a 600-acre region of Mexico that was frequently orphaned in the United States by floodwaters. To settle the problem, President Kennedy ceded higher ground to Mexico. Furthermore, a concrete channel was built along the length of the city to permanently establish the border. This may not seem like much of an event, but to my mind, this is a greater story than the Statue of Liberty or Ellis Island.
The victory of the Rio Grande Rectification Project, as it came to be known, was that it acknowledged Mexican concerns and sought a solution beneficial to both sides. On today’s political scene, there is considerably more at stake that 600 acres of floodplain, but the same principle applies. If we are ever going to reach a permanent solution to America’s (North America’s) immigration problem, it will have to be with the cooperation of Mexico. As the essays that follow demonstrate, this is easier said than done. The Mexican economy benefits hugely from American dollars sent home by illegal immigrants. The American economy benefits from the influx of a cheap workforce. Thus, calls for a border wall rarely amount to more than protectionist rhetoric.
Yet those who argue that our country must do something to secure its borders are not wrong. But the question remains: Is a wall the best solution? Philip Caputo doesn’t think so, but neither does he advocate for the status quo. The undeniable impact on the residents of Arizona is taking its toll and must be addressed. Yet, as Reynaldo Leal amply demonstrates in his photo-essay, we mustn’t forget the human impact on the other side of the border either. Just as importantly, Mark Ehrman makes a strong case that walled borders have historically failed, and the few that can claim success as dividing lines—such as those he visits in Berlin and the West Bank—take their toll in other ways. In light of all this, Charles Rappleye closes the portfolio by arguing for opening the US-Mexico border. It’s a controversial suggestion and one unlikely to gain traction, but it’s worth considering the possibility, if only to reexamine our biases.
The issue of border security inevitably bleeds into questions of national identity—and those concerns pervade the rest of this issue. David Caplan contrasts Mark Twain’s notion of patriotism with Walt Whitman’s, David J. Morris discusses Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers in light of the iconography of the Iraq War, and Morgan Meis considers Jasper John’s work from 1955–1965 (a period dominated by his paintings of American flags and targets). The poetry considers this question of identity overtly in works by Alberto Ríos and Luis Alberto Urrea, but also covertly in poems by Tom Sleigh, Gregory Orr, and Robin Ekiss. Even the fiction obsesses over notions of home—be it the split United States in R. T. Smith’s Civil War story or newly liberated South Africa in Nadine Gordimer’s “The Second Sense.” Her meditation on exile serves as an apt conclusion to the issue before the lyrical and passionate coda of Oscar Villalon’s essay-review.
I’m remarkably proud of this issue, proud of the difficult problems these authors have taken into serious consideration without stripping away essential complexities and perplexities. But soon the time for consideration must end; soon we must reach across the border to our neighbors to the south with the goal of finding lasting solutions that will once again work to our mutual benefit.
At least, I hope that time will come soon. My own son is four years old now, and I would like to take him to see Big Bend—the thrilling sheer walls cut by the Rio Grande through Santa Elena Canyon, the hot springs that spill into the coursing river. But I hope, too, that Boquillas will yet remain on the far bank, that it will have survived what turned out to be a brief closure of its tourist crossing, and that I may be able to hoist my boy in my arms, as we start across the swift current together.