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Meg Guerra

INTERVIEWEE: Maria [“Meg”] Guerra (MG)
INTERVIEWERS: David Todd (DT) and David Weisman (DW)
DATE: March 2, 2000
LOCATION: San Ygnacio, Texas
TRANSCRIBERS: Lacy Goldsmith and Robin Johnson
REELS: 2097 and 2098

Please note that videos include roughly 60 seconds of color bars and sound tone for technical settings at the outset of the recordings. Numbers correlate with the time codes on the VHS tape copy of the interview. “Misc.” refers to various off-camera background noise, unrelated to the interview content.

DT: My name is David Todd. I am here on March 2, year 2000, for the Conservation History Association of Texas. And we’re at a ranch about four or five miles from San Ygnacio. And we have good fortune to be visiting with Maria Guerra, affectionately known as Meg. And we’re going to talk to her about her many interests and work and especially her efforts running a newspaper. And I want to thank you for spending some time with us today. We usually start with a question about your childhood. And I was wondering if you could tell us about your early influences or early experiences in conservation, like parents, teachers, etc.
0:02:36 – 2097
MG: I grew up in Laredo, Texas, thirty-six miles north of here. The ranch, however, was always the backdrop for weekends, Easter weekend, holidays, th—things we would do with our family out on the ranch. When I grew up, in the late ‘40s and ’50s in the Laredo, Laredo was—was a city about a third of the size that it is now. I think the populations’ about 185,000 right now. And it was very different. It was—it was a clean place. The river was clean. And it had movement. And, the river figured largely into—into our thoughts. We spent a lot of time in—in both cities. Commerce was conducted on both sides. My father was a businessman. Plus our ties, culturally, and—and in many ways are—are with Mexico. The place never felt like two cities. It felt like—like one—one place. As far as—as the ranch goes, I think this is where most of the environmental lessons in—in our life had been learned, from grandmothers, uncles, people who ran the ranch, people who were very conservative, fiscally, but were also conservative with—with what they did on land. Recycling I probably learned from my
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grandmother, the consummate recycler. My grandmother was blind and—and ran this ranch, just, you know, ran this ranch. She—she knew the condition of her cattle, she knew—she knew everything. Of course, she had help from her sons. But, she was La Noya(?). She ran this place. What else can I tell you about—about those experiences? The noises that you hear on this place, they’re—they’re—they’ve been, you know, the music of—of my whole life, the sounds of wildlife, the sounds of cattle. The coyotes serenade at night. The way the wind blows through here. The way the stars look. Everything in—in its natural setting. All of those things just figure into who you are, at some point. At some point, you have to become that person that—that is made up of these things, you know. Your life experiences add up to—to that. And, you know, you figure in your education. I had a good education. The things your parents taught you, to be conservative with, to be truthful about, all of those things. And this—this was a real good place to—to—to grow up.
DW: Did you camp? Did you hike? Did you use it as a place to go and seek solitude?
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MG: Okay. What I’ve always understood about this ranch is that, as beautiful as it is, it’s also very dangerous. There’s a lot of wildlife here that, it’s their home too. For instance, rattlesnakes, and—and—and things that can really hurt you, lethal things. So we’ve always learned to be careful where we step, what we take, what we do, not to encroach, to respect, that kind of thing. So, no, we didn’t just head off into the brush on larks. You had to be pretty careful, whether you were on horseback or—or you were walking. And—and that’s still something we do. I killed two six-foot Rattlesnakes last weekend, that—that caught me very much by surprise. You know, they were—they were deadly. They were magnificent creatures, but—but they weren’t where I needed them to be. So I, you know, I destroyed them. Of course, those aren’t the words of a conservationists, really. But—but, this is—this is—as good a place as it is, it’s also very dangerous, because it’s home to a lot of dangerous things. It’s a place for walks. This time in my life, it’s a place for walks. It’s a place of solitude. But you have to be careful as you make your way through arroyos that are—that are fifteen feet deep, you might be walking at eye level with—with a snake, you know, on the—on the sides of the arroyo. So, it’s a place to be careful. But it’s also a place that just sings to you. It’s—it’s very beautiful. I wouldn’t trade it for—for anything. I think it’s magnificent.
DT: I guess there was a time in your life where you went off to the Hill Country. Maybe you could talk a little bit about your…?
