Tuesday, August 28, 2007

The La Lomita NO BORDER WALL Festival


MISSION, TEXAS -- From the outside, the small chapel on the banks of the Rio Grande looks like a relic of times past. The plaster has melted away in places exposing the bare adobe and stone walls underneath. The whitewash is peeling off the sturdy old wooden doors and shutters. The wood-shingled roof is weathered and bowed. A plaque beside the front door proclaims that this chapel, La Lomita, is a registered historic landmark, built in 1899 by the Oblate priesthood on land that was donated in 1861 and had originally been part of a 1767 Spanish land grant.

Inside its walls, however, history retreats. The chapel comes to life. Candles line the altar, all glowing with a steady light. Bright silk flowers are strewn through the rafters and around the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in an alcove above. Below the Virgin there are other images—small framed photographs of young men and women in uniform. A pink balloon tied to the edge of the dais floats in the still air: It’s a Girl! And everywhere, scattered on the altar, leaning against candles, stuck into the crevices of the woodwork, there are pieces of paper folded small or rolled into tiny scrolls, the prayers of the faithful.

People revere the long and significant history of La Lomita Chapel by continuing to make it a vital part of their lives, praying and commemorating important life events here. But this continuity is threatened by the more than 700 miles of border fencing called for by the Secure Fence Act that was signed into law by President Bush last fall.

The Act calls for a stretch of the border wall in Texas to run from Laredo to Brownsville through this area south of Mission. La Lomita Chapel lies between the river and the flood control levee that parallels the river to the north. The Department of Homeland Security has said that in the Lower Rio Grande Valley the border wall will be erected north of the levee, rather than directly on the Rio Grande. This would wall off the little chapel, rendering it inaccessible to the community and effectively ceding the land it is situated on to Mexico.

Worried about the loss of this important cultural site and the other cultural, environmental, and economic destruction that a wall might cause to their border communities, about 300 people gathered on the grounds of La Lomita Chapel for a La Lomita NO BORDER WALL Festival on August 25. Under the shade of the mesquite trees, people listened as Texas State Representatives Kino Flores and Aaron Peña spoke out against the border wall. “It would be a scar across our community. It would be something that divided our friends, our business partners, our relatives, and another country with which we have good relations,” Peña said. Aides for U.S. Congressmen Henry Cuellar and Ruben Hinojosa also relayed each congressman’s opposition to the border wall.

Dr. Sue Sill of the North American Butterfly Association Butterfly Park discussed the fate of the Rio Grande Valley wildlife corridor. The corridor is comprised of tracts of land, many of which are situated along the proposed path of the wall, in which the native vegetation has been painstakingly restored in order to provide viable habitats for birds, butterflies and mammals including endangered species such as the ocelot. Martha Sanchez of La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) encouraged the crowd to take a stand against the border wall because of the terrible message it sends to immigrants, whose labor is so important to this country. Rey Anzaldua, a local resident and landowner whose family has lived in the area since the time of the Spanish land grants, decried the loss of homes and property that a border wall would surely bring.

After the speakers Father Roy Snipes, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Mission, lead the crowd in a procession from the chapel onto the levee road. Children at the front of the procession carried a retablo depicting Father Keralum, one of the Oblate priests that founded the mission at La Lomita. The marchers carried signs and the banners of the organizations represented at the festival, among them Holy Spirit Peace and Justice, Pax Christi, the Sierra Club, Frontera Audubon Society, LUPE, and the Coalition Against Immigrant Repression. They were accompanied by the music of the Our Lady of Guadalupe mariachi band on the way to the nearby Riverside Club and onto a pontoon boat docked on the river’s edge.

The boat, festooned with a “NO BORDER WALL” banner, made a circuit up and down the Rio Grande. Upriver, the boat cruised by riverside homes and campgrounds on the banks. Downriver, the vegetation becomes denser signaling the beginning of a tract of valuable wildlife habitat. Local biologist Ken King pointed out the area, “The low-lying spots further in contain mature riparian forests of cedar elm covered in Spanish moss—it’s great habitat, and not much of it is left in the Rio Grande Valley.”

At the end of the procession, the pontoon boat made several other runs to make sure that everyone had the opportunity to experience the Rio Grande. Meanwhile, children were taking turns smashing a large piñata shaped like a forbidding gray wall. Parents shouted encouragement to their children, “Break down the wall!” When the candy was distributed and the pieces of piñata picked up, the sun went down over the river to the music of Rumbo al’ Anacua, featuring Rosa and Joe Perez, musicians and educators who seek to revive and preserve traditional musical forms of the Texas-Mexico border region.

As people ate, drank, and danced on the banks of the Rio Grande in the evening, festival organizer Betty Perez said, “We want to show the nation how important our culture is to us, how important our river is to us. We don’t want it walled off.”
To see video of the La Lomita No Border Wall Festival, go to http://blog.rgv-life.com/ and scroll down to the August 26 entry.

Monday, August 20, 2007

Mr. Chertoff, Tear Down This Wall!

Two weeks before the 2006 midterm elections, President Bush signed the Secure Fence Act into law. It stated that within 18 months, “the Secretary of Homeland Security shall provide for at least 2 layers of reinforced fencing, the installation of additional physical barriers, roads, lighting, cameras, and sensors,” along more than 700 miles of the United States’ southern border.

A number of misconceptions surround the Secure Fence Act, the first of which is the use of the term “fence”. Likely chosen to evoke images of the picket fence that separates suburban neighbors, the barriers that have been built to date along the southern border more closely resemble the Berlin Wall. In California and Arizona rusted steel plates that were formerly used as landing strips in the Vietnam war have been driven into the earth to create walls that are 15 feet tall. South of San Diego this was further reinforced, the final result being 3 layers of concrete, steel, and barbed wire, with a graded road and 50 feet on either side cleared of all vegetation. Similar walls are slated for more than 800 miles of the border, with construction costs estimated at over $46 billion. These will rip through border communities and wildlife refuges alike.

Many border communities were established before Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, and California were added to the United States. Cities split by the border into sister cities have retained close ties. The United States enjoys a close friendship as well as strong economic ties to Mexico. Citizens and organizations in Mexico from the President on down have expressed dismay at the implied message that we prefer separation to cooperation. In 1999 the “Millennium Bomber” was caught at the Canadian border with explosives in the trunk of his car, but no terrorist has been apprehended crossing our border with Mexico.

The border wall is all about politics and punditry, not national security. The Border Patrol has repeatedly said that it will only slow a crosser down by 5 minutes, and Secretary Chertoff has characterized it as symbolic. Politicians who wanted to strut before the cameras ahead of the midterm election, claiming that they would defend the US without having to mention Iraq, pushed the Secure Fence Act. The act claims that it will secure all land and sea borders even though no wall will be built along the Canadian border and no thought is given to the coasts. We are set to destroy our borderlands for a false sense of security. It is time to end this farce.

This blog is affiliated with the No Border Wall group and website, http://www.notexasborderwall.com/ . All who oppose the destruction to communities and the environment that will accompany the wall are urged to get involved. The website has information on events and petitions, but it is equally important that people from all over the United States contact their elected officials and express their opposition to the border wall. Urge your House members to support the Borderlands Conservation and Security Act, which modifies the Secure Fence Act and repeals the worst abuses of the Real ID Act. Urge your Senators to introduce a companion bill. Better yet, they should repeal both the Secure Fence Act and Real ID Act in their entirety. These laws are on the books now, so we do not have the luxury of hoping that sanity will prevail and they will evaporate. We must act now.