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Over the course of multiple parts, our latest series looks at the daily intricacies and deep contradictions of life in a South Texas border town. Sharing tradition, culture, and family with our Mexican neighbors, writer Melissa Guerra takes us on a narrative journey of her homeland, sticking strictly to description and narrative and veering away from politics in a powerful collection of personal stories. Click here to catch up on all the stories in this series, Stories from a Texas Border Ranch.
Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better. — Albert Einstein
“Because you attended a protest, I am no longer following you…” the serene blue-framed social media message read. What did I post that a follower found offensive?
Turns out, I had posted a photographic still life study of red, plump tomatoes in an antique copper scale, luminous aqua colored glass canning jars, emerging from a dark, moody background. The casual comments under my food blog photo was a listing of activities from my hectic, non-sequitur of a week, and an “Oh, by the way, I went to a border wall protest where they were giving away free bags of organic broccoli and sausage tacos…Best protest ever.” That was the offending line. Hence, the unfriending.
The day after my ride along with Border Patrol, there was a peaceful protest in support of the preservation of Santa Ana Wildlife Refuge, in anticipation of the construction of the proposed Border Wall between the U.S. and Mexico. The 2,088 acre refuge is squared up in the crosshairs of the surveyor’s transit and blocking the trajectory of the bridge construction. The refuge is home to countless bird, butterfly, and insect species, not to mention deer, snakes, and the elusive, endangered ocelot.
Had I not been unfriended, I could have talked to my social media friend about my concern for our local water supply. Understanding our water needs is vital for anyone who is searching for our authentic local perspective on the construction of a Border Wall. What has been set aside in the political ruckus of international immigration is the effect a physical wall will have on every other locally living species, who are passport-free citizens of neither country.
As our only river, the importance of the Rio Grande to our local wildlife cannot be overstated. Heavily tapped by human population from its source in Colorado to where it releases into the Gulf of Mexico, the Rio Grande water supply is shared by both Mexico and the U.S. As it winds south away from its wellspring, the river shrinks and narrows, providing our area with a vital albeit measured water resource. We need every drop.
Although water treaties between Mexico and the United States are solidly in place, the treaties are respected by citizens when convenient. Lack of rain stresses not only the water needs of the growing bilateral riverside populations, but their ability to irrigate the crops needed to also feed these populations. People can argue for their water rights, but animals simply relocate, or cease to exist.
But where would the animals relocate to? Away from the river, water sources are scarce. In my kitchen at the ranch, the water that pours from our faucet is pumped from an artesian well. Small shallow aquifers exist across the ranchlands in the north part of our county. Drilling to levels of 30 to 40 feet, you can find water, although limited.
That scarcity of water wrote our local history. Before cattle were introduced to our area, the landscape was more of a grassy plain with occasional trees, and few cacti. The indigenous tribes identified the low spots where water collected, which many times were sunken indentations over artesian wells. A bit of digging could turn a sink hole into a water hole, which became a stopping point during a tribe’s nomadic hunting journey.
Once the Spanish arrived in the Americas, and pushed their way north from Mexico, they built well shafts into these watering holes, and next to them, established their ranch homes. As more cattle entered the picture, more grass seed and trees were disbursed, creating a thick brushland that hid most of the 17th and 18th century wells from view. But I see an 18th century well every day from my kitchen window, and it taps the same artesian source as my kitchen faucet. Other than the river, the only alternative water source for the wildlife would be the occasional man-made agricultural trough whose source are these ancient wells.
Holding to the simple belief that water is meant to support life, then it stands to reason that the secondary function of the Rio Grande in our area is that of an international border. All living local creatures need access to this river.
The refuge is set aside from the activity of farming or ranching. The riverside property is a primordial forest, untouched by electric pumps, bridges, or speedboats. It’s jade green tranquility supports the native animals looking for peace amid the hubbub of modern human water requirements.
I spent 10 minutes trying to get a good photo of an Altamira oriole feeding on an orange half affixed to a tall wooden pole. He was too shy to flit back to the skewered citrus. There were families strolling with babbling children. With Dad chatting with grandma on his cell phone and Mom calling out what snacks were available, the stream of visitors absentmindedly broke the tranquility of the feeding area. I watched the oriole watching them. The bird couldn’t get to the sweet orange. He flew to a higher branch and waited for the crowd of noisy pedestrians to leave.
I decided to walk along one of the path loops of the refuge to remind myself why protesters were here in the first place. Mysterious, pristine and untouched, I was a little overwhelmed by the refuge’s uncorrupted beauty. What was most striking was the change in terrain midway along the path. What started as thick, black ebony trees and gnarled mesquite trees weeping with sap that oozed out of their grey spotted bark became higher, taller trees bearded with Spanish moss. Native Sabal palms sprouted randomly at the base of ever more trees, and I began to hear birds such as Least Grebes and Chachalacas calling out to each other. The chartreuse and brown striped Kiskadee fly catchers chirruped while darting through the tree branches, as the hazy grey emerald water of a river inlet quietly flowed below them.
