…Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.
“Mending Wall” by Robert Frost
Laredo, Texas is one of the more unique cities I have visited. Despite the fact that the Urban Dictionary defines the name as “a place you should leave,” or the weird YouTube video of a faux country cowboy singer sucking as much sentimentality out of its three syllables as he can, Laredo is a fast growing, Rio Grande flowing, border boogeying kind of place.
Celebrating the 268th year of its founding, Laredo is drenched in a rich Spanish/Mexican/US history about which most Americans are mostly clueless. That ignorance, when combined with its border location directly across the river from its Mexican sister city, Nuevo Laredo, sometimes turns this part of the world into a cauldron, to which the witches of the right add ingredients like eye of Newt, toe of Trump, and gall of Green. This venomous stew is then served up to the American public to heighten their fears. With their toil and trouble sown, the likes of Rep. Lauren Boebert, co-pilot with Rep. Margorie Taylor Greene of the Spaceship Looney-Tune, pronounced “President Biden’s negligence of duty has resulted in the surrender of operational control of the border to the complete and total control of foreign criminal cartels putting the lives of American citizens in jeopardy.” Heady stuff indeed, especially if any of it was true.
Without considering the source of this mischief, I too became anxious. Going to Laredo this past May for the second time in five years to work with the Laredo Food Policy Council, I wasn’t sure whether to have my bullet-proof vest dry-cleaned to take with me. With the expiration of the Trump perversion of Title 42, the news media projected that hordes of desperate immigrants would be flooding the “poorly protected” border. To the contrary, I arrived in Laredo to a scene of utter tranquility where even the Border Patrol looked bored. The only thing I was assaulted by was my Verizon international calling plan that hit me with an extra $10 a day charge, falsely insisting that I was in Mexico even though my hotel was a good 100 yards inside Texas.
When I asked Laredo City Councilwoman Melissa Cigarroa, a staunch anti-wall advocate, why there wasn’t more visible commotion, she immediately called the Republican assertions of chaos at the border “nonsense,” then offered that it was part of a Trump-inspired narrative that “Laredo is a dangerous place filled with dirty migrants crossing at will.” Viviana Frank-Franco, born in Mexico and a co-founder of both the Laredo Food Policy Council and the architecture firm Able City, was equally astonished when I asked her if the two-day food policy council conference might be cancelled. She promptly replied that “nothing is wrong; everything is quiet; it’s all a bunch of hype.”
The Border, NAFTA, and Many Trucks
Once a sleepy Texas town with a population in the tens of thousands, Laredo has exploded to about 270,000 today due to what is now the largest inland port in America annually channeling $227 billion in trade between Mexico and the U.S. Expected to climb well past 300,000 people over the next ten years, Laredo is coming to terms with the upside and downside of its growth as well as the all-pervasive border security industrial complex. Its binational status and vibrant cultural heritage offer endless life-enhancing possibilities, while its extreme climate issues like deep drought and withering heat (it’s 108 F. in Laredo as I’m writing this in late June) may alter life for the worse.
In order to make Laredo an inland port—a product of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA)—a multi-lane highway and bridge were constructed connecting Nuevo Laredo, Mexico to Laredo, Texas. Now known as Interstate 35, this transportation network, along with rail lines, conveys thousands of trucks a day right through the heart of the city.
Free-trade, as they say, is only “free” for the private companies that benefit from government subsidies, but very costly for those who are smack-dab in the path of its development. The massive infrastructure required to build the port blew away the homes of 390 Laredo residents who had the poor fortune of living in the way of “progress.” The belching diesels and other trade traffic leave a King Kong-size carbon footprint; much of the cargo passing in sight of Laredo neighborhoods is fresh produce from Mexican fields, none of which is available to the people who live there; and the border security with its lights, gates, and armed keepers suggest Checkpoint Charlie in the Cold War-divided city of Berlin where the U.S. faced off against the Soviet Union, not the friendly nation of Mexico. This present-day reality stands in stark contrast to what Frank recalls when she would cross the border frequently fifty years ago as a child: “We’d refer to it as ‘going to the other side.’ There was one border guard on the bridge who you smiled at and waved to.”
The Emerging Food System
In contrast to this rough and tumble economic growth, Laredo is progressively and thoughtfully nurturing a robust and more just food system, much-needed in light of the city’s high poverty rate (25 percent) and distressing diet-related health numbers. Set against its bustling inland port, Laredo is not only joining the urban trend of cool new coffee shops and boutique Japanese restaurants, it’s also raising up locally produced food as evidenced by a farmers’ market and young new farmers like Marcella Juarez; encouraging the development of micro-food businesses like @houseofbreadd which makes gluten-free/sugar-free baked goods; addressing the gaps in healthy, affordable food retail with the emerging Frontera Grocery Coop; and harnessing public policy for healthy change under the city’s dynamic, young new health department head, Dr. Richard Chamberlain.
