Friday, March 9, 2012

Day 41: Brownsville, TX to Boca Chica, TX (the Gulf of Mexico!)

Tuesday, February 7   Brownsville, TX to Boca Chica, TX    Miles:  42 (2035.5)  Flats: 0 (11)  Elevation:  33 ft- 0 ft (wahoo!!)

Unfortunately, most our days in Brownsville were cloudy and cold. The weather channel forecasted rain every day for the week of our stay, but after 4.5 months, rain or shine, we had to get to the Gulf.

We took a long scenic route to get out to Boca Chica State Park, an undeveloped park located where the Rio Grande river reaches the Gulf of Mexico. We were especially interested in checking out the border wall in this area, because it often runs quite north of the actual international boundary, placing houses and farms on the south side of the massive fence.  And then because there are residents on the other side, there are lots of holes in the fence, to allow the passage of vehicles.  So...What is the point of the fence?  We weren't the only ones questioning this rational:

Nice sign on our ride out to Boca Chica

After riding through some nice residential neighborhoods, we stopped at the Sabal Palm Sanctuary and took a look around. Sabal Palm is a beautiful 527 acre nature reserve which is home to one of the most biodiverse habitats in the United States.  It has the last sabal palm forest in the country and is a favorite stop for birders as it is a breeding habitat for many endangered and/or migratory species.  Eric and I don't know much about birds, though we enjoyed pointing them out to each other every day of riding, so the only one I can say we saw was the lovely green jay.  We hiked around on several of the trails, stopping in a blind on a reseca, visiting the observation deck over the Rio Grande, and we even saw two bobcats on one of the trails!  How cool!

wetland bridge in Sabal Palm Sanctuary

On our way out, we chatted with a couple who was passing through the area and who was really curious about our bike trip and what we thought of the immigration issue.  After chatting for several minutes (including getting a good laugh from them when saying the classic "I will believe that corporations are people when Texas executes one of them"), I found out the woman grew up in my hometown, small Minneapolis suburb of Robbinsdale!  It really is a small world, folks.

We also asked an employee of Sabal Palm what he thought of the border fence, because Sabal Palm is on the south side of the wall.  What he said surprised us:  that has actually benefited the park because the animals can still pass through, but southbound Americans can no longer trespass on the property!  I don't think that is what ICE had in mind, but it was nice to hear a perk of the border wall!

After Sabal Palm, we stopped by the Lennox Foundation Southmost Preserve, part of the internatioanl Nature Conservancy.  The preserve is over 1000 acres and staff there does a lot of work trying to restore the native plant species in the area.  We spoke with the Preserve manager, Max Pons, but unfortunately we didn't have enough time to look around.

It was already after 3:00pm and we had 24 miles to bike to get to the beach.  This was our last eastward stretch and maybe we should have been savoring it, but it seemed to go on forever!  Finally, we saw the end of the road.

On October 6th, 2011 (day 13 of The Trip) we dipped our rear wheels in the Pacific Ocean from the Parque de Las Playas in Tijuana, Baja California.

2600 miles later, on February 7, 2012 (day 137 of The Trip), we dipped our front wheels in the Gulf of Mexico at Boca Chica State Park, Texas (where there was absolutely no one to take a picture of us).

What an incredible trip.  Traveling by bicycle has been an incredible way to slowly traverse this part of the world that has our interest peaked, but more than anything, we will remember the people we have met, the hospitality we have received, the work we have witnessed.

More reflections later, for now, we must celebrate:

Is that a bottle of Cristal, mi Eric?

And set up camp on this lonely, barren beach that is such a sight for our sore legs eyes:

We wanted to have a dinner of steak and champagne, but neither of us have much experience cooking meat and we didn't have a cooler so we settled for veggie burgers accompanying our cheap bubbly.  It grew dark as we fried up our burgers and took swigs from the Andre bottle and soon enough, we climbed into our tent.  Moments later, it began to rain and it continued all night, with the wind pushing our tent from side to side.  We awoke to find our things covered with water and sand.  One night camping on the beach is always enough.

beach camping = gross

The rain had stopped momentarily and we forwent breakfast and scurried around packing as fast as we could.  Just a couple minutes before we were ready to pedal back to Brownsville, the drops began to fall.  After judgement from so many cyclists, Eric and I had purchased the cheapest, cheesiest rain suits we could for $10 each and as we turned back west, we pulled them on.  And inevitably tore them immediately.  For the 26 miles back to our hosts' home, the rain fell and we got soaking wet.  This was probably the time for us to revel in our accomplishments and reflect on our experience, but all we could do was dream of hot showers and clothes dryers for the two hour jaunt.

