An Oct. 26 article incorrectly said that President Dwight D. Eisenhower designated Los Ebanos, Tex., as one of the nation's international border crossings in 1950. The designation was made that year by an act of Congress, and Eisenhower did not become president until 1953. (Published 10/28/04)
On the only government-licensed hand-pulled ferry along the U.S. border, the chatter is all about the upcoming election. Not the Bush-Kerry race, but the choices for mayor of Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, the Mexican town on the other side of the Rio Grande.
The music blaring from the ferry's little boombox is lively, though nothing new or Latin Grammy Award-winning. Just old accordion-laced rancheras, with their tales of love won, love scorned and sorrow soaked in booze.
The ride is short, about five minutes from shore to shore, with six men pulling the rope attached to the ferry so that it is propelled across the brackish river. The three-vehicle barge is known here as el chalan, and these chalaneros have skin toasted brown and palms callused thick and rough. Most of the ferry passengers are visiting relatives on one or the other side of the Mexican border, carrying goods such as freshly made tortillas into the United States or big boxes of baby cereal into Mexico. Soon droves of "Winter Texans," who migrate from up north for a few months a year, will be coming to ride the old-fashioned ferry and take pictures and videos of it.
Here, they all must pass through the Los Ebanos Border Inspection Station, where outdated meets up-to-date.
On the U.S. shore stand four armed Department of Homeland Security officers whose mission is to guard America's borders from terrorists and weapons of mass destruction. Mostly they're inspecting groceries, but they're ready for more. They've got their standard-issue 9mm Glocks or .40-caliber Berettas and their radiation detectors and density meters. They have scopes and mirrors to inspect the gas tanks and undercarriages of vehicles. The station has four mounted surveillance cameras monitored 24 hours a day, even when the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers leave at 4 p.m. and the ferry stops service.
"It's got to be the most secure port we've got," said Joseph A. Mongiello, port director of the nearby international bridge at Rio Grande City. He oversees the inspection station at the Los Ebanos Ferry.
There are a maximum of three vehicles and a few pedestrians per ferry to inspect, Mongiello said, so "we've got all the time to look at them and not worry about causing a traffic backup."
With its muscle-powered ferry, Los Ebanos is surely the most quaint border crossing in the United States. It had 34,196 car and 101,448 pedestrian crossings in fiscal 2003. But compared with San Ysidro, Calif., where 17.4 million passenger vehicles cross yearly from Mexico, or Laredo, Tex., just up the Rio Grande, where 1.4 million trucks pass annually from Mexico, the Los Ebanos crossing is small. Still, Homeland Security stands guard here, thousands of miles and a world away from Ground Zero and the Pentagon.
"Even me, that they know, they still ask me the same questions every day," says Melba Martinez, 28, who lives in Gustavo Diaz Ordaz and rides the ferry daily to her job at the one store in this hot, dusty hamlet of about 200 people. "They see me every day, and still they ask me where I'm from and where I'm going."
This river ford is named for the huge ebanos, or ebony trees, that grow along the bank of the Rio Grande. The first recorded crossing here, according to a Texas Historical Commission marker posted at the foot of the ebony tree to which the ferry is anchored, was in the 1740s, when Spanish explorers and colonists under Jose de Escandon settled communities on both sides of the Rio Grande. They also traveled 40 miles into what is now deep South Texas to claim a salt lake for the king of Spain, creating a trail to haul salt, the area's first export, into Mexico.
A century later, Gen. Zachary Taylor patrolled this frontier during the Mexican War, battling Mexican troops who rode their horses across the river. In the 1870s, Texas Rangers chased cattle rustlers across the river into Mexico, and during Prohibition, the ford was dubbed Smuggler's Crossing. The most popular contraband intercepted by the U.S. Border Patrol then was large cases of Mexican mescal, a throat-scorching, agave-distilled liquor similar to tequila, that were headed for drink-deprived northerners.
In 1950, President Dwight D. Eisenhower designated Los Ebanos as one of the country's official international crossings, and the family that owned the land along the Los Ebanos riverbank obtained the permit to run the ferry -- then a wooden structure that often had to be bailed after each crossing.
Things haven't changed much here since then. From four to six chalaneros -- these men have always been hired hands who live on the Mexican side of the river -- still pull the ferry back and forth, working 40 to 45 round trips a day. The service runs from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily unless the Rio Grande swells too high and the ferry is suspended for safety reasons. That happens at least once a year, sometimes for as long as a month, forcing crossers to drive more than 20 miles to the closest international bridge. The descendants of the family that got the ferry permit still own and operate the barge and collect the fares: $2 per vehicle, 50 cents per adult pedestrian, 25 cents for 6- to 12-year-olds. "I don't charge for the little ones," said Oscar Simo, 50, whose late uncle, Ed Reyna, secured the ferry permit.
The flat-bottomed barge is now made of metal and for the past two decades has been licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard. The number of U.S. border officers has increased from one to four, and the agents' focus has shifted from drug interdiction, immigration violations and criminal migrants, Mongiello said, to homeland security.
When official Washington responds to a Code Orange alert by shutting down federal buildings to tourists and augmenting police sharpshooters at the Capitol, inspections of vehicle hoods and trunks increase here. "There's more questioning," Mongiello said. "We increase our random operations, maybe send a canine team here from Rio Grande City. Here you wouldn't be able to see much difference because there would be no big back-up" of vehicles.
On a recent hot, sunny afternoon, the chalaneros -- big baseball fans -- were more concerned about which teams were headed to the World Series than the possibility of terrorists penetrating the border here.
"It's mainly the same people who cross every day except in the winter when we get the tourists," said Gabriel Soto Becerra, the head of the crew of chalaneros. He's been pulling the ferry for 10 years. "The majority of people [in the towns on the Texas side] immigrate from Diaz Ordaz. We all have more than one family member over there. In effect, it's all one community. For us, crossing the river is like crossing the street."
Ever since the Reynas got the ferry permit, the family has wanted to build a bridge that would bring Los Ebanos into the modern world of international border crossings. That dream has never made it through the bureaucratic maze of either the United States or Mexico, and it's not clear it ever will. But that's just fine with daily ferry users such as Melba Martinez.
"I love the ferry, not just because I cross every day, but my mother used to live in Los Ebanos and my father was from Diaz Ordaz, and my mother met my father crossing on the ferry," she said. "I like to say it's because of el chalan that I was born."