It’s Friday at dusk on a long stretch of dirt road in Hidalgo County, Texas, about a mile north of the Rio Grande and Mexico. Orange light gleams through a single palm tree towering over hardwood mesquites. Land speculators imported palms to the Rio Grande Valley a century ago to attract white American settlers to the region, and they loom especially high above dense thornscrub below.
I’m walking to my car with Christopher Basaldú, who’s lived in a nearby tent for over a month in anticipation of wall construction along the U.S.-Mexico border. Basaldú, of Brownsville, and about two dozen others formed the Yalui Village campsite on the site of the 19th century-era Eli Jackson Cemetery, a state-designated historical marker in the path of the proposed border barrier. A sign at the entrance of the camp announces the presence of the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe (Estók G’na), a reference to groups indigenous to the valley. The occupation began in late January, shortly before Customs and Border Protection said wall construction could begin.
“People were freaking themselves out around the fire thinking about being shot and killed,” said Basaldú, an adopted member of the tribe. It’s an unlikely possibility, but Basaldú said he personally is ready to die stopping the wall — or tearing it down. Unlike other places in Hidalgo County, including a butterfly center and a historic Catholic chapel, the cemetery on which the camp stands was not exempted from construction by a February border wall funding bill signed by President Donald Trump.
Congress has already sent nearly $3 billion to Trump for a border barrier, including up to 37 miles in Hidalgo and Starr counties. Almost half of that, $1.34 billion, was allocated for the Rio Grande Valley, the compromise outcome of the longest government shutdown in history. Trump then declared a national emergency in February, giving him the power to direct $6.1 billion more from other federal agencies for the wall (though over a dozen state attorneys general are challenging the executive order in court). In March, the government submitted notices of condemnation for hundreds of mostly Hispanic landowners in the valley whose property it wants for the wall.
Earlier in the evening, Basaldú and I sat with two other Valleyites downhill from the earthen levee where the border wall is slated for construction. A Border Patrol agent slowly cruised by, glaring down at us. Under CBP’s plan, the campsite and the cemetery would be stranded in a no man’s land behind the wall, and would be damaged by an enforcement zone resembling a permanent military outpost with a utility road, sensors and cameras, bright lights, and frequent patrols. The agency wants to build 772 total miles of barrier along the border, which it estimates would cost $18 billion.
Last year, Hinojosa started working with other local activists to hone anti-wall messaging and convened groups of people to make banners for protests along the wall’s proposed path. She sees this work as part of a growing movement to repel powerful interests encroaching on the valley. Since 2015, she’s also organized to prevent liquified natural gas companies from building a complex of export terminals where the Rio Grande meets the Gulf of Mexico.
“The LNG fight and border wall fight are very connected,” Hinojosa explained. “Families and friends are going to hearings to stop LNG, they’re organizing to stop the border wall, it’s all part of the same system impacting our region.”
For now, the coalition organizing against the wall is small, especially relative to the full power of the federal government. Much more widespread is a sense that the wall perpetuates a legacy of class and racial subjugation in the valley. Patricia Rubio, an outdoorswoman who sleeps at the camp at least once a week, acknowledged that being from the valley often means carrying several generations’ worth of loss and even shame.
Her aunts and uncles were migrant fieldworkers and “grew up with low self-esteem and fear to express themselves” in Spanish, said Rubio, also an adopted Carrizo/Comecrudo tribal member. “I grew up hearing stories about beatings or lynchings. Those stories need to stay alive and we can’t be ashamed of them.” She feels a sense of responsibility to confront the types of powerful interests that immiserated her ancestors.
The wall’s construction fits into a longer legacy of the valley as a sacrifice zone, which started when Spanish colonists arrived in the 18th century and continued after the U.S. government relegated Mexicans here to second-class American citizenship. Yet for all the suffering the wall is causing locals who feel unheard, for some it’s also producing a sense of groundedness once lost to the dislocations of history.
The notice in the local newspaper taken out by the U.S. Southern District of Texas is 24 pages long and addressed to nearly 300 parties “whose whereabouts cannot be determined or who could not be personally served.” The message for all of them is the same: The government will seize their land “to construct, install, operate, and maintain roads, fencing, vehicle barriers, security lighting, and related structures,” mostly as part of 8 to 12 miles of barrier in Starr County.
It’s the second time the notice has been published in the newspaper; after the third time, defendants will only have 20 days to respond before the government begins taking their property.
Efrén Olivares, a lawyer with the Texas Civil Rights Project, has been advising low-income landowners as the state pursues their land. He’s been in talks with a dozen people interested in litigation and said a nationwide network of pro bono lawyers is preparing to take on more cases.
“These are going to be long, drawn-out battles,” Olivares said. “Eminent domain law is very, very favorable to the government, but even within that, we’re hoping to make sure the government goes through hoops to get the land.”
Earlier, Olivares led a bilingual information session in Roma, a stone’s throw away from Mexico. Olivares explained to a packed room that while federal agents can legally be on private property to patrol for migrants, landowners can charge a fee for surveyors and contractors to be on their land. Some appeared frustrated at these nuances. One man, who did not want to give his name, realized that he’d given surveyors permission to be on his land for 18 months without receiving compensation.