But we did it.  From Tijuana to Brownsville.  We departed.  We arrived.  I can hardly believe it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Extra! Extra! We were on The News in Brownsville!

Watch it!  Even though you already know what we are all about.  And it isn't riding "for immigration reform" although that is something we would love to see; We rode to educate ourselves and we wrote to educate others.  Enough bathering. Enjoy:

(Okay, a bit more vain blathering: when they played this on the news, it didn't just end with creepy silence and us riding in circles, they talked a little more, telling people to check out the blog. We liked that.  But this is funny.)

Monday, March 5, 2012

Brownsville, Texas and Matamoros, Tamaulipas

On our way into Brownsville, we swung by Proyecto Juan Diego, located in the colonia Cameron Park.  Cameron Park has around 8,000 people and is about 2 square miles, surrounded by the city of Brownsville. Because of its location and unincorporated status, Cameron Park is site that attracts drug activity, with the sheriff's officers rarely in the vicinity.  Sister Phylis, the director of Proyecto Juan Diego, shares with us some other statistics of Cameron Park's population:  60% live below the poverty line.  30% have diabetes.  10-20% is undocumented with 30-40% of those folks currently in the process of getting papers. 50% are 18 years old or younger.  Cameron Park ranks 39th on the list of the poorest places in the Unites States, with a per capita income of $4,103.

Cameron Park has long been a very poor colonia, often the first home of immigrants to the United States.  Advocacy work for Cameron Park began 16 years ago in the local parish with the leadership of Father Mike Seifert.  He and others worked to advance this community, getting the residents basic services like paved roads and street lights.  As Mike Sefiert prepared to leave the Cameron Park parish, Sister Phylis Peters, a Daughter of Charity, stepped in and continued the work, starting the organization Proyecto Juan Diego, now in its 8th year.  
Proyecto Juan Diego works with approximately 5,000 people each year, primarily in four program areas: education, diabetes, community action and family.  The education program offers after school tutoring and classes in early literacy, parenting, GED, immigration, and citizenship.  As one in three residents of Cameron Park have diabetes, the diabetes program offers health education, support groups and classes focused on cooking, gardening, nutrition and aerobics. The community action program encourages cleanups within the neighborhood, education in recycling and getting the residents to register and vote.  

The impressive family program is more involved--they enroll 20 families each year in a 3 year program with the goal of getting them to "grow" and become community leaders.  The first year is spent learning values, the second year focuses on relationships and in the third year the focus is on community.  During the entire program, there is an education of systems knowledge and participation in local politics.  One of the struggles of the program, which echoed the words of Ann Cass at Proyecto Aztecta in San Juan, is keeping people invested in their community, instead of just moving on after they are empowered.

Proyecto Juan Diego is run by 2 sisters and 10 staff members, several of whom are from Cameron Park.  When budget cuts shook the organization recently, instead of laying off staff, the employees' hours were cut so they work only 20-30 hours per week. With this knowledge, we really appreciate Sister Phylis taking time out to meet with us and share with us their great work.

After getting treated to lunch and that awesome visit to Proyecto Juan Diego, we rode into downtown Brownsville and over to the home of our latest and last hosts, Gene and Ruth.  Gene and Ruth are writers, poets, activists, cyclists, etc. and they are just plain awesome. Ruth is a nurse and Gene tutors college students.  They moved to Brownsville in the late 80's and a few years ago they decided they didn't want to have a lawn anymore, making their whole yard into a garden.  Now they are the only backyard garden to sell at the local farmer's market.  Gene and Ruth welcomed us into a casita in the rear of their home for our week in Brownsville and we often joined them in their house for lunch, dinner or just to chat.  We loved staying with them because we basically want to be them--energetic, enthusiastic, and sassy.  

