Maggie Van Ostrand
in the old days of Pirate Island, an island only by definition, located
along the Rio Grande near Ysleta and San
Elizario in El Paso County, Mexico and the U.S. had a boundary
by treaty -- the bed of the Rio Grande. In 1854, the river shifted
south, leaving a part of Mexico on the north side of the River. It
was a stretch of land several miles long and six miles wide between
the new and the old Rio Grande riverbeds. This brush-covered area
became known as a no-man's land because Mexican lawmen didn't want
to cross the River and be cut off, and Texas lawmen had no legal jurisdiction
there. It was perfect for outlaws from both countries.
Will the U.S. government end up sticking Texas Widow Eloisa Tamez
in a place like old Pirate Island just because they want to put up
a fence on her land against her will?
"I'm not going down without a fight," said 72-year-old Eloisa Tamez,
and there are those ready to join her in battle against the U.S. Department
of Homeland Security.
It all began in 1767 when the Spanish Crown granted Tamez's ancestors
title to 12,000 acres of land in El Calaboz, Texas, land running along
the Rio Grande's north bank. There's not much of that big tract left
now -- just three acres. The loss of 11,997 acres wasn't Tamez's fault
or the fault of the Department of Homeland Security. Her family's
holdings were lost gradually due to the Mexican War of Independence,
U.S. annexation of Texas, and the Great Depression.
Those three remaining acres are important enough for Tamez to take
on the U.S. government. The border fence mandated by Congress will
run directly through her property, placing her on the Mexican side.
It's doubtful she'd even be offered Mexican citizenship.
Tamez, who once picked tomatoes on this land, told the Washington
Post, "My father, my grandfather, and my great-grandfather farmed
this land, This is the land that gave me life and my spirit ... I
will fight this all the way."
Tamez isn't the only one getting ready to fight Washington's big boys.
All across South Texas, municipal leaders and landowners are vowing
to prevent government surveyors on their property. They don't want
fencing, trespassing, or messing with.
One of the many reasons it's easy to get mad at Washington D.C. is
the Secure Fence Act of 2006, which instructs Homeland Security to
take a third of the 2,000 mile long Mexican border and erect 700 miles
of double-layered fencing. In the muddled mess of Washington, those
700 miles were reduced to 370 miles of barriers to foot traffic and
300 miles barring vehicles, all to be finished by the end of this
election year. The key word is "election." About 125 miles of vehicle
barriers and 165 miles of fencing have been erected on mostly federally
owned land in Arizona, California and New Mexico. But much of the
Texas area they want now is held privately by people like Eloisa Tamez,
and ties to Mexico are very strong there. Doesn't the U.S. government
know it's not smart to mess with Texans?
Warning letters were sent to 135 private landowners, municipalities,
universities, public utility companies and others along the border
who refused to allow surveyors onto their private property. Landowners
were given 30 days to change their minds or face legal action. 71
Texans defied the order and the deadline passed. This got the U.S.
government's knickers knotted up and they decided to sue.
Lawsuits were filed by Homeland Security, and one California landowner,
11 in Arizona and 11 in Texas were ordered by federal district judges
to surrender their properties. Suits are pending against 44 South
Texas landowners, including Tamez. Many of these owners are descendents
of Spanish settlers who colonized the area in the 1700s. They don't
have the money to file appeals or settle in for a long legal battle.
Large stretches of the proposed fence would be located more than a
mile inland from the river, cutting off substantial swaths of land.
Sounds a little like another Pirate Island, doesn't it?
Michael Chertoff, Secretary of Homeland Security, said "Can we simply
abandon an enterprise because it's a problem for a particular individual?"
Well, yeah, Mr. Chertoff -- that's why we fought the American Revolution
… you know, the rights of the individual?
The Widow Tamez simply says, "I will not allow them to come and survey
my land. I have an American-given right to protect my property."
When it comes to land rights, judging by past history with U.S. Government
methods, they'd better start making some molé for the Widow Tamez's
eviction to Mexico.
Copyright Maggie Van Ostrand
"A Balloon In Cactus"
May 9, 2008 column