Every time she crosses from Texas to Mexico, Jennette Timmer Jurado ’05 is greeted by young children selling handcrafted bracelets. The bracelets read either Boquillas or Big Bend, the names of two bordering communities—one on the U.S. and the other on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. As the bracelets sit side by side in the hands of a brown-eyed girl, the two names make perfect sense together in Jurado’s mind. The only question is which souvenir she wants to buy this time.

Jennette Jurado.
Jennette Jurado  Ben Greenhoe

Deep in the Chihuahuan Desert flows a small river with a big name, carving the border between the United States and Mexico. Yet few who live along the Rio Grande seem to notice the divide. That’s speaking, of course, about those who don’t need a passport.

Along the river, a mountain lion stalks prey between principalities. A beaver swims carefree en el medio. And though rattlesnakes tend to stick to the country of their hatching, they’re equipped to swim across for a day trip. No one stops long enough to ask for identification.

Here under the desert sun is the place Jurado has made home for more than 10 years: Big Bend National Park. As a park ranger, she serves and educates a number of the 300,000 tourists who flock to the park each year from around the world. The Michigan native knows how it feels to make the pilgrimage: Big Bend sits a 26-hour drive, and multiple climate zones, from Jurado’s first home in Grand Rapids.

Home sweet Calvin

Jurado, the daughter of Calvin’s former physical plant director and head of security, was practically raised on campus.

“I grew up running around on catwalks and exploring tunnels between buildings because he had keys to every door,” she says of her father, Jay Timmer. Her memories of the Timmer family home, just across Burton Street from the college, run together with her time on the Knollcrest campus. Today, Jurado still perceives borders as being fluid.

Jennette's story

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The biology and art major’s first job out of college was mapping rare cacti in Big Bend, thanks to a love of plants fostered by biology professor Dave Warners. In short order, Jurado fell for the area and for her husband, Miguel; completed grad school at Texas’ Sul Ross State University; and became one of the youngest full-time rangers in a national park. That’s when the region’s undivided landscape became hers.

“When you draw those arbitrary political lines, it becomes a little bit more apparent how much the landscape is one down here,” she told CBS News in a Sunday Morning interview earlier this year. And, indeed, this corner of creation where Jurado lives and works is seamlessly one ... and then again, it isn’t.

Rain looms over the ridge.
Rain looms over the ridge  Ben Greenhoe

Over the river

Journeying through the park with Jurado, it’s easy to lose track of time and place. You’re enveloped by uninterrupted nature in all directions, from the hazy blue view of the Sierra Del Carmens to miles of desert shrubs and succulents. It takes a long car ride before anything human-made appears. When it does, it’s in the form of a sleek new border structure, formalizing the connection between Big Bend and Boquillas del Carmen, Mexico.

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Inside, the ranger’s bulletproof vest and her sterile, air-conditioned post are startling. But the ranger herself is somewhat maternal, encouraging visitors to wear a hat for the sunny trip ahead. Despite the formality of the checkpoint, the whole process of crossing the border is fairly low key: a quick hike to the river, a rowboat to the other side, and then it’s your choice for a trip into town—by foot, by car or by burro.

Across the Rio you’ll find friendly faces, a serenading greeter, fresh tacos and artisan crafts in a town that was all but abandoned a few years ago. The then-unofficial international crossing was nearly vacated after 9/11 due to security concerns, which meant no more U.S. tourists. Lost revenue forced most Boquillas residents to move to other parts of Mexico in order to make a living.

Dual perspective

One family went a different way when the border closed. As a young girl, Josie Falcon Jimenez moved with her family to Fort Stockton, Texas, to take advantage of dual citizenship and steady employment.

The official port of entry, connecting the national park with Boquillas, has now been open for more than three years, welcoming back U.S. tourists and, with them, Boquillas families like Jimenez’s. Jimenez attends a high school in the States during the year and lives with her parents in Boquillas during the summer. Here she spends the hottest months of the year learning the business of her family’s restaurant, Jose Falcon’s.

Rio Grande.
Josie Falcon Jimenez  Ben Greenhoe

“I really like meeting new people every day,” Jimenez says of the tourists who pass through to learn about her hometown and try Jose Falcon’s famous enchiladas.

