A dusty trail meanders along the Rio Grande into Boquillas Canyon, a cleft carved by the river between land that is now Texas on one side, and Coahuila on the other. On that trail there sits a scratched-up old plastic jar beside a note weighed to the ground by a rock. The note reads, “The Singing Jesus. Donations please.”
In late October I came across this curious note and jar in Big Bend National Park. Intrigued, but having no money in my pockets, I walked on down the trail and set up my camera to capture the light as it stole into the canyon corridor. While I was working, out of the silence came a voice singing from the other side of the river, near the small village of Boquillas in Mexico. My eyes followed the singing voice to the figure of a man, Jesus I immediately assumed, who was crooning a Spanish song I knew well, “Ay, Ay, Ay, Ay. Canta y no llores.” I considered his distant figure briefly and continued working while he sang.
After a moment, I stopped suddenly and listened more intently. Jesus’ voice had begun reverberating off the canyon walls. It traveled to the north side of the canyon in the US and back again to Mexico. Once this symphonic loop was started, it continued as long as Jesus continued singing. And I was riveted, enveloped and arrested, as I so often am in the borderlands, by the music of two worlds coming together and alive within the landscape.
It was this convergence of cultures–both wild and human since this international border also spans a natural north-south transition between the temperate and tropical zones–that had first drawn me to the US-Mexico border. On this most recent trip to the borderlands I encountered some old friends and made some new ones, including Jesus, all of them reminding me why I started this work five years ago, and why I wrote Continental Divide: Wildlife, People, and the Border Wall.
It all began with a couple of bison bulls who serendipitously crossed the international border at the exact moment I was flying a few hundred feet above them in a small twin-engine Cessna research plane. Wildlife scientist Rurik List, who I had been trailing for a story about a long-lost herd of wild bison found in the arid grasslands spanning New Mexico and Chihuahua, had explained to me the dire predicament a border wall would pose for transboundary wildlife species. But seeing these bison cross the international border en route to their main food resources in New Mexico changed my theoretical understanding of migration pathways, and changed my life. Since that day most of my working and waking hours have been devoted to documenting, researching, understanding and communicating the ecological underpinnings of a decades-long failure to craft smart, realistic border and immigration policy. About the waste of taxpayer money on endless enforcement and infrastructure; about the wildlife who will die if they cannot reach food and water resources on both sides of the border; about the jaguar, ocelot and other imperiled wildlife, whose trajectory toward extinction within our borders will be hastened by choked-off migration corridors; about the more than 5,000 human migrants who have died traversing the borderlands since the 1990s.
My work in the borderlands has unearthed countless stories and images of heroics and heartbreak along the border, many of them contained in the pages of Continental Divide, published last month by Texas A&M University Press. Some of those stories I am just now learning or will continue to learn in the future, like that of the Jesus and the people of Boquillas.
This trip to Big Bend was my fourth in 10 years to one of the nation’s most isolated national parks, indeed one of the most isolated regions of any sort, in the United States. The trip was going to be short, just a brief stop to observe and document any changes that had taken place since the last time I visited in 2011. As is always the case when I travel to the US-Mexico borderlands, I found much more than I was looking for.
The note written by Jesus was one of dozens that dotted the trail along the Rio Grande. Most of them were written by Mexican artisans and were accompanied by small craft works, caricatures of local flora and fauna fabricated from wire and beads. Beautiful works of art, these scorpions, roadrunners and flower sculptures were accompanied by notes that asked for donations to be placed in plastic cups and coffee tins. This wasn’t always the entrepreneurial approach of the local artists. Prior to 9-11, the town of Boquillas had a thriving trade with the many tourists that came to Big Bend and across the river to Mexico. I myself had walked across the river in 2001 and eaten dinner, prior to the closing of the border later that year. I have often considered the cultural loss for both sides of this border, when the government shut down access, and I remember that first crossing as one of my favorite moments in life. But it wasn’t until this most recent trip that I came to understand the grave economic consequences of that decision by the US government. Boquillas is a small village, hours from the nearest city or border crossing. The lives of people here, the education of their children, their health and well-being depended on tourists and a passable border. One decision made two-thousand miles away cleaved their connection to the United States and eviscerated their economy.
Today, Mexican people cross the river at night or when the coast seems clear, they place their work, and their donation jars, and hope that visitors will engage in trade that was commonplace and essential to their lives. The US Border Patrol calls the craftwork ‘contraband’ and forbids US visitors to buy it. But the artisans keep coming, keep leaving their work, keep checking their plastic jars.
The Singing Jesus has taken a different approach. It would be a hard case to make for the border patrol to call a song contraband–though not unthinkable in the current reality. Jesus sings and hopes people will hear him and his endless echoes and place some money in the jar.
Having no money in my pockets, I was all set to bypass his jar but he stopped singing and made the ask.
“Will you leave some money for the Singing Jesus?”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t have any money with me.”
He paused for a moment and asked, “Do you have food?”
I looked through all my pockets and my camera bag and all I could find was a piece of candy. I held it up to him, still standing across the river.
“Will you put it in my jar,” he asked.
“Do you have more food in your car?”
I said I did and watched as he jumped with quick desperation into his canoe and paddled across the river. His demeanor changed as he approached the US shore, his eyes darting about looking for border patrol or park police. I followed him quickly toward the parking lot, on the way he told me how the closing of the border had crushed the village economy, and how he had heard and kept hoping that the border would soon reopen. When we reached the parking lot, he hid behind a rock–getting caught would have serious consequences for him. When border patrol catches crossers from Mexico here, they don’t just allow them to cross back, they arrest them and cart them to a city crossing hours away. Most have no money to get back home.
I grabbed a bag of food and a jug of water from my car, and walked back to the trail, handing it to Jesus. I thanked him for his song and watched him disappear quickly into the canyon.
The story of the people of Boquillas is one that our policy makers and many members of the public need to hear. It is one of many thousands of stories about human and wild communities all along the border that are at the mercy of a federal policy that seems to serve no constituency but continues to be fueled by a politics of misinformation and fear. In hopes of getting these stories to those who need to hear them most, I am seeking funding to purchase a book for every member of Congress and key people in the White House. For the bison, the artisans and visitors to Big Bend, and the Singing Jesus of Boquillas Canyon.