MISSION — Clutching onto homemade artwork and signs that mournfully honored the river here, protesters marched a mile-long trek Sunday towards the Rio Grande, which is considered to be the emblem of strength, culture and pride in the region.
Over a hundred people gathered at the National Butterfly Center for the In Memoriam Rio Grande Ceremony Sunday afternoon, stepping in syncopation to the beat of the drum and sharing the same reasons for taking part in the event.
A stage was set by the banks of the Rio Grande, where after the procession, the group gathered for poetry, tribal rituals and performances from local musicians — all in observance of President Trump’s proposed border wall threatening to separate the region from its cultural identity: the river.
Jonathan Salinas, the event coordinator, said the objective of the memoriam was healing and reflection of the river, which the community would lose with the construction of the wall.
“To go along with the idea of remembering those we have lost and things we have lost, that is why we had this memoriam a day before Memorial Day,” said Salinas, who is a part of the executive committee of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Sierra Club. “We have lost a lot of people trying to cross the river and have also lost our heritage in many ways.”
In 2018 and 2019 appropriation bills, Congress allocated over $1 billion for more than 90 miles of concrete and steel wall along the U.S-Mexican border. Though there is a clear boundary that divides the two countries in the Southwest border, the borderline becomes blurred in South Texas.
By international treaty and tradition, the Rio Grande defines the border, but the wall cannot be built along the middle of it. So, the wall, which will span about 25 miles in Hidalgo County and 50-60 miles in Starr County, will be built over a mile north of the river.
Salinas described the event as “a protest for the soul.”
“This protest is different because our organizing committee coalition agreed that there would not be any political speeches,” said Salinas, who had a guitar strapped to his back. “Instead, art is taking that place.”
For the walk, Salinas made a painting he calls “Limestone Landscape.” The piece showed the river with limestones and seashells cutting through it’s flow. He was inspired by poet W.H. Auden’s poem, “In Praise of Limestone,” which reads:
“Having nothing to hide. Dear, I know nothing of
Either, but when I try to imagine a faultless love
Or the life to come, what I hear is the murmur
Of underground streams, what I see is a limestone landscape.”
Laurel Gibson, an artist from San Antonio, brought two original pieces with her for the march, both featuring butterflies which she said represents hope.
“The metamorphosis that they go through is just so beautiful, and it is just a small way we can look above the negative and hate that is around us,” said Gibson, who arrived on Thursday for the event. She was one of three others who camped at the nature reserve the night before.
One of the art pieces she made for the protest showcased many dreamcatchers that hung from a mesquite tree branch. Dangling at the end of the dreamcatchers were orange and yellow butterflies that had tiny women as the body of the creature. She called them “butterfly maidens.”
Though this was Salinas’ first time in the presence of the Rio Grande and in the Valley, she said it felt like home because of the kind people she has met who also long for unity.
“I am here for humanity,” she said.
“Today is kind of like a funeral. There is going to be a wall built, and we aren’t going to stop construction with what we do today, but you never know what hope and people can do together.”
Gibson added that with her dreamcatchers, she has faith that people will once again dream of a united community.
Juana Ramos, 51, shares that same dream.
“The river is about the life,” the San Benito native said. “About how it brings life to the wildlife, the butterflies, the birds and people. It’s not supposed to be an obstacle. Water goes where it wants to go.”
Ramos is also an artist, and brought an original piece that had red roses made of seashells she collected from South Padre Island that laid on a driftwood she glued to the canvas.
“I made it for the butterflies to enjoy. It’s for them,” she said.
Ramos lives in San Benito, just two miles away from where the border wall will be built. Since the construction started, she said she has already witnessed a change. Showing her bruised thumb from a bobcat that bit her, Ramos said that animal used to roam around her 5-acre estate, but now, none are in sight.
“I miss them,” she said, despite her injury.
The procession was initiated by Edward Vidaurre, McAllen’s Poet Laureate.
In a poem he composed for the occasion, he recited:
“The bird song that makes its way to us
From across two lands that share the same language
Of the heart that brings me to you
Rio Grande, Rio Bravo, The hope of a new people”
Ashton Gonzalez was one of the cellist of Camarata Cellista, a group of student cello players taught by Benjamin Ponder.
Gonzalez, a sophomore at Robert Vela High School, said this was his first time at the national park. And, though he thought the estate was beautiful, he was remorseful because by the time he graduates, he won’t be able to see the river again.
“Driving over here, I enjoyed looking out the window and seeing the wildlife and animals,” Gonzalez said. “It was an eye opener for me, that this (wall construction) is real and this is happening.”
“Today is a symbol that we are going to fight,” he added. “That this is the beginning of the fight.”