But she is also fully aware of another narrative being presented north of Boquillas: “Some people say that we’re the bad people, saying that we carry the drugs, we kill people or we do horrible things.”

Another stereotype Jimenez hears? That there’s an easy way to immigrate, and border crossers simply disregard proper channels. “If immigrants go over there across the border,” Jimenez says, “it’s because the papers are expensive. I know that by experience.”

“The river, in this ecosystem, is a unifier,” Jurado says. “Here the Rio Grande brings people together.”

Jimenez’s father crossed the border illegally a few times and once was deported with seven years’ probation. “It was hard for a while until he got his papers over three years,” she says. “It’s not right for people to say we’re the bad people.”

And when it comes to those who do threaten American justice, Jimenez wants to be part of the solution. “I really want to be an FBI agent,” she says, as a dual citizen wanting to protect one of the places she proudly calls home.

It’s clear in talking to Jurado and Jimenez that it’s not us vs. them along Big Bend’s border. It’s us because of them, and them because of us. That’s partly because the ecosystem along the Rio Grande extends well into both the U.S. and Mexico.

“The river, in this ecosystem, is a unifier,” Jurado says. “Here the Rio Grande brings people together.”

Rio Grande
Rio Grande  Ben Greenhoe

A devil of a job

“If we would’ve gone into Boquillas last week, you wouldn’t have seen many adult males,” Jurado says. That’s because many men in the community fight fires in the U.S., and last week brought another blaze.

The park is naturally dry and fire-prone, not to mention hours away from a fire station. For any flames beyond a containable forest fire, the park calls in a group of men from Boquillas, known as Los Diablos fire crew. Though their name literally translates to “the devils,” their firefighting expertise makes them more like guardian angels, not only for the park but also for neighboring Texas communities.

Josie Falcon Jimenez.
Boquillas restaurant  Ben Greenhoe

The work of Los Diablos is essential for the natural environment, too. When it’s time for controlled fires along the river, rangers like Jurado can’t legally burn brush on the Mexican side … but Los Diablos can. These firefighters are contracted to work in both countries and, on this side of the river, paid American wages for a very American task: preserving a national treasure. These men make appearances in U.S. publications like The New York Times and The Atlantic because editors know readers will be surprised by this unexpected source of help.

For Jimenez, however, it’s not so unexpected. She is related to most of the town’s residents, and when others point to trouble in Mexico, she’s quick to clear her Boquillas family: “It’s not us.” International figures recently saw that truth firsthand.

International relations

Though Big Bend may not hold as much public recognition as parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, the site hosted a monumental meeting in 2015.

Jurado tells us, a bit starstruck, how the U.S. Secretary of the Interior, Sally Jewell, and Mexico’s then-Secretary of Environment and Natural Resources, Juan José Guerra Abud, visited both Big Bend and Boquillas. There these top-ranking officials signed international agreements advancing science, restoration and environmental management partnerships on either side of the border.

Two sides of Big Bend

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“We have this political construct that doesn’t mean anything to the plants, animals and rocks. You have to work, then, with the politics to manage an ecosystem like this,” Jurado says. “This meeting is another great story of success and future partnership that you don’t hear a lot about alongside the U.S.-Mexico border.”

Jurado shares another lesser-known fact, this one from further back in our nation’s history. On June 6, 1944, President Roosevelt accepted the deeds that would make 800,000 acres in the Big Bend area a future national park.

That same date marks D-Day, a decisive World War II victory for the Allied forces against Axis forces like Germany and Japan. Now U.S. allies, Germany and Japan are the top two countries of origin among Big Bend international visitors. Where enmity once prevailed on a global stage, peace now reigns.

As a political and social war of words convenes around U.S.-Mexico border tensions and competing interests, there may be hope yet. Hope for a time when fraternidad with our southern neighbors is as easy as wading across the water.

In hundred-degree heat, Jurado tries to finish her purchase quickly as the young salesperson watches her eyes scan the options. Boquillas, Jurado settles on—for this trip at least—and ties on the pink bracelet for the rowboat ride back to Big Bend. Like a symbol of friendship, the woven band makes it through customs in bold display, bright as a cactus in bloom on either side of the border.