A town torn in two
Saturday, June 28, 2002
A town torn in two
Closed river crossing was community's lifeline
By Gary Susswein
LAJITAS ó The mural inside the Lajitas Trading Post, just up the hill from
the Rio Grande, tells the story of how life has always been in this remote
West Texas desert valley: Comanches, Pancho Villa's raiders and Mexican
villagers all cross the knee-deep river on foot or horseback, with the
villagers stopping at the Post to pick up food and supplies for their
But the workers sitting outside the 103-year-old store, just upstream from
Big Bend National Park, paint a different picture of how life is today.
Drinking Bud Light and taking drags on cigarettes, they look longingly at a
river they no longer can cross, at a hometown suddenly out of reach.
Everything changed here May 10 when U.S. Border Patrol agents swept in and
closed the ancient-but-illegal pedestrian and rowboat crossing. In trying to
keep illegal immigrants, terrorists and drugs from entering the country, the
federal agents did something the river never could: They divided this
community where money, people and values have always crossed freely between
the United States and Mexico.
"It's a way of life, the way it used to be," said Pancho Villa ó no
relation ó a 39-year-old carpenter who now must drive 50 miles to the
nearest legal border crossing in Presidio and then another 70 miles of
mostly dirt road in Mexico to see his wife and four children just across the
river in Paso Lajitas. "I hope it changes back."
Except for the occasional midriver rendezvous to pick up clean clothes or
food, Villa and the other legal workers whose labor sustains the businesses
on the Texas side now go a week or more without seeing their families.
Tourists who built up the economies in the Mexican border towns can no
longer cross the river at Lajitas or two other downstream crossings. Neither
can Mexican Americans on the Texas side whose parents, spouses or children
still live across the border. Or the children of Paso Lajitas ó many of them
U.S. citizens ó who went to school on the American side of the Rio Grande
because there are no teachers in their 50-family town.
Less than two months after the border was shut, businesses are closed,
families are separated and entire towns are in danger of disappearing.
"Drugs? If they don't pass through here, they'll pass through somewhere
else," Maribel Villa, Pancho's wife, said from her porch, a few hundred
yards and a four-hour drive away from her husband and just next to the
restaurant they've had to close. "But the ones who are suffering are the
ones who do the work."
Maribel Villa and others on both sides laugh at the suggestion that
terrorists could enter the country through Lajitas on the wooden rowboats.
They acknowledge that drugs have often come through the crossing but say the
government could have cracked down on that by turning the crossing into a
legal point of entry for workers and citizens instead of shutting it down.
Border Patrol officials say it's up to Washington and Mexico City to create
a new crossing along the 190-mile stretch of river between the legal
crossings in Presidio and Del Rio. And so far, no one in those capitals has
tried to do that.
"Our job is to enforce the law. We have no say on the results or what
happens once we enforce the law. If the law has to be changed, other people
need to do that." said Border Patrol spokesman Pablo Caballero. "We never
looked the other way (at Lajitas). We didn't have the personnel to enforce
it, and that's different."
But that inability to monitor the local crossings changed after the Sept. 11
attacks raised the national consciousness ó and boosted federal funding ó
for homeland security.
The Border Patrol's regional offices were able to spend their new resources
as they needed. And Simon Garza, the sector chief in West Texas, chose to
use his 20 new agents, new helicopter, new airplane and several new vehicles
to close down the unofficial Big Bend-area crossings, which are a relatively
unusual phenomenon for the border.
Those new resources were on full display the afternoon of May 10. As several
dozen workers waited to cash their weekly paychecks at the Trading Post, 40
Border Patrol agents arrived in helicopters, unmarked cars and sport-
utility vehicles. They detained about 20 people who were entering the
country by boat or standing on the U.S. side.
A week later, agents returned and arrested another half- dozen people.
"We had information that people have been using that area to conduct illegal
activities such as drugs and illegal immigrants. We decided to start doing
some operations," Caballero said. "The situation has improved,"
All the detainees were released without being charged, except the boatman,
Jose Romando-Rodriguez. He was convicted of illegal entry, served 19 days in
jail and then was held by the Immigration and Naturalization Service until
Lajitas-area residents are still fuming about Romando- Rodriguez's six-week
detention and about the swooping helicopters and scrambling workers and
children. They talk about May 10 with the same sense of horror that
Americans reserve for Sept. 11.
"My mind went back to Vietnam," said Jo Jo Villarreal, a Navy veteran who
manages the Crow's Nest art shop in Lajitas. "Everybody was in shock.
Everybody was running. No one knew what was going on."
By the next morning, the border was closed to everyone but firefighters and
villagers with medical emergencies. And everything had changed around
Those changes came just as the 2,000 residents of southern Brewster County
and the 2,000 people in the San Carlos municipal district across the river
were enjoying an economic boomlet.
Austin entrepreneur Steve Smith had bought Lajitas, which is technically
part of nearby Terlingua and not a separate town, and 25,000 acres of desert
in 2000. Since then, he's spent $50 million renovating restaurants and
hotels and building a spa and two golf courses that he hopes will persuade
wealthy Texans to build homes there.
