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A town against the wall

Granjeno on the Rio Grande has outlasted the rule of Spain, Mexico and the Republic of Texas. Now the border fence aims for its heart.

December 17, 2007|Miguel Bustillo | Times Staff Writer

GRANJENO, TEXAS — Gloria Garza doesn't have a whole lot. But what she has, she clings to with pride.

She lives in a simple stucco house with a rustic wooden veranda and a well fashioned from odd stones her husband found around the state. Kittens stretch lazily in the sun beside her porch. Armadillos dart across her backyard.

Her two-acre lot is her heirloom, her link to a legacy that dates to 1767, when Spain's King Carlos III gave her pioneer ancestors a porcion of property that started at the Rio Grande and stretched inland for miles.

So she is not going to be quiet while some bureaucrat in Washington tries to take it -- to build a border fence. She doesn't want to become an unintended victim in a war against illegal immigration that she sees as misguided and wrong.

"It would be heartbreaking," said Garza, 51, who teaches tots in a Head Start program. "For us, this place has a sentimental value that is worth more than any amount of money."

Granjeno is a frontier town of about 400 people, where everyone seemingly lives a door down from their uncle and descends from the same rancheros. It outlasted the rule of Spain, Mexico and the independent Republic of Texas. But it might not survive the U.S. government's plan to build 370 miles of steel fencing along the border with Mexico.

Blueprints show that about a third of Granjeno's house lots lie in the fence's path, even though the town sits more than a mile from the Rio Grande, the dividing line between the U.S. and Mexico. The fence would run alongside an earthen levee that passes just south of Granjeno, because federal officials fear that if it were built by the river it would be worn away by flooding.

"I always thought, I'll serve my country, they'll pay me a little money and I'd build my house here and retire," said Mayor Alberto Magallan, 73, a 20-year Air Force veteran. "Now, a government man comes and tells me he's going to take my land? It's not right."

Granjeno weathered the racially charged land fights that shook the Rio Grande Valley after the Civil War, when Anglo newcomers acquired property through schemes that included using the Texas Rangers to intimidate the Tejanos, earlier Texans of Mexican or Spanish descent.

Granjeno persevered again a decade ago, when it fought off Hidalgo County power brokers who decided that the path to prosperity after the North American Free Trade Agreement was a big bridge to Mexico that would run right over the town and consume much of it.

But this fight may be the last for Granjeno, which is named for a thorny shrub with bright orange berries that is said to bloom more beautifully here than anywhere else.

Federal officials stress that the fence's location in Granjeno, just like the rest of the 70 miles of border walls being planned for the lower Rio Grande Valley, is subject to change.

"No final decisions have been made in the construction of fencing in that area," said Michael Friel, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection in Washington. "The input from the community will be a vital part of the process."

Yet Border Patrol leaders have made it clear that they believe places like Granjeno -- where drug smugglers and illegal immigrants can cross the river and slip into someone's house within minutes -- are where physical barriers are needed most.

Wary locals note that government officials have already been knocking on doors, asking residents to sign release forms granting access to their properties so that surveyors can begin plotting where the fence will go. Many old-timers refused to sign, worried that if the properties are condemned, Granjeno will be too small to carry on.

In response to similar resistance all along the border in Texas, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said this month that he would take landowners to court to seize property if needed, and also pledged that he would not pay more than market price for land.

Some in Granjeno argue that as descendants of the Spanish land grant families, they have property rights that the federal government cannot take away. A few attorneys think they may be right and recently offered to represent Granjeno's citizens pro bono. But in a post-Sept. 11 environment, legal experts said, there's virtually no chance of stopping a fence that's touted as a way to make the nation safer.

"The way things look, nothing is going to be left," said Garza's uncle, Daniel Garza, 73. "Then two miles west, the fence is going to stop. Do they really think people won't go around?"

Similar complaints are heard from El Paso to Brownsville, in river towns only a football field away from sister cities in Mexico, where the prevailing culture has long been bilingual and binational, and where everyone knows someone on the other side.

Many border residents still can't believe that a fence they ridiculed as a politician's pipe dream is about to become reality. They're stunned that the wild river that served as the playground of their youth will soon look like a military zone.

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