Tony and Melissa Solis at Home, South Point, TX
"I don't have a backyard, I have a border fence," Melissa Solis says while picking grapefruit and papaya from her garden on a warm spring evening. When construction of the wall started on the land that has been in the Solis family for generations, "All my mom did was cry. You know, you come to realize in the United States, you can't really be free, it's just like any other country," Melissa, a school administrator, adds. According to the Cato Institute, the United States ranks 20th on the Human Freedom Index.
Texas Rep. Alfonso “Poncho” Nevárez, Eagle Pass, TX
[excerpt from book] 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.
Danny Armendariz, Hidalgo, Texas
[excerpt] 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 mechanized assets (among them a Corvette Stingray, International Scout, Lincoln MKX, 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 consummate version of American life. “I have my cars, my 4x4s, and a house, and that is what I like.”
Mark Clark, Brownsville, TX
"Being on the river is so peaceful. I enjoy the serenity and the calmness--how you can pass through all of this without making a mark." Mark Clark, a soft spoken 68 year old, founded Galeria 409 out of a desire to foster the arts and social discourse within a community that doesn't provide much for creative outlets. Slipping through gaps in the border fence and the invasive carrizo cane that has taken over the U.S. side of the Rio Grande after natural growth was cleared for channelization, Clark takes his canoe out on the river at every opportunity--his quiet way of protesting the construction of the wall and increased militarization of the Rio Grande.
Jaymin Martinez, Brownsville, TX
[excerpt] 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.
Bill Addington, Sierra Blanca, TX
“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.”
John Ladd, West of Naco, AZ
[excerpt] Ladd was now out of his truck. He stood next to us, thumbs wedged in his pockets, and looked at the fence. He had the flinty gaze and a compactness that seemed the characterize the local gene pool. “We don’t need immigration reform,” he continued, “We need to enforce the laws we already have. We’ve been talking about this for twenty years. It's too expensive to build jails, courthouses and hire attorneys, so then we come in and start spending 4 million a mile - that’s a little hypocritical to me.” “The biggest thing for this is showing it on TV back East or Midwest and saying ‘this is our southern border - how can anyone or anything get across that?” That’s we call a dog and pony show.”
Ofelia Rivas, Tohono O’odham Nation
[excerpt from book] At 60, Ofelia comes across youthful but tired. Her exhaustion expresses itself not in any physical way but, for lack of a better word, in her spirit. For decades she has fought for dignity, freedom, and respect: as an O’odham, as an indigenous person of the world, and as a woman. She has lectured to the United Nations. She has told the Dali Lama of her people’s plight. She has spoken out repeatedly about the abuses of Border Patrol, has faced harassment and retaliation. And yet, she feels, the situation is almost getting worse. “You saw what happened at Standing Rock. We don’t have any rights as Tohono O’odham, or as humans. I don’t have any solutions. I used to think it was communication and respect, but that doesn’t work, so I don’t know anymore.”
Joel Smith, near Sasabe, AZ
[excerpt] “I’m trying to keep people alive, not keep America white,” Joel smith tells us as we step out of his truck in a remote patch of the Sonoran desert north of Sasabe, AZ. He shows us one one of the 55 gallon barrels we’ve come to check on. Instead of labels such as “water” or ‘agua” a picture of the Virgin Guadalupe is adhered to the side. “It transcends literacy and language,” Joel explains, “they see this icon and recognize its a good thing.”
Although there didn’t appear to have been a drop in the water level since his last visit, he says that it is never a waste of time coming out here. The fifty-four-year old Arizonan, who as a teenager and army brat lived five blocks from the Berlin wall, works weekends in a magnetic tape factory in Tucson. In his spare time, Joel is the acting Operations Manager of Humane Borders, a non-profit humanitarian organization that places water stations and wells in particularly hot and dry stretches of the Southern Arizona desert based on data from local death maps. Equipped with 300 gallons of water, a generator and spare nylon flags (hand sewn by Sister Elizabeth), volunteers with Humane Borders make long runs to refresh and repair their frequently vandalized water stations.
Collecting another discarded black water bottle (used by migrants for their low-glare) Joel shows us the three slashes Border Patrol agents take to them before throwing them back into the environment. It baffles him why they go to all the trouble to make them unusable instead of removing and recycling them. Meanwhile, volunteers for groups such as Border Angels and No More Deaths have been convicted with “knowingly littering” for leaving bottles of water in the desert for migrants. “I stay within the law, other groups stay within their conscience,” Joel says, explaining that Humane Borders’ has permits for each of their water stations therefore avoiding similar charges. There has always been opposition to helping migrants, he adds, but humanitarian aid is not a crime.