0:07:08 – 2097
MG: (talking over David) When I—when I first went back to college, back in the sixties, when I graduated from high school, I went to school in Austin and—and San Marcos and stayed up in that area for more than twenty years, raised my son there part of the time, but then came here in the—in the late ‘80s. That’s a very pretty part of the world. That’s a lot of natural settings still left in tact, despite development. A lot of lessons to be learned for—for—for how you develop an area while trying to preserve some of the very beautiful places around. Like, Pedernales State Park is real beautiful. The places around Wimberley on the Blanco River, just pristine water, water that isn’t affected by agricultural run off, or—or any of those things.
DT: Can you talk about what it was like to be active and living in Austin in the late ‘60s?
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MG: It was…
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MG: It the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, Austin was, I guess it was a hot bed of political change, and with that environmental change. It was a time for learning and responding and finding your conscience, both politically and environmentally. Of course, in school the—the number of ideas that—that then seemed radical, but—but aren’t now. I mean, they make perfect sense now. But, you were learning things that just really changed the way you felt. Culturally, so many things were happening. With music, so many things were happening. Politically, of course, it was—it was just nirvana. It was—it was just really a nice time. And with that came changes in—in how people thought about the environment, at least in my generation. Reading Rachel Carson, I think, was—was just a—a huge moment of introducing good—good thoughts, good ideas in how you went about having that voice in the environment. All of the sudden, you—you—just—just getting a conscience about the environment was—was—it was just one of those moments. Reading Rachel Carson was just such an important piece of education. Even though it wasn’t presented to me in a biology class, or anywhere like that. It was just something that came along the way. And you read it. And it made perfect sense. And you kept parts of it for yourself that you would apply the whole rest of your life to—to things you felt strongly about. I think the thing that reinforced what I read in Rachel Carson, was—was a huge fish kill in Austin. I guess, back in the ‘70s, I’m not clear on the date, but—but I do remember the site and the smell of fish just on the banks of—of Town Lake and—and the river. Ask me a question.
DT: During those same years I understand you ran an organic plant nursery to help make a living up there. What was that job like?
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MG: (talking over David) When I was married, my—my husband and I had a plant nursery in Austin called the Jungle Store. And we didn’t spray with chemical pesticides, or—or use chemical fertilizers. Our pesticides were Ladybugs and Praying Mantis’, which really seems primitive, but—but it worked. And consequently, we had beautiful plants, really beautiful foliage plants. It was an indoor plant nursery. We were organic farmers. We—we had a little place out in Buda. And, you know, it was that whole back-to-the-earth kind of, tail end of the revolution, I call it the revolution. And it was a revolution, for anybody my age that lived through those years in Austin, it was a revolution.
DT: In what sense?
0:11:05 – 2097
MG: Well, certainly politically. And certainly, environmentally. You know, it was—it was the peak of—of the Vietnam War. Those were really important years to—to people that are—that are my age, people who—baby boomers that were born in the late ‘40s. Those were really important years, for being formed for figuring out what you believe in, what you’re thinking, what you think about.
DT: Later on I understand that you went back to school and got a degree in journalism. What lead you to an interest in reporting and journalism?
0:11:52 – 2097
MG: (talking over David) My degree had always been in journalism. The degree I started in 1967 was—was in journalism. I just got waylaid, you know, all those years. I—I was married, and had my child and did other kinds of work, pretty much thinking I didn’t need the degree in journalism. But then, on—on my own, I started writing fiction and other things that—that; I’d always been a writer. I’d been a writer since I was a child. But, at some point in the ‘80s, it—it was clear to me that I really did need to go back and get that structure. Not that anyone would teach me to write, but that I would go through the exercises in writing and be graded, you know, on—on my work. And it’s the same story, when old people go back to—to school, you make really good grades. You blow the curve, you know, that kind of thing. I enjoyed going back to school. I—I went back to Southwest Texas and finished the degree, I think, in four semesters or five semesters. But, I—I’d already done so much of the—the course work at UT way back in the—in the ‘60s and ‘70s. So, it was just completion of something I’d started a long time ago.
DT: I understand the next phase of your life was moving back to the border area?
0:13:11 – 2097
MG: (talking over David) Yeah. I moved back here, started moving back in ’86, finally moved after I graduated in ’88. It—it became real important to be back here. Even though when I left, in 1966, I left just with a grin on my face, and waving goodbye to the rearview mirror. I mean, just, I was never going to come back here. This place was provincial. It was someplace I—I just never would want to be in again. But life changes and—and you ge—you appreciate what—what really is yours’, what was always yours’. You know, this place was always ours. This place has always been a comfort. And, I think I started knowing that slowly, and then all of the sudden it became really, really important. And, I realized this was home, this—this place was home.
DT: Can you talk about your roots here?
