As I write this, an elite crew of local Mexican firefighters is helping stop a big fire burning just down the road from me in Big Bend National Park. Calling themselves Los Diablos, the group of 30+ men come from the tiny Mexican villages across the Rio Grande from the Park. “These guys are legendary around here,” my host Lori told me. “They walk out into the burning desert with freakin’ machetes, but they know the land and they know how to survive out there.” It takes Texas firefighters a whole day to get to this remote area, and larger groups two days. Los Diablos are on-site within four hours.
Twenty years ago, several local Mexican men from the village of Boquillas told park rangers that if U.S. authorities would give them work fighting fires, they promised to work “like the devil”, and the name stuck: diablos. They’ve been true to their word, many times over, and are now sought out to battle other wildfires around the U.S.
Some Diablos actually ride their horses across the Rio Grande to get to local fire(s). There is no bridge crossing in this area, and the new high-tech, unmanned U.S. border station at Boquillas (where you pick up a phone at the gate and show your documents to customs officials in El Paso via video link) makes little sense in an emergency. For the standard pay of $17-19 an hour, the Diablos thrive in the brutal backcountry work. “They’re amazing,” says Park Ranger Matt Graden. “They can get here in four hours. That’s unheard of. When they do show up they know exactly what to do, and they’ve got great leadership. They’re awesome. They might be humble but they are highly professional, highly trained, really skilled and incredibly hardworking.”
This is all a little surreal for me, as I was just at the Park headquarters on Monday getting my backcountry permit, and planned to be solo camping the next day in the exact area of this wildfire, which has now burned 2000 acres of the Park. A big windstorm came through that afternoon turning the whole landscape into a hazy dustbowl, so I decided to wait until the next day. Good thing. The wind knocked over a Texas power line, which started the fire. Officially, the fire was human-caused: Made in America.
The quiet courage of Los Diablos in our National Parks is just one more positive experience I’ve had of Mexican/Latino culture and professionalism on this trip. When I had a “check engine” car light come on while passing through Santa Fe, I spent the whole afternoon and $150. at a big American dealership, only to be told to return another day for a $2000. exhaust system. I kept driving. In El Paso, a small garage of Yelp-recommended Latino guys offered to do the same job for $529. while I waited. I stop at roadside historical markers and sites on long trips, and so I learned that the Mexican territory of Alta California once extended up to the Oregon border, and the Mexican territory of Nuevo Mexico extended up into Colorado and Kansas. The Santa Fe Trail was not about cowboys, cattle, and “settlers”; it was all about American business with Mexico, a gold-paved market for East coast manufacturers because of the trade route it linked to Mexico City. (The Trail was later used as the 1846 U.S. invasion route of New Mexico, during the Mexican-American War.)
I notice the roads down here are spotless of trash and dumping, unlike the roads of my more affluent gringo north. And at nighttime, when it does get a little lonesome out here in the desert, I turn the AM radio dial and my trailer is filled with dozens of Mexican radio stations playing an incredible range of music from traditional ballads, to festive mariachi, to Latino pop, rock and alternative. The few American programs I can get seem to be hate-filled talk shows, or religious salvation stations. (There’s a good NPR station out of Marfa, KRTS 93.5, but the FM signal doesn’t reach here.)
All said, its pretty obvious to me who the “immigrants” are around here, and they aren’t my darker-haired, Spanish-speaking neighbors in Brewster County, or across the Rio Grande to the South.
I salute the Los Diablos men, who had to get U.S. permission to leave their villages and fight deadly wildfires in a country that doesn’t even want them, yet used to be their own homeland. These men are out there right now, walking their old Madre Tierra, a beautiful and rugged land which cares nothing of political borders, U.S. elections, or racial ignorance.
Te saludo, mis amigos. Estoy agradecido.