Forget FEMA Trailers: How to House People in a Hurry

Yes! / June 4, 2018
“We don’t need to wait for a hurricane to hit. We can get started with the recovery right now.”

When Hurricane Dolly hit Brownsville, Texas, in 2008, Esperanza Avalos was at the home she shared with her daughter, three grandchildren, and her dying husband. Like most homeowners in the rural Luz del Cielo colonia, less than a half-mile from the U.S.-Mexico border, the Avaloses had built the house themselves, adding new bedrooms to accommodate their multigenerational family as money allowed.

Swan Song

TEXAS OBSERVER / FEBRUARY 2018
You won’t find it on a highway map, but a 250-year-old village on the Rio Grande is internationally famous among birders. Will it survive Trump’s wall?

The Salineño Preserve is one of many wildlife sanctuaries — including better-known destinations like the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge, the National Butterfly Center and Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park — at grave risk if Trump’s wall is built as planned. The preserve’s tiny size and its location sandwiched between the river and the village mean that it could literally be wiped out. If the wall is built, it would at the very least cut off access to the riverside preserve. Potentially, it could be bulldozed entirely as part of a planned 150-foot enforcement zone.

The Day Shift

TEXAS OBSERVER / DECEMBER 2018
Adult day cares in the Rio Grande Valley are a cultural phenomenon. What can they teach us about health and wellness in an aging world?

Adult day cares like those in the Valley can offer a kind of middle way between round-the-clock care by family caregivers — who frequently burn out and experience physical and mental problems themselves — and expensive, sometimes impersonal nursing home care. As more seniors opt to “age in place” by living at home longer, such facilities are growing in number outside the Valley as well. Nationally, the number of adult day care participants has increased 63 percent since 2002, even as nursing home occupancy has flatlined. If this trend continues, the Valley today may offer a glimpse at what health care for older Americans will look like in the future.

Dance Without Borders

TEXAS OBSERVER / DECEMBER 8, 2017
Ballet Nepantla erases boundaries between dance forms and explores what it means to be from the borderlands — both as a geographical place and a state of mind.

The interplay between traditional and contemporary dance is at the heart of Ballet Nepantla, a fusion dance company formed early this year by Rio Grande Valley native Andrea Guajardo. The company’s name — taken from an Aztec word that translates to “in-between-spaces” — is a fitting description of its inaugural show, Sin Fronteras, which in November completed a three-city Texas tour with a performance in Guajardo’s hometown of Edinburg.

High-Wire Act

TEXAS OBSERVER / APRIL 2017
Laughter, fear, and Trump at the Spanish-language circus.

This ceremonial opening marked 20 years since Circo Hermanos Vazquez, the nation’s only touring Spanish-language circus, came to the United States. What began as a tiny spinoff from a popular Mexican circus now encompasses 100 vehicles, 200 employees and what the Vazquez brothers say is the largest traveling circus tent in the Americas. But while it has grown exponentially, the circus also faces unprecedented challenges. Like all circuses, it must reckon with the imminent closing, in May, of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey, “The Greatest Show on Earth” for 146 years. Unique to this circus, though, is a second challenge: widespread fear, among many members of its core audience, inspired by the election.

Inside the Nation’s First Bilingual University

TEXAS OBSERVER / FEBRUARY 2017
The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley looks to become the first ‘bilingual, bicultural, biliterate’ campus in the country.

The bilingual course I visited is a pilot for an initiative known around campus as B3 — “bilingual, bicultural, biliterate” — that aims to transform the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) into the United States’ first comprehensively bilingual public university. The project’s goals, proponents say, are far-reaching: to not only produce the bilingual professionals in high demand along the Texas-Mexico border, but also to begin to redress a historical legacy of what queer Chicana theorist Gloria Anzaldúa, a Valley native, calls “linguistic terrorism” against border Spanish speakers denied the legitimacy of their native tongue.

¡Viva la Huelga!

OXFORD AMERICAN / FALL 2016

The fiftieth anniversary ceremony began with the singing of a corrido. As the guests of honor found their seats on the stage of the octagonal-roofed Kiosk on the first day of June, Daria Vera shuffled to the mic, gripping an official program with the lyrics on the back cover. The guitarist and accordionist struck up the first chord. Her deep, gravel-lined, distinctive contralto struggled to carry over the rumble of the cross-border freight trucks hemming us in on parallel one-way arteries of Highway 83 through downtown Rio Grande City, Texas.

The Early Bird’s Reward

TEXAS HIGHWAYS / NOVEMBER 2016
Natural wonders and border culture in Starr County.

When nature enthusiasts think of the Rio Grande Valley, they most often picture the glimmering resacas and moss-hung forests of destinations like the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. But venturing farther upriver, away from the large cities and the tropical influence of the Gulf Coast, one finds a strikingly different landscape of rolling ranchland, sheer bluffs, and Old West frontier towns.

Insurgent Medicine

TEXAS OBSERVER / SEPTEMBER 2015
Physicians hope to revolutionize health care in the Valley with a simple prescription — access.

Diabetes and its complications have reached epidemic proportions in the Valley. A major study begun in 2003 by the University of Texas School of Public Health in Brownsville found that 30.7 percent of 2,000 randomly selected Valley residents tested positive for diabetes. An alarming 50.3 percent of those had not been previously diagnosed. The results are a logical outcome in a region where 80 percent of the population is overweight or obese, the per capita income is half the national average, and more than a quarter of residents are uninsured, despite the ACA’s enactment.

Flight Risk

TEXAS OBSERVER / MAY 2015
As climate and habitat change in South Texas, where will all the birds go?

“It’s a bird’s-eye view,” refuge manager Gisela Chapa promised as we climbed the observation tower steps at Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge. It was a cold and windy March day, and we’d almost elected to stay in the warmth of her government-issued Escape Hybrid SUV. But as soon as we reached the top it was plain to see why Chapa insisted we brave the weather.Bundled in a brown U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service parka, Chapa oriented me: To the south, factory smoke rising from maquiladoras in Mexico. To the west, the Chase Tower in McAllen, part of the fastest growing metropolitan area in the United States. To the north, Military Highway, with truck traffic carrying goods to and from the border. Everywhere, fields of kale and sorghum and sugar cane that encircle the refuge like a lasso. “It’s the big-picture view of habitat connectivity, habitat fragmentation, urban development, the river and our neighbors to the south,” she said. “It’s my favorite spot. It synthesizes everything.”