Box honoring Briseyda Lizeth Chicas Perez and her young son Denilson


Among the altars community members have decorated for Saturday’s Día de los Muertos Celebration at the Museum of South Texas History is one dedicated to immigrants and asylum seekers whose lives have been lost recently in the Rio Grande Valley.

Members of the Environmental Awareness Club at UTRGV are using the Día de los Muertos event to highlight the role of climate disruption and environmental devastation in Central America and Mexico in pushing people to flee north to the United States, where they can be safe from gang violence and provide for their families. Students researched the names of people who lost their lives over the past year in the attempt to cross the border in the Rio Grande Valley. They have chosen five individuals to honor on their altar with boxes that they have filled with symbolic artifacts representative of each person.

“The idea was to learn as much as we could about these people who died in our midst and to recognize them with a container for our imagined mementos of their lives or, in some cases, what we wished for them,” Environmental Awareness Club member and computer science major Jesse Saenz said.


Home by Jesse Saenz

One box, for Briseyda Lisseth Chicas Perez, 20, is framed with dried ceiba tree flowers, the national tree of her country Guatemala, and is draped with a pageant sash emblazoned with the name of her hometown, representing her status as a local beauty queen. Behind other symbols of her life, at the back of the box, is a map of Western Guatemala, a land increasingly overtaken by palm oil plantations and plagued by drought.

It was her young family’s inability to make a living wage from plantation work that spurred them to head north with their two children. It was this past June in the brush near Mission that Briseyda, together with her son Denilson, died of dehydration and exposure.

It is relatively unusual for migrants to die this way in Hidalgo County because of the proximity of towns. Deaths from dehydration and exposure much more common in the vast expanse of ranchlands to the north in Brooks County. But Briseyda and the others got lost without enough water on one of the hottest June days on record here in the Rio Grande Valley, when the heat index was 118 degrees, another blow to their lives dealt in part by climate change.

Two other children that perished alongside Briseyda and Denilson, Juana, 3 and Marleny, 20 months, also have a box on the altar–it holds water in sippy cups and galletitas along with little toys–a wish that the children will never be without these things again. The children were from the same region of Guatemala as Briseyda.

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Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his daughter embrace  under the clouds in this Día de los Muertos box. Made by Rubi Rodea

In addition to agricultural and forested land being absorbed for industrial palm oil and banana operations in Central America and Mexico, climate change is disrupting weather patterns and causing persistent drought and unstable weather patterns. Scholars studying the area have pointed to the ways that these environmental factors contribute to the economic devastation and social unrest that are pushing people to emigrate. In fact, experts at the World Bank believe that climate impacts could displace 2 to 4 million people from Central America by 2050.

Another box honors Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez and his two-year-old daughter Angie Valeria. A photo of  Oscar and Angie’s drowned bodies  in the Rio Grande near Brownsville circulated around the world, triggering widespread denunciation of the harsh U.S. asylum policies that led to their deaths. Yet the practice of making asylum seekers wait in Mexico continues.

“As a Club we have come to understand that the humanitarian crisis in the Rio Grande Valley is driven by the climate crisis in Central America and Mexico and compounded by industrial agriculture for an export market” said Fatima Garza, Environmental Awareness Club member and anthropology major. “Highlighting the lives of these people can reveal the many injustices that they had to face. It also shows us just how wrong it is for our government to make them run a dangerous gauntlet through metering in Mexico, militarization, and border walls to reach safety in this country.”

The altar will be on exhibit at the Recuerdos y Ofrendas event on Saturday, November 2 from 4 pm to 10 pm at the Museum of South Texas History. In addition, there will be a reception for the community altars on Sunday, November 10 from 2 pm to 3 pm.


A 2009 fire on petroleum tanks in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This is one of the accidents that researchers looked at to determine that storage tanks can be breached by heavy hydrocarbon explosions.  Photo credit–U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board


Rio Grande LNG is inviting the public to a “live demonstration” of the properties of liquefied natural gas on Wednesday, October 23 from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm at Los Fresnos EMS and Fire Building, 100 Rodeo Dr. in Los Fresnos.

