McNeills to perform at Museum

To the editor:

On Saturday evening, Jan. 20, the McNeills, along with Dave Napier, will perform a benefit concert for the Friends of the W.H. Over Museum. The concert will begin at 8 p.m. in Sletwold Hall with all proceeds going to the Over Museum.

The McNeills are regular performers at Gayville Music Hall and John McNeill has written several musical programs to honor such famous musicians as Johnny Cash and Hank Williams; he also creates programs featuring various kinds of music. The program he has created for the museum will be "American Music: Across the Spectrum" and will feature all kinds of music including gospel, country, and popular music from the decades of the 1920s through the 1950s.

Admission to the program will be $15 per person and refreshments will be available for purchase. The Friends of the W.H. Over Museum would like to take this opportunity to invite everyone to the museum to enjoy the music and help in raising funds to continue to operate the museum for the enjoyment of all citizens.

We hope to see lots and lots of people that night.

With warm regards,

Maxine Johnson

First Vice President

Friends of the W.H. Over Museum

Homeland insecurity

The recent Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid at Swift meatpacking plants in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and elsewhere has sharpened the debate over illegal immigration, and spotlighted our dependence upon immigrant labor. It also demonstrated that when ICE acts, it is hard-working people, not the corporations that hire them, who take the hit.

Last month we visited Big Bend National Park in southern Texas. We stood on a bluff and gazed across the Rio Grande River toward the low adobe homes of Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico. We had visited three times before; in 1997 we crossed the river with our teenagers in a small rowboat.

On the path to the village we'd met women selling painted snakes fashioned from desert roots, and bearded, bare-chested Eliseo Valdez, selling rose quartz. Valdez's right arm, broken and unrepaired, dangled at his side.

dusty street, and visited a tiny house in which a solar panel and electric lights had recently been installed. By American standards, Boquillas was exceedingly poor, but tourists and progress were coming, and life was good.

Now the park road to the river is closed, posted with a sign that threatens American citizens with a $5,000 fine and a year in prison if they cross the river and return. Any Mexican crafts they buy are subject to confiscation as contraband. Even with binoculars, we saw no signs of life in Boquillas.

Another car arrived. Four people got out and introduced themselves �� Bill and Shirley Bonning and their son and daughter-in-law, Chuck and Rachael. Bill wore a tattered Big Rapids sweatshirt from his native Michigan, and on his hat a Purple Heart medal and a pin from service in the 82nd Airborne Division in World War II. He is 84, and scheduled for knee replacement, a problem that began with airborne jumps. Bill and Shirley had come to find an old friend, a friend we'll call Manuel.

"Manuel," Bill called across the river, "Manuel!"

A man stepped from the shadows of a small clearing in the mesquite and waved. He pointed east, toward the thousand-foot limestone cliffs on the Mexican side of Boquillas Canyon. The trail was too steep for Shirley, so she waited at the car while we descended the embankment with Bill, Chuck and Rachael.

On a sandbar at the canyon's mouth, we found painted walking sticks leaned against a driftwood log. Displayed on a blanket were rocks painted by school kids, quartz crystals and beaded scorpions and butterflies fashioned from twisted bits of copper wire. A cardboard scrap said that proceeds would support the Boquillas school. Bill called again for Manuel.

A stocky man of middle age appeared from a hut on the Mexican side and waded into the river. When he recognized Bill, his pace quickened. For 12 years, we learned, Bill and Shirley had made an annual Christmas pilgrimage to Boquillas, bringing bags of oranges, a hundred pounds of pinto beans, toothbrushes, candy and toys for the children, even a pi�ata �� everything necessary to make a fiesta for 50 families. Manuel ferried the supplies across the river on his raft.

Manuel emerged dripping from the river. After hugs and introductions, we asked how things are on his side of the narrow divide. His eyes told all, but he added in words, "mucho dolor" — sadness and pain. There is little work, he explained. The restaurant is closed, and most of the families are gone. There were more than 300 people, and now perhaps 80 remain. "We're trying to forget. It's been four years."

And in San Vicente and Santa Elena? we asked �� the other towns across the river from the sprawling national park.

"Al mismo," Manuel said. The same.

After the 9/11 terror attacks, Texas media ran stories saying the border was wide open on this stretch of the Rio Grande, including at the resort town of Lajitas, just west of the park, from which residents of Pasa Lajitas, Mexico, crossed the river to work. "That sort of media attention was not wanted," chief park ranger Mark Spier later told us. "It exposed vulnerability that could be exploited."

On May 10, 2002, ICE agents descended on Lajitas, arresting 21 people, including the 18-year-old boatman. His rowboat was confiscated and he was taken to jail. Attorney Patricia Kerns, a major in the Air Force Reserve who lives in the famous chili-cook-off ghost town of Terlingua, finally got him released, and organized a human rights workshop to register discontent with the brutal crackdown.

Manuel and Bill reminisced about better times. Manuel told who in the village had died, and who had gone. Three of his five children and their families have moved to the town of M�zquiz, 146 miles south, the first third of the journey by a barely-passable dirt road. A bus comes to Boquillas once a week, an eight-hour ride if the road is good. The six-grade school is down to 33 kids and one teacher, who holds two sessions a day.

Manuel needed batteries for his walkie-talkie, his only means of communication. Bill couldn't make the hike again on his knee, but he promised to send batteries the next day with Chuck and Rachael. "I will pray for your knee," Manuel said. He shivered from wading the river. Bill pulled off his Michigan sweatshirt and Manuel put it on.

