McALLEN — Despite the fervor surrounding President Trump’s appearance in the Rio Grande Valley, some locals who are expected to be impacted by wall construction didn’t see a reason for his visit.
Reynaldo Anzaldua, 73, of Donna, said Trump’s presence in the Valley is an insult after the president attempted to sell a crisis on the border during a nationally televised address.
Anzaldua’s cousin, Jose Alfredo “Fred” Cavazos, 69, of Mission, is concerned that border wall funding, which was approved last March in an Omnibus bill for 25 miles of levee wall in Hidalgo County, will impact his property along the Rio Grande, where construction has been designated.
During his visit Thursday, Trump stopped by Anzaldua County Park, which is adjacent to Cavazos’ property and where wall construction is set to begin next month, pending any lawsuits filed by property owners such as Cavazos.
Anzaldua also characterized the president’s visit as disrespectful to Valley residents who are aware that there is not a “crisis” on the border.
“It’s a slap in the face to us, and it should be an embarrassment to him,” Anzaldua said of the president’s visit to the Valley. “It’s pretty obvious that the man dislikes Hispanics. Everything that comes out of his mouth suggests that, and (that) he is trying to rub this (visit) in our faces, and that’s what he’s doing by coming here and talking about the border wall business.”
A Vietnam veteran and former U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer, Anzaldua has previously faced a government land seizure aside from his cousin’s property in Mission that’s in danger.
It happened in 2006, when the government attempted to seize land along the levees. More than 10 years ago, Anzaldua fought the government and eventually had to concede several acres of his land in Granjeno. Anzaldua’s extended family, which includes the Cavazoses, owned several acres in the Valley going back to the 1800s.
The veteran said he wasn’t going to be in town for the day of the visit, but reiterated there was no such crisis on the border.
“We don’t see that on the border; we don’t see the crisis he sees, or (what) he pretends to see,” Anzaldua said. “I don’t even think he understands the border; if they really want to worry about a land border they should be looking at the Canadian border, because that’s where the terrorists can come in. They’re not going to come in through a militarized border.”
Anzaldua said contractors were out on Cavazos’ property in late December surveying the land where construction is expected next month, despite a lack of legal authority to do so.
For now, Anzaldua said they await word from the government, and if necessary will file a lawsuit to stop any construction on the land.
Scott Nicol, an environmentalist and co-chair of the Sierra Club’s local chapter, said many of the properties slated for construction are still owned by private property owners.
He said this makes it difficult for construction to begin next month, unless the administration circumvents the law to do so.
“I think, assuming the administration obeys the law — and it could be that he’s going to put out some emergency declaration and try to use that as a way to suspend the law — but assuming he follows the law, he doesn’t own property at the (National) Butterfly Center, at La Lomita (Chapel), at Fred Cavazos’ place, or any other local landowners’ places,” Nicol said. “He could build walls through U.S. Fish and Wildlife refuges, there’s no need for the federal government to condemn that property, but you’re not getting a very long continuous bit of wall that way.”
Nicol adds that other locations, like Bentsen State Park, and the National Butterfly Center are in danger as well, designated as areas that will have construction along the levees.
“He may be targeting Bentsen State Park, if the state of Texas allows him to. The state of Texas is the landowner there, or if any private landowners agree to sign over their land, and that is done before the construction is set to begin,” Nicol said. “But places like the butterfly center, where condemnation has not been completed, (and) the court has not granted the federal government possession, they can’t legally do anything there. They can’t legally bulldoze land and build stuff on property that they don’t own anymore than I could go and bulldoze my next door neighbor’s house.”
Nicol said it’s possible the president declares a national emergency on the border, which would allow him to bypass laws stopping him from beginning the construction along the border.
“The wildcard is if he declares an emergency declaration, and then claims that gives him the ability to wall-off, to build walls, and not have to wait for the courts,” the longtime Valley environmentalist said. “He might act upon that; it would be a total violation of the law, but who knows.”
Sylvia Ramirez, of Mercedes, also dismissed the president’s visit as a stunt.
“I wish he would cancel. I think it’s useless he’s coming,” Ramirez said prior to the president’s arrival. “I think it’s a photo op that he’s doing for his base; nothing good will come of it.”
Ramirez, like Anzaldua and Cavazos, is among the families who will be impacted by proposed border wall construction.
That’s because Ramirez and her family own property of a church and two historical cemeteries — the Martin Jackson cemetery, where Ramirez’s father was buried; the Eli Jackson cemetery, named for Nathaniel’s son and the final resting place of Nathaniel Jackson, the patriarch of the family.
Proposed construction on a levee just north of that land would shut them off from being able to visit the cemeteries, and if plans for construction go through, would mean her own plans to be buried there would be affected.
The Eli Jackson cemetery, which is about 300 feet west of the Martin Jackson cemetery, is of particular concern for Ramirez because of its proximity to the levee, where border wall infrastructure would compress it against a 150-foot-wide patrol road, expected to be built along with a levee wall.
Ramirez said she’d want the chance to speak to the president or his representatives, and make them aware of the difficult position in which he’s placing many local landowners.
“If he is going to come, I wish he would try to have his representatives speak to us directly about our concerns because there haven’t been any public, face-to-face forums for stakeholders in the area regarding the border wall. It seems like the government wants limited input,” Ramirez said.
She said if she had the opportunity to speak with the president she would convey to him how much it would hurt her family to have a wall cut them off from their family’s burial grounds.
“This border wall, if it actually comes to pass, would negatively impact our family’s legacy, including the family’s chapel and two cemeteries that have been a part of our family since the 1800s, cemeteries where some of us still plan to be buried.”
Another historical site that may be disrupted by the coming construction is the city of Mission’s namesake, La Lomita Chapel, which has stood as a monument to the Oblate missionaries since 1865.
Father Roy Snipe, the eccentric priest who has been a staple at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church for more than 25 years, has led thousands of congregates to the chapel for ceremonies for nearly three decades.
Snipe, known as the “Cowboy priest” for his unorthodox approach and his love of a cold beer on a hot and humid South Texas day, said he was perplexed by the announcement of the president’s visit.
“I was kinda baffled — bewildered, not bitter,” Snipes said. “I am wondering what the heck, it seems that the more we hope, pray and promote that wiser, kinder hearts and heads would prevail, we get this.”
He said he heard Trump’s speech Tuesday evening, and was in agreement that this humanitarian challenge is a matter of the heart and soul, but not an emergency.
“It was interesting. I’d never heard him talk about the heart and the soul. I wonder if he had any sense of that, and it is (a matter of the heart and soul), because there is a heartlessness to (a) just black-and-white response to all these problems,” Snipes said. “I wouldn’t say we’re up against a big emergency. It is a matter of the heart and soul to say that all our neighbors on the other side of the river are murderers, thieves, rapists and drug dealers, and they’re all trying to come over here and bring us harm. That’s not a good way to cultivate your soul.”
La Lomita is currently in danger of also being walled-off by proposed construction; the wall would be constructed on the levee that would cut-off access to the entrance of the property where the chapel sits.
But because of a lawsuit filed on behalf of the Catholic Church, the construction, which is planned to start next month, remains on hold.
Snipes shared a text message he received Thursday morning from another Oblate priest who was referencing Trump’s visit.
It was a picture of the Rio Grande near Kamp Keralum, just up the river from La Lomita in Mission, with a message that was simply stated.
“May he open to the graces flowing from these sacred places,” a message Snipes echoed.
“He’s coming to the sacred river, the Rio Bravo, the Rio Grande; we have a beautiful history,” the father said. “We come from a long line of love, and humble, kind people. I hope some of that spirit will touch his heart and soul.”