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In the Rio Grande Valley, a border closes, and signs of a wall as the pandemic spreads

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'Year of Fear': Chapter 8

LA ROSITA, Texas — Standing on the banks of her family’s Texas property, Nayda Alvarez shuddered as she stared out across the deep waters of the Rio Grande, her eyes fixed on Mexico. It was March 7, and she couldn’t stop thinking that President Trump would likely close the U.S.-Mexico border, citing concerns over the coronavirus spread. Most of all, she feared that he would find a way to blame Mexicans and those trying to migrate from the South for the current crisis, despite the fact that Mexico only had a couple of reported cases and the United States had hundreds. If he did this, he would very likely be able to further his political agenda and presidential campaign promise to complete the border wall, she pointed out.

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.

Alvarez, a 48-year-old high school teacher, mother and grandmother, has lived in rural Starr County in deep South Texas for four decades. For her, the border wall is personal, as it is slated to cut through her family’s land. When Trump officially announced he was closing the United States’ borders with Mexico and Canada for all “non essential travel” on March 20th to stop the spread of COVID-19, Alvarez worried for what was to come. “He’s going to use it as an excuse because his main priority was to close the border three years ago and this is just going to be the excuse he needed,” she said mere hours after the closure took effect.

Nayda Alvarez stands in her family’s riverfront property in La Rosita, Texas. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Trump’s order was announced at a 90-minute White House press conference during which he berated NBC News’ White House Correspondent Peter Alexander, who asked the president what he would “say to Americans who are watching you right now who are scared?” Trump, who for weeks downplayed the seriousness of the virus, saying it would “vanish” on its own, turned on Alexander, calling the question “nasty” and accused him of being a “terrible reporter.” The next day, also during a White House coronavirus media briefing, Trump again lashed out at the media, accusing The Washington Post of being “fake media” and hyping unnecessary hysteria and “lies” about his administration and its handling of the deadly, novel virus.

For Alvarez, Trump’s systematic approach to dismiss anyone or any group who disagrees with him is proof that he will stop at nothing to further his political causes, even during such a dire time. Despite the fact that much of the nation is on lockdown due to the coronavirus, including Starr County, Alvarez said that construction on the border wall continues in her small, rural South Texas county and she fears it will soon begin near her home, located six miles in between the county seat of Rio Grande City and the town of Roma.

Testifying before Congress against the border wall

When COVID-19 first gripped the world’s attention, Alvarez thought it would perhaps divert Trump from building a border wall. But even during this national crisis — in which several states, including California, New York, Illinois, Connecticut, Oregon and New Jersey have ordered residents to shelter-in-place — Alvarez notes that wooden survey markers with pink ribbons affixed on top flutter in the wind on her property, indicating the planned construction path of a border wall.

Alvarez positioned outdoor cameras throughout her property, which includes her grandfather’s house and her father’s house in a close knit alcove down an unmarked dirt road. She monitors the cameras 24/7 to try and stop surveyors from entering. But the stakes were put on her family’s property this February without her permission when she went to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress about her opposition to the border wall. Other markers can be seen cutting a path through neighboring fields of this tiny community of about 300 people, located 50 miles west of McAllen, Texas.

Nayda Alvarez’ South Texas roof in rural Starr County bears a message to President Trump and anyone else who wants to build a border wall through her riverfront property. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

The juxtaposition of the markers indicate that her home is directly in the path of the wall, what the U.S. Border Patrol calls the Border Infrastructure System. This system includes a 30-foot-tall border wall with steel bollards and a concrete base, tall overhead floodlights, underground sensors, infrared cameras and an all-weather road laid parallel to the barrier. From the placement of the current stakes, the 150-foot “enforcement zone” system is lined up to go right through Alvarez’ 4-bedroom, one-story, ranch-style home.

On her roof, Alvarez painted a message to Trump in white block letters reading: “NO BORDER WALL.” She painted it in the summer of 2015 right before Trump, then a presidential candidate, flew into Laredo about 100 miles northwest of her home.

I’m going to lose my access to the river. I’m going to lose our customs and mind you, over what? A campaign promise. That’s the way I see it.”

Nayda Alvarez

“I’m going to lose my access to the river. I’m going to lose our customs and mind you, over what? A campaign promise. That’s the way I see it,” Alvarez said, as she eyed the 200-meter-wide divide between the two countries that she loves.

