October 1, 2008
By Kevin Sieff
In her crusade against the border fence, Eloisa Tamez has galvanized residents along the Rio Grande, filing seminal lawsuits against the federal government that have changed the very nature of the barrier's construction.
In the process, media outlets from around the world have converged on Tamez's tiny community of El Calaboz. Congressmen have walked the levee behind her home, stride for stride with the 73-year-old associate professor of nursing at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College.
On Friday, Tamez will receive the Henry B. Gonzalez award from the Texas Civil Rights Project, praising her for her willingness to stand up for the rights of border residents. The award is given annually to an individual who has shown personal courage in representing his or her community.
"This makes me energized to continue on," she said. "It's an affirmation."
Of the hundreds of South Texans who live along the path of the proposed border fence, Tamez has been by far the most vocal. She has pushed her neighbors to join her fight, but many, she said, have resigned themselves to the government's plans.
"They're fatalistic," she said. "They fear the government because of the history of oppression along the border."
Tamez's family inherited the property from a Spanish land grant in 1847. Of the grant's original 12,000 acres, Tamez now owns three. The government plans to build a 15- to 18-foot-tall fence through the middle of that property.
Tamez's greatest battle, she said, has been informing Valley residents in similar situations that "speaking up is not against the law."
It's a principle she first recognized at the age of 15, when she led the rancheria of El Calaboz in de-segregation of public schools in Cameron County. She would later serve for 17 years in the U.S. Army Reserves before settling into her current position at UTB-TSC.
She didn't expect that her career as an activist would take off after her 70th birthday, but when she heard about the government's border fence plans, she acted swiftly.
"I may end up losing the land," she said, "but I'm going to be there until my last breath."