Driving 25 miles an hour down the main paved road of Candelaria, you can enter and exit the town in 67 seconds, chased most of the way by two barking dogs. There is no square in this border village, no mayor, no park, no grocery or tavern. A single seventeen-pew church (Catholic, of course) stands next to an abandoned two-room schoolhouse, just a short walk from a former store dating to 1912. About 70 people live in the isolated town, and only 7,700 inhabit the surrounding county of Presidio, just west of Big Bend. Most villagers get by on a few hundred dollars a month, so it’s hardly a surprise that only 2 people in town have long- distance telephone service. One of them allows her neighbors to make calls, a courtesy that has made her incredibly popular, since no one can afford a cell phone and, anyway, reception is pretty much a joke.
Survival on this ruthless stretch of the Chihuahuan Desert has always required interdependence, and for Candelaria that has meant reliance on San Antonio del Bravo (population of about 170), on the other side of the river. San Antonio del Bravo has a free health clinic that prescribes medicine for walk-in patients from Mexico and the U.S. (Its residents keep the operation running with donations and volunteers.) Candelaria, meanwhile, has better roads—meaning they are not absolutely hellish—which residents from San Antonio del Bravo use to access U.S. grocery stores and public schools for their American-born children. For as long as anyone can remember, these two villages have operated as one. To ease the journey from one side to the other, locals simply walked across a metal-framed bridge, about four feet wide and forty feet long, which they built and paid for themselves years ago.
Despite complaints from far away about a porous border, this close relationship was never frowned upon in the area. Quite the opposite: For many years the crossing was an unmanned, authorized Class B port of entry. Even after 1996, when a renewed Code of Federal Regulations document no longer included the footbridge as a legal entry point, the new status was more evident on paper than on the ground. (Michael Cronin, who was the assistant commissioner for inspections at the Immigration and Naturalization Service at the time and made decisions on Class B ports, recalls, “We had no staff assigned to those locations, and technically they could only be used if they were staffed.”) But this has changed in recent years. As border security becomes a more prominent issue, footbridges—six in the Big Bend region—have come to be seen as an affront to policy.
Watching the chest-thumping over homeland security on many TV news programs, a person living hundreds of miles from the border might get the impression that destroying these bridges (and, in other areas, building fences) will secure the nation’s perimeter and ensure our safety. When such measures are taken in West Texas, however, the local reaction is hardly relief. After the Border Patrol closed the unofficial crossings at Boquillas and Lajitas in 2002, the lively tourist destinations across the river from the two Texas outposts became ghost towns. Little wonder, then, that this summer, when the villagers in Candelaria heard that their footbridge was going to be destroyed, there was no eruption of cheers. In the early morning of June 23, several members of a Border Patrol maintenance crew put on their hard hats and gloves and sawed the bridge’s metal frame from the concrete block securing it to the ground. Then they chopped the bridge into several pieces and hauled it off to Marfa, 57 miles northeast.
Many West Texans who knew of the symbiotic nature of the twin villages had anticipated a tragic fallout after the bridge was gone: a massive, if gradual, exodus. Yet, curiously, when I visited Candelaria ten days after the bridge was removed, its residents were already showing signs of resignation to their new circumstances. “I saw them haul the bridge down the road,” said Saul Peña, an eighteen-year-old who wore a UT Longhorns cap and sported the beginnings of a mustache. Peña lives with his parents in a trailer and helps them care for a ranch. “But I couldn’t go down to the water to watch. I was feeding the horses.”
A ten-minute walk from the town’s main street to the Rio Grande and I could see why someone young and agile could afford a degree of ambivalence. At the riverbank, about five feet upstream from where the bridge had stood, footprints in a deep trench led down to the river and up the other side. Looking around at the thick, twelve-foot-tall salt cedar that provided cover for almost 150 miles upstream and 90 miles downstream, it was clear to me that a conga line could cross through the water anywhere and avoid unwanted attention.
As I spoke with Peña, who sat on horseback on the path to the river, we could hear two Border Patrol agents on four-wheelers so loud that anyone crossing could easily have detected their whereabouts. “My horse must have tripped a sensor on the path back there,” Peña said as they zoomed past. Since 9/11, the Marfa sector of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, which is responsible for this area, has been able to recruit about two hundred agents. They come from all over the U.S., lured by $35,000 starting salaries that increase to $75,000 after three years. With the improved manpower, the sector has been able to beef up its work-detail assignments. One of these is a week-long tour of duty in Candelaria.
We listened to the four-wheelers buzz as they reached the river’s edge and turned back our way. When they crossed our path the second time, the agents stopped and pulled off their helmets, nodding politely. Both men appeared to be in their early twenties, and the younger-looking one, in braces, nervously admitted that this was his first time in Candelaria. It was a big change from his native El Paso, he