Editor’s note: This piece was written in partnership with the Columbia Journalism Review and the Delacorte Review, the literary nonfiction journal of the Columbia Journalism School. The project focuses on the stories and conversations going on in communities leading up to the November election.
The Rio Grande is just a trickle in many parts of West Texas, but it grows in force, depth, speed and character as it rolls through communities in deep South Texas, heading towards the Gulf of Mexico. Along the way, this curving international boundary meanders past towns and county seats, past historic cemeteries, schools, and alongside highways. By the time it empties into the Gulf, just east of Brownsville, the ancient river is rolling at fast speeds, wide, and a sustaining life force for so many in this border region.
The Rio Grande is the sole drinking water supply for the 260,000 people in Laredo. It’s what farmers rely on to water their crops and cattle. It’s a fishing ground for many. And it’s where children crack cascarones (colored eggshells) on Easter as families celebrate their most sacred holiday by barbecuing and picnicking on its banks. The river serves as the common link for dozens of South Texas communities, all of which have Hispanic majority populations with unique traditions, but share similar economic and familial bonds with their sister communities south of the river border in Mexico.
Now, the river is a source of consternation and controversy for many communities in South Texas, as Donald Trump has begun building a thirty-foot-tall metal border wall––a wall that will block some communities, like Laredo, from its water source.
It is with that backdrop that river expert Tricia Cortez, who heads the Rio Grande International Study Center, a nonprofit that studies the river, took to the Rio Grande with some friends recently to make a statement. Rowing side by side in two kayaks, Cortez and three others paddled just below the Juarez-Lincoln International Bridge (called “Bridge 2” by locals), where city leaders from Laredo and Nuevo Laredo in Mexico were holding their annual International Bridge Ceremony on February 22nd. As tradition, leaders from both sides walk to the bridge’s midpoint, the international boundary line, to abrazar (embrace) and demonstrate goodwill for the next year. Sign up for CJR’s daily email
This year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi attended. So did almost every dignitary in the area from Laredo and Nuevo Laredo, along with costumed mariachi singers and other celebrants. But this year, the public’s attention was fixed on Cortez and her group as they floated below, holding a banner between the two kayaks that read #NoBorderWall. Spectators on the bridge poked each other and pointed, while Cortez filmed from the water on her cellphone.
Cortez said she protested because, with the presidential election nearing, she realized that she had to speak out against Trump’s divisive rhetoric, aimed particularly towards minorities and immigrant-rich Hispanic communities like Laredo. Cortez, a San Antonio native who moved to Laredo in 2001 to be the City Hall reporter for a local newspaper, a position she held until 2008, says she will no longer watch on the sidelines as a border wall is built through her hometown, or as Trump overtly links immigrants with “criminals,” as he did during the State of the Union address.
“The way that they characterize the border and the way we live. I just can’t stomach that,” Cortez said. “I’m filled with grief and sadness and anxiety and depression thinking about the wall and how it will rip through our city and these lands so flippantly with complete disregard to our history, our culture, our ties to the land, and our ties to the river. And to know that it’s being done for political gain for a presidential campaign, I just find so repulsive and dangerous.”
Cortez intends to keep her eyes open and her voice loud, organizing events to inform others about the border wall. This is especially necessary because “the local newspaper has sadly atrophied” from its heyday when the newsroom of the Laredo Morning Times–one of the oldest newspapers in Texas–was filled with reporters, like herself, hitting the streets and covering every aspect of their beat, holding elected officials accountable. Today, the paper reports a circulation of around six thousand. The few remaining reporters do not have the resources or voices necessary to spur the kind of movement that Cortez says is necessary to counter what Trump, in his State of the Union address, boasted would be “a long, tall and very powerful wall.”
An unlikely hero
Cortez, a soft-spoken, 45-year-old Princeton University graduate and mother of two young children, admits she is an unlikely leader, and says she has never acted quite like this before. But as executive director of the Rio Grande International Study Center, she realizes that she has a unique platform that enables her to educate and motivate her community. It’s a platform she is now fully utilizing. In the past few months, Cortez has led a protest march, a river sit-in, and the recent kayak stunt. And in the remaining months leading up to November, she plans to hold several more events.
“We’re not going to take this lying down. We can’t,” Cortez said. “Laredo was founded alongside and because of the river and the city is built right up to the river, neighborhoods, parks, ranches, everything is built right up to the river. It’s a very real asset for us and what infuriates me is that we’re not worthy of the same federal protection and federal laws that every other place in the United States is worthy of.”
A moment of clarity
Looking back on how the country, and Laredo, got to this point, Cortez blames herself.
It was her own gullibility, she said, that prevented her from realizing howTrump’s slights toward minorities indicated his desire to enact policies that would deny human rights to some by preventing asylum-seekers from entering US soil.
“When Trump first got elected I really tried to keep an open mind,” Cortez said. She even praised his trade dealings with China and credited him with improving the US economy.
But she vividly recalls the exact moment last summer when she realized his “true intentions” and how they could hurt her people, her community, and her region. That was on Sunday, July 14, when Trump singled out four minority Demoratic female members of Congress — Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, of New York; Ilhan Omar, of Minnesota; Rashida Tlaib, of Michigan; and Ayanna Pressley, of Massachusetts—by tweeting that they should “go back” to the “places from which they came.”
Omar was born in Somalia; the others were born in the United States. If Trump felt that way about those elected officials of color, then how did he feel about other women of color like herself, she wondered. She found out the next day when, in an impromptu news conference, Trump said that the women were “free to leave” the country if they were unhappy, and he accused them of hating America.
“I didn’t approach his presidency already cerrada [closed off]. I tried to stay open,” Cortez explained. “Whether you agree with his politics or not, he made it seem like they weren’t part of the American fabric. They weren’t white enough. And for me that was ya [enough], I could no longer take it. No more Donald Trump for me.”
That moment propelled her into hyper-awareness and she is now set on protecting her border town––a town that is older than the United States, founded in 1755, and at one time was the capital of the short-lived independent nation, the Republic of the Rio Grande. It’s a town that hosts month-long celebrations of George Washington’s birthday, massive quinceañeras every weekend, and has the nation’s largest port of entry for importation of goods from Mexico. It’s a place where families walk across the various international bridges to Nuevo Laredo to visit relatives and loved ones after Sunday church services, a place where residents might not be wealthy of coin, but are rich in love and families, and proud of their heritage and culture. It’s a place where communities on both sides of the Rio Grande are bound by the river––not separated by it.
Cortez plans to host an event each month leading up to the election in every area of Laredo, from the richest to the poorest neighborhoods. This includes giving out river and border wall maps “so they can see how impacted they’ll be,” she said. “We are trying to connect the dots between us and other active groups along the border to try and apply as much pressure as we can.” The center has also joined a lawsuit with Earthjustice, challenging the president’s declaration of a national emergency on the southern border. As head of this nonprofit, which receives tax funds for support, Cortez is not allowed to endorse a candidate. But she says she has no trouble pointing out that what Trump is doing is wrong. And she vows to use whatever is necessary, including the mighty Rio Grande, to make her point.