Podcast Episodes

Ballads of Big Bend

The shape of the southwestern edge of Texas is carved by The Rio Grande river, as it tranquilly flows bringing life to some of the most remote regions of the country. Here, the Rio takes a giant turn north, a Big Bend creating the heel in Texas’s shape.

The Rio Grande represents something else, though, it’s the border between the United States and Mexico, and at a border crossing, one man welcomed Americans to our southern neighbor through songs that floated among the canyon.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, Victor Valdez, the singing man of Boquillas, and Big Bend National Park.


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Learn More

Links to some of the resources we used and the website links we mentioned in this episode. 

Big Bend National Park — National Park Service Website

Crossing the Border to Boquillas — National Park Service Website

Interview with Victor Valdez on NPR:

“Big Bend crossing brings new life to border town” — Houston Chronicle

Victor singing on the Rio Grande:


Transcript

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The United States can roughly be divided into 7 different geographic regions, four of which — the coastal plains of the southeast, the interior lowlands of the Midwest, the great plains down the center, and the Basin and Ridge region of the west — all converge in one state: Texas.

The shape of the southwestern edge of the state is carved by The Rio Grande river, as it tranquilly flows bringing life to some of the most remote regions of the country. It’s along the Basin and Ridge region where the Rio take a giant turn north, a Big Bend creating the heel in Texas’s shape.

The Rio Grande represents something else, though, it’s the border between the United States and Mexico, and at a border crossing, one man welcomed Americans to our southern neighbor through songs that floated among the canyon.

On this episode of America’s National Parks, the singing man of Boquillas, and Big Bend National Park.

Here’s Abigail Trabue.

—-

In 1994, After visiting the Mexican border village of Boquillas, on the Rio Grande just across the Mexican border at Big Bend National Park, Texas singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen wrote the song “Gringo Honeymoon.”

We took a rowboat ‘cross the Rio Grande
Captain Pablo was our guide
For two dollars in a weathered hand
He rowed us to the other side

It’s very possible that Victor Valdez could have been the man Keen was referring to as Captain Pablo. For 24 years, Valdez rowed a boat across an informal border crossing, leading American citizens to visit our southern neighbors.

The seven-minute boat ride was the easiest of U.S. Mexico border crossings, with no agents, no traffic, no lines, no documentation … just a tip for the boat captain.

The village is several hours’ drive from the nearest Mexican city, having grown from a mining operation that sent silver, lead and other mineral ores from the Sierra del Carmen mountains across the Rio Grande for distribution by train. It boasted a population of more than 2000 in the early 1900s but quickly diminished when the mining stopped. Now, just 2-300 citizens call Boquillas home, and Big Bend National Park is all that keeps it alive.

At the time that Big Bend was established in the 1930s, President Roosevelt was interested in creating an International Peace Park, joining the regions, but the plan never came to fruition. Nature finds its way, though, and the informal border crossing to Boquillas linked Big Bend with natural protected areas on the Mexican side of the border.

The crossing, of course, was illegal without an official port of entry. But Americans visiting the remote wonders of big bend came and crossed, to reach the beauty of Mexico’s nature sanctuaries or to enjoy cheap tequila shots and tacos. The people of Boquillas would cross to buy fresh groceries from Big Bend’s Rio Grande Village convenience store and to visit friends in nearby towns.

Officials had no interest in enforcing the crossing though, and Rangers encouraged visits to Boquillas, treating it almost as an annex of the park. The park even employed citizens from the town as firefighters. They were called Los Diablos and were so effective that they were sent to fight the California wildfires in 1999.

Park visitors would walk to the riverbank, where Mexican boatmen like Victor Valdez waited to take them across for a small fee. Trucks, horses and burros would then take them on the one-mile journey into town.

Valdez served as a boatman for 24 years. There were many boatmen, but Victor was well known for his enthusiasm, and for his serenades. He would sing his charming rendition of the “Cielito Lindo” for his passengers as they slowly rowed across the river. During the busy times of year — Christmas, Thanksgiving and spring break — he could make as much as $300 a day. But everything changed on September 11th, 2001.

The year after the 9/11 attacks, the federal government began enforcing the crossing. Boquillas was effectively closed off from civilization, and the tourism economy that kept it alive. Food, gasoline, mail, and friends all had previously come from the US and were now entirely cut off.

