January 10, 2003

A river and a community

Just about sunset one evening this past December, I stood on a hill above the Rio Grande and watched the river wind its way toward Boquillas Canyon in Big Bend National Park, Texas. The sun was golden on the high Sierra del Carmen in Mexico and the tule reeds along the river blew gently in the wind. Across the river, smoke rose from the chimneys of the village of Boquillas, Mexico, which perched just over the river a mile from the mouth of the canyon. It could have been any time in the last 100 years; in the Big Bend, time and the river flow slowly.

But the view at sunset is deceptive. Although Boquillas and the Big Bend are about as far from lower Manhattan as any place could be, the September 11 attacks shattered the world here just as deeply as they changed New York City. Indeed, while New York has begun to recover, the unique cross-frontier culture of this remote section of the Rio Grande valley may not ever come back from its losses of the past few years.

The story of the valley begins years before the World Trade Center disaster; the valley has always been defined by cultural contacts, sometimes antagonistic and sometimes cooperative. The Spanish called the Big Bend the despoblado, the deserted region and largely passed it by. The mountains and canyons of the far deserts have remained remote, a haunt of Apaches, Comanches, miners, soldiers, farmers, hikers, and dreamers. In this place, still hundreds of miles from the nearest cities, the people of the border have learned to fend for themselves. As cultures came into contact along the Rio Grande, the river ceased to be a border and became the center of the region's life. Mexican farmers and their American counterparts built houses with each other, spoke each other's languages, and crossed the river every day.

Before Big Bend became a national park, the Mexican valley towns of Santa Elena and Boquillas grew up farming and mining. The U.S. towns of Castolon, across the river from Santa Elena, and Marathon, 100 miles from Boquillas and its nearest rail connection, became partners with the Mexican towns. Silver from the mine at Boquillas helped build Marathon, and Santa Elena farmers helped till the fields of Castolon. This cross-frontier culture remained after the establishment of the national park in the middle of the century. Tourism dollars helped support the Mexican towns, which are down long, poor roads from the nearest Mexican cities. Mexicans came into the U.S. to shop for supplies and send their kids to school. The border remained a place of interdependence and mutual respect.

After September 11, all that changed. The Bush Administration, seeing the world suddenly become threatening, closed all informal border crossings. The nearest official crossing to Boquillas and Santa Elena is ten hours away by pick-up in Presidio. The Rio Grande, once the center of valley life, became an uncrossable barrier. Almost immediately, the towns began to die. These days, a park ranger told me, people are leaving Boquillas and Santa Elena. The few people who remain live in desperate poverty, far from the centers of power in Mexico and the U.S. Tourists in the park can no longer learn from the Mexicans and the Mexicans are cut off from the supplies, schools, and hospitals that they have long used in the U.S. towns. The park is trying to reopen a crossing, but the process may take too long to save the towns. A tradition of cross-cultural exchange extending back centuries is withering.

It is deeply ironic that the terrorist attacks, which were rooted in a worldview that rejects cultural exchange and casts the U.S. as a source of poverty and global discord, should result in the end of the Big Bend's valley culture. The Rio Grande valley was a center for everything that the terrorists opposed: citizens of a rich nation and a poor nation worked together to improve a place that both saw as home. Mutual dependence made mutual security; people do not attack those that they trade with and talk with everyday. It's when contacts break down that the dangerous ideas of terrorism take root; make the center of power inaccessible, make cross-cultural communication rare, create poverty and disunion, and terrorism becomes far more likely. But the Bush Administration is not interested in fighting the causes of terrorism; it is interested in killing terrorists.

The September 11 attacks were criminal but they were also symptoms of our dangerously divided and unequal world. There is no way to excuse atrocity, but that does not mean that we cannot work to understand those who commit atrocities. They are angry, they are poor, and they justify their actions by pointing at gross global socioeconomic and environmental disparities. If we truly wanted to stop terrorism, we would pair military and police action against terrorist cells with efforts to heal that broken world. We would vastly increase foreign aid, find ways to trade and talk with more nations than ever before, encourage travel, and stimulate the vital exchange of ideas between adversarial cultures. We have done none of these things. Our anti-terrorism policy comes out of the barrel of a gun. We end terrorists, not terrorism.

That determination to attack only security threats without attacking the causes of global insecurity is what ultimately threatens the thin green line of the Rio Grande valley and the surrounding deserts. To guard against the remote threat of terrorist infiltration through the borderlands, we made the river into a wall. Rather than building border posts to better regulate traffic, we ensured that no traffic could pass at all. As a result, this part of the world is a bit poorer, a bit more remote, and very much injured by American foreign policy. Boquillas could have taught us that security comes from communication, not from barriers; instead, we are shutting out Boquillas.

My last day in Big Bend, I walked down the river to the canyon with a group of hikers. A few horses grazed on the U.S. side of the border--escapees from a Mexican farm. The farmer stood on the other side of the river, singing to his horses to call them back. He could not cross the river. Neither could we. But, forming a loose ring around the horses and driving them forward, we could still contact the other side. The horses shied, whinnied, and turned. The river is small in the canyon, and they crossed easily, the water barely up to their sides. The farmer called his thanks and we talked for a moment across the river. Times were hard, he said. The river flowed on between us, below rising walls of stone.