Current steel ferry arriving at Los Ebanos, TX U.S. Photo by Omar A. Casas JR. and Andrew Perez. 

Op-Ed: The Los Ebanos Ferry “El Chalán:” A Marker of Present Community

Words by Fátima Garza

Edited by Abigail Vela

Editor’s Note: Fátima authored this story as a cohort member of the Pluma Libre: 2023 Trucha Writing Fellowship.

El Chalán,” the only international hand-drawn ferry in the U.S., does not only hold a rich history but is a necessity for present-day community members. Many of us consider the ferry a vital part of our community and hold a deep connection with it and appreciation for it. The ferry is a vessel that holds many experiences, has supported people for years, and continues to do so. 

The Los Ebanos Ferry, also commonly known as “El Chalán,” is a hand-pulled ferry from the U.S. to Mexico located in Los Ebanos, TX, and Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, Tamaulipas. The ferry can hold up to three cars and has a sitting area for people to use; it opens for its first ride from the U.S. to Mexico at 8:00 AM and closes at approximately 3:30 PM. Some people prefer taking their vehicle for convenience, while others walk to avoid long lines.

The ferry workers take it across the Rio Grande. They ensure the ferry and the people on it travel safely and provide daily necessary maintenance. Photo by Andrew Perez.
Person working earliest wooden ferry transporting a vehicle. Photo obtained from community and family.

Established in 1950, El Chalán has been functioning for over seven decades. Throughout the years, there have been multiple versions of the ferry. The first was a simple wooden structure with no shade. It was used for transporting goods and horses and for regular travel from community members. The current ferry is made of steel with a blue cloth that arches over the steel structure for shade.

Opening of Los Ebanos Ferry “El Chalán” December 22nd, 1950. Photo obtained from community and family.

Even though the ferry has undergone changes, one thing has remained the same—the Ebony tree that holds the ferry. This resilient tree, in a way, is representative of the strong connection border communities have with Mexico. People have a fondness for the ferry as it is a link between two countries that form one community. My mother describes the ferry as sacred to her because it is representative of her connection between both of her homes. For community member Lidia Arellano, the ferry is something she is proud of and enjoys sharing with visitors from out of town, “It’s a nostalgic place that I frequently visited as a child. It makes me proud to share the historic background and uniqueness [of the ferry].” She still uses the Chalán multiple times a year, expressing how it is a fun way to travel with her family to Diaz Ordaz, one of her favorite towns. 

Lush green Ebony tree with the Los Ebanos Ferry historical marker plaque placed in front of it.
Ferry held by a cable wrapped around Ebony tree where historical marker plaque is located. Photo courtesy of Taylor Snowden.
Ferry held by a cable wrapped around Ebony tree where historical marker plaque is located. Photo courtesy of Taylor Snowden.

The Chalán is a necessary form of transportation for borderland communities that call both Mexico and the U.S. their home. People often travel back and forth between Diaz Ordaz and nearby communities of Los Ebanos, Sullivan City, Cuevitas, La Joya, Peñitas, and La Grulla, TX. People ride the ferry daily for school or work, and others travel weekly to visit their family, health providers, or to enjoy the local food. This port of entry is often the most convenient for people along these border towns. Other options, like the McAllen-Hidalgo-Reynosa International Bridge, would take about a 45-minute commute or a 60-mile round trip for someone traveling from Sullivan City. Traveling to Diaz Ordaz is only a small fraction of the time it takes to travel from Sullivan City to the McAllen-Hidalgo area.

My mother travels at least once a week from the U.S. to visit my elderly grandparents in Mexico. In the past, she would use her lunch breaks to join them at their house in Diaz Ordaz and return before her break was over. She says, “solo nos queda a unos pasos como quien dice,” it is just a few steps from us. She shares that because my grandparents are older, the short distance is not only convenient for travel but necessary in case of an emergency, which our family has experienced in the past. In these situations, my mother would use the ferry almost daily or stay overnight at my grandparent’s home for a few days at a time. 


Migdaliz Flores, a Sullivan City local, says, “
solo nos separa un charco,” it is simply a puddle of water that separates us from Mexico, she expresses. This is in reference to Mexico’s proximity to the U.S. She shares that she uses the ferry at least twice a month to visit her orthodontist located in Diaz Ordaz. She also supports her mother’s small tamal business by purchasing the masa or dough needed for the tamales.

Elisbe Hernandez and Iris Arellano, Sullivan City locals, share a similar sentiment regarding the convenience of the ferry due to its proximity and accessibility. Iris Arellano expresses that the ferry is important to her, as she uses the ferry 2-3 times a week to visit her mother and her doctor, and the proximity makes this possible. Elisbe Hernandez also shares that she uses the ferry weekly because it is very accessible to her, but more than that, the ferry is important to her because she feels the most safe and comfortable using it. 

 

The ferry temporarily closes for regular maintenance or inspection. It may also close some days due to weather conditions and fluctuations in water levels. The most recent closure lasted two months until the inspection was complete and successful. Regular users celebrated because they could resume their recreational and/or necessary travel. Successful inspections and safety measures ensure the functionality of the ferry. Periods like these make us even more appreciative of having access to the last functioning international ferry in the U.S. 

Although there is no indication of permanent closure, rumors frequently concern those who depend on the ferry. The fear that one day the Chalán will shut down grows, especially when it closes for extended periods of time. Temporary closure gives regular users a glimpse of what it could be like to not have the ferry at all.  


Me sentiría como un pájaro con las alas cortadas. Es un medio muy importante para abrazar a mi familia y cultura. Nada más de escuchar comentarios me siento imponente de solo pensar no poder ir a ver a mis padres ya grandes,” my mother responds to the rumors of permanent closure that circulate among ferry users when there is a longer temporary shutdown.

Ferry worker wearing a plaid button up, red handkerchief wrapped around his neck, and a palm leaf hat that protects him from the sun shining above him as he looks into the Rio Grande.
Photo by Andrew Perez

Traveling to Diaz Ordaz on the weekends was a must growing up. I always looked forward to boarding the Chalán so that I could crack the window open in my dad’s old Chevy pickup truck and look out into the Rio Grande. It was always the best when I hopped out of the truck and enjoyed the river up close. Though it was scorching hot, I would never miss the opportunity. The slow five-minute ride across the curvy stretch of the Rio Grande is an experience like no other, one where you can enjoy the serenity of the water, the unique lush green brush, and the birds flying across the river to “el otro lao” with you.
 

The Chalán has been something my grandparents, parents, primos, friends, and vecinos share stories about, and now I continue to write my own and experience its magic. Border communities feel a sense of comfort and connection while using the ferry, and this is what keeps it alive. El Chalán is not only a historical marker of the past, it is a current and significant mode of transportation, it is evidence of a thriving borderland – the marker of a present community.

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To Learn More About Los Ebanos Ferry, check out the Texas-Mexico International Border Crossings Guide 2021 (txdot.gov).

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