Brownsville: The Rhetoric of Progress
by Myra Kruger
Brownsville is the seat of Cameron County and the largest city in the Rio Grande Valley, located on the southernmost tip of Texas. This study aims to identify major social, political, and environmental issues to the area and compare how the arguments are positioned within the media. There are several newspaper and local television networks that serve the Brownsville area. I will posit the rhetorical strategies seen in The Brownsville Herald, KGBT-TV Channel 4, KRGV-TV Channel 5, as well as those found in national publications about matters concerning the area.
Since talks of Elon Musk’s Space X coming to Brownsville began in 2012, I had very serious reservations. To begin with, the city and state were using taxpayer monies to pass laws that would facilitate the corporate plans of a privately owned and operated organization, in the hopes of producing a mutually beneficial partnership. I assumed Texas conservative parties would balk at a private citizen from California who dared to say he would save Americans billions by lining his own pockets with it, instead. Secondly, the corporation was slowly buying and leasing acres of land in the last natural habitat left on Brownsville’s Boca Chica Beach. I did not think the commercial launch site proposal would be approved. I have since found that I was wrong on several points. Furthermore, I have learned there are many changes occurring simultaneously within the social construct of this small border town. Brownsville is quickly becoming urban phenomena where, despite the obvious border tensions and poverty that plague the city landscape, its people continue to fight for a cultural flourishing and a measure of economic prosperity. The Brownsville rhetorics of progress present a forum for a discussion of the proposed solutions to the fragile economic, political and ecological environs of the area.
Economic, Political, and Ecological Environment
As of October 2013, Cameron County ranks 60th among the 100 U.S. counties with the lowest per capita income, according to statistics derived from U.S. Census Bureau data; U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Economic Analysis, Survey of Current Business; and DataQuick Information Systems, a public records database company located in La Jolla, San Diego, CA. In the November 7, 2013 edition of Brownsville Herald, Steve Clark takes a closer look at Brownsville as the “poorest city in U.S.” Clark notes that the Federal Census Bureau reports Brownsville residents as “well-below” the national poverty level. He continues the piece with dismal, correlative numbers: only “15.3 percent” of residents 25 or older posses a Bachelor’s degree or higher and “37 percent have no high school diploma” or its equivalent. Essentially, this means that the median household income falls between $4,000 and $12,000 per year and more than half the residents do not posses basic literacy skills. Although a bleak outlook on the city, the information in Clark’s article tries to shed a light at the end of the tunnel. He continues to report that city and state officials “expressed the belief that Brownsville eventually has the power to separate itself from the ranks of the country’s most impoverished communities.” The idea of eventuality is rooted firmly in the acknowledgement that there is work to be done, but, in the end, after a long delay, many disputes and series of problems, there will be change. People need to feel secure in the notion that there are leaders invested in the stability of the future, so the idea of power serves to reinforce public acceptance of separation from poverty. The ultimate destination of Brownsville’s future endeavors seem to emulate the existing progress of Austin, Houston, Dallas, and San Antonio, but also to uphold the cultural model of the Brownsville landscape. In a town where money cannot determine the direction we climb, there is a sense of urgency in appealing to the educated fraction of Brownsville’s residents. This presentation of argument is common within the newspaper’s articles. The rest of the report suggests that there is a plan for the transform of the city, the “pieces of the puzzle” needed to pull Brownsville out of the economic slum: the possible construction of a SpaceX launch site, the deepening the Brownsville Ship Channel to attract more business, hallmark city planning with widespread walkable and bikeable access, the rise in education for increased professional workforce, and relevant institutional partnerships.
Space X on Boca Chica Beach
Boca Chica Beach is the leading contender for a new Space X launch site. The proposed Texas site is at the eastern end of State Highway 4, about three miles north of the Mexican border and about five miles south of Port Isabel and South Padre Island. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on May 29 released its final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) on the project. The findings give Space X the preliminary go-ahead to begin construction of the launch site. The EIS record shows there are 91 documented sea turtles in the area, made up of 7 endangered species. According to conservationists in the area, there are less than 44 ocelots, only 13 of which are reproductive females. The “minimal risk” projected the EIA after the site begins building lists 7 turtle nests (with a possible 1000 eggs in each) that can potentially suffer a loss and one of the ocelots as likely to suffer possible injury or death. Since this report Space X has tripled its size, alongside the highway, alongside the brushy habitat of 7 endangered species, 2 threatened species, 1 possibly threatened species, and 1 more species that was not initially listed but found to also face potential threat. The most disturbing part is the proposed "reasonable" minimization efforts. That is to say, the FAA would "greatly appreciate" being notified by Space X if they happen to notice they have, in fact, injured or killed an animal. I question if Brownsville is being taken by the rhetoric of political wool over our eyes, or if the Space X launch site would actually help preserve the area for the wildlife that lives there. Residents near the Kennedy Space Center suggest that the needs of the wildlife are taken into account. Furthermore, there are some who favor this sort of development as it sets aside large tracts of land in order to ensure that there is plenty of space around the launch pad. In essence, the land becomes as a permanent wildlife refuges and, since one of the major drivers of extinction is the loss of habitat, this deal actually means that the wildlife will always have a place to live. Indeed, the argument is that the wildlife of that area has managed to co-exist successfully with the launch site for nearly 50 years.