The construction and upkeep of Smith's Ultimate Hideout resort had created a
glut of $6-an-hour jobs. Those jobs, for which work permits weren't
necessarily required at first, began luring families from around northern
Mexico to Paso Lajitas, a town of dirt roads and adobe homes that sprung up
across from Lajitas decades ago.
After May 10, much of the landscaping and construction was put on hold for
three weeks as company employees arranged for work permits for about 70
Mexicans. When they returned to Lajitas, the workers began sleeping in a
bunkhouse or their trucks because they could no longer get to Paso Lajitas
Aside from helping workers with permits and lodging and chaining off a spot
at the river where trucks once crossed, officials from the Ultimate Hideout
say they have not gotten involved in the border closing issue.
And Smith's resort seems to be faring better than other local businesses and
Sales at the Trading Post dropped about 40 percent when many of the store's
Mexican customers stopped coming.
Big Bend National Park officials have had to cancel nature and environmental
classes for Mexican children. Park rangers have started telling tourists not
to cross into Boquillas and Santa Elena, two towns across from the park
where rowboats have long shuttled 30,000 visitors a year into Mexico and
brought Mexicans to the park to buy food and supplies.
Some tourists are illegally wading across the river in Boquillas, but the
situation is still bleak for businesses there.
"We're coming into the hot season, they don't have any electricity, and now
they're not even getting the nominal visitors they had," said Jim
Glendinning of Alpine, a tour guide who had to cancel a recent $5,000-a-head
excursion after the crossings were closed.
In San Carlos, a Mexican town of 800 about 17 miles inland from Paso Lajitas
along a rocky, mountain road, nearly 10 percent of the population disappears
from Sunday to Friday for jobs that are now 100 miles away by car. And three
hotels are closed.
So are the two eateries in Paso Lajitas, including Pancho and Maribel
Villas' Dos Amigos restaurant, which used to serve 100 customers a day
during the busy season.
A ghost town
The sign in front of Dos Amigos still shows an American hand draped in red,
white and blue shaking a Mexican hand draped in green, white and red, across
the river. But there is little in Maribel Villa's life to remind her of a
friendship between the two nations.
Her hometown has become something of a ghost town. A few cattle and horses
grazed along the dirt roads one recent afternoon, joined only by a handful
of playing children and a silence that suggested something was missing.
Among those children were two of Villa's sons: 6-year-old Orlando and
12-year-old Teodoro. The boys were students at Big Bend Elementary School
before May 10 but had to withdraw because they couldn't get to class.
Now, Villa doesn't know what they will do when the school year begins in
Orlando, who was born in the United States and is a citizen, could move
north of the border with family. But Teodoro, who is not a citizen, would
still have nowhere to go.
The Villas could also wait for the government to send teachers to town or
follow other families' leads and move to a city where the public schools run
through sixth grade and the drive to Lajitas is shorter. But Maribel doesn't
relish that idea.
"We don't really think about moving. We have this house and have built this
life. But we don't know what we're going to do with school," she said. "As a
Mexican mother, you make sacrifices so they can go to school there and
pursue a better life. It's hard now."
Across the river, Lupe Baeza and her sons Manuel and Rene also have had to
sacrifice since the border was closed.
Baeza, who plans special events for the resort, became a legal U.S. resident
under an amnesty program in the 1980s and lives legally in Terlingua with
the boys. Her husband lives in Paso Lajitas and, until May, remained an
important part of their lives.
"The kids, they'd go every day and stay until 8 or 9," she said.
They still go down to the river once in a while to see their father. But
now, they have to settle for a quick meeting in the middle or fishing
together from opposite shores, as they did last weekend.
"He was on the other side and we said hi, and we were yelling at him and
telling him what's happened," she said.
Working for change
Some Lajitas locals continue to cross illegally near the 11th hole of the
new golf course, out of sight of the Border Patrol agents who constantly
drive or ride scooters up and down Texas 170 through Lajitas. But most
residents are unwilling to risk being arrested or losing their work permits
and instead rely on the midriver exchanges to pick up dinner, hear family
news or hold their children for a few minutes.
They do it with the tacit approval of some Border Patrol agents.
Local residents say it makes no sense to allow husbands and wives to meet in
the middle of the river but then force the husbands to drive 120 miles just
to get a few feet farther onto the other side. For them, the obvious
solution is reopening the river as it was or as a legal point of entry.
But that takes approval from the State Department in Washington and the
federal government in Mexico City, with guidance from state officials in
Austin. The process takes several years and, so far, no one outside the Big
Bend area is talking seriously about it.
Local leaders are having a hard enough time getting the federal government
to reopen the La Linda bridge 90 miles away, which has been closed for five
years, let alone focusing officials on a crossing that's been closed just
Residents along the river hope to change that. They've formed the Big Bend
Border Alliance, have begun signing petitions to send to federal agencies
and want to sponsor a town meeting for U.S. officials in August.
Next Friday, the group will hold a party on the two banks of the river to
draw attention to the border closing and reunite the two towns that have
always been more connected to each other than to any inland community.
Sitting across from the old mural in the Lajitas Trading Post, owner Rick
Page shakes his head at the thought that officials in Washington would think
of Lajitas and Paso Lajitas as separate towns.
"If you go over there and look this way and go over here and look that way,
it's identical," he said. "We'd like to have it open like it was before so
we can be one community."
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