Following a chaotic weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia, where a white nationalist rally ended with domestic terrorism and the tragic death of a young woman by the name of Heather Heyer, you may not have heard about another battle being fought a few thousand miles south, along the border.
Mission, Texas sits on the northern half of the Rio Grande Valley, just west of McAllen. Though the area has grown exponentially in the past decade, Mission still boasts a small border-town vibe, where run-ins between your cousin or your elementary school teacher at the grocery store are almost guaranteed.
And if you don’t run into them there, you definitely will Sunday morning before mass. In fact, the city gets its name from a Catholic mission called La Lomita. Today, the former mission stands as a historic landmark and Catholic shrine. Every Palm Sunday the members of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church march from their parish in central Mission to La Lomita chapel which is four miles south and only a few yards away from the Rio Grande. For the residents of this community the chapel has been symbol of tradition for generations.
Though life on the border is vibrant, it’s not always pleasant, and not for the reasons you may think. Even though cities in the area often get ranked high on the list of the “safest cities in America,” living here can at times feel like you’re in a warzone — a war where the enemy is invisible, but the militarization is inescapable. While driving anywhere in the Valley you’ll be met with an obnoxious amount of local police, constables, state troopers, and of course, border patrol. Also, if you plan to road trip to any major city north of the Valley, be prepared to stop at a border patrol checkpoint where you’ll be searched by drug dogs and asked to state your citizenship.
These experiences are consistent with most border communities and have been accepted as a normal part of daily life. What is interesting, though, is that despite the border being a hot topic of conversation since Donald Trump announced his campaign, the experience of those who actually live there is seldom heard in the national dialogue. People who have never even been to the border chant “Build that wall!” miles away in inland America, and it will be places like Mission that suffer because of their ignorance.
Last month it was confirmed that preliminary planning for the border wall had began. A map of the proposed border wall was leaked, and the director of the National Butterfly Center in Mission told local media that she saw government officials surveying and clearing parts of the privately owned property without notice or proper documentation. Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, which is federally owned and about 16 miles east of Mission, is also at risk of being penetrated by the border wall. (Since it is land that belongs to the U.S. government, it is expected that construction will begin there.) La Lomita, which sits right next to the levee that the wall may possibly be built on, would be trapped on the other side.
Putting a wall through our nature parks would disrupt migration patterns for many sensitive species and could effectively deplete the ecotourism industry in the Valley. Birders from all over the world come to visit our parks in hopes of spotting any of the over 500 bird species that visit throughout the year. It’s almost as if those who planned the wall analyzed our community and thought “How can we make this hurt the most? What places have the most economic and cultural value?”
However, we were not going to give those things up without a fight. On Saturday, August 12, the same morning of the Charlottesville riots, hundreds of people marched from Our Lady of Guadalupe Church to La Lomita protesting the proposed border wall. Activists and media from all over the country met at the small border city to show their solidarity.
For a town that is not particularly known to get political, it was unusual yet refreshing to see so many people from the community come out and share their discontent with what is going on — though the march wasn’t about politics at all, really. Both Democrats and Republicans marched alongside each other in opposition to the border wall, because we all understood that this issue was not something that ought to be partisan; it’s a question of logic. Nothing had to be said or discussed for all of us to know exactly why we were there, and why we were fighting for this.
Once the crowd arrived at La Lomita, a diverse group of speakers addressed the attendees. Juan Mancias, chairman of the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe which is native to the area, spoke about the effects of colonization and the importance of protecting the few natural resources we have left, referring to the Rio Grande as “The Spirit River,” which is what the Native Americans once called it. After a mariachi performance, Father Roy Snipes of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church delivered a small sermon and lead a prayer. Then, Imam Noor Ahmad of Masjid Umar Al-Farooq Mosque shared a similar sentiment and read from the Quran. Among the rest of the speakers were Congressman Vicente Gonzalez (D-McAllen), Jeffrey Glasberg, president of the North American Butterfly foundation, representatives from the Texas and National Sierra club chapters, and local activists.
Though the speakers all had different stories, their message was clear: We all have a connection and a constitutional right to enjoy our land. It is not our fault that we are from the border, and we’re tired of being treated like it’s a bad thing.
The following day, hundreds gathered at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge to resound the message. This time they locked hands around the levee to show what the U.S. government would have to go through to build that wall — we, the people.
Hand-in-hand they chanted: “No al muro!” — No border wall!
Featured image: Frank Heinz/Flickr