A younger man called across the river that he'd trade a walking stick and two hunks of calcite crystal for the binoculars that dangled from Jerry's neck. In the unlikely event that agents of homeland security read the Plain Talk, let's just say that the man from Boquillas and he met exactly in the middle of the river, that they shook hands, and that there, on that imaginary line between insecurity and tradition, they traded. We all exchanged good wishes and goods, exactly as people have done here for hundreds of years, and we parted friends.

The 800,000-acre Big Bend National Park shares 118 miles of the Rio Grande �� or the Rio Bravo — as the border with Mexico; never in park history has the border been closed. A hundred miles downstream, the river is dammed to form an international reservoir named Amistad �� friendship.

We talked with four park rangers during our stay, and all expressed dismay that American citizens can no longer visit neighbors on the other side. They are saddened that their government's inflexibility is killing the Mexican towns, drying up their meager livelihood, forcing desperate families to flee �� perhaps south, perhaps north.

"It's bad for both sides," one ranger said. "This is a historic open crossing," said another. "It is against the Park Service mission to close it. The only threatening crossings in this area are drugs, and that continues. Unfortunately, the Department of Homeland Security rules over the Department of Interior."

Park official David Elkowitz said that what has happened at Big Bend has happened all along the Mexican border. But Big Bend's impact has been unique. For years the park hosted an annual "Good Neighbor Day," inviting residents of Mexican border towns to attend festivities in Rio Grande Village, the park's largest campground. That no longer happens.

"Many park visitors have been disappointed that they can no longer cross to the Mexican villages," Elkowitz said. "And a lot of park personnel are unhappy, sad, disgusted at the current situation, and that we haven't been able to find a solution. We're also concerned about the villages and the villagers."

Park archaeologist Thomas Alex said the area was earlier conceived as a peace park, akin to Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park on the Montana-Canada border. For most of Alex's decades here, the border has been fluid, allowing people on both sides to cross as needed. Twenty years ago Manuel came to park headquarters seeking clearance to take his wife, who had been in labor for 24 hours, to Fort Stockton for emergency care. Manuel credits Alex with the life of his son, who now has a son of his own.

Citizens on both sides of the artificial border refuse to forget friends on the other side. A handful of Mexicans still risk crossing to Big Bend stores to buy groceries. "It's not the job of store owners to check identification," a park official said.

Residents of Terlingua, including 20-year-old Danielle Gallo and former river guide Cynta de Narvaez, responded to the crisis by sending food, medicine, and clothing. With the border closed, Boquillas could no longer buy gasoline at Big Bend to power the pump that brought water from the river, so the group raised money to buy a solar-powered pump.

Several Texans entered Mexico legally at the ancient informal crossing and spent three days in Boquillas, repairing vintage sewing machines, teaching quilting and gathering a load of quilts for sale. To get back home, they traveled a circuitous 40-hours, 600-miles through M�zquiz, back to Ciudad Acu�a, through the port of entry to Del Rio, TX, then back upriver to Big Bend and on to the Presbyterian church in Alpine, where the quilts were displayed for sale. They took the money from the quilts and threw it across the river to the women of Boquillas. Now the Texans have established an Internet site called fronterasunlimited.org to import quilts and other Boquillas crafts for sale in the United States.

Pictographs, petroglyphs and metate stones tell us that for many centuries this majestic mountainous region has been home to indigenous peoples, and that life has flowed freely across the river. But humans are not the only species that have historically thrived by crossing what even the advisory forbidding U.S "an artificial boundary imposed on the natural environment."

Before Big Bend became a park in 1944, black bears had been wiped out on the Texas side, but a huge chunk of Mexico's Sierra del Carmen mountains is also protected as the Rio Bravo International Park, and in recent years bears have swum the Rio Grande �� without passports �� and re-established themselves in Big Bend.

So far, nobody has suggested a fence for this stretch of border. But more than bears defy all borders. In the evening we stood on a ridge at the old mining town of Castolon, gazing across the river at another town we can no longer visit, Santa Elena. The scattering of homes seemed almost a mirage in the gathering twilight. A dusty haze of pollution had drifted hundreds of miles from industrial east Texas and the maquiladora sweatshops of northern Mexico. Pollutants still legally cross.

The impact of federal policy based on homeland insecurity is destructive and disheartening. It makes criminals of good American citizens, including aging veterans who want nothing more than to maintain friendship with good citizens who happen to have been born across the border. It violates our fundamental freedom to travel, and our human responsibility to know and assist neighbors in need. Where the United States builds literal walls, we also molest the natural ecosystems of which we are part.

But neither locals nor visitors have acquiesced. Austin, TX filmmakers Nevie Owens and Buckner Cooke spent time on both sides of the Rio Grande to film a just-released documentary, "Mexiphobia." As the film suggests, less drastic enforcement measures were applied to similar informal crossings along the Canadian border. Many in the Big Bend region believe the actions here were based on irrational fears that have actually degraded border security.

In spite of the barriers, the women in Terlingua will make the arduous journey from Boquillas again next month to bring another load of quilts and crafts to sell.

And on Nov. 20, Mexican Revolution Day, Bill Bonning's family returned to the river with batteries, beans and rice for the handful of families left in Boquillas. Perhaps if such friendships are allowed to continue, the villagers won't need to seek work in the United States.

Norma and Jerry Wilson


Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>