Border Community Divided by Existing Barriers, Leery of New Ones

A fence already runs through town and extends for miles out to the west of Brownsville. Residents were upset when it went up and are worried an actual wall will hurt the city.

By Rhonda FanningJanuary 6, 2017 7:40 am| ,

Allyson Michele/Texas Standard

On a Monday morning in Brownsville, long before the crack of dawn, cars line up to make the slow passage thru the gateway bridge – one of three passages from Mexico into the Unites States.

Most of the traffic is headed into the U.S. And a lot of the traffic is pedestrian: kids crossing over from downtown Matamoros for school, people legally coming in for work and university student going to class.

But Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez doesn’t see these as streams of people leaving Mexico each day for the U.S. He instead says these are the people that are part of his community – the very people who are as much a part of what it means to live and work and go to school in Brownsville as anyone else living in the city.

He says on any given day 3,000 to 4,000 people enter Brownsville.

“A lot of us are related to people in Matamoros,” he says. “A lot of the people from Matamoros have houses here and in Matamoros.”

Rhonda Fanning/Texas Standard

Texas Standard host David Brown (left) speaks to Brownsville Mayor Tony Martinez at part of the border wall.

If President-elect Donald Trump does build a border wall, it would stretch from Brownsville to El Paso in Texas, about 1,200 miles, and then another 800 miles further to the pacific.

This is the wall of political imagination, but also could soon be a reality – a reality that Martinez says will strangle his city and make everyday life more difficult in a place already struggling with above average unemployment and below average incomes.

If America feels there’s a need for a wall, Martinez says he doesn’t understand why no one bothered to ask the people who live here about it.

“It’s not something we want,” Martines says. “Nobody seems to be listening and it seems to be it garners traction from other parts of the United States when, in fact, they have no earthly idea the type of life that we lead.

“These are our neighbors. They’re our biggest trade partners. Thousands of people cross that border every day. … For the most part, we don’t find it to be something that we’re scared of.”

A physical barrier already runs through town and extends for miles out to the west of Brownsville. The fence – in some areas made of closely-spaced tall iron bars rising 18 feet above ground – courses straight – even though the actual border twists and turns along the Rio Grande river.

It carves a path through Eloisa Tamez’ backyard. Her family has farmed this land for generations. And although she fought in the courts to keep the fence off her property, it’s there, maybe 50 yards from her house. She says it’s made her heartsick.

“The depression, the sadness of having to get up every day in the morning and at sunset and see that barrier there because of, to me, that barrier is symbolic of the erosion of our democracy,” she says. “That hurts because I am a very patriotic person. I love my America. I served my country. My father served our country. We’re patriotic, we believe in America.”

Courtesy Eloise Tamez

Eloise Tamez stands at the West Gate, 3,200 feet from her property.

Tamez says she’s sick of politics and the Washington, D.C. lawmakers who she blames for proposing the wall that runs through her backyard. She says she’s angry about that wall and the political corruption she thinks it represents. She’s so angry that in November she went to the polls and cast her ballot for Donald Trump.

Even though the wall was a central promise of his campaign, she says he’s not going to follow through with it.

“I don’t believe he’s going to do it,” Tamez says. “He is not the only person who makes that decision. He may want to build the wall, but it’s Congress who appropriates the money. So where’s the money coming from? That’s my rationale.”

The politics and conversation surrounding a border wall is difficult terrain to navigate. Anyone who looks at political maps will tell you the border cities and towns are solidly democratic territory, and yet the trump signs in front yards along the roadway running alongside the border fence remind you nothing’s simple about this place or this idea.

In a way, the very nature of a wall imposes a certain language on us. The wall – or the idea of it – demands that we think in binary terms: those on one side and those on another. The wall turns a place into us vs. them, even when the people on the front lines may not see such clear cut distinctions.