After fighting against ‘invaders,’ South Texas border hamlet now taking on border wall

Border Report Tour

SAN YGNACIO, Texas (Border Report) — The small border hamlet of San Ygnacio in deep South Texas is a community with a storied history of fighting.

Gun turrets built into the roof of Fort Treviño — now called the Treviño-Uribe Ranch — are still visible from this 19th-century sandstone structure, which was used to protect San Ygnacio residents from Native American attacks in the early 1800s.

The historic ranch, which overlooks the Rio Grande from a bluff, is the oldest settlement in rural Zapata County, and it is a reason that local residents fought so hard in the early 1950s not to have the town demolished as other Zapata County towns were destroyed for the formation of Falcon Lake and Falcon Dam. The flooding of several riverside communities created the lake, which stabilized the river’s flow and mitigated future flooding downstream in the Rio Grande Valley. But it forced many communities, like the original city of Zapata, to relocate to higher ground.

But this hamlet stayed put, many arguing it was up on a bluff, high enough from the water to not be in any danger. Since then, its population has grown to about 615, with several buildings since declared national historic and state landmarks.

But now the area is once again fighting: This time to prevent a border wall from being built through its popular riverfront birding sanctuary, which draws tourists to this quaint and peaceful area about 35 miles southwest of Laredo.

Zapata County Commissioners in July filed a lawsuit against the federal government to prevent it from taking over the 2-acre land tract called the San Ygnacio Bird & Butterfly Sanctuary. It’s a lawsuit that is still active, although, after the presidential election, county leaders are somewhat hopeful that no new construction will begin on the border wall in the next two months before Joe Biden takes office.

On Monday, Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell gave Border Report a tour of the sanctuary and the San Ygnacio historic district, which he says not only draws birders but also many travelers who take the brief diversion south of Highway 83 to explore the hamlet’s historic main square, preserved forts and buildings, and, of course, to enjoy birds and butterflies at the nature sanctuary.

Zapata County Judge Joe Rathmell stands near a corn feeder on Nov. 16, 2020, at the San Ygnacio Bird & Butterfly Sanctuary in deep South Texas. Zapata County has filed a lawsuit to prevent a border wall from being built through the nature preserve. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“This is what we’re fighting the federal government not to enter and disturb,” Rathmell said as he walked down a freshly mowed hill surrounded by brush, cedar and mesquite trees and wild bramble that lead to the river’s edge. “They just mow the trail but everything else is the way nature intended.”

A giant iron circular feeding wheel sits full of corn for the chicken-like chachalaca birds that call these riverbanks, and most of deep South Texas, home. Nearby, a handwritten sign is tacked to a dried old tree that reads “CHACHALACA TRAIL.”

Butterflies, especially the American snout and monarchs, flitter about, and if you are especially still one might be able to catch a glimpse of the white-collared seedeater, a species rarely seen in the United States except for the northern banks of the Rio Grande.

Rathmell, for all his years coming here, however, says he has actually never seen a white-collared seedeater. But on Monday, he did spot a vibrant green jay, which stuck out amidst the brown brush, due to a prolonged drought. The rustic untouched look of the area is what birders and naturalists love best, he says.

County Commissioner Olga Elizondo told Border Report the area is very important for her and others who live in the area. She and Rathmell said the area draws people from all over the world, especially during the winter when many seniors and Winter Texans come to South Texas to live for several months to escape cold weather elsewhere. A great many of them take up birding and this is a great day trip from anywhere in South Texas.

“Tourism is a major draw for the county and we certainly want to keep that aspect,” Rathmell said.

With just 16,000 residents in the county and an annual budget of about $14 million, this rural ranching county sandwiched in between Webb County to the west and Starr County to the east doesn’t have a large economic base to draw on. It’s special areas like San Ygnacio, Rathmell says, that bring in the dollars and keeps the county afloat.

The Treviño-Uribe Ranch is the former Fort Treviño built in the early 1800s and overlooking the Rio Grande and a place where residents took shelter from invaders. It is located in what now is the tiny hamlet of San Ygnacio, about 14 miles northwest of Zapata, Texas, in rural Zapata County in deep South Texas.

The lawsuit filed on July 6 in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas in Laredo alleges “animus” against Mexican-American residents and border communities in the government’s intent to build a 30-foot-tall border wall structure. It was a joint lawsuit filed with landowners Melissa Cigarroa and George Rincon against President Donald Trump, Homeland Security Acting Secretary Chad Wolf, and Mark Morgan, acting commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

“We are arguing that our constitutional rights have been violated and waived by construction of this border wall and that’s because we are Mexican-Americans and that constitutes an aspect of racism by the federal government,” Cigarroa told Border Report in July when the suit was filed.

Dozens of people supported the lawsuit and on July 7 protested outside the federal courthouse in Laredo by lining dozens of pairs of empty shoes on the sidewalk to signify protesters without actually drawing a large crowd during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The hamlet of San Ygnacio, Texas, was founded in the early 1800s and much of the historic district remains intact and several buildings are listed on the National Historic Register as seen above. (Photos by Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

Rathmell said when U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, visited Zapata County Commissioners on Thursday, he told him that he doubted new border wall construction would begin prior to the Jan. 20 inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, who has promised not to build “one more inch” of border wall during his presidency.

“I spoke with the congressman when he was here and he mentioned that things will definitely change in a positive way hopefully for us. He mentioned the possibility of the wall becoming a reality lessens to a certain extent with the new administration so that gives us hope,” Rathmell said.

But Cigarroa said after watching several eminent domain cases online Monday morning from the Laredo federal courthouse, she isn’t so sure. She said many federal land seizure cases in Zapata and Webb counties were continuing at full speed for border wall construction.

She and the Zapata County Commissioners filed the lawsuits after refusing government contractors right of entry onto their properties to survey for the border wall.

The San Ygnacio Bird & Butterfly Sanctuary was gifted to the county with the promise they keep it as a nature preserve, according to the lawsuit.

Melissa Cigarroa is seen in Laredo in December 2019. She is a landowner in Zapata County and part of a federal lawsuit to stop border wall construction in the remote and rural South Texas county. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report file photo)

“They’re proceeding with these land seizure cases so they do not have any indication that they are changing any course,” Cigarroa said. “So that’s the concerning part. We’re hopeful but this case is still incredibly important.”

Border Report has reached out to CBP officials and asked whether they will continue pursuing these lands in Zapata County, and received the same answer from CBP that they have sent since the election to other border wall-related inquiries, which reads: “CBP continues with the construction of new border wall system with funding that has been received through Fiscal Year (FY) 2020. The majority of contracts have been awarded and construction is well under way for the approximately 738 miles funded to date. Since the U.S. Border Patrol began constructing border barriers nearly 30 years ago, these barriers have proved to be a critical component in gaining operational control of the border and allowing for greater efficiency of manpower.”

The funds that would be used to build a wall for Zapata County have already been appropriated by Congress. There is no upcoming court date set for this case, but Cigarroa said it is in the government’s hands.

Said Cigarroa: “It’s going to stop whether they get up a couple of miles in a month verses all that destruction, and to what end? I don’t get it.”

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