View of the buoys dividing the Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo, at Eagle Pass, Texas, USA, 18 October 2023. EFE/Octavio Guzmán

Life on the Rio Bravo/Grande: Two names and two ways of dealing with migration

Alejandra Arredondo

Eagle Pass, USA/Piedras Negras, Mexico, Oct 30.- Although life has taken him in different directions, Jessie Fuentes has never lost his connection to the Rio Bravo. Before retiring from teaching, he started a kayak rental business in his hometown of Eagle Pass, hoping to devote all his energy to the river when he had the time.

But his dreams were shattered when the Texas state government, under the leadership of ultra-conservative Greg Abbott, erected miles of razor wire, containers, and heavy machinery to “fortify” the border with Mexico, cutting off access to the river from the town’s main public park.

The straw that broke the camel’s back came this summer with the installation of a 300-meter floating barrier of buoys in the middle of the river to make it more difficult for migrants to cross. Fuentes, who worked for years as a high school teacher, decided to sue the state government.

Texan Jessie Fuentes talks to EFE during an interview in Eagle Pass, Texas, USA, 18 October 2023. EFE/Octavio Guzmán

“They tore up the whole American side, and you’re trapped. There are no more places to go out on the river that are public property, they turned it into a war zone,” the Texan complains to EFE, sitting on the porch of his house, which is filled with chimes that sing to the rhythm of the wind.

Later, the Joe Biden administration joined Jessie’s lawsuit, asking the courts to force Abbott to remove the buoys, thus creating a nationwide legal conflict.

“There is a war going on here, not between Mexico and the US, but between the federal and state governments, and it feels like we are caught in the crossfire,” says Fuentes.

Through the so-called “Lone Star” operation, in which the state government has invested more than $4.5 billion since 2021 (according to local media estimates), Abbott has fortified and militarized the border.

State National Guard troops and Department of Public Safety agents patrol the riverbanks day and night in pickup trucks, tanks, helicopters and boats.

But none of this security has prevented dozens or even hundreds of migrants from crossing the Rio Bravo (Grande, in Mexico) every day and turning themselves over to US immigration authorities; it has only made it more complicated and risky.

State agents themselves denounced, in emails leaked to US media over the summer, that migrants with deep cuts in their skin from the concertina had been found, as well as bodies in the river, albeit in areas where there was no wire.

“We have dozens of people coming to Eagle Pass to seek asylum, and to respond with a military response is completely wrong,” says Amérika García, a local activist who has started a monthly vigil in memory of those who have died trying to cross the river.

In addition to the wires and militarization, García is concerned about the impact the Republican administration’s rhetoric and actions could have on the social fabric of her community, where more than 90 percent identify as Latino.

“I’m afraid that people won’t want to help someone because they’re Hispanic,” or that they’ll think twice before giving water or food to a migrant, she says.

View of the containers on the American side of the Rio Grande, or Rio Bravo, at Eagle Pass, Texas, USA, 18 October 2023. EFE/Octavio Guzmán

Contrasts on a riverbank

On the other side of the river, in the Mexican city of Piedras Negras, the physical reality of hostility toward migrants blends with the region’s idyllic landscape.

From the international bridge, the contrasts are visible: a group of turtles swim lazily in the water less than a hundred meters from a line of people crossing the river holding hands.

At the water’s edge, the Mexican city has a large park with walls decorated with murals, benches, trees, and a basketball court.

Families grill meat on portable barbecues, couples stroll by, and children discuss the gossip of the school day. It is a far cry from the other side of the river, where Americans have no access to the riverbank.

In the afternoon, groups of migrants descend into Piedras Negras Park, adjust their backpacks, and cross into the US, the last border in a journey that has taken them through jungles, rivers and deserts.

“I try to give them (the migrants) information about where to go and where it is easier to cross,” says Carla, sitting on one of the benches with her seven-year-old son.

Once, says the 30-year-old Mexican, she even accompanied a young Venezuelan woman across the border: “She told me she was scared. When we got to the other side, she gave me the clothes she took off when she crossed, so I would remember her by them.”

An ice cream vendor stops his cart, rings the bells on the handle and shouts to the Venezuelan migrants halfway across the river: “Hold on tight and don’t let go because the current is strong!”

Before the tanks and barbed wire arrived, many Mexicans from the state of Coahuila, where Piedras Negras is located, brought their kayaks or canoes to this park to compete with Americans in the annual competitions organized by Jessie Fuentes. The last one took place in 2019.

Fuentes’ eyes light up when he remembers the competition: “It was a nice thing to do.”

Now 62 years old, the American says he has faith that he will see the river again, without wires, without walls and without the military.

“I feel it in my heart, and the day they remove everything, I will be there to see it.” EFE