In the May 28, 2014 edition of the Brownsville Herald, Laura B. Martinez reported that House Bills 2623 and 1791 facilitated the accrual of more than US$15 million from state and local government funds to tempt Space X to build on Boca Chica beach. Further research reveals that the Texas Aerospace & Aviation Industry is working to promote Texas land as “wide open for business.” The hope is to attract commercial enterprise to the state, to the coastal region of Brownsville, specifically. During 2010-2012, The University of Texas at Brownsville dedicated US$7 million to aerospace technology and research, roughly one-fifth the amounts that Austin and College Station allocated to the department. The University of Texas and Texas A&M University, respectively, are the leading research facilities and graduate more aircraft mechanics and avionics technicians than any other state. Since Texas ranks first for both Gross Domestic Product (GDP) and total employment in the air transportation sector, Brownsville is anxious to become a part of the 33 percent growth of the Texas air transportation sector.
In the same issue of The Brownsville Herald', Steve Clark reported that U.S. Representative Filemon Vela (D-Brownsville) was exploring Space X’s new Dragon V2 manned space capsule on display in Washington, D.C. According to the newspaper article, Vela is “very impressed” with the proposed project. The Dragon V2 is advertised as revolutionary technology with an unprecedented effect on the field. To clarify, Clark explains that the “next-generation spacecraft is designed to carry up to seven astronauts to Earth’s orbit and beyond, land ‘propulsively’ nearly anywhere on Earth, and be refueled and reflown within a short time.” The article, however, does not contain an explanation of what that means exactly. Instead, it becomes an advertisement as Clark continues to describe the rocket as looking like “a well designed prop from a good science fiction movie” although “there’s plenty of science involved.” U.S. Representative Vela’s quoted commentary is equally vacuous as he describes the “really pretty neat” experience as “really cool” and looking “pretty damn modern from the gadgetry standpoint.” Evidently, during the same visit between Musk and Vela, Musk “expressed gratitude for the level of support from Brownsville, Cameron County, and the state during the company’s search for a commercial rocket launch site” (Clark). Interestingly, Vela felt compelled to express his own gratitude by thanking Musk “for what he’s doing for us, for South Texas” (Clark). Of course, the appeal for approval could not be complete without mention of the benefits to education in the Valley, so Vela said Musk also mentioned the space program at the University of Texas at Brownsville, “He was really impressed with what the kids are doing in the astrophysics department” (Clark).
Elon Musk’s biographical information suggests he has purposely created a celebrity image of himself so that he would be heard and obeyed. He has made friends with people in high places and enjoys a close relationship with President Obama, who also helps to clear the way for his enterprise. The way he has accomplished this celebrity status seems to be by exploiting the American Dream, capitalism, and the exploratory spirit of the American way. That is to take what belongs to others and lay claim to it. The story is not new, but reminiscent of the Texas history fiction we have come to embrace.
In the case of Elon Musk, the Manifest Destiny is intergalactic expansion: human exploration and eventual settlement on red planet, Mars. The optimal location of Brownsville’s Boca Chica beach for his “right now” project is really not much more than a parlay toward the that ultimate goal. A most intriguing article about Musk is written by Tom Junod for Esquire magazine, entitled “Triumph of His Will.” Junod describes Musk as a genius “born with followers” that will take the world to new heights. All Musk asks is that America shows the will to follow him and be willing to die for the dream. The showmanship is difficult to swallow, but the effects are similar to the consequences of Preston Scott Webb’s undertaking of Texas history. The border is yet again yielding to an over-taking that is dangled like a carrot for our benefit, as long as we are willing to pay the price. And, apparently, we are. Therefore, the two-year development of Space X taking residence on the border, by the sea is a valid query worthy of documentation because it is another current event in the great plan of expanding Brownsville’s revenue.