Generous Gene and Ruth
The day after we arrived in Brownsville, we hitched a ride back to Weslaco (McAllen area) to attend the seventh annual Peace and Justice Gathering.  Several organizations we met with in the area had tables (like L.U.P.E. and Proyecto Aztecta), but we also spoke with people from many other groups who's issues ranged from the Occupy Movement to the environment to the death penalty to reproductive rights.  We heard some great speakers and participated in lively discussions and we greatly appreciated seeing a substantial part of the activist community of the Rio Grande Valley.

The keynote speaker: Professor Justic Akers Chacon 

Back in Brownsville, one of our first stops was a visit to Hope Park.  In its last few miles before reaching the sea, the Rio Grande snakes widely to the north and south, and at this downtown park in Brownsville, you look east and see Matamoros, Tamaulipas.  Once a beautiful park, residents of Brownsville protested the construction of the border wall passing through Hope Park, and ICE appeased them, saying they would place the wall along the riverbank which is about 50 feet lower than the park. This way, immigration would get its fence and residents would get their unscathed view.  However, residents continued to protest other sections of the fence, and they believe, when all was said and done, immigration placed the fence right through Hope Park to spite their efforts.  Aptly, I don't think people call it Hope Park anymore...

Looking at Matamoros through the fence of Hope Park

Adjacent to the park is Galeria 409 and Mark Clark warmly welcomed us in.  Mark is an artist recently settled in Brownsville after retiring from the Smithsonian museums in D.C.  His current exhibit was from female artists of the Valley, but he generously showed us his apartment upstairs and his art there, much of which was border themed.

an unfinished painting by Mark Clark of the U.S.-Mexico border

La Mojada / The Wet Woman / The Wetback

La reconquista (Eric's title) by Mark Clark 

Chatting with Mark was awesome and we loved his art and he was kind enough to let us park our bikes in his downtown gallery when we crossed over to Matamoros the following day.

We had only one destination in Matamoros so our trip into Tamaulipas was very short.  Following the instructions of the manager of the shelter, we caught a bus downtown that headed to the outskirts of the city.  There we found the Casa del Migrante.  There were a few guests in the house, about 6 men and 3 women, a few deported from the U.S., others from Central America hoping to cross in the Valley area.  We chatted for a couple hours with them, sharing a simple meal of soup and tortillas.  The woman in charge of the house during our visit told us that Matamoros receives over 100 deportees per day, but that most try and leave the city as soon as possible because, due to the Zetas, it has the reputation of being the most dangerous on the border.  The other thing preventing deportees from using the Casa del Migrante?  In January 2010, members of the Zetas entered the house and kidnapped 15 migrants. We can't find this event reported and we didn't ask much about this incident, not wanting to linger on such a scary moment, knowing it was best to quickly move on to a more benign subject. The number of migrant arriving has plummeted, but in the face of danger, they continue to open their doors to those who have no other option.

After our trip to Matamoros, we met up with our host Gene at University of Texas at Brownsville to attend a meeting for cycling advocates. The meeting included several representatives from the city of Brownsville who talked about how they want to make Brownsville a bike-friendly city.  This involves a lot of city planning to get funding and support for bike paths, lanes, etc.  It was really cool to be at this meeting and see how this beautiful community we were visiting was working on making the streets safer for cyclists.

Eric and I decided to go on this bike trip to explore the border and see the issues of the area.  We also figured we could scope out projects that we might want to be involved in and cities that we may want to reside in in the future.  With Tijuana and Tucson close behind (and not including El Paso), I think Brownsville is the most livable city on the border.  After growing up in Minnesota, I appreciated the presence of water the resacas provided, how green the city is, and that you could have a garden without the guilt of watering in the desert.  The people were humble and inspiring and welcomed us back to help them to set up a Catholic Worker (A ver!).  It is a true bordertown, located right across the river from our beloved Mexico, and it is only minutes from the beach!  I am so glad we got to end our trip with such a wonderful town that we keep us dreaming of return.

Next up, our ride to the Gulf.