The Houston company wants to build a liquefied natural gas export terminal in the Port of Brownsville, which would be the largest single source of pollution in Cameron County.  Now they have  brought down “an LNG safety expert” to assuage the community’s fears of an LNG-related catastrophe.

In fact, this demonstration is a public relations stunt. In the last such demonstration, in 2015, LNG company representatives used parlor tricks. They dipped a flower in LNG to freeze it, and spilled a little LNG out to show that it’s non-corrosive. They also poured a bit of LNG in a bowl with a goldfish, drank water a short time after LNG was poured into the glass, and then doused a smoldering cigarette in the liquid.

But these tricks were easy to see through.

A goldfish is not harmed when LNG is poured in its bowl because the LNG is lighter than water, so it floats on top of the water rather than mixing with it. But as a Government Accountability Office report notes, because methane must be kept at minus 260 degrees Fahrenheit to remain in a liquid state, any living creature that comes into contact with LNG is subject to freeze burning. So, in the case of an LNG spill in the Gulf, fish are safe as long as they stay under water, but anything above the water line, such as waterfowl, dolphins or swimming humans, is not.

When LNG spills, it begins evaporating immediately, which is why you can eventually drink a glass of water into which LNG has been poured. Because the LNG does not mix with the water, just as the fish is not swimming in liquefied natural gas, the person holding the glass is not drinking LNG. Instead, a small quantity of LNG is used for this trick and allowed to evaporate before the person raises the glass.

When they douse the cigarette in LNG and say that liquefied natural gas (LNG) is not flammable they are simply lying. Liquid fuels do not catch fire below the surface. During any spill flammable liquids such as gasoline and LNG immediately begin to vaporize and mix with air, and it is the vapor rising from the liquid that is flammable. You can see many YouTube demonstrations of people dousing matches and lit cigarettes in gasoline, but we do not pretend that gasoline is not flammable.

Rio Grande LNG’s current demonstration shows community members a selective and sanitized version of an LNG chemistry lesson. In doing so Rio Grande LNG  hopes to squelch the valid concerns about safety that local residents have.

But an expert in a lab coat showing that LNG can only ignite at gas-to-air concentrations of 5 to 15 percent should not make us feel safer. Reaching flammable concentrations is not some sort of rare event. As LNG evaporates a there will be always be a portion of the resulting vapor cloud that is at a flammable concentration. Remember, we use natural gas as a fuel because it burns so consistently. And when it ignites, it burns far hotter than gasoline.

If the vapor cloud evaporating above spilled LNG ignites, it burns its way back to the spill and becomes an intense pool fire. A Sandia National Laboratories report found that LNG vapor clouds could travel more than a mile on the wind before catching fire. This risk of flammable vapor clouds drifting into populated areas led Sandia to recommend that “areas of refuge” and “community warning procedures” be established in communities near LNG terminals.

By limiting their discussion about the safety of the LNG export terminals to the liquefied natural gas itself, Rio Grande LNG may be concealing greater risks to the communities of the Rio Grande Valley.

The LNG export terminal will be handling large quantities of fuel that is much more volatile than methane. Heavier hydrocarbons such as propane, ethane and butane would be refined out of the natural gas at the facilities, and some are used as freezing agents in the liquefaction process. There is a long history of catastrophic accidents where these dangerous fuels are handled, and they potentially account for more risk than the LNG itself.

In fact, it was a hydrocarbon leak into a steam boiler inlet which caused a massive explosion at the Skidka, Algeria LNG Export Terminal in 2004. Twenty seven workers died and 70 more were injured. Fortunately, the Skidka LNG storage tanks were not damaged. But LNG safety experts have expressed concern that the presence of these volatile fuels near such an enormous and concentrated amount of methane could result in a catastrophe that threatens people and property far outside of the facility’s boundaries.

