Laredoans express support and opposition to proposed border wall ahead of election

The Border Wall

LAREDO, Texas (Border Report) — It’s just after 9 a.m. on this foggy Saturday morning in South Texas as rain spits down, roosters crow and packs of street dogs begin to circle a small group of volunteers who are taping anti-border wall literature on the iron fences of homes in a low-income house development on the border with Mexico.

The Santa Rita neighborhood is the southern most border subdivision in this city of 250,000. Cars can be seen driving on a Mexican highway across the Rio Grande in Laredo’s sister-city of Nuevo Laredo in the state of Tamaulipas.

The group of seven, including four teenage girls, and one who is absolutely terrified of dogs, met at a library that is so tiny, it blends in with the modest houses. They then walked down several dozen steps to the riverfront neighborhood park, Parque España, which is empty except for two Border Patrol agents in SUVs and two others riding noisy all-terrain vehicles.

The agents regularly patrol this part of the river, where one can throw a stone across and hit a dirt mound in Mexico.

Sisters Dominique Reyes, 15, and Daina Reyes, 16, came with their former middle-school reading teacher Maxine Reveles, a self-described outspoken activist. 

“When they heard I was trying to protect our residents and our river — our only source of water — they wanted to come,” Reveles said. “They don’t want our only source of water to go away so they’re giving up their Saturdays to come out and help spread the word.”

It was the second Saturday this month that volunteers associated with the No Border Wall Coalition have met in neighborhoods and block-walked to talk to residents about the harmful effects they believe a border wall will have on their community if built. The events are being organized by the nonprofit Rio Grande International Study Center, which in the past year has held a river sit-in, downtown protest march, and painted a “Defund the Wall” street mural in front of the federal courthouse downtown. The group also plans to canvass other neighborhoods on weekends leading up to Election Day on Nov. 3.

U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently have awarded construction contracts for 71 miles of border wall to be built on the edge of town. The 30-foot-tall metal bollard wall, plus 150-foot enforcement zone that includes a road and floodlights and cameras, is slated to bisect Parque España.

Although the Reyes sisters aren’t quite sure who is on the ballot for president, when asked, they speak up about how they feel about constructing a wall and dividing this side of the river from the other.

“I just don’t think it’s needed,” Daina says.

Before the group canvassed the neighborhood, event organizer Juan Ruiz, a 25-year-old field organizer with the Rio Grande International Study Center who also was heavily involved with the painting of the mural, walked with the group down to the river. Most of the teens are life-long Laredoans but said they had never been to the river.

Ruiz pointed at a country club and upscale golf course across the river, and explained how the river’s fierce undercurrent that isn’t always visible from the banks is why locals call it the “Rio Bravo.”

“It’s really strong. You don’t want to underestimate it,” Ruiz said. “But it’s really fantastic.”

Volunteers block walked on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, in the Santa Rita neighborhood in south Laredo, Texas, passing out Spanish literature opposing border wall construction. (Photos by Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Carolina Ramirez and Alexandra Martinez, both 17-year-old high-school seniors joined this early morning weekend crew.

“We wanted to support and show the people of Laredo that their vote matters and that they should definitely go out and vote so they don’t fund our wall,” Ramirez said. 

“Some people have been here their whole lives and they’re just going to cut it off from them. They shouldn’t do that,” Martinez said.

Cristal Martinez, 22, of Laredo, Texas, walks beside the Rio Grande at a park in the Santa Rita neighborhood on Saturday, Oct. 17, 20202. She was part of a group that block-walked the neighborhood passing out information against the construction of a border wall. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Ruiz lives in Santa Rita, a neighborhood he says comes alive at night with impromptu food trucks, taco stands in front yards, and neighbors selling elote (corn) in cups and other savory foods when the health department isn’t looking.

Residents here have modest means, but they are friendly and take care of their homes. Although nobody wanted their photos taken or their names recorded, not one person interviewed by Border Report said they favored a border wall built here.

One gentleman drove up to the group and asked for literature. Ruiz explained to him where the wall is slated to be built, and the gentleman pointed to his house, just a few feet away. Shaking his head with the Spanish literature in hand, he drove away.

A CBP officer asks volunteers on Oct. 17, 2020, if they are salesmen. The group were taping Spanish literature against construction of a border wall in the Santa Rita neighborhood of south Laredo, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)
Juan Ruiz, a field organizer with the Rio Grande International Study Center led a group of block walks on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020, in Laredo in opposition to border wall construction. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Border Patrol agents readily patrol this area and a CBP officer even stopped to ask if the group was selling anything.

“There really isn’t any need for a wall in this neighborhood and this community. We’re one of the safest cities in the United States,” Ruiz said. “I’ve lived on the block we’re standing on and I’ve never felt in danger or the need for stricter security than what is already in place.”

In 2020, Laredo was among the top 200 safest cities in America, rated 183, by SafeWise.com.

But Sandra Whitten, who is the GOP candidate running against long-time Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, for the 28th district congressional seat, firmly disagrees.

Standing in another riverfront Laredo park about 10 miles away on the northwestern side of the city, called Father McNaboe Park, Whitten said there needs to be more border security measures, equipment and infrastructure.

“We have a crisis on our southern border and Cuellar says we don’t,” said Whitten, the mother of four children originally from Portsmouth, Virginia. “If he’s going to sit here and lie while I watch it happen … sweeping it under the rug so we don’t pay attention to it. … But there is actually a problem on the border”

There is actually a problem on the border.”

GOP candidate Sandra Whitten, of Laredo

Whitten said this is a major platform in her campaign and she supports the building of a border wall “where needed.” She says President Donald Trump has all along advocated for a wall only in areas where it is necessary.

“It’s going to depend on what our agents say. They’re the ones who need to make that decision. They’re the ones who work this area,” said Whitten, 36, whose husband, Emmanuel, is a Border Patrol agent.

Sandra Whitten, 36, who is running as a Republican for the 28th congressional district, which includes Laredo, Texas, stands at the banks of the Rio Grande at Father McNaboe Park, in Laredo, on Oct. 17, 2020. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

The neighborhood outside McNaboe Park is much more affluent than Santa Rita. There are no iron fences in the front yards, and it’s active with signs for Trump/Pence and Biden/Harris, as well as a heavily contested city council race.

Whitten said there are a lot more conservative voters in Laredo than people think. She ran uncontested in the primary and got 20,000 votes. But she said she expects many more in the general because she says people are “fired up” over these issues.

Park goers play football at Father McNaboe Park in Laredo on Saturday, Oct. 17, 2020. The park is on the Rio Grande where a border wall could be built. (Photos by Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Whitten said she’s discouraged that the country is so divided over this issue and “just wants everyone to start talking again.”

Across town, Ruiz and his group broke for lunch around 12:30 p.m., just as the clouds were beginning to clear and the South Texas sun blazed above.

“We did have a few conversations,” Ruiz said. “I think people here, it’s not an issue that people are given the opportunity to discuss in terms of facts, so it was interesting to be able to facilitate that discussion and give people some of the facts we know for sure are out there.”

Sandra Sanchez can be reached at Ssanchez@borderreport.com.

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