I know the Rio Grande Valley intimately; it’s where I’m from and who I am. I’ve been thinking about the complexities of the borderland my entire life, trying to make sense of it — to make sense of myself. The Valley, as everyone who is from there calls it, is made up of four counties in South Texas, a place of mostly Mexican-Americans and Latinx immigrants. It’s unlike the rest of Texas. The people are different, the language and culture are different. I joke to outsiders that it feels like another country, all its own. The Valley is also a space of tension, carrying with it a history of violence over land and division that carries on to this day. Queer Chicana writer Gloria Anzaldúa appropriately calls the U.S.-Mexican border una herida abierta, or an open wound, in her seminal book Borderlands/La Frontera. Anzaldúa succinctly captures the border’s essence:
“Borders are set up to define the places that are safe and unsafe, to distinguish us from them. A border is a dividing line, a narrow strip along a steep edge. A borderland is a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary. It is in a constant state of transition.”
Since Trump was elected and plans for his “big, beautiful” border wall materialized, my hometown of Mission, Texas has come into the national spotlight because it’s where construction for Trump’s border wall was first proposed and began. Earlier construction plans for the border wall included cutting access to historic landmarks, like the 120-year-old chapel La Lomita, and bisecting wildlife habitats along the Rio Grande like Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, the National Butterfly Center and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park. Because the Rio Grande’s floodplain isn’t adequate to build a concrete or steel structure, the wall is being built as far as a mile north of the river which serves as the international boundary between the U.S. and Mexico. Executive Director of the National Butterfly Center Marianna Trevino-Wright explained to me that she was told by a border patrol official in August 2017 that construction was set for this area first because it was the federal government’s “path of least resistance.”
Over the last couple of years, plans for the border wall have been constantly shifting. Trump sparred with Congress over funding for the border wall, which led to the longest government shutdown in history earlier this year. The White House demanded $5.7 billion for a concrete wall along 215 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border. With a second government shutdown looming ahead, congressional negotiators reached a new deal on border security and instead gave Trump nearly $1.4 billion for 55 miles of new border wall, all to be built in the Rio Grande Valley. That’s on top of the 33 miles of wall Congress had already authorized in March 2018. With this new wall, along with the 54 miles of existing border wall built a decade ago, nearly the entire region’s riverfront will become totally inaccessible.
The area may have been targeted, but the people of the Valley were not going down without a fight. Valley residents, the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe, immigration activists, environmentalists, land and homeowners have come together to form a No Border Wall Coalition that’s organized protests and community events around the Valley to speak out about the devastating environmental and psychological consequences of the border wall in predominantly poor, Latinx communities living along the border. Because of their fierce resistance and pressure on Congressman Henry Cuellar, the federal government spared La Lomita, the National Butterfly Center, and Bentsen state park in February.
With so much national attention on my hometown, I wanted to see for myself what was at stake if new border wall is built along the Rio Grande. I had never been to any of the nature preserves in the path of Trump’s wall except for Bentsen state park, which I had been to once with my family in high school. I knew the Valley was famous for its birds and wildlife but I was never really taught the value of these local treasures in school or by anyone else. I only knew about our rich wildlife and environment in relation to how it attracts white tourists who frequently visit the area to catch a glimpse of a rare bird or butterfly. With increased militarization on the border, who has access to the land? Who is allowed to enjoy the land?
I had known that butterflies were somewhat special to my hometown since I was a kid. As I later found out, Mission and the Lower Rio Grande Valley has an incredibly ideal subtropical climate for butterflies, and hosts more than 300 species — that’s about 40 percent of the 700-plus butterfly species that are found in the United States. In fact, it’s so special that 150 of those species can only be found in the Valley or in Mexico.
There’s no question why the New Jersey-based North American Butterfly Association chose Mission to be the home of the National Butterfly Center in 2002. The center has recorded more than 200 butterfly species, including rare ones that draw butterfly enthusiasts from around the world to the 100-acre preserve near the Rio Grande.
