Under Two Flags: Quiet Activism in the Texas Borderlands

We spoke to men and women who are trying to show what Texas really is.

by Elliot Ross and Genevieve Allison
May 5 2017, 12:30pm

This story appears in the May issue of VICE magazine. Click HERE to subscribe.

No state has undergone such profound change as Texas. In the past two centuries alone, after countless wars, colonization, and failed attempts at annexation, it has hoisted six different flags and has become a popular, though perhaps an exaggerated, symbol of American exceptionalism and expansion. There are Republicans. There are cowboys. There are oil derricks. But along the border, where photographer Elliot Ross and I traveled after Donald Trump's inauguration, it's not exactly what you might expect: Border culture is far less white and far less hell-bent on fighting the federal government than Texas's reputation suggests.

Images of the border are often generic. While almost 70 percent of the boundary between the US and Mexico lies along the southern part of the state, we so rarely see it from Texas's perspective. Pictures and videos in the media frequently deal with the migrant's illegal journey and violence south of the border—deaths in the Sonoran Desert, crossing the Rio Grande, the desolate and often militarized no-man's-land. There isn't much focus on what is here: lush riparian corridors, subtropical wildlife refuges, backyards, golf courses, national parks, and, most important, vibrant—and vocal—Mexican American communities.

In the Rio Grande Valley, a dense sprawl in the southernmost part of Texas that's interspersed with citrus orchards, strip malls, and taco stands, more than 90 percent of the population identifies as Hispanic and/or Latino. Even farther north and west, about 400 miles, where you'll find the "West" of your deepest imagination—sierras, vast ranches, conservatism—Hispanic culture runs deep.

During the eight weeks Elliot and I spent traveling between Brownsville and El Paso, we had a hard time finding anyone who supports building a wall. Really, we had a hard time finding anyone who thinks it's even a realistic endeavor. We talked to as many diverse people as we could—park rangers, ranchers, cowboys, scientists, artists, oilmen, professors, teachers, farmers, students, politicians—and most of them gave the same general response: It's not going to happen. Some offered practical setbacks: "The geology, the terrain—it's inconceivable," said Louis A. Harveson, the director of the Borderlands Research Institute for Natural Resource Management at Sul Ross State University. Others offered vaguer, but similarly confident, opinions: "He ain't gonna build a wall—I voted for Trump," said Dianna Burbach, who manages the Chinati Hot Springs.

The Texas borderlands are home to some of the poorest and most remote counties in the nation, and ultimately, they can't afford to be torn up by partisanship. Here, where illegal immigrants live side by side with Border Patrol agents, and access to healthcare and education are the greatest prevailing needs, civic engagement remains drastically inhibited. Overt political gestures, we discovered, are not an embraced strategy for affecting change in Texas's Border Zone, where many constitutional protections, particularly concerning illegal searches and seizures, do not apply.

What we did discover, however, were people engaged in small acts of resistance, resilience, and reclamation: a man who rows, recreationally, on the Rio Grande; first- and second-generation Mexican Americans who are running local political offices; a family, against immense hardship, putting together the money for their daughter's quinceañera. We spoke to men and women who, through a sort of quiet activism, are trying to show what Texas really is.

Jaymin Martinez
15, Brownsville

"I started very late," Belinda Martinez said, admitting she began planning her daughter Jaymin's quinceañera only nine months in advance. "People spend two, three, four years." For even the most humble ceremony, there's the venue, catering, dress, tiara, bouquet, toasting glasses, photographers, videographer, professional portrait, photo album, mariachi band, and decorated Hummer, limo, or truck.

"I also want a sweet sixteen," Jaymin said, smiling coyly at her parents. George, a soft-spoken hardware assistant at Lowe's who takes a keen pride in his children, reminded her gently, "We'll still be paying off your 15th."

In recent years, the Martinez family has faced hardships from a devastating flood, unexpected health problems, and four separate car accidents—and still, all on a single income, they felt it was important to continue this Tejano tradition.

Until the 1980s, this centuries-old celebration—primarily a Mexican girl's rite of passage into womanhood on her 15th birthday—wasn't widespread in Hispanic communities. It was simply too expensive. Today, however, Hispanic consumers in the US have more purchasing power, and it's increasing at a compound annual growth rate of 7.5 percent—more than twice as fast as the 2.8 percent growth for the total US. In the past five years alone, it has reached $1.38 trillion. As a result, the quinceañera business is a booming industry in South Texas. A party typically costs between $5,000 and $20,000.