The LNG feeder pipelines pose yet another risk. The Rio Grande LNG export terminal will require two 42-inch diameter pipelines which will slice through South Texas. The gas in these lines will be at high pressure and non-odorized. Pipeline accidents continue to occur with regularity—up to an average of 1.7 incidents per day in 2018 requiring the evacuation of an average of 9 people, while a pipeline catches fire an average of every 4 days. And that includes new lines. In 2015 a Pipeline Safety Trust analysis found that new pipelines are currently failing at the same rate as old pipelines that were built before 1940.

This science lesson will do nothing to address the very real concerns that Valley residents have. Rio Grande LNG is wasting time with demonstrations rather than having honest, adult discussions with residents and stakeholders on the real risks involved in LNG export terminal operations. While pushing the false idea that the facilities will be completely safe, they are not working with our municipalities to develop community warning and evacuation procedures. They are not educating first responders on what will be required in case of an accident.

If Rio Grande LNG wants to operate in the Rio Grande Valley, they need to be honest with South Texans about all the facts, not just the basic chemistry lesson. They need to discuss the real concerns that scientists have about locating LNG export terminals so close to communities and why those concerns have been raised.

A version of this article was originally published in the Rio Grande Guardian.


rootplow 4

Rootplowing on University and 10th Street in McAllen

By Stefanie Herweck

In Adios to the Brushlands,  Arturo Longoria weaves together a memoir of his boyhood adventures in the Rio Grande Valley brushlands with an elegy for those same wild places, now mostly lost to clearing for agriculture and urban development. In one chapter called “Bulldozers and Rootplows” he describes the intense period of destruction of native habitat in the early 1970s, when landowners and speculators were paid by a federal program to clear their land, even when they had no intention of farming it. It was at that time and because of this greed that we lost much of our upland thornforest in Hidalgo and Starr Counties.

Among the losses we suffered were remarkable features of our landscape such as natural lakes, wetlands and ramaderos, underground or ephemeral streams which Longoria calls “emerald ribbons” because you can trace them across the land by the trees growing up to three times the height of the surrounding vegetation. These dense, cool, and sheltered areas, Longoria notes, were migratory pathways through the Brushlands, which wildlife from butterflies to ocelots used to travel. (You can follow a trail that crosses a very pronounced ramadero on the Yturria Brush tract of  the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge outside of La Joya, Texas.)

Longoria describes one scene from 1973 where “brushhoggers” set up floodlights so that the machines could work to clear vegetation all night. He tells of sitting and watching acres of forest uprooted, of seeing deer and a whole herd of javelina flee in terror. Watching (and listening) to this video of a rootplow working on University and 10th Street in McAllen can give you a sense of the violence that Longoria saw in that act. It is important to note that this parcel has still never been farmed or developed. The forest was cleared essentially for nothing, just like the forests that Longoria mourns.

Our local soils are clay and without tree roots lacing through it, without a healthy population of burrowing insects that the trees support, the ground becomes hardpan. Water collects, salt leaches out and nothing grows. It is complete destruction and this is in part why it is so hard for us to conceive of the dense brush and riparian jungle that once grew where we walk today. We, or our ancestors, have literally salted the earth of the Rio Grande Valley.

Pickets and border wall at El Calaboz - 3-14-09 - courtesy Scott Nicol

Bollard border walls during construction in El Calaboz, Texas, 2009. Photo by Scott Nicol.

By Stefanie Herweck and Scott Nicol

Today the Trump Administration announced the locations of border walls that will be built using $3.6 billion raided from Department of Defense budgets, including walls that will snake out from Laredo, Texas westward along the Rio Grande.

The Laredo-area border wall would comprise the largest single span of wall to be paid for by raided funds, beginning at the Laredo-Columbia Port of Entry, and running 52 miles upriver towards Eagle Pass, Texas.  This is a stretch of the Rio Grande that has never seen border walls.  The cost of this section of wall would be $1,268,000,000, which averages out to more than $24 million per mile.

laredo mileage from military funds

Defense Secretary Esper rubber-stamped Trump’s request to take $3.6 billion from such projects as housing for military families, schools for the children of U.S. military personnel, and service member pensions.  Almost half of these raided funds would be used to build border walls in the Laredo area.