There was a heat wave when I visited a few weeks ago, an unusual 100-degree day in May and I wasn’t wearing the proper clothes or shoes for exploring the grounds. Despite the heat, I wandered around their butterfly gardens and native plant nurseries and saw so many butterflies fluttering around. I can only imagine how magical it is during peak migration season in November. Before I retreated inside to the air conditioning, I was lucky enough to admire a monarch butterfly and a zebra heliconian, a black-and-yellow striped butterfly with a two-inch wingspan for longer than a second.
In July 2017, Marianna Trevino-Wright, executive director of the center, discovered contractors working for U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) using chainsaws and heavy machinery to prepare construction for the border wall. They were clearing trees and brush along the center’s private one-mile long road, from the levee to the Rio Grande. They had no authority, permission or legal right to be on the property, according to Trevino-Wright. In December 2017, the North American Butterfly Association filed a lawsuit against the federal government for unlawful incursion, deprivation of due process and violating the Endangered Species Act and the National Environmental Policy Act and other federal protections.
But under the REAL ID Act, the Department of Homeland Security Secretary is able to waive any U.S. law in order to construct barriers along the border. It gives unprecedented power to the DHS Secretary to basically undo decades of protective laws — including the Endangered Species Act, the Clean Air Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act — in the name of border security. And that’s exactly what was used against the butterfly center when former DHS Secretary Kirstjen Nielson waived 28 federal laws in October 2018 to continue construction on the property. “They only waive the laws they know they are going to violate,” Trevino-Wright said.
In February, a federal judge dismissed their lawsuit and now their case is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals. “We have no expectation of justice,” Trevino-Wright said. When I asked her why the center is still pursuing an appeal if that’s the case, she retorted, “If for no other reason than to demonstrate to the American public the bastardization of the three branches of government.” Although they have some respite with the latest Homeland Security Appropriations Bill prohibiting funds from the 2018 and 2019 fiscal years for construction, it doesn’t mean the butterfly center isn’t entirely exempt in the future.
If a wall is built, about 70 percent of the center would be behind the barrier, with access to the center through gates with security codes for employees, emergency responders, and law enforcement. In order to create the 150-feet enforcement zone for access roads, cameras and lighting, native habitat — including host plants for butterflies and breeding and feeding areas for wildlife — would be destroyed. When the Rio Grande overflows its banks, terrestrial animals, like the Texas Indigo, the Texas Tortoise and the Texas Horned Lizard, living between the river and the wall are at risk of drowning in the floodwaters since they have nowhere to escape to. In addition, bright lights used around the wall at night could disorient and disrupt natural rhythms of wildlife and even plants.
According to CBP, the Rio Grande Valley is its busiest sector in the country, with the most apprehensions and drug seizures in the southwest. The wall is intended to keep drug smugglers and undocumented migrants from entering, even though experts have pointed out that most drugs are transported through ports of entry. Trump’s need for a wall has intensified by the waves of migrant families from Central America who have been crossing the border recently to seek asylum. Most are fleeing their country due to poverty and violence and risk their lives in order to seek a better one in the U.S. The land between the river and the wall might be known as “no man’s land” but it’s still a part of the U.S. so migrants have a legal right to claim asylum once they cross the river and step foot on U.S. soil. A wall built a mile away will not stop them.
Trevino-Wright isn’t just concerned about the wildlife impacted by the border wall but asylum seekers who cross the river. “All the border wall is going to do is create a hurdle for the truly vulnerable,” Trevino-Wright said. “They will sit at the border wall and wait to be picked up by Border Patrol, where they will be immediately carted off to a for-profit prison.”
I had always thought the only beautiful place in the Rio Grande Valley was South Padre Island — until I was looking up at a circle of magnificent trees draped in Spanish moss, the sound of a million different birds chattering, and the sun’s warmth engulfing me at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge a few weeks ago. I stood still, listening to this unfamiliar chorus and took it all in. I was astounded by the lush greenery and the life blaring at me — the singing birds, the insects and butterflies zooming by, the lizards darting into the brush near the path. It was a sight to behold, calling back to when dinosaurs roamed the land.