During a panel discussion on the second day of the food policy council conference, Dr. Chamberlain, nattily attired in a sharp blue suit, highlighted by a pair of bright white fashion sneaks, shared the sobering findings of his department’s city-wide health assessment 2023 Laredo CHNA.pdf. “Thirty-two percent of the respondents reported that they were unable to eat nutritious food due to lack of money,” he noted with concern. But even more worrisome was the diet-related health data. Laredo’s obesity rate was over 45 percent with an official diabetes prevalence of 15.7 percent, figures that are far in excess of both Texas and U.S. averages. Putting a challenge to the 100 or so people gathered at the event, Dr. Chamberlain said, “These numbers are a call to action! We need a collective voice to drive policy decisions.”
Later, I spoke with Councilwoman Cigarroa, who, as a local policy maker, is in a position to address these unfortunate numbers. “I don’t know a family that’s not impacted by diabetes, which is a particularly pernicious disease,” she said, adding that her husband has been practicing cardiology in Laredo for decades and sees lots of heart disease stemming from diet. Of Mexican-American heritage herself, Ciagarroa doesn’t hesitate to blame part of the problem on “traditional Mexican food choices that are [from a health perspective] mostly terrible.” But she also makes it clear that Laredo is medically underserved, and, as the assessment points out, about 30 percent of the residents are uninsured. A large number of undocumented people are also reluctant to seek medical care when they’re sick. “I know too many men who stay at home rather than get help when they have a shooting pain in their shoulder,” she says, “They say it’s nothing to worry about; it’s just indigestion.”
Cigarroa makes it clear that at least another leg of Laredo’s health stool is physical activity. For instance, the heat can be so punishing in the warm weather months that nobody wants to go outside to exert themselves. In driving around Laredo for two days, I also noticed a severe absence of parks. She confirmed my observations, pointing out that the health assessment process heard that problem loud and clear from residents. The study’s methodology included numerous surveys that ranked the community’s concerns, including the finding that, “Over a quarter (26.0%) of community survey respondents indicated that a lack of parks and playgrounds is a problem affecting their health or the health of those with whom they live.”
Binational River Park
A good part of the answer to the lack of safe, multi-use public space may come from the very place that generates much of the region’s tension—the border. At the beginning of 2022, the U.S. and Mexico jointly announced that they intend to create the Binational River Conservation Park that will be a 6.3-mile corridor along the Rio Grande (U.S. name)/Rio Bravo (Mexican name). As a non-walled or fenced 1,000-acre park that incorporates the river, it will join Laredo and Nuevo Laredo. Multiple agencies and government levels are responsible for making this visionary project happen, but U.S. Ambassador to Mexico, Kenneth Salazar (former U.S. Interior Secretary), is receiving much of the applause.
As a project with a $100 million price tag, not only is the Binational River Conservation Park cheaper than Trump’s vanity wall priced at $24 million per mile, it will incorporate over 40 projects such as a monarch butterfly garden since the park is along the monarch’s flyway, a tree farm, a job training site for various outdoor trades, and numerous cultural, educational, and recreational activities. The project “walls” nothing out; it offers a bridge of peace and humanity to all, and in the words of Frank Rotnofsky, co-founder of Able City architects and one of the project’s primary design firms, “This is a once-in-a-lifetime project for planners and architects!”
From Councilwoman Cigarroa’s perspective, the Park builds beautifully on Laredo’s number one natural asset, the Rio Grande. But as one who can barely contain her disdain for Trump and his wall—Cigarroa was the board president of the No Border Wall coalition for several years—she sees any security wall as both an environmental and security failure—it destroys natural wildlife corridors, but also, ironically, fails to keep people out. “Not only does Laredo currently not have a wall, it has the lowest illegal crossing rate anywhere along the border, including places like El Paso that do have walls,” she said. As the elected official who stands as the Park’s staunchest advocate, Cigarroa sees it as “an amazing opportunity” and that “its incumbent upon the city to make it happen.” She speaks to the culturally unifying theme of the park that brings the two cities—Laredo and Nuevo Laredo—together, and also to the larger purpose of creating a “highly visible, safer space in a beautiful setting that will draw people to it for productive activity.” In fact, with more than a little pride in her voice, Councilwoman Cigarroa thinks the Park will one day rival the world-class San Antonio River Walk, as a destination site.
With aspirational language that embraces a new world order, the Park’s website declares that:
The Binational River Park at the Rio Grande-Rio Bravo in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo connects and celebrates our common culture on the United States and Mexico border. It reclaims our shared history, spurs the economy, promotes security on both sides of the river, and restores the ecological treasure we call home. The first of its kind, this international conservation project enhances our quality of life and serves as a prototype for border cities around the world to follow. Two nations, one community. One river. One park.
