Monday, February 06, 2006

Good bye Car-by

I saw a disturbing image on the television news the other day. It included a burned out Sports Utility Vehicle that had been apparently set ablaze by narcotics smugglers who had been spotted by the U.S. Border Patrol. But that wasn't what I found upsetting - trashed SUVs don't really get my sympathetic juices flowing too much.

What bothered me was the setting of the pictures - the Big Bend Region in West Texas. My wife Mars and I visited there in 1998 and again in the year 2000. These trips convinced me of the common sense need for certain types of illegal immigration. I hope that what I just saw on television hasn't changed things so much that I need to change my mind now.

In Big Bend territory the Rio Grande River is not so grand - locals call it the "Rio Nada" and water rafting guides tell their passengers to "just stand up" if the boat tips over - and the towns are really, really small. Lajitas, where we stayed, is not even listed in the official population count of Texas towns and cities. It's neighbor, Terlingua, is credited with a population of about 250 people when combined for census purposes with the adjacent town of Study Butte.

Needless to say there isn't much in that part of the world: high desert geography, uncluttered landscapes, unremitting sun, a few places to eat (none of them national chains), a couple of old RV-based craft shops, and one flashing yellow traffic signal. The area pretty much defines the term "hard scrabble". We went there to hike, photograph, rest, and read. The people who live there, although they may have different interests and pursuits, are seeking similar solitary lifestyles.

Our first time in Lajitas was on an Elderhostel trip to Big Bend National Park. We took the second trip on our own and rented housing next to the Rio Grande at the only tourist spot in the area. Our living quarters were at the top of a small hill that overlooked that brown, slow-moving body of water from a distance of about a quarter mile. We were tired from our long drive when we arrived, so we barely glanced at the river from our back patio - until the next morning.

It was a Monday in mid September. We awoke before dawn and were both lying in bed, quietly pretending to be asleep in hopes that we actually would be. Our bedroom windows faced out to the river. Suddenly the room was filled by a sweeping white light. Then another. And another. Half awake, in an unfamiliar bed, in an unfamiliar house, in an unfamiliar location, it was really easy to imagine bad things were about to happen. But nothing did. Then my mind woke up a little bit more.

"Car-bys?" I asked, remembering what Mars taught me to call the vehicle headlights that played across our bedroom walls at night in our first apartment. "I think they are car-bys", she answered.

It was in fact the first wave of what we came to call the "morning commute" of workers and school children into the United States - something that we had learned about on our earlier visit to the area. The river at this location was about one hundred yards across and between one and two feet deep - about one half the height of a pickup truck wheel.

A paved road ran down to the crossing on the U.S. side and an unpaved dirt one allowed you to continue your trip on the other side. A small Mexican town, Paso Lajitas, lies about a mile down that road. The next village is an hour-and-a-half further along the dirt path, with nothing in between. It was, in Border Patrol terminology, an illegal but unguarded crossing.

The a.m. commute, which we sometimes watched from our deck, and other times saw indirectly via the lights on our bedroom walls, occurred every morning of our stay - just as it had each daybreak before our arrival. It became for us a very comforting way to start the day.

A portion of the traffic was four or five pickup trucks each filled with school children of pretty much all ages, looking pretty much like the young students we would see on our own streets including the mega-heavy backpacks. Other trucks without school children crossed throughout the day. Occasionally a rider on horseback would ford the river. A jonboat ferried the tourists and an occasional local back and forth - we took it across on our fist trip. At around four or five in the afternoon the commute would reverse direction.

The adults worked in one or the other of the two towns and the children attended school in Terlingua. According to what we were told on our previous visit it had been that way for many, many years.

Against the law? For sure. Secret? Not to anyone in the area - resident, visitor, or (I would bet) the Border Patrol. Unsecured? Probably not - the openness of the arrangement and the common knowledge of all the players pretty much eliminated the danger.

There aren't a lot of employment opportunities in this area, but there are even less people than that to do them. This is not a part of the country that attracts many people. And those that do come to live here are pretty adamant about being able to take care of themselves. But there is stuff that needs to be done just to keep things going. And the few businesses around do need workers.

As the old joke goes, "There's no shortage of jobs here - in fact just about everybody has two or three of them." Schooling for the children is simply a part of the employee benefit package. All things being equal, a lot of the current school children would become the future adult workers. Some wouldn't. What needs to be done, gets done, the laborers and students return to their homes every day, and the commuter vehicles don't even cause a traffic jam.

According to humorist Josh Billings (an American) "Common sense is the knack of seeing things as they are, and doing things as they ought to be done." Sounds to me as if that's pretty much what was happening here at the border crossing in Lajitas.

Drugs were also a part of the picture at that time and it was said that pickup trucks loaded with Marijuana frequently drove across in the river into Lajitas. The Mexican Drug Lord Pedro Acosta operated in the Big Bend Area and was gunned down in 1987 by helicopter-borne drug agents in Boquillas Canyon, another illegal but unguarded crossing a short canoe ride up the Rio Grande from Lajitas.

So in one sense I wasn't absolutely shocked to see a drug interdiction at an almost identical looking West Texas location. I was however surprised to learn that the authorities were apparently actually guarding the crossings. So I did a little research to see how things were going at the Lajitas entry point.

It's closed.

According to an article in the July 2002 Texas Observer (the most recent information that I could find) "On May 10, 2002, the Border Patrol, which has always pursued narcotics traffickers and illegal immigrants, began, without warning, to enforce the law against crossing, period. Twenty-one people were arrested, including "Gordo," the 18-year-old boatman who rowed the jonboat back and forth at Paso Lajitas."

It's the post 9/11 Border Patrol with new priorities and additional resources.

The Observer also reported that the resort where we stayed had recently erected a sign at the crossing: "Tracks across the centuries indicate that pre-Columbian native Americans used the Lajitas crossing thousands of years beyond the present horizon.. Spanish conquistadors were the first Europeans to cross here in the 16th Century...Comanches and Mescalero Apaches arrived after the Spanish. In the 18th and 19th centuries, red raiders from the north crossed the river here in the fall...In the 20th century bandits, bootleggers, businessmen used the crossing...Today the historic crossing connects two nations and cultures and is used by tourists and travelers from around the world".

"They're not stopping anyone who shouldn't be here." said the Chairman of the Visit Big Bend Tourism Council.

The San Antonio Express-News (also from July 2002) reported that the town of Paso Lajitas was almost empty as residents had already moved closer to the nearest legal crossings in Del Rio or Presidio.

"It's pure mean-spiritedness. It's gunboat diplomacy," growled Enrique Madrid, 54, a longtime local resident. "There have been human beings in the Big Bend for 12,000 years, and they have been using those crossings for just as long. To think you can shut down a crossing that ancient is just cultural ignorance. The border is just a political boundary. It just separates a society that is the same on both sides - the same people, language and religion.".

Father Melvin LaFollette, a retired priest in Redford who served the faithful on both sides of the Rio Grande using many of the local crossings, said it is absurd to close them. "Their excuse for closing the Class B ports was they didn't have enough staff. Well now they've got plenty of staff, and they should facilitate people who have legal reasons to cross back and forth."

Jobs are not being done, people are not working, and children are not being educated. We can all sleep better knowing that there are no longer any car-bys at Lajitas.

I mean, it's just common sense, isn't it?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Great descriptions. Well done.