Fifteen years ago, Bekah Hinojosa sat in a community meeting in South Texas and listened intently as a local activist spoke about a toxic superfund site that was troubling locals.
That day was one of the first times she’d heard a person speak about the environment with such passion, all of it aimed at improving the lives of people in the lower Rio Grande Valley, a region of the country where race, immigration, poverty, and environmental justice are a daily part of life on the U.S.-Mexico border.
“I remember sitting there and feeling really inspired and thinking that’s what I want to do when I grow up, help people,” said Hinojosa, who is now 30 and lives in Brownsville. “I think I’ve always been fed up with toxic industries using us and because of that I’ve always felt really inspired by people speaking out against the industrial colonizers.”
It was the beginning of Hinojosa’s career and over the next 15 years she used that passion for all kinds of good. In just the last 14 months, she has stopped multi billion dollar companies in their tracks. In March 2021, Hinojosa with indigenous and environmental activists stopped a liquid natural gas terminal from being built on the Rio Grande river in Brownsville. The terminal would have destroyed wetlands, endangered wildlife and put communities at risk, according to the Sierra Club, one of the country’s largest and most influential environmental groups and where Hinojosa works as a senior Gulf Coast campaign representative.
In August, Hinojosa and the Sierra club forced a review of the environmental justice and climate risks associated with two fracked gas terminals on the Rio Grande. In May, they forced the cancellation of a carbon capture storage facility.
But her efforts have also had an impact far from the Rio Grande valley. In July 2021, the Sierra Club added its voice to help stop a major Australia bank funding LNG projects in Texas and on indignous lands in Australia. And in November 2020, a French company walked away from negotiations to import gas from Rio Grande LNG after years of protest in the U.S. and abroad.
Hinojosa’s ancestors lived in the Rio Grande Valley before Texas was a U.S. state. They bore witness to the Texas revolution in 1835, the annexation of the state a decade later and the subsequent Mexican-American war. By the turn of the 20th century, white settlers had begun buying up large swaths of land for large-scale farming and industrial development. And then came the Mexican revolution that spilled over into the U.S. side of the border, lasting from 1910 until 1920.
Along the border, heavy industries pollute the environment, according to Hinojosa, and the people who live and work in what some describe as sacrifice zones – areas where people and pollution co-exist.
“My late grandfather, who has passed away, worked in a pesticide plant here and he would tell me stories about how there were no worker safety standards,” said Hinojosa. “Pesticides and chemicals would just fall on him and his colleagues. Many of them got cancer and died very young.”
“Those were the kinds of stories I heard of as a kid,” she added.
For Hinojosa, protecting the environment isn’t just about the future, it’s also about preserving the past and the ancestral legacy of the many generations that have lived and worked on the land.
“I’ve heard stories about this place from my grandparents, great grandparents and elders in our community about the racism and colonization that existed all those years ago,” she said. “Politicians, real estate companies, [and] big business sell our people and land as cheap land and cheap labor to spur big companies to exploit us. And it’s happened over and over again where big agricultural companies came in and built pesticide plants, created superfund sites. And then we have border wall militarization.”
But today, aside from the oil and gas companies, and other polluters, that have continued to plague the Gulf of Mexico’s environment, Hinojosa has cast her eye on the new age of what she calls environmental colonization: SpaceX.
The arrival of rocketeer Elon Musk and his space exploration company has added a new and paradoxical dimension to life on the border and the perceived environmental threats in the region.
“They will frack the beach and build a LNG plant to help in creating rocket fuel,” said Hinojosa. “That will be right beside a major international wildlife corridor, next to communities of color and SpaceX has already spurred gentrification in the Brownsville area.”
She added: “So we’re seeing really fast the negatives of industrial colonization – just like with my ancestors.”
The company is based in Boca Chica, a speck of a community wedged between a state park, a wildlife management area and the Gulf of Mexico. And about two miles from one of the most militarized and politicized borders in the world.
Since SpaceX chose the site in 2014 and installed the first equipment in 2016, environmental activists have been on the company’s back. SpaceX has been approved to use the site since 2014, but continual changes to the sites design and operations require new environmental assessments from the Federal Aviation Administration. That offers activists new opportunities to challenge and keep the company in line.
Current issues listed on the Sierra Club’s website include environmental impacts such as sonic booms, air pollution, explosions and fears over the heavy use of chemicals. There are also issues relating to local wildlife.
On the other side of the border, migrants scramble to enter the United States in the hope of escaping poverty, finding work and creating a better life for their families.
Musk, one of the wealthiest men in the world, hopes to one day colonize Mars.
But Hinojosa’s focus is very much on the land that her ancestors lived on and on a region that she hopes can be preserved for future generations.
“History is very, very important to us and it’s a large part of why I do the work I do. Families have been here for generations and it’s a very tight knit community that’s faced repeated examples of colonization and environmental racism,” she said. “Protecting our wildland is about preserving that past and also trying our best to keep it healthy for future generations and all of our families future generations.”