Maria Luisa Cavazos’s land is in the government’s crosshairs. A retired nurse who now lives in McAllen, Cavazos is one of dozens of owners of a 15-acre strip of land in Los Ebanos, a tiny community in Hidalgo County that has been coiled around the river since the 19th century. The land was left to the estate of her late grandmother, Maria Dolores Peña de Flores, and now the feds want 1.2 acres of it to build a road easement through the property.
Cavazos, now an elderly woman, said her family stopped farming the land over 40 years ago, after her father and uncle were hired to pick crops for major agribusinesses. It was fertile, supporting crops like cantaloupes, squash, cotton, and corn. It’s since been mostly vacant, and the federal government began sending letters out to Flores’s descendants in December 2016 asking that they accept a total of $2,900 for the land and waive future appeals. The offer would come out to about $50 of compensation for each descendant.
It’s almost certainly a low-ball offer. An investigation by ProPublica and the Texas Tribune found that the federal government routinely skirted regulations when it paid South Texas landowners during the last round of fence-building under the Bush and Obama administrations. Appraisers for the Army Corps of Engineers were not beholden to certain federal regulations requiring they offer an amount that reflected the land’s true value, including its irrigable and farming capacity. Back then, Cavazos sold a different tract of land to the Department of Homeland Security for just $300. To get more money this time around, she would have to hire a lawyer to do her own independent appraisal, but she’s overwhelmed at the prospect.
“I don’t believe they should take away that land,” Cavazos said on her driveway, her eyes welling with tears as she recounted memories. “When I lived there when I was young, the illegals would knock on your door and ask for food, and if we had leftover food for our supper, my mom would give it to them.”
Cavazos’s cousin Mirta Trigo also lived in Los Ebanos as a child. Trigo said some of her family members still use the land for Easter celebrations, and she’s more resistant than her relatives about the government’s bid for it. When she received the letter asking her to voluntarily forfeit the property, she didn’t sign it. But she doesn’t have the money to hire a lawyer and isn’t expecting to get much more from the federal government.
“I don’t want the wall there, the land is part of us,” Trigo said. “The government doesn’t care what we think, it’s true they don’t listen to us porque we’re the Mexican people, we’re Mexicans.”
Both Trigo and Cavazos were born in the U.S., but their self-recognition as Mexican speaks to a collective cultural identity that held strong for a century after the Rio Grande Valley became a territory of the U.S. After the 1840s, through a sustained effort spanning decades, Anglo settlers in the valley gained power as bankers, merchants, teachers, and other roles with local influence. “Mexicans,” or Tejanos, were relegated to roles like artisans, laborers, and struggling ranchers.
Starting in the late 19th century, Mexicans who had inherited property through Spanish land grants saw their acreage claims dwindle as they were divided among descendants. Ranchers were dispossessed of their lands by white brokers unwilling to lend them capital, as well as through theft and fraud. Lynch mobs, police, and Texas Rangers later maintained wealth and property lines through brutal violence. A racialized underclass of fieldworkers, enlarged by refugees fleeing the Mexican Revolution, became the underpinning of an Anglo-dominated agricultural economy.
“All the vestiges of your culture, you start to perceive them as being bad, the food, the language, the clothing, the values,” Ramírez said of his upbringing, as he stood inside the endangered historic chapel built by his ancestor Martin Jackson. “We thought we could progress and be in the melting pot, but we couldn’t change the way we looked.”
Having visibly dark skin, or other physical features associated with Indigenous American or African ancestry, can make U.S. citizens in the Rio Grande Valley targets for harassment by border officials. Max Muñoz, the director of operations at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, is an American-born citizen who has been profiled and chased by Border Patrol agents half a dozen times over the last two years. The center, a nature preserve with more than 250 species of butterfly and other wildlife that may be cleaved by the border wall despite congressional protections, has become a nucleus of resistance against its construction.
Once, an agent stopped Muñoz’s truck and demanded to see identification for his two daughters, who were small children. A helicopter was called after Muñoz refused to comply. Another time, an agent warned Muñoz that he was going to “find” and “catch” him in the future. He has stopped taking his family to the center for recreation, opting for nature trips to Austin instead — six hours away.
“I know I shouldn’t, but I don’t want to expose my kids to that,” Muñoz said. “I try not to put racism in their minds, but they see I’m getting stopped. I say [to them], maybe it’s because there’s an order to intimidate people away from the river.”
The history of powerful forces uprooting people in the valley stretches back centuries. Conquistadors raided Native communities and enslaved whole families, and later the Spanish empire brought them to Catholic missions to eradicate their tribal identities. Colonization disrupted foodways and brought fatal diseases, increasing some Indigenous peoples’ dependence on the church’s abusive authority. The life-giving lands along the Rio Grande delta once supported at least 31 separate tribes in South Texas and Northeastern Mexico. There’s almost no public memory in the valley of most of them now.