More than 450 plant species grow in Santa Ana’s 2,088 acres, providing an oasis for native birds such as chachalacas, Green Kingfishers, and Great Kiskadees. During the fall and spring, they share their home with more than 400 bird species migrating along the Central and Mississippi flyways, making Santa Ana, like many nature preserves located along the Rio Grande, one of the world’s top birding destinations. It’s also home to endangered species like the ocelot, a small wildcat.
Up until last spring, the federal nature preserve was going to be bisected by Trump’s border wall. After a large public outcry, Santa Ana was spared when a congressional spending bill authorized 33 miles of border wall to be built in March 2018. Like the butterfly center, a border wall would’ve negatively impacted habitat and wildlife at the refuge.
According to a sign in Santa Ana’s visitor center, “…Santa Ana NWR provides a glimpse into a world that has vanished from 95% of the Lower Rio Grande Valley” — a world that has been lost to agricultural, industrial, and urban development. It dawned on me that I only knew the colonized landscape of the Valley — miles and miles of fields for produce. For the first time, I saw my home’s untouched land as it was before my family ever settled in the area. If Santa Ana didn’t exist, I wouldn’t know the land’s history.
As the borderlands continue to be militarized and fortified with every administration, I fear that sooner rather than later the remaining five percent of pristine land will vanish forever.
My dad, who has lived in the Valley his entire life, accompanied me on a hike through Santa Ana. He had never been before. We made our way through Pintail Lakes trail and wound our way to see the river. I’ve seen the Rio Grande several times before while crossing the pedestrian walkway at the Progreso International Bridge for day trips into the neighboring Mexican town of Nuevo Progreso but I’d never seen the Rio Grande up close and in the wild like this. What struck me the most was how relatively calm everything is — nature carries on unfazed by the frenzy around the imaginary line in the middle of the river.
More than 165,000 nature tourists visit the Valley each year, contributing $463 million to the local economy according to a 2011 Texas A&M University study. In addition, Winter Texans — mostly white retirees — frequently visit wildlife and nature refuges while in the area, contributing $528 million a year to the economy. While many white visitors flock to the Valley’s nature refuges, predominantly Latinx locals tend not to, and maybe for good reason.
I’ve only been to Bentsen State Park once before as a freshman in high school with my family; we saw baby javelinas along the trail. My dad was trailing behind my sister, brother and I and had just emerged from behind some trees, when an older white lady passing by jokingly asked him, “Did you just swim across?” My dad laughed it off and went on his way, but I remember being so taken aback by her remark.
If you’re brown, the reality is that being outside in the Valley is policed — mostly by Border Patrol. In addition to having devastating environmental impacts, the border wall will hurt immigrant communities living in the region. With increased border reinforcement for the wall and stricter immigration policies like SB4, it creates a hostile environment for all people of color residents who may be racially profiled and questioned about their immigration status, even by local law enforcement. For undocumented people and mixed-status households, they live with fear of deportation and seperation from their family every day, putting them in vulnerable situations from a routine traffic stop or wage theft at a job.
“[The wall] is the biggest symbol of the administration’s racial animosity toward our community, to our people,” John-Michael Torres, Communications Coordinator for La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE), told me. Torres supports the work of colonia residents who organize to address local issues including injustices facing working families, farmworkers and immigrant communities. LUPE has participated in No Border Wall coalition events around the Valley.
Torres explained that members of the organization, undocumented or not, don’t go near the river because that’s where border patrol agents are concentrated. Their constant surveillance creates fear and emotional stress for residents who might be profiled or who are undocumented and risk detainment and deportation, he says.
26-year-old queer DACA recipient Allyson Duarte has lived in McAllen, Texas since she immigrated to the U.S. from Veracruz, Mexico when she was 13. “If you’re an immigrant, that structure is specifically in response to your existence,” Duarte explains. “You’re not wanted. You’re the undesirable. It puts the label of criminal on us.”