The Great Plan To Expand Revenue
Brownsville Independent School District (B.I.S.D) administration touts the project as a “great opportunity” for our students and at putting Brownsville on the global map. Some teachers are concerned for the endangered species of the area, and most are doubtful of the promise of high-paying jobs for the residents of Brownsville. To begin with, they argue that no one is currently qualified to obtain such jobs – except for the janitorial or garden variety. After all, this is a very poor metropolitan area where the median household income is US$18,000 less than the state median. The teachers with whom I discuss the issue usually conclude that the “high-paying jobs” of US$60,000 (conservatively speaking) per year would only attract qualified people from other places to relocate to this area. So, what are the benefits to our students, they question. The answer is that parents and teachers will have to rise to the occasion. Students who graduate from the upcoming University of Texas – Rio Grande Valley (UTBRGV) will have to be marketable in a global market. That means they will need to perform professional duties in at least two languages, understand the people with whom they will be doing business, and be able to communicate with them. Essentially, the students of the Rio Grande Valley need to adopt a counter-trend to become productive citizens in a changing world.
Productive Citizens Of A Changing World
The Hispanic population in Texas is expected to continue exponentially during the next thirty years, in large part, due to the number of Central American and Mexican immigrants. Immigration is not going to stop with fences. The people who live in the border towns know that, and now the country is in on the secret. In Brownsville, safety continues to be a concern because of the cartel wars that occur on the streets of our sister-city on the southern bank of the Rio Grande, Matamoros. To help ease concerns, the city of Brownsville partners up with local businesses and encourage residents to be active supporters of health and well-being. Projects like CycloBia and Peddle to Padre enjoy a growing number of participants every year. In the March 14, 2014 edition of The Brownsville Herald, Melissa Montoya reports that people ask Gilberto Lopez, a Transforming Texas Specialist with the city, if the CycloBia event “will be safe.” Lopez indicates that many people are not familiar with the streets of downtown Brownsville because they are scared, so the project is instrumental to having safe fun and “you don’t really know you’re exercising.” Tackling negative outlooks, stemming from fear, is a complex undertaking that is moving forward with education and the vision for progress.
According to the UT system, the convergence of The University of Texas at Brownsville and University of Texas – Pan American is a proactive step to ensure the success of the people of South Texas. The perks are many, but the one that makes all other agendas possible is the prospect of receiving money from the US$14.9 billion Permanent University Fund (PUF) that was previously unavailable to The University of Texas at Brownsville. Project South Texas involves innovative changes to the new university, renamed The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV). The university vision for the Brownsville campus aims high to be student-centered; to be technologically enhanced; to be dedicated to the ecological resources; and to be globally significant, while remaining true to the cultural roots of the region. The university mission and core values are rhetorically relevant to the area because it acknowledges the major needs of the city. For example: What about poverty? Money will come into the university that few research institutions have benefited from in the past. What about literacy and education? Students will train in regionally needed professions such as biomedicine, the study of water and coastal environment, and astrophysics. What about culture? Students will be an integral piece to the making of the university culture by continuing to be bilingual, bicultural, multinational body. The future of the university also includes the smart use of space with walkable and bikeable access between campuses. The architecture boasts a continuance of the Brownsville style in the historic downtown area as well as in the university grounds: tall windows, open plazas, delicate rod-iron work, colorful tile, etc. There are plans for environmentally friendly, “net-zero” campus that treads lightly on the environment by promising to generate as much energy as it uses. There is a transformation in the horizon, essentially a cultural center where research and learning is nurtured and vital.
Through the 20 years I have lived in Brownsville, people are bewildered at the slow growth and obvious corruption that steeps the border and the city. To me, Brownsville was a safe-haven for broken, beaten people who needed a place to belong. For this reason, I have looked to what is good and what is coming, no matter how off the beaten path it may seem. I hope to continue to be witness to the great things in Brownsville’s rise from the proverbial ashes that many of the citizens attribute to the fell state of our city’s political and educational standings. So far, I have been made glad of community movements toward protecting sea turtles and their nests; the University of Texas endorsement of the endangered ocelot; Gladys Porter Zoo efforts on behalf of the endangered jaguarondi; and the federal emphasis on protecting the various bird species that cannot be observed anywhere else in the world. Today, there are great strides being made toward protecting the culture and revitalizing the people of Brownsville and I am honored to be a part of it.
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