MISSION, TEXAS -- From the outside, the small chapel on the banks of the Rio Grande looks like a relic of times past. The plaster has melted away in places exposing the bare adobe and stone walls underneath. The whitewash is peeling off the sturdy old wooden doors and shutters. The wood-shingled roof is weathered and bowed. A plaque beside the front door proclaims that this chapel, La Lomita, is a registered historic landmark, built in 1899 by the Oblate priesthood on land that was donated in 1861 and had originally been part of a 1767 Spanish land grant.
Inside its walls, however, history retreats. The chapel comes to life. Candles line the altar, all glowing with a steady light. Bright silk flowers are strewn through the rafters and around the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe in an alcove above. Below the Virgin there are other images—small framed photographs of young men and women in uniform. A pink balloon tied to the edge of the dais floats in the still air: It’s a Girl! And everywhere, scattered on the altar, leaning against candles, stuck into the crevices of the woodwork, there are pieces of paper folded small or rolled into tiny scrolls, the prayers of the faithful.
People revere the long and significant history of La Lomita Chapel by continuing to make it a vital part of their lives, praying and commemorating important life events here. But this continuity is threatened by the more than 700 miles of border fencing called for by the Secure Fence Act that was signed into law by President Bush last fall.
The Act calls for a stretch of the border wall in Texas to run from Laredo to Brownsville through this area south of Mission. La Lomita Chapel lies between the river and the flood control levee that parallels the river to the north. The Department of Homeland Security has said that in the Lower Rio Grande Valley the border wall will be erected north of the levee, rather than directly on the Rio Grande. This would wall off the little chapel, rendering it inaccessible to the community and effectively ceding the land it is situated on to Mexico.
Worried about the loss of this important cultural site and the other cultural, environmental, and economic destruction that a wall might cause to their border communities, about 300 people gathered on the grounds of La Lomita Chapel for a La Lomita NO BORDER WALL Festival on August 25. Under the shade of the mesquite trees, people listened as Texas State Representatives Kino Flores and Aaron Peña spoke out against the border wall. “It would be a scar across our community. It would be something that divided our friends, our business partners, our relatives, and another country with which we have good relations,” Peña said. Aides for U.S. Congressmen Henry Cuellar and Ruben Hinojosa also relayed each congressman’s opposition to the border wall.
Dr. Sue Sill of the North American Butterfly Association Butterfly Park discussed the fate of the Rio Grande Valley wildlife corridor. The corridor is comprised of tracts of land, many of which are situated along the proposed path of the wall, in which the native vegetation has been painstakingly restored in order to provide viable habitats for birds, butterflies and mammals including endangered species such as the ocelot. Martha Sanchez of La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) encouraged the crowd to take a stand against the border wall because of the terrible message it sends to immigrants, whose labor is so important to this country. Rey Anzaldua, a local resident and landowner whose family has lived in the area since the time of the Spanish land grants, decried the loss of homes and property that a border wall would surely bring.
After the speakers Father Roy Snipes, pastor of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Mission, lead the crowd in a procession from the chapel onto the levee road. Children at the front of the procession carried a retablo depicting Father Keralum, one of the Oblate priests that founded the mission at La Lomita. The marchers carried signs and the banners of the organizations represented at the festival, among them Holy Spirit Peace and Justice, Pax Christi, the Sierra Club, Frontera Audubon Society, LUPE, and the Coalition Against Immigrant Repression. They were accompanied by the music of the Our Lady of Guadalupe mariachi band on the way to the nearby Riverside Club and onto a pontoon boat docked on the river’s edge.
The boat, festooned with a “NO BORDER WALL” banner, made a circuit up and down the Rio Grande. Upriver, the boat cruised by riverside homes and campgrounds on the banks. Downriver, the vegetation becomes denser signaling the beginning of a tract of valuable wildlife habitat. Local biologist Ken King pointed out the area, “The low-lying spots further in contain mature riparian forests of cedar elm covered in Spanish moss—it’s great habitat, and not much of it is left in the Rio Grande Valley.”
At the end of the procession, the pontoon boat made several other runs to make sure that everyone had the opportunity to experience the Rio Grande. Meanwhile, children were taking turns smashing a large piñata shaped like a forbidding gray wall. Parents shouted encouragement to their children, “Break down the wall!” When the candy was distributed and the pieces of piñata picked up, the sun went down over the river to the music of Rumbo al’ Anacua, featuring Rosa and Joe Perez, musicians and educators who seek to revive and preserve traditional musical forms of the Texas-Mexico border region.
As people ate, drank, and danced on the banks of the Rio Grande in the evening, festival organizer Betty Perez said, “We want to show the nation how important our culture is to us, how important our river is to us. We don’t want it walled off.”
To see video of the La Lomita No Border Wall Festival, go to http://blog.rgv-life.com/ and scroll down to the August 26 entry.