At first, Victor and other villagers squeaked out a meager living selling walking sticks, painted rocks, and other crafts to American’s still walking the Boquillas Canyon trail, but law enforcement quickly began to crack down on any sort of commercial activity.

So Victor, cunning enough, and even encouraged by Big Bend rangers, turned to his other talent. His singing voice. Every day, he and a couple of friends from town would make a mile-long walk through the desert brush and reeds to the river. They built a small shack, and they sat and waited with binoculars on the lookout for hikers making their way over the mountaintop in America. When one appeared, he would begin to stretch his vibrant tenor, permeating the canyon as if invisible borders could not contain him.

Victor was working for tips, but no longer were thousands of people visiting the canyon. Jars were set along the water’s edge, and sometimes he would make as little as $5 a day. Some hikers would wade half-way in the water to meet him and shake hands over the invisible line.

Victor used the money to care for a 94-year-old man, his disabled niece, and his wife, who lived in another town searching for work. Many residents left town, but Victor had lived in Boquillas all his 56 years, and didn’t want to leave.

People loved his singing, and Victor’s presence was more important than he would know. He was more than just a peaceful compliment to hikers’ journeys, he kept the link between Boquillas and Big Bend alive. Word spread of the Singing Man of Boquillas or the Singing Mexican, and Victor became popular. People traveled to the canyon just to hear his voice. All the while, unbeknownst to him, the US and Mexican governments were working on formalizing and re-opening the border crossing.

But the remote location was hardly anything that either government wanted to spend much money on. After nearly a decade of behind-the-scenes reviews and negotiations, the National Park Service along with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol opened a digital port of entry in 2013. It’s a kiosk, essentially, where visitors scan their passports and converse remotely with a Customs and Border Protection agent more than 300 miles away in El Paso. It’s still a bit of an honor system, but people can now cross the border quickly, and for the first time, legally.

The boats were launched once more, along with the trucks and the horses and the donkeys. The bar and restaurant re-opened. “We now hope for better days,” said Valdez. One year later, Boquillas’ population rebounded by 30 percent as tourism began to recover. Victor Valdez was no longer singing to a few hikers, he was again singing to boatloads of visitors, though now he left the rowing to his son.
Boquillas opened a new kindergarten, a clinic, and a second restaurant, and for the first time, electricity flowed through the city with a World-bank financed solar grid. Streetlights, refrigeration, TV, and kitchen appliances became a part of life for residents,130 years after the lightbulb was invented.

The relationship between Big Bend National Park and Boquillas is now viewed as a model for other border towns.

Victor Valdez died on August 10th, 2016 at the age of 65. Word of his passing from a heart attack spread far and wide through the West Texas border communities and nationwide ensuring that the legacy of the singing man of Boquillas would live on.

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Big Bend National Park is comprised of 1,252 square miles of land, making it larger than the state of Rhode Island. The night skies are dark as coal, lit up by millions of diamond stars, in the temple-like canyons carved by rivers into the ancient limestone.

There’s plenty to do for visitors of all ages. You can take scenic drives, biking tours, and river floats, or hike along the150 miles of trails skirting rivers and snaking through the mountainous desert terrain. 1,200 species of plants and 450 species of birds call Big Bend home, and the geology dates back millions of years.

And of course, you can cross the border, and visit the fine people of Boquillas.

This episode of America’s National Parks was written by me, Jason Epperson, and narrated by Abigail Trabue. If you enjoyed the show, we’d love a 5-star review wherever you listen to podcasts. Don’t forget to subscribe, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Just search “National Park Podcast.” You can also join our new America’s National Parks Facebook group. We’ll link to all of our social media, as well as National Park Service resources, music credits, and more in the show notes at National Park Podcast dot com.

If you are interested in RV travel, give us a listen over at the RV Miles Podcast. You can also follow Abigail and I as we travel the country in our converted school bus with our three boys at Our Wandering Family dot com.

Today’s show was sponsored by L.L.Bean, follow the hashtag #beanoutsider, and visit LLBean.com to find great gear for exploring the National Parks.


Music

Provided through the generosity of the artists under a creative commons license.

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