Campaigning for AOC-backed opponent

Alvarez is a Democrat. Leading up to the March 3 Texas primary election, she campaigned in Starr County for the little-known immigration lawyer Jessica Cisneros, a 26-year-old who challenged longtime Texas Democratic congressman and vice chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, Henry Cuellar. Cisneros was backed by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who helped Cisneros raise nearly $1 million in campaign funds from sources outside the state of Texas. Although Cisneros lost, it was by just 2,746 votes — 51.8% to 48.2% — and the race has given Alvarez hope that change will come during the November general election.

As the Democratic candidate field becomes smaller and smaller, Alvarez is still not sure who she will back, but they must promise to abolish the border wall, she said. Alvarez had been leaning toward Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who, before dropping out, proposed an agenda that would defund the border wall and use billions of dollars to help stop COVID-19.

Beloved Rio Bravo

To many, the river is called the Rio Grande, but locals refer to it as the Rio Bravo (translation “mean” river) because of its unseen ferocity. Alvarez pointed to the top currents that swirled one way, but underneath, she said, is an undertow that goes the other way. They never swim in the waters, she said. They respect the river and celebrate it. They gather on its banks and barbecue on a grassy spot free from prickly pear cacti and brush. It is a safe place for her three grandchildren to run and frolic without the fear of rattlesnakes.

“I have lived on this land for 40 years alongside where my grandfather lives. I worry about my father’s health once our land is taken. This land is where my daughters were raised and where I see my grandchildren play,” Alvarez told lawmakers during her five-minute speech before the House committee. “This is not only my home but it is a place of gathering for my family. It is part of my family history and my inheritance passed down to me from my ancestors — a tradition I intend to continue. However this ancestral home will be destroyed by the construction of the border wall.”

U.S. Customs and Border Protection recently announced that it had awarded a $179 million contract to a [Missouri] company to build 15 miles of border wall through Starr County. The entire 52 miles of the county, from end to end, are supposed to be walled off, according to CBP.

Alvarez has “been sued by the government” for eminent domain so that they can gain access to her land in order to survey it. She has a federal court hearing scheduled for April 14 in McAllen.

“The government has offered me just $100 for this access, which is what they think is a fair price for giving up so much. And this is the land of prosperity?” she testified on February 27th. “There is already a natural barrier created by a tall bluff from the river. No explanation was ever given to me as to why the government plans to spend billions to construct an artificial one, except for the expensive needless campaign promise. There has been no transparency and we have been intimidated by the government to sign over our rights to our land. We have been talked down to by government officials who think we’re not aware of our rights.”

Alvarez, who has been a teacher for 22 years, said that at this point in her life she was looking toward retirement. But she has instead become a vocal opponent to Trump’s plans.

This was the second time she testified before Congress against the border wall. The first was a year earlier, and she expressed disappointment that her efforts did little good.

Since then, Trump’s administration has waived dozens of laws to expedite the construction of the border wall. In October, the Department of Homeland Security announced it was waiving rules for the border wall construction in South Texas, including environmental regulations that protect endangered species, laws pertaining to the Safe Drinking Water Act, and most recently, federal procurement regulations.

Now, Alvarez said, she is the subject of social media threats. She worries for her family’s financial future if a border wall takes over her home and property. And in this time of coronavirus, she worries about her family’s health and access to her friends and relatives across the Rio Grande. Her doctor is located across the river in Ciudad Miguel Alemán, in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. On the day that Trump announced the travel ban, Alvarez hastily crossed the Roma–Ciudad Miguel Alemán International Bridge into northern Mexico and paid $97 for a two-month supply of her father’s diabetic medication, which, she said, costs $700 in Texas.

Trump’s most recent travel restrictions still allow crossing for medical purposes, as well as commerce and cargo. But Alvarez worries that the entire border will shut down soon, and that they might have to spend significantly more money on medication in Texas, as opposed to buying it in Mexico.

Alvarez doesn’t know if her upcoming court hearing will be postponed, but as she observed, regardless of the coronavirus outbreak, construction is still continuing on border wall sections in Starr County.

“Will I still have a home at the end of this?” she asked. “I will lose my way of life. My privacy. My access to a beautiful river. My plans for the future are now filled with uncertainty,” she said.

This project is supported by a gift from the Delacorte Center for Magazine Journalism Fund at The New York Community Trust.

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