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the Rice Thresher/Rice University, Texas

Border Wall Slashes Through Texas' Soul

Elizabeth Stephens

On a Saturday afternoon, I ride my bike through the streets of downtown Brownsville, Texas. I pass old brick storefronts on both sides with boarded second stories and wrought iron balconies, tributes to a city that boomed in the late 19th century. Between streets that bear the names of U.S. presidents - Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Monroe - is a crumbling cemetery with gravestones dating far back into Brownsville's past. The concrete walls are worn to expose rusted rebar, but the cemetery is aflutter with eye-catching fabric flowers, bright as the day they were dyed.I pass through Washington Park and smile, knowing that it will be packed in a few weeks with musicians and fans, that tejano, grupero and mariachi will wail at a three-day party, Charro Days - the South Texas equivalent of Mardis Gras or Carnival.

Along International Boulevard I pass Fort Brown, where in 1846 General Zachary Taylor's soldiers fought to take this land for the United States, now occupied by students of the University of Texas at Brownsville. Between the aged buildings of the fort, a striking new campus stands along the river and palm trees dot Spanish-styled courtyards. International Boulevard ends at International Bridge, which is crowded with cars and pedestrians. Some may be Mexican nationals returning home from work or shopping and others may have U.S. or dual-citizenship, residency or temporary visas.

It is, of course, impossible to tell by looking. I count three Border Patrol trucks within eyesight as I turn onto Elizabeth Street and ride to the end of East 13th street. I lay my bike on the ground under live oaks and mesquites and stare out at the Rio Grande.

Two summers ago I moved to the Texas-Mexico border after receiving my placement from Teach For America - the Rio Grande Valley, Brownsville the city that describes itself as "on the border, by the sea." I teach U.S. Government to 12th graders in one of the five public high schools in a city where 44 percent of the residents fall below the federal government's poverty level and 92 percent are Hispanic.

For my students, the border is not a political boundary, a feature or a phenomenon - it is their world. Many of my students live with family in Mexico and cross from Matamoros to Brownsville daily to attend school. Others are not lucky enough to have their families so close, and live alone or with distant relatives in this country where they may only technically belong.

I recently helped a talented young man in my class apply to Rice, and he explained that his mother has only a border resident's legal status and will not be able to visit him if he goes to college in Houston. I teach many students who shy away from questions about college applications because of the cost or because they do not have a Social Security number or fear a parent or relative might be found to be an illegal citizen.

When we study segregation, Brown v. Board of Education, the civil rights and Chicano movements I tell my students that laws are only government-enforced rules and may or may not have any basis in morality, equality or justice. I tell them that laws can be passed in hatred, in fear or in a desperate attempt to cling to the status quo. I teach that it is the responsibility of the minority to be courageous, to point out these unjust laws and fight for their destruction and the destruction of the beliefs that create them. This is what comes to mind when I hear the word "illegal" applied to a human being, and this is what I think of as I look at the river, a sluggish ribbon of green that bends out of sight in the brush, and try to imagine this place if a certain law, the Secure Fence Act of 2006, were to come to realize its aims here.

When he signed the Secure Fence Act into law on Oct. 26, 2006, President George W. bush said that "this bill will help protect the American people. This bill will make our borders more secure."

These words show a callous lack of understanding for the reality of the border, where melding cultures cross the river with no regard to the political boundary it represents. The act itself authorizes the building of more than 700 double-reinforced concrete wall that will stretch in segments along the border at many of the most active access points. The proposed plan shows the wall as an irregular line of dashes, cutting across the private properties of landowners in its path and even walling out large sections of UT-Brownsville's land and campus.

For those who heed the political and media-sponsored drumbeat rallying Americans to fear oncoming waves of illegals, drugs and terrorists, the idea of a wall may create a sense of security, but it is only a false sense. A glance at the porous plans, drawn without regard to the human or natural environments they will impact, confirms my own fears that our policy makers in Washington have no idea what their policies means for those to whom they will matter most. The damage to the local ecosystem, the damage to the lands of local property owners, and the damage to our image as a nation of opportunity and liberty, not segregation and suppression, seem to far outweigh the benefits of staggered sections of fencing, where those who do wish to circumvent the law will no doubt take advantage of the large, literal gaps.

While a student at Rice, I was engaged by political issues of all kinds and cherished the impromptu late-night ideological debates that took place in dorm halls, kitchens and common rooms. For all that those impassioned conversations had in idealism and verve, however, they lacked action. As a student, I was learning and finding my voice. As a teacher, as an example to my students and as a member of the border community, I know that now is the time to act.

On March 8 of this year, I will catch a ride up the border, 126 miles west, to Roma, Texas. From there, I will walk for nine days with a group of activists, religious and civic leaders, local educators and students back to downtown Brownsville as a form of nonviolent protest against the wall.

Although such a walk may seem like a small, even futile gesture against the power of the president's pen, I have begun to realize the impact this gesture can have as I collaborate with fellow activists who are coordinating the protest and will be making the journey with me. For many, inspiration is drawn from the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s, and the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

Or, more directly, a favorite phrase of the Highlander Folk School - the organization that trained activists like Rosa Parks and others - "You've got to move!" Whatever the impact may be, it never will be felt without an initial motion.

I will move for my students, the many who struggle to establish their personal identities in this climate of division, split between two places they feel they do not fully belong, and for whom this wall will smack of a clear message from the Anglo-North: We do not want you.

I will move for my students' families, who already face lives filled with unimaginable hardship, who suffer deep poverty and lack even basic education and medical care - and for whom the wall will add insult and further injury.

I will move for Brownsville, where so much conflict has already claimed this piece of land "on the border, by the sea," despite the obvious truth that it belongs to those on and from both sides of the Rio Grande who call it home.

I will move because I fear for myself if I do not practice what I teach. And I will move so that I can look my students in the eyes when I teach them the difference between that which is illegal and that which is unjust.

I would like to invite any members of the Rice community who feel that they too must move to join me for the walk, for a weekend, even for a day or a few hours. A moment spent at the border can be a transformative and eye-opening experience and such a moment is something I believe all who live in this country - a country that has begun to build walls - should experience. I invite you to stand with me downtown at the curved end of East 13th Street and look out at the Rio Grande and across into Mexico, and to imagine a world where such a simple action would not be possible because the simple actions required to prevent it were not taken soon enough or with enough courage.

Elizabeth Stephens graduated from Will Rice College in 2005. For more information about the walk, please e-mail

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