A homemade billboard rests on the edge of a cornfield on the outskirts of Brownsville.

But the dispersed affluence of the Tejano population has yet to concentrate in the Rio Grande Valley. After the US Census Bureau released data from its 2012 American Community Survey, Brownsville was named the poorest city in the country, with one in three people living below the poverty line. The poverty threshold for a single individual under 65 years old is an income of less than $12,060 a year.

One block from the border fence, the Martinez home is tidily decorated with western-themed curios and family pictures. Out of the chaparral that buffers the street from the border fence and river, traffickers and smugglers regularly appear, even in broad daylight. "Spotters" for the cartel vigilantly patrol the street, as do Customs and Border Patrol, who some say have become corrupt. "You just don't know who you can trust," George said. In a seeming twist of logic, the fence that makes the Martinez family feel safer also makes their neighborhood more dangerous.

While we talked, Jaymin, who dreams of becoming a motivational speaker, looked on, comfortable and self-possessed among the adults.

Alfonso "Poncho" Nevárez
44, Eagle Pass

The night after Donald Trump's election, Alfonso Nevárez sat down with his friends, family, and a bottle of whiskey. He's known affectionately as "Poncho." "We finished that bottle," he said, laughing solemnly. As the Democratic state representative of District 74—the largest in Texas—he said that he serves a constituency that spans 12 counties and two time zones. His criticism of the people he serves is tempered but vigorous. "The apathy is just awesome. Our political system works, but there's so much passivity. Now you have people out marching, but they didn't vote. Lack of participation gave us Trump."

Palpably exasperated, Poncho went on, "There's a lull settling in, and it's not good. How many times can you muster righteous indignation?" He's part of a generation of Hispanics who have become leaders and professionals but who grew up at a time in Texas when white men and women held most of the positions of authority and influence. Now, he sees the 40 years of progress that's been made slipping away. Trump's rhetoric, he recognizes, has tapped into the past, targeting the white, rural conservatives nostalgic for their former power. "I can't remember when there was more tension."

With this, Poncho doesn't just mean the tension between minority and white America, Republicans and Democrats. He also worries about an intensified strain of anti-immigrant sentiment between first- and second-generation Mexican Americans. He alluded to the characterization of immigrant groups in this country "pulling up the ladder behind them," explaining that the real issue for them was finding a sense of belonging.

A corridor made of concrete and steel, where Border Patrol watches 24 hours a day, separates Brownsville's Milpa Verde neighborhood on the right from the fragment of subtropical riparian woodland on the left.

On his ranch just outside Eagle Pass, the attorney reclined on a patio chair one Sunday evening, wearing jeans, cowboy boots, and a Star Wars T-shirt. His house, with its antique flourishes and plush Spanish style, seemed as if it were from another time period. Yet a sense of energy and accomplishment filtered through its dated extravagance.

Across the river, the outskirts of Piedras Negras, Mexico, glowed in the early evening light. The cities of Eagle Pass and Piedras Negras are so close to each other that they share many festivals and ceremonies. In 2008, after the US government succeeded in suing Eagle Pass for a parcel of land near the border, a fence was put up around the city's municipal golf course, technically placing it on the Mexican side. When we visited, we learned that citizens from both countries play there, and on the course, as elsewhere in the neighboring towns, there's constant chatter about border security and illegal immigration.

Poncho, as vice chairman of the House Homeland Security and Public Safety Committee, was indignant: "People say we have to do something. I say, 'About what?' Why are we supposed to be looking for a remedy when we're not sick? Long before this river became a flashpoint for political careers to live and die by, we were here, living and dying by this river."

Danny Armendariz
34, Hidalgo City

Serving hot quesadillas and cold Dr. Peppers in the shade of their garage, Danny Armendariz and his wife, Lucy, shrugged off the prospect of a wall going up in their neighborhood. "Me?" Danny asked. "Oh, I don't worry about the wall much. I don't think it affects us one way or another." He said this even though his corner-section house rests in a young subdivision a block away from where Trump's proposed wall would run.

With a boyish enthusiasm for cars (among them a Corvette Stingray, International Scout, Lincoln MKX, Chevy Tahoe, Honda Civic, Nissan Maxima, and Ford Excursion), Danny, manager at the chain restaurant Luby's and food and beverage director at H-E-B Park, a professional soccer stadium, is happy with his version of American life. "I have my cars, my 4x4s, and a house, and that is what I like."