She’s currently pursuing a masters degree in public policy at American University in Washington, D.C. and notices the stark difference between the cities. She tells me that the other night she was riding her bicycle in her McAllen neighborhood and saw three police cars patrolling the area. “It’s just that you have to live under those conditions, always. And I don’t think that’s normal.”
Torres points out the border wall is considered a piece of infrastructure, equipped with detection and surveillance technology like sensors, cameras, and LED lighting and along with it comes “boots on the ground” to enforce the law, increasing militarization in the region. He explains the increased patrol will push migrants to cross areas with the most dangerous terrains.
“The more militarized the border is, the more likely people will die in the river trying to cross,” he continues. It’s not hypothetical — Torres gives an example from a LUPE member whose mother drowned in the river in what would’ve been a regular visit to see her children and grandchildren.
Before the Rio Grande Valley was part of the United States, it was a part of Mexico. For some landowners along the river, their land has been in their family for generations before the border crossed them. Now the government is planning to seize their land through eminent domain, perpetuating a long history of land grabs in the region.
Trevino-Wright says people of the Valley don’t know the history of the land because it’s been “excoriated.” They don’t know about the “extirpation of native people” or about the Mexicans that were lynched or otherwise murdered along the Southern border by mobs, law enforcement, and Texas Rangers over land ownership between 1910 and 1920. This history has been erased from Texas history books and has long gone unacknowledged by the state. “But [these stories] are true and they are our history,” she adds.
“And that is what we are living today — a continued de-Mexicanization and dehumanization of our people while they endure another land seizure by virtue of Trump’s denaturalization task force and border wall construction.”
Before two settler nations occupied the land, the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe of Texas called their homeland on both sides of the Rio Grande Somi S’ek. The 2,100-member tribe known as Esto’k Gna in the native Carrizo/Comecrudo language, isn’t state or federally recognized, but don’t need colonial recognition to claim their existence and continue to preserve their history and teachings passed down for generations.
Since late January, members of the tribe have set up a camp known as Yalui village at the 154-year-old Eli Jackson Cemetery in San Juan, a couple of miles west of Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. About 150 South Texans are laid to rest in the quarter-acre cemetery — including Nathanial Jackson, the son of a plantation owner from Alabama and his wife, Matilda Hicks, an emancipated slave. The couple purchased 5,500 acres of land, including the area where the gravesite sits, and settled along the Rio Grande with their children in 1857.
Trump’s border wall was proposed to go through the historic site, and with it came the possibility of exhuming graves and razing the cemetery. Tribal chairman Juan Mancias says he is distantly related to some buried in the cemetery and believes it contains unmarked graves of Indigenous people. Without any government-recognized tribal land, Manicas got permission from the Ramirez family who owns the cemetery property and who are descendants of the Jacksons to establish Yalui village. Yalui means butterfly in the native Carrizo/Comecrudo language.
Mancias, along with Carrizo/Comecrudo members and allies, cleared the weeds from headstones, pitched about a dozen tents at the campsite and are vowing to protect the sacred site. “We didn’t want them to be forgotten,” he says of the veterans of Native American and African descent buried at the cemetery. “We don’t want them to be disturbed from their final resting place. When you dig us out again and replace us, then you’re actually killing the Native person again.”
When I visited Yalui village a few weeks ago, there were two out-of-state allies — 24-year-old Lilith Sinclair, a social justice advocate from Seattle; and Mac McLaughlin, a union electrician from New Jersey — who were manning the camp. Tribal members from the Valley and across the state stay when possible. What brought Sinclair, who identifies as Afro-Indigenous, to Yalui village is a “really strong belief and dedication to fighting for marginalized communities, specifically Indigenous communities.” Sinclair says the camp is there to change the narrative, educate people, and protect all that is sacred including the animals, land and water.
“There’s so many things at risk here,” Sinclair said. “It’s more than just the continued genocide of traditional tribal practices. It’s genocide of the earth, and pillaging of the earth as well.”
On a day-to-day basis, the crew maintains the property, observes the wildlife in the area and most importantly, monitors border patrol — who frequently patrol the area on vehicles, ATVs, and even helicopters.