While the Park will offer a host of environmental amenities, including ones that will benefit the region’s food system writ large, it doesn’t eliminate the challenges that have left Laredo and its surrounding area virtually bereft of all forms of agriculture. The Food Policy Council and its partner organization, the Laredo Center for Urban Agriculture and Sustainability are attempting to fill that yawning void with smaller-scale farms and gardens. One of the people who is opening a path to a new agricultural future for south Texas is Marcella Juarez, who with her brother Manuel, is converting a mostly fallow 110-acre ranch known as Palo Blanco into an intensive, state-of-the heart, mixed-use food production and instructional farm. On land that has been in her family for 160 years, she hopes to make it a “foundational source of good local food for my community.”
Armed with a master degree in small scale and sustainable farming from Texas State University at San Marcos and a bright and brimming confidence that belies her twenty-something years, Marcella got the farm’s new enterprises up and running at the same time COVID-19 hit. Undeterred and with a business plan that would make your head spin, she started applying hydroponic science and technology, including adapted, solar-powered shipping container farms she designed herself, to the unforgiving, heat-heavy, drought-laden Laredo landscape. Her crops are a daring mix of microgreens, herbs, eggs, and sprouts for a marketplace that is, one might say, only in the tasting stage for such products. But the early reception has been enthusiastic at the farmers’ market, among a few cutting-edge chefs, and with customers for their own farm-to-home delivery service. With the help of the Food Policy Council, Marcella hopes to see market demand grow steadily.
Clearly, Palo Blanco is a mission-driven enterprise. Having attended a small, rural school where her father taught, and where her friends were buying food at a gas station grocery store, Marcella decided at a young age that, “everyone deserves access to fresh food, and that I wanted to use our ranch to feed my friends.” But her views extend beyond a compassion for others and a heart-felt desire to feed her community. “Hispanic people need lots of healing,” she says. “As Mexicans we’re just viewed as farmworkers, not farm owners. God willing, we’ll have more young Hispanic farmers soon.” In addition to wanting to make her community more food secure, she also recognizes its dietary health challenges. “Food is our first medicine,” she said, and in a burst of authentic optimism, she added, “We’re starting to see health, diet, and local food coming together!”
One new development for Texans came to light during the FPC conference that could make a difference to Laredo and young farmers like Marcella all across Texas. The Texas Department of Agriculture (TDA) had completed the “Texas Food Access Study,” Texas Food Desert Study (texastribune.org) which among other things recommended the establishment (passed into law in June) of a state food policy council 88(R) HB 3323 – Enrolled version (texas.gov). Count me as a skeptic when it comes to anything about Texas state government. So, when I heard about this report, I had thought for a moment that Jim Hightower had seized control of the TDA’s commissioner’s office. While some Texas food justice advocates have rightfully criticized the study as not going far enough; in the words of Addie Stone, Policy Specialist at TDA and the study’s co-author, “It’s not perfect, but it’s a start.” I would agree with both the advocates and Stone, but most importantly, it puts the State of Texas on record as acknowledging the state’s high levels of food insecurity and their need to support locally oriented forms of agriculture and food distribution. That gives advocates and local farmers a place to build from.
A little before my ride to the airport arrived, I strolled a short distance down to the banks of the Rio Grande, a river so freighted with history and ecological significance that watching its brown waters gave me momentary shivers. It occurred to me that at least a few H2O molecules now flowing beneath me had started their 1,896 miles journey to the Gulf of Mexico from the snow packs of the Rocky Mountains. There was a majesty of movement before me that existed far beyond my comprehension.
On the Texas bank, a few people baited hooks and lazily cast their fishing lines into the water, making audible plops in the still morning air. Across the river, not much further than I used to be able to throw a baseball, a half dozen Mexicans were also fishing, mirroring their American counterparts who, in all likelihood, were themselves of Mexican ancestry. Just upslope on the Mexican side, hanging languid and limp, was the Mexican flag, so large that it could cover the entire Fenway Park infield. Upriver, a railroad bridge, a symbol of binational commerce, bisected a horizon that was largely dominated by forests and the Rio Grande’s serene, narrowing perspective. It didn’t escape me that this image of peace and beauty softly unwinding before me didn’t allow for the unsavory actions of desperate people who may have been concealed in the bushes and bullrushes. Hurt begets hurt, and when all that you carry on your back are the twin lashes of poverty and violence, fear and flight are your closest companions.
There is an energy in Laredo coming from those associated with the food policy council, city hall, and numerous private sector endeavors that holds the promise of uniting two nations, partnering on shared health and environmental concerns, and equitably distributing a steadily growing prosperity. In all likelihood, success will be determined by whether the Rio Grande is viewed as a mending force and a healing gift of nature, or as a barrier that walls people off from each other and only serves to “give offense.”