Words of resistance: Former state poet laureate leads fellow writers in wall protest

Carmen Tafolla world-renowned writer and poet from San Antonio leads a team of poets during WritersTurnTheir back on the Border Wall at the base of the 900 year old Montezuma Bald Cypress tree on Sunday April,28, 2019 in Abram. Photo by Delcia Lopez/ dlopez@themonitor.com

ABRAM — Writers from across Texas gathered Sunday morning in front of a 900-year-old tree here to speak about a topic that united the diverse group: protesting the impending border wall construction.

The Montezuma Bald Cypress, one of the few remaining trees of its kind in the Rio Grande Valley, served as the backdrop for members of the Texas Institute of Letters, as well as local poets who did a series of readings about migration, the border wall, the borderlands and the immigrant experience in the United States.

Carmen Tafolla, president of the Texas Institute of Letters and a former state poet laureate, described the cypress as “a tree without a nation,” as it stands just south of the levee fence and just north of the Rio Grande. If the gaps in this section of the wall are closed, the tree will become part of the vast expanse of no man’s land between the physical border and these man-made barriers, land that is largely inaccessible to the people and animals that call this area home.

Tafolla, along with other members of the nonprofit honor society that celebrates Texas literature, were in town for their annual awards banquet, the first time the event has been held south of San Antonio. With the state and nation’s focus on the border, writers need to be on the border, she said, because it is their role as “the prophets of a society” to “interpret what is going on in the present.”

“It’s very important to speak out when things are happening and when there’s destruction of life — whether it’s flora and fauna, or human life — writers should have a voice and should be speaking out loudly about current issues,” Tafolla said.

She selected to read “A Lamp Held High,” a poem she wrote last fall about the experience of a young child migrating to the United States with his mother and being confronted with the harsh reality of being cast as “illegal.”

“How can we shed this word like an old scab and heal?” she read.

“What wall I wonder? Is it the wall you build in your heart to lock the rest of us out?” the poem continued. “The wall between being human and being lo que no vale, without value, without light, the way you see me now.”

Photo Gallery: A Reading at The Border Wall

It was quiet as she spoke before the nearly 40 poets, novelists, short-story writers and journalists assembled in the shadow of the tree. The only sounds came from the wind and the chachalacas, birds native to the Valley, Mexico and Central America.

The U.S. Customs and Border Protection helicopter that had encircled the tree prior to the writers’ arrival was gone and the only noticeable law enforcement presence was when the Border Patrol agent guarding this section of the wall occasionally drove by.

Others read selections focused on those who have lost their lives crossing the border; the undocumented workers who sustain the nation’s economy; and the struggle of immigrant parents who wonder if bringing their children north was the right decision.

Two of those invited to read — Emmy Pérez and Edward Vidaurre — are McAllen poets. Pérez was recently named Texas poet laureate for 2020 and Vidaurre is poet laureate of McAllen.

Pérez called Tafolla’s organizing of the border wall resistance readings a courageous act and both she and Vidaurre appreciated that Tafolla used the society’s annual event to introduce writers unfamiliar with the region to the Valley but also made sure to include local writers.

Having writers from the border tell the real story of the area is important, Vidaurre said, because “we’re living it — we need to defend where we live, but we also need to talk about the beautiful things that we have here so … we can dismantle that fear about our borderlands.”

In the poem he read, “Through the Fence,” Vidaurre celebrates border culture in a stream of consciousness style that lists familiar dichos, or sayings, and features nostalgic staples of border life, including Selena, raspas and spiropapas.

Pérez won’t assume the role of the state’s poet until next spring but already plans to use the honor to uplift the voices of others who are writing about the Texas-Mexico border as well as social justice issues in the areas of the state they call home.