The new information comes from a memorandum filed with the court today in the case of Sierra Club v. Donald Trump, which challenges Trump’s February Emergency Declaration.  While walls near Laredo have been discussed in broad terms before, this is the first plan for the region that details the location and extent of these walls. 

Although no maps have been released, there are concerns that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) will build some of this mileage in the Rio Grande floodplain. CBP’s plans for the border wall in Starr County, Texas 50 miles to the south clearly show the wall snaking in and out of the river’s floodplain leading to fears that CBP is again recklessly ignoring the danger to life and property posed by walls in the floodplain.

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A forest in the Lower Rio Grande Valley National Wildlife Refuge destroyed for the border wall after DHS Secretary Nielsen waived the laws that would have protected it. Photo by Scott Nicol.

By Stefanie Herweck

The acting Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin McAleenan used his power to waive laws in order to build the border wall to dismiss 29 federal laws in the Rio Grande Valley on Friday afternoon. The waivers apply to planned border wall segments in Starr County near Rio Grande City and La Grulla as well as much of the unwalled portion of Hidalgo County, totaling approximately 17 miles.

The laws that no longer apply to these areas include the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and the Farmland Protection Policy Act. Along with the 29 laws listed, McAleenan waived “all federal, state, or other laws, regulations, and legal requirements of, deriving from, or related to the subject of” the stated laws.

There is, of course, no reason for the Trump administration to waive these laws unless they intend to break them. In the process of border wall construction, they will pollute our air, fill in critical wetland areas, harm endangered species, encroach on our precious farmland and all manner of other destructive acts in order to build border walls.

This extraordinary power to simply dismiss laws that Congress voted on and presidents signed, as well as state and local laws, was granted to an unelected member of the White House cabinet in the Real ID Act of 2005. Its authors were set on pushing through 14 miles of border wall in California that had been held up by legal challenges since the mid-1990s because of the massive environmental destruction they would cause. The Real ID legislation would not have passed on its own and so was inserted into a bill that funded Indonesian tsunami relief, as well as the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Now it is being used to wage war on border communities. The laws that protect people in other parts of the country do not apply to us.


Preliminary map of where laws were waived today in the Rio Grande Valley by Center for Biological Diversity

The historic Jackson-Ramirez Cemetery near San Juan is included in the areas where laws are waived, even though Customs and Border Protection claimed they would avoid desecrating it with border wall construction.  Members of the Carrizo-Comecrudo Tribe are occupying the cemetery in an effort to protect the land and the graves there and to draw attention to the indigenous history of the Borderlands. However, the laws waived include both the Archaeological and Historic Preservation Act and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.

The Real ID waiver authority, meant originally to overcome legal challenges in a specific area, has created a perfect storm in the borderlands since Trump took office, leaving border communities defenseless against the almost unthinkable destruction that border walls will cause.




Save Santa Ana hike cropped

Hundreds of people marching August 13, 2017 to stop the border wall in Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge

By Stefanie Herweck

ALAMO, TEXAS—Community members are outraged that Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is moving forward with plans to build a segment of border wall at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, despite a Congressional prohibition against walling off the refuge.

Maps that CBP released in June showed a segment of levee-border wall along the existing flood-control levee that forms the northern boundary of the refuge. Last week brought confirmation of the plans when video was shown of a CBP survey stake that appeared to mark out the area required for the border wall’s 150-foot enforcement zone south of the levee.

When Congress gave Trump funds for border wall construction in the Rio Grande Valley in 2018 and 2019, they stipulated that the funds could not be used for border walls in Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. Santa Ana was explicitly placed off-limits along with other so-called carve-outs where no wall could be built, including La Lomita Chapel, Bentsen Rio Grande Valley State Park, and the National Butterfly Center.