On June 3rd, CBP issued a statement saying they would “avoid” the cemetery while “still meeting Border Patrol’s operational requirements for border wall.” With the support from crowd-funding, the tribe continues to protect the site.
“Destruction of the environment started when they started killing the native people to get what they wanted,” Mancias says. “They started cutting trees down and making roads, started farming and killing all that is native. And we have to go back to understand the teachings that have been left to us to be able to save this earth.”
The border wall is just one example of environmental racism affecting the area, Mancias says. He points out that there are plans for an oil terminal and three different liquefied natural gas (LNG) export terminals in the Port of Brownsville, where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico. The proposed sites for these projects would damage a wildlife corridor and create pollution for the communities living near it. Mancias says the border wall, the Trans-Pecos and Comanche Trail pipelines in West Texas, and the LNG terminals are all connected by the fact they destroy the environment along the Rio Grande. “It’s not just affecting one certain community, it’s affecting all communities along the river,” he says.
Rebekah Hinojosa has been organizing against the LNG terminals in Brownsville since 2015 with environmental group Sierra Club. Her mother’s ancestors are buried in a cemetery behind an already-built border wall in Cameron County. Hinojosa says people in the Valley are connecting the fights between the border wall, pipeline and LNG terminals and are concerned that the “no man’s land” between the river and wall will be up for grab to oil and gas companies. “We don’t want the wall and we especially don’t want the wall to pave the way for more oil and gas infrastructure,” she says.
There’s a park in my hometown right along the bank of the Rio Grande. My dad says that when he was a teenager during the Easter holiday it was crowded with families barbecuing, fishing, and enjoying the view. I had never been to the park, so my dad took me to see it after our hike at Santa Ana. The first thing I noticed was the heavy Border Patrol presence and how relatively empty and quiet it was for a Saturday. Across the river, it was the complete opposite. Boisterous Mexican families were enjoying the hot day, swimming near the bank, barbecuing and blasting norteño music. It sounded and smelled familiar — that’s what family gatherings look like on this side of the river, too.
There must have been a time when the river easily connected people, when people on both sides of the river coexisted without the threat of borders and the violence that comes with it.
But these few lines in Wendy Trevino’s Brazilian Is Not A Race holds the weight of the truth.
A border, like race, is a cruel fiction
Maintained by constant policing, violence
Always threatening a new map.
A border wall further fragments and disrupts nature, the land, and the people who are intricately woven into the Valley’s natural ecosystem. It builds upon a legacy of colonialism and racism in the Valley, slicing an already open wound.🌲
edited by rachel.
This is absolutely stunning, Yvonne. The mix of history and research with on-the-ground reporting and your own personal connection brings out all the nuances of this situation. Definitely a standout piece of the Outsiders issue (and all the issues) for me!
Thank you, Sally!!
Already read half of this and it is making my heart ache so. Will finish later. Thank you for the writing
This is an absolutely fantastic piece. My heart hurts for the land and the people. Thank you for writing this.
this is one of the best pieces of journalism I’ve read, I feel unbelievably blessed that it’s on our website and I got to edit it. Thank you for bringing the Valley to us like this, Yvonne
I have kept coming back to the piece since it was published. I am just breathless and speechless about it. Thank you seems inadequate but I really want to just echo the sentiments of how wonderful this and you are (and how terrible this entire idea of border walls and how the US is treating people at the border).
Thank you for this masterful inter-weaving of your family’s personal history, along with the impact of ‘wall policies’ on the natural world and disruption of centuries old cultural rhythms and norms. Please continue sharing your insights.
This is so important and beautifully written. Thank you for sharing this galvanizing information in such a moving and accessible way.
This was a beautiful look at what we are missing. The image of one side full of fun family gatherings and the other almost deserted save for the Border Patrol stick with me.
This so-called “Kill Chain” strategy would allow South Korea to launch pre-emptive ballistic missiles and air strikes on North Korean targets, including taking out the North Korean command and control structures. In other words, attempting to kill Kim Jong-Un himself.