Juan Mancias, the chairman of the Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe of Texas, who has taken a lead in organizing against the wall, told The Intercept that his grandfather helped him keep his connection to South Texas alive. The Carrizos and Comecrudos, names given by the Spanish, were each comprised of two bands in the valley. There’s nothing in settler historical archives after 1825 about the Carrizos as a distinct group, and the last known fluent speakers of the Comecrudean language were recorded near Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, in 1886.
Mancias, 64, grew up in the Texas panhandle after his ancestors moved there for work. He believes many in the valley have Carrizo and Comecrudo heritage, but after centuries of cultural genocide by the Catholic church and two settler nations, there’s little way to confirm it except oral history that isn’t extensively recorded. “It would have been lost for me if I hadn’t asked my grandfather what was really happening, or my older cousins and aunts and uncles, or my mom, who is 94,” Mancias said.
Without a land base, the tribe has had to ally with property owners in the wall’s path. In January, Mancias started connecting with the Butterfly Center, Ramiro Ramírez of the Eli Jackson Cemetery, and Fred Cavazos (no relation to Maria), owner of 77 riverside acres in Madero, who has been featured in The Intercept, the Washington Post, and The Atlantic. With the Ramírez family’s permission, the Carrizo/Comecrudo have occupied the Eli Jackson Cemetery and more recently started an encampment at the Butterfly Center; Cavazos said that Mancias has a key to his property to set up a possible third resistance camp in the future.
The Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe is not recognized by the federal government, but is a voluntary association registered as a nonprofit to collect and administer funds. The tribe held a fundraiser in early March, and a GoFundMe page overseen by Mancias brought in more than $20,000 over the last two years — the result of tenacious social media boosting. The donations fund the tribe’s activism, which has produced impressive results: In 2017, Mancias traveled to France with other local activists to confront BNP Paribas over the bank’s liquified natural gas investments in the valley. The bank divested shortly thereafter.
“Everything we get, we put it back into the tribe,” Mancias said. “Our profit is to make people know we’re here and we’re not going anywhere. We’re on our lands, and that’s the only radical thing we’re trying to do.”
Recently, Mancias accompanied Ramiro Ramírez and his sister, Sylvia, to a local restaurant where they met with Raul Ortiz, the chief of CBP’s Rio Grande Valley sector. According to Sylvia Ramírez, Ortiz assured the group that the government would not seize their land for at least six months, and possibly not for a year. (A media spokesperson for CBP’s Rio Grande Valley sector did not respond to emails and phone calls from The Intercept to confirm this account.)
“I’m assuming they’re telling us what they know, and they’re not pulling a fast one,” Sylvia conceded. “I’m going to give them that until I know differently.” She said her family had been “very appreciative” of the Carrizo/Comecrudo encampment, which had no plans to disband at publication time despite Ortiz’s longer timeline.
On March 14, attorneys with the environmental nonprofit Earthjustice filed a joint lawsuit against Trump and administration officials on behalf of the Ramírez family and the tribe, as well as several other plaintiffs. It asks a federal judge to strike down the national emergency declaration and enjoin the president from using emergency funds to build the wall.
Sitting around a smoldering mesquite log at Yalui Village one Sunday afternoon, several young men played prayer music from a phone and smoked cigarettes. Their discussion turned to peyote, whose cacti buttons produce a medicinal hallucinogenic effect and were once found in abundance in South Texas prior to the war on drugs. A peyote button is on the seal of the Carrizo/Comecrudo. At its center is the Aplomado Falcon, an endangered bird found in the region.
A flag bearing the seal of the American Indian Movement — the Indigenous liberation group started in 1968 — flaps in the wind, alongside flags of the Carrizo/Comecrudo and the Texas-based Society of Native Nations. Nearby, a camper served chili to others out of a large grease pan. The camp’s kitchen, mostly composed of several coolers and cooking equipment underneath yellow tarp, had recently been visited by a pack of wild boars. Clouds of insects are omnipresent, and field mice are innumerable enough that someone brought a cat to hunt them down.
The valley is one of the most biologically diverse regions in the country, but pressures from human settlement have destroyed 95 percent of its natural habitat. Last October, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen waived 25 laws under the 2005 Real ID Act, including protections for endangered species and migratory birds, to expedite the wall’s construction. A study by Stanford University researchers found that 34 percent of ground and freshwater animals living along the U.S.-Mexican border would have their habitats bisected by the barrier, leading to possible extinction for some.
Nielsen also waived laws meant to protect Native American grave sites and other spiritual lands, which only apply to tribes the government recognizes. All others, including the Carrizo/Comecrudo, are at the mercy of the settler state as voluntary associations without special protections, but Mancias says that lacking official recognition can be liberating. Without any blood quantum requirements to limit tribal membership, for example, the tent for the Carrizo/Comecrudo can be as wide as the tribe wants it to be.
The people buried at the Eli Jackson Cemetery, who lie for eternity near where the campers sleep for now, may not be directly related to Mancias, but his conception of relations is broad enough to consider everything with roots in the land to be a relative. “There’s a history that needs to be told,” Macias said. “It’s not about them recognizing if we’re Indian, it’s that we recognize if we’re Indian.”