It was an unseasonably hot afternoon, even for South Texas in the middle of February. Outside, a few people had pulled up to sift through the Armendariz's yard sale. Mexican nationals by birth but brought up in the US, Danny and Lucy both strongly identify as American. They reserve Mexico for vacations and shopping: "We go at least once a week," Danny told us, explaining that everything is half the price. "Sometimes we go three times a day."

The border fence stands behind Garden Park Elementary in Brownsville, where, according to gym teacher Arnurfo Castille, 20 to 30 of the school's students legally come across the bridge from Mexico every day. After a 1982 Supreme Court ruling, undocumented children in the US also have the same right to attend public schools in Texas as US citizens.

Danny and his wife, like others, show the degree to which the Lower Rio Grande Valley and the nearby cities in Mexico are intertwined socially and economically. And that's why they're skeptical of the wall.

"[The wall] won't happen," Lucy said, repeating a refrain we heard often in the valley.

In border communities like Hidalgo City, where an 18-foot bollard fence already starts and stops in sections along the levee system, they just don't believe Trump's wall is feasible—at least not here.

Unlike California, Arizona, and New Mexico, 95 percent of Texas's borderland is privately owned. In a state that champions and protects individual property rights, this makes eminent-domain seizure almost impossible. Plus, it hasn't proved effective in the past. Under George W. Bush's Secure Fence Act of 2006, only 652 miles of fence were built, despite almost 70 percent of the 2,000-mile-long border stretching through Texas. And it's not unusual to find lifelong residents of the valley who have never even seen the thing. It weaves randomly through farms and wildlife sanctuaries, and it often runs a mile or more inland from the Rio Grande, the political boundary line, creating an ambiguous gray area among Mexico, the border, and the US.

"If you want to go to Mexico, it's beautiful," Danny said with a wistful look in his eyes. "But not over there, at the border. That's not really Mexico."

Bill Addington
60, Sierra Blanca

Late one evening in 1991, Bill Addington was with his wife and newborn son watching the news when a story caught his attention: The states of Texas, Maine, and Vermont had entered a compact allowing the disposal of nuclear waste at a site in far west Texas. Addington was shocked to learn that 400 square miles of the Chihuahuan Desert in Sierra Blanca, his small town in Hudspeth County 88 miles southeast of El Paso and 16 miles north of the Mexico border, would become a disposal facility.

The next morning, the Texas rancher committed himself to what would become an eight-year fight to save the spare, rough, desolate land he called home. "These are long-term commitments that take years," Addington said during a damp morning walk on his usually empty 3,000-acre ranch. "I never considered myself an activist. I worked in the oil fields. I never understood the threat. When this came along, I thought, I can either do nothing, make some money out of it, or take responsibility for something I love."

The Texas Low-Level Radioactive Disposal Authority had recommended Hudspeth County for its low rainfall, deep groundwater, and tight soils. But because an earlier prospecting report issued by the agency cited the community as "66 percent" Hispanic and the median income, well below the state average, as "favorable," there were allegations that the location was selected because there would be little resistance.

Big Bend National Park, where the 1,800-foot vertical barrier of Mariscal Canyon separates Mexico from Texas, is said to be one of the first places President Trump will begin building a 30-foot border wall. Ninety-five percent of the land bordering the Rio Grande in Texas is privately owned. With land available to him from Big Bend National Park, Big Bend State Park, and Black Gap Wildlife Management Areas, Trump may make good on his campaign promise by beginning construction on a border wall on these protected lands first.

"You gotta know, people didn't think they could stop this thing. It took about six years to get people to even think about it," Addington said, reflecting on the difficulty of mobilizing action even among those passionately opposed to the dump. "It's not apathy. It's something different. People feel disenfranchised from their government, their representatives. People would fight if they thought they could make a difference."

When a letter arrived in 2008 from the Department of Homeland Security ordering him to dismantle an informal, dilapidated bridge between the southern frontage of his property and Mexico, he refused to take it down, even though he was threatened with a $2,500 fine if anyone got caught crossing it illegally. "We should be building bridges, not walls," he added defiantly.

Addington fights out of principle. (All that's left of his bridge are cables and one wooden plank.) As a result of his activism, he has been sued in a federal court for $10 million. He claims he's also received hate mail and countless death threats and almost got shot once.

"I can only save a small part," he said. The remains of the bridge hang inertly in the rain over the slow-moving river. Long gone are the days when it connected workers and families from both sides of the border. "If only we could convince people how powerful they are, things would be very different."