(Photo illustration by Ivan Armando Flores)

Want to Build a Wall? Don’t Try It in Her Town.

How a Laredo activist and her scrappy environmental group have fought back against powerful interests in South Texas


A version of this story ran in the May / June 2024 issue.

On a Wednesday evening last February, Tricia Cortez stood before a crowd gathered for an emergency meeting at a community center in the tiny South Texas border town of El Cenizo. “How many of you have heard about the border wall in general?” Cortez asked. Almost everyone raised their hand. “How many of you have heard that the Texas governor wants to build a wall here? No los federales, este es el gobernador de Tejas.” Only a few hands were raised.

That was understandable. Cortez herself had only recently learned the state awarded contracts to build several miles of 30-foot-tall steel fencing along the Rio Grande in Webb and Zapata counties, cutting through towns downriver of Laredo like El Cenizo and Rio Bravo. Shocked, Cortez did what she does best: get organized. 

Cortez, 49, grew up in downtown San Antonio, raised by a single mother who was a Chicana activist. A high achiever, Cortez went on to study public policy at Princeton University and later took a job in journalism. In the early aughts, she moved to Laredo to report for the Laredo Morning Times and fell in love with the city, its binational culture, quirky politics, and complex policy issues. 

Since 2010, Cortez has helmed the Rio Grande International Study Center (RGISC), a scrappy environmental nonprofit founded 30 years ago by two biology professors to clean up the Rio Grande—Laredo’s lifeblood.

Under Cortez’s leadership as executive director, RGISC (pronounced “risk”—the group’s informal motto: “The ‘G’ may be silent, but we aren’t”) has expanded its focus to include clean air, land conservation, and climate change adaptation.

Cortez has put down deep roots in Laredo, where she’s raising two young children. She’s built a network of friends, allies, and sources—from city hall to Congress, within Border Patrol and local businesses—whom she won’t hesitate to ply, prod, or pressure to advance RGISC’s mission. “I know I can be a pain in the ass,” Cortez told the Texas Observer. “You have to be tenacious to do this work; you have to have a little bit of crazy.” 

Tom Vaughan is one of the former biology professors who co-founded RGISC in 1994 and first hired Cortez. “I don’t know very many people that work harder and longer than Tricia,” he said. “I don’t know if she sleeps at night—I don’t think so.”

As the Western hemisphere’s largest land port, Laredo is an international trade boomtown. A Democratic stronghold, the 95-percent Hispanic city of 250,000 has long been controlled by a conservative political machine with levers pulled by big business, wealthy ranchers, U.S. Border Patrol, and the oil and gas industry. That machine hasn’t naturally worked on behalf of the city’s working-class Latino population—and certainly not on behalf of the environment. 

(Courtesy/Tricia Cortez)

But, with Cortez at the helm, RGISC has become a mighty organizing vehicle and trusted voice because “we’re not beholden to any interests,” she said.

Cortez and RGISC have been at the forefront of the city’s biggest policy battles for years, including a campaign a decade ago to enact a municipal plastic bag ban (since struck down in state court) against opposition from powerful retail lobbyists. More recently, RGISC mobilized against a commercial sterilizer plant that was spewing toxic chemicals into the air.

But Cortez’s most high-profile work has come since ex-President Donald Trump’s border wall came knocking in Webb County five years ago. With RGISC as the catalyst in the Laredo area, the No Border Wall Coalition assembled a motley crew of environmentalists, birders, immigration activists, and artists—along with wealthy riverfront ranch owners, often big GOP donors—who found common cause in battling the wall. 

“[Cortez] is a force of nature,” said Melissa Cigarroa, who served as the board president of RGISC before getting elected in 2022 to the Laredo City Council. “She’s very politically savvy in the sense of drawing [together] different people in different sectors of our community by looking for shared interests. That’s why the No Border Wall movement was so successful.” 

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Though she likely wouldn’t take credit (Cigarroa called her “ego-less”), it was Cortez’s idea to enlist well-heeled landowners in the coalition, helping bring funding and national media attention. 

Trump at one point planned about 70 miles of wall for Webb and neighboring Zapata County. But unlike farther south in the Rio Grande Valley, he never managed to build a foot in Cortez’s backyard. By October 2021, President Joe Biden’s administration canceled the last wall contracts in the area. (As of May, a legal battle was still playing out over the unspent funding.)

Groups like RGISC are often dismissed by politicians as gadflys. But Cortez favors a honey-over-vinegar approach that gets her group in the door, and at the table, without selling out the mission. “We may not always align,” she said, “but they know we’re always gonna be straight about how we’re assessing things.”

Take her relationship with the powerful Laredo Congressman Henry Cuellar, a contact since her reporting days. The conservative Democrat and border security hawk has long rankled environmental and immigration advocacy groups, along with liberals in his own party. He also has a mixed record on wall funding in South Texas. But with some diplomatic pressure, he became a firm ally of RGISC against the Trump wall in the Laredo area. 

Cortez attributes Cuellar’s position to repeated primary challenges from his left but also to the strength of the No Wall coalition. “I think he had to evolve on this issue,” Cortez said. “He ended up playing an important role.” 

In a statement to the Observer, Cuellar said: “I’ve had the pleasure of working with Tricia Cortez and RGISC for years in advocating against a border wall. … Tricia is a good friend and a great leader.” 

RGISC’s win over border fencing, however, would prove short-lived. Starting in 2021, Governor Greg Abbott made finishing Trump’s wall part of his sprawling border militarization scheme, Operation Lone Star. Unlike the feds, who often use eminent domain to seize land for the wall, the state of Texas pledged only to buy property from willing owners. 

“It’s clear they pick on the little guy. They go after places where they think people aren’t smart enough, or [aren’t] gonna talk back.”

In the weeks before that town hall back in El Cenizo, Cortez had heard state agents were offering significant sums to landowners. The coalition urged residents, “¡No firmen nada!” and offered free legal consultations. Cortez and Cigarroa also secured a meeting with Abbott’s newly appointed border czar to express concerns.

In the year since, the state has not acquired much land for its wall in El Cenizo and Rio Bravo—a testament to the rapid response that Cortez’s coalition organized. But the wall has continued elsewhere, mainly on big remote ranches and farmland, including a riverfront stretch in Zapata County popular among birders. 

At some point, Cortez knows, the state will turn back to residential areas near Laredo—likely with ever-more enticing offers. But Cortez and her coalition won’t be caught sleeping, she said, and they won’t be used as political pawns. 

“It’s clear they pick on the little guy. They go after places where they think people aren’t smart enough, or [aren’t] gonna talk back, or … where people should know their place,” Cortez said. “Well, that ain’t Laredo.”