If but for a moment, I was in a time machine, transported to a prehistoric millennium before humans had ever touched this riverside property. And it was utterly beautiful.
Back at the protest, the crowd was building. Activists were taking selfies with a woman posing as a cardboard anthropomorphic section of a wall. She was informing participants of the effects that the real wall would have on the wildlife refuge. Signs reading “F” the wall, or “F” that politician were held high as the emcee read through notes at the podium in an enormous blue and white striped circus-style tent. I wasn’t sure how “effing” a wall or a politician would resolve the plight of the wildlife, but the passion of the sign creators was evident. People really wanted to save the refuge.
Our local congressman was the keynote speaker and he thrilled the crowd with his commitment to saving the wildlife habitat. His message to Washington was unequivocally clear and the nature loving audience applauded heartily. However, the next speaker was passionate about the plight of those caught in the controversy of Dreamers and DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which affected her personally. Children who arrived with their undocumented migrant families have varying levels of citizenship rights as adults. Some were being deported to their family’s country of origin, even though these countries are completely foreign to them. The DACA speaker was eloquent, intelligent and ardently desired to continue life in the United States, but I noticed that the applause of the audience was less thunderous.
The final speaker was an undocumented resident of the United States who testified that there were few rights afforded to her, as she was not a citizen. She listed what she could and could not do as an undocumented resident and, frankly, I didn’t think that I could live her curtailed existence below the government radar, unable to travel, and unqualified to work legally. Her speech got some applause support but, at this point, the politicians had left the tent, and there were more open seats in the audience than when the speeches started. The “F” signs were abandoned, propped on empty folding chairs.
After the speeches, I wandered around among the crowd. The location of the protest was an herb farmer’s recently harvested dill field that, I think, belonged to Glenda, a farmer who would be directly affected by the construction of a border wall. People were talking, eating tacos, and exchanging contact information. Even I was adding cell numbers to my phone, promising my new acquaintances that I would be in touch to continue the conversation of how to save the refuge. It was nice.
But I learned from the day that each person in the crowd had their own ideas of how resolve our current U.S. border issues. No two perspectives were the same. Those in attendance cared deeply about saving native wildlife habitat, but passions down ticked slightly when immigration controversies surfaced. As I had never been to a protest before, I quickly learned that protests are factionalized.
It needs to be understood that wildlife refuges are seen as weak spots in border security. Wooded areas are notorious human and drug smuggling corridors. If a wildlife refuge was made the exception to a border security plan, then it would become the funnel through which all smugglers, traffickers and illegal activity would flow.
Bricks, mortar and steel seem archaic in the age of computers, so a physical wall seems like a step backward. And, as the true border is an imaginary line down the middle of the river, by establishing a physical wall on the U.S. riverbank, we are actually ceding real estate. We are losing U.S. soil by putting up a physical wall.
Technology could be the answer. In fact, much of the detection technology used by our military in Afghanistan was repurposed and installed for vigilance on our border, something I learned on my ride along with Border Patrol. As these laser-based systems are currently evolving to better distinguish between human and animal activity, it could be that refuge and river activity could rely solely on these detection systems. Animal detection laser technology is already being added to automobiles, so motorists can detect and avoid collisions with wildlife. With technology replacing tangible books and retail shopping centers, physical walls are on their way out.
As with most modern technology, we can credit Albert Einstein’s equations for the development of lasers. His ingenious perspective and innovative concepts were built on the earlier theories developed by breakthrough scientists, such as Sir Isaac Newton. As a thought provoking twist, be aware that both Newton and Einstein found confirmation of their theories by observing nature. Also, Einstein was an immigrant.
Being unfriended because of my social media gloating over a free bag of broccoli is rather silly, but it’s an accurate illustration of where we are in the Border Wall conversation. We have divided into factions that will not listen to the other. It’s a conversation where the barest whisper scares others away.
Today, mankind is being called to rise above the standard perspective, and break through to a higher level of understanding of our restless world. Like our most notable scientists and mathematicians, we need to study elements of humanity, and come up with a better way of resolving our problems. We need to think. We cannot continue to fly away at the least mention of the border and border protests. We learn nothing if we continue to see things the same way. Challenge yourself to develop a comprehensive view of riverside culture and history. Understand why migrants leave their countries of origin. Find out why our politicians want to build a Border Wall. Ask questions and engage with the other factions. If we shy away from conversations that disturb us, like the oriole, we will never get what we want.
And in the end, what we all want is peace.