Earlier this week, the Observer published a piece by Domingo Martinez titled, “I Grew Up on the Texas-Mexico Border, but Now I Barely Recognize It.” Martinez laments the tremendous changes Brownsville, the border city where he grew up, has undergone since his departure 23 years ago.
Pointing out the 21-foot-tall border fence, a constant visual reminder of this country’s racist and xenophobic insecurities and the extreme over-policing our region is subjected to by multiple law enforcement agencies, Martinez calls Brownsville a “militarized zone.”
The border is indisputably militarized. That, however, is about the only thing that Martinez gets right. Throughout the rest of the piece, Martinez paints a deeply inaccurate, disrespectful and damaging depiction of the city of Brownsville and its residents.
Martinez, who genuinely appears to be surprised that the city he once called home was not frozen in time the moment he left, is guilty of disrespecting and erasing a rich history of past and current resistance efforts. Because he notices changes, he blames residents for the extremely violent and forceful measures of militarization that have been imposed upon them. He states that the “people who live here need to be much more involved in the determinations of their own future, and be far more vocal, instead of passive and submissive while waves upon waves of occupational government forces move in to make their future for them.” Although he hasn’t lived in the Rio Grande Valley for over two decades, he goes on to add that the “people who should be shouting down the out-of-towners who don’t depend on it are being dangerously, stupidly silent.”
It’s not the first time Martinez does this disservice to Brownsville or the Valley. In the past decade, he has used his access to national platforms like the New York Times not to amplify the voices of those living at the border, but rather to paint similarly condescending portrayals.
Martinez, of course, is not the first or only person to oversimplify the Valley in this way. Unfortunately, when border residents aren’t painted as “complacent,” they are often portrayed as backward people who are presumably incapable of identifying and fighting for the changes their communities need. Rather than investing and supporting the work and vision of those who actually live here, many “out-of-towners,” as Martinez calls them, drop in to critique, impose their own visions and to try to “save us.” Along the way, they frequently fetishize border communities and residents, using both collective and individual stories of trauma and pain to advance external agendas. Either way, the end result is always the same: others talking about us or “for us,” but, ultimately, without us.
It was this phenomenon that motivated local community members and organizers to create Neta, a nonprofit media organization based in the Valley and sponsored by Progress Texas, last year. Since then, Neta has used its time and resources to amplify the vision, voices and resistance movements of the Rio Grande Valley.
In the last 10 months, coincidentally the time Martinez says he spent in Brownsville, we have covered the hundreds of people who have organized efforts against the construction of more border wall segments with La Union Del Pueblo Entero and Sierra Club; University of Texas Rio Grande Valley students walking out of class and getting arrested during a civil disobedience action to fight for the passage of the Dream Act; hundreds testifying against the construction of an LNG terminal in Cameron County with the Save RGV from LNG campaign; and a coalition of residents accompanying an undocumented mother to her check-in with ICE to keep her from being detained and deported. These are not signs of a community that is “stupidly silent,” as Martinez described in his essay.
Brownsville and the RGV aren’t perfect. But neither is the West Coast, Seattle, or any other place in the world. Feedback is welcome, but it matters who it’s coming from and what work they have done toward advancing positive change. It also requires, at the bare minimum, an understanding and respect of the work already done.
It’s easy to look at the border fence or the saturation of law enforcement in our area and to judge border communities. It’s also wrong and superficial. Border residents have always been fighting against our oppression. We have been shouting. We are shouting now, even as many of our residents are fighting just to exist and survive.
Although we are the ones forced to carry the painful consequences, the militarization of our home is not a representation of border communities’ failures. It is a symbol of national failure. If a border wall is built, much like the border fence, this will be on the rest of the country, the “out-of-towners” who watched, were complacent and did nothing.
Brownsville and the broader area of the RGV are thriving and resisting. We are doing so despite the current national attacks directed against us, our traditions and our way of life. We are doing so despite the oversaturation of Border Patrol and various other policing agencies, poverty, unfair media reporting and the racist and systemic oppression historically inflicted on our region. What is more, we are doing so without the resources and support – both financial and social — that many larger cities are accustomed to.
In his essay, Martinez shares that he once tried to make a joke with a Border Patrol agent and how that joke cost him an entire afternoon. “I made a conscious choice then: Don’t try to joke with the Border Patrol.” We can’t help but feel that it is not the place of someone who left the Valley decades ago and who feels comfortable joking around with Border Patrol to cast judgment on those actively fighting and resisting impunity and abuse in the Valley.
Dani Marrero Hi is the director at Neta. She lives in Mission, Texas.
Lissette Castillo is the managing editor at Neta. She recently moved from Chicago back to Brownsville, her hometown.
Sadie Hernandez is a reproductive rights and justice advocate from Brownsville.