In a move that seems designed to overstep the boundaries set by Congress, CBP has chosen to build this segment of levee-border wall on the one short portion of the wildlife refuge where the flood-control levee is privately owned rather than owned by the refuge. All of the land immediately to the south of the levee is refuge property, but for this three-tenths of a mile the land directly under the levee is the property of the farmer who owns the field to the north.

hidalgo map west of Santa Ana NWR

Customs and Border Protection map that shows the short segment of border wall planned for the east side of Santa Ana. The land under the levee here is owned by the farmer who owns the field to the north of the levee, so CBP is taking advantage of that.

“CBP appears to be splitting hairs, taking advantage of this discrepancy in ownership of the land directly under the levee and ignoring the wall’s wider impacts to thwart the will of Congress. This levee-border wall will still encroach on Santa Ana,” said Jim Chapman, Vice-President of the Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, the non-profit group that advocates for Santa Ana.

Chapman points out that a border wall will still have serious negative impacts on the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. The presence of the survey stake suggests that CBP intends to duplicate the plans they have for the rest of the walls in the Rio Grande Valley—to clear all the vegetation for a 150-foot enforcement zone south of the levee-border wall, build a patrol road, and install flood lights. This will require cutting down forest well into refuge property. The negative effect of lights on nocturnal wildlife has been well-documented, and any impediment to wildlife movement pushes endangered animals like the ocelot closer to extinction.

Santa Ana east

Friends of the Wildlife Corridor and Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club is calling on Congress to reiterate their intention to spare Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge from the destruction the border wall will cause by demanding that this segment of border wall, along with another segment on the west side of Santa Ana, be cancelled.

This bit of border wall, like those that already scar other parts of our borderlands, will inflict terrible environmental damage without providing any benefit whatsoever.

Customs and Border Protection knows the hard work that the grassroots in the Rio Grande Valley devoted to shining a national spotlight on Santa Ana, how much effort went in to showing the country how destructive border walls could be. Building a wall that would damage Santa Ana appears petty and spiteful, like the agency is trying to stick it to border communities and to Congress.

Skeleton Butterfly (1)On Sunday, May 26, the day before Memorial Day, we are inviting folks near and far to join us on the banks of the Rio Grande at the National Butterfly Center in Mission, Texas to memorialize the river that we could lose if the federal government walls it off from our South Texas communities and from the rest of the United States.

In 2018 and 2019 appropriations bills, Congress allocated the funds to build more than 90 more miles of border walls, enough to wall off most of the rest of the Rio Grande Valley from the river. In addition to losing access to the river that gave life to our communities, these walls go up, people will lose their homes and farms, wildlife habitat will be destroyed, and more migrants and asylum seekers could be pushed into crossing through hostile desert areas where so many have died.

The day will be filled with art, music, and poetry, all expressions of our grief at the losses we face due to the border wall and militarization and of our hope that together we will triumph over the forces of fear and hatred and restore the borderlands and our border communities to health and wholeness.

We will gather at the National Butterfly Center at 4:00 pm for an invocation chant and an opening poem. Then we’ll carry our artworks together to the river as we sing from a prepared songsheet accompanied by musical instruments. Once on the river bank we will work collectively to decorate the altar with our artistic offerings. Music and poetry readings will follow as people enjoy the art and contemplate the Rio Grande.

Everyone is asked to make and bring artworks to carry on procession and to place on an ofrenda or altar next to the river. See our Call for Artists English and Call for Artists Spanish. We will also be hosting public art builds throughout the month of May, so that the members of the community can make their own art.

Children are welcome, and there will be children’s activities at the river.

Camping will be available at the National Butterfly Center on Saturday and Sunday evenings, May 25 and 26, for this special event, so that folks from out of town will have a place to stay, and so that everyone has the unique experience of spending the night next to the beautiful Rio Grande.

In Memoriam Poster English

In Memoriam Poster Spanish

For updated information sign up on the In Memoriam Rio Grande Facebook page.