0:14:09 – 2097
MG: (talking over David) They go back several hundred years to land grant times. I think, initially, all the land grants pulled away from the river in a small stretch that widened as it—as it left the river. So that everybody got river frontage. By attrition, by being handed down in families, ranches, of course, have gotten smaller, and smaller. So, huge porciones, huge ranches, have dwindled down probably to an average size of about a thousand acres, in this area. It’s always been really important that—that we had hung on to this land through everything, through the—the Depression, through—through bad economic times. Our family was able to—to maintain this piece of property. I think that’s real significant. And—and I think when—when the weight of that occurs to you, when the importance of it occurs to you, so does the—the desire to care for it, you know, for good stewardship, for—for valuing it for what it really is. And, of course, you don’t own land, land owns you. That’s—that’s the way it is. You’re just here for the interim. I’ll never own it. My son will never own it. And so on. But, people with our name will always live here. It’s, you know, that’s the way it is. This place is full of lessons about the environment, about natural order, about balance, about what a world in harmony feels like, smells like, sounds like. And so, when I drive into Laredo and sit in a couple of miles of exhaust and—and stalled vehicles and—and all that stuff, I’m pretty sure I know
0:16:08 – 2097
which place I would rather live in. I mean, I’m pretty sure things are out of whack in—in Laredo. I think we’re not doing the things, environmentally, we need to do. Stalled traffic, spewing exhaust eventually settles on the watershed and on the river. We should be finding ways to move traffic off of the river, to expediting it. We should be finding more cleaver ways of doing business that don’t encroach on the environment in the way that—that all this international trade does. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t have trade. I think it’s excellent. It’s changed people’s lives. It’s helped people get educations. It’s improved the standard of living. More people are employed than—than ever, in this whole area, in both—both cities. I think it’s made more of a difference on Laredo, Texas than—than Nuevo Laredo. I think people are still paid very poorly in the maquilla industry and in the transportation industry in Nuevo Laredo. But fortunes are being made. And, of course, that spills over into the rest of the community, in money that trickles down into the community.
DT: Was this stuff that you learned through your work with the Rio Grande International Studies Center?
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MG: Not necessarily. It’s just…
DT: Maybe you could talk a little bit about your role there.
0:17:30 – 2097
MG: The—the Rio Grande International Studies Center was founded by two biologists at Laredo Community College. Doctor Tom Vaughan and Doctor Jim Earhardt and, it’s a nonprofit, 501(c) 3. And it’s a river monitoring entity. That’s their work. Their chief work is—is monitoring the quality of water at, above and below Laredo. When I—when I joined up with Doctors Earhardt and Vaughan, I was the interim Director of the Rio Grande International Studies Center. And what I feel I contributed in that first year of really being a—a nonprofit organization was helping them find the money in grants from the TNRCC and grants from other organizations, in donations, contributions to buy really important equipment to monitor the river with. They’re scientists. They’re—they’re—they weren’t like phone people or office people, or that sort of thing. So, so I sort of found it easy to call people and say, “Don’t you want to give us some money to—to help us get started with—with figuring out what’s wrong with this river?” I think—I think I ended up, with their help, raising maybe 70 or 80 thousands dollars in either in-kind or outright grant—grant money, going before the city of Laredo, going to the county to ask for—for funding for that year the way all nonprofits do down here. I’ve always believed real strongly in their work, which is based on science. I think—I think science is—is just a real good way to make your point about water quality, water conditions.
DT: What did they find in the river?
0:19:18 – 2097
MG: What they have found, and you have to know what these things mean. They look at dissolved solids; they look at turbidity, salinity. How salty is the river? Those things have to do with erosion, which is a real problem in this region. The way developers clear 250 acres and just paving for streets, putting in infrastructure, leaving not a blade of grass, the first big rain, and we get our rains in big rains, we don’t get little drizzles, we get, you know, we get gully washers. So, when you peel back land and—and don’t leave anything on it to hold the soil in, you’re sending that soil directly to—to the Rio Grande. And—and the city of Laredo is expediting the journey of that soil by concreting your arroyos and your creeks. Instead of doing a riprap of rocks or vegetation, they dredged, they’ve—they’ve concreted. And then what they’ve done is they’ve greased the shoot for soil to end up in the river. I’ve digressed. The Doctors Earhardt checked—Earhardt and Vaughan checked for water quality in other ways. The presence of certain organisms will tell you if water is healthy, or if it’s very foul. Their data is very valuable, I feel. And, this isn’t new news; they’ve been doing it for ten years. But you’ve got this city council, and the one before it, and the one before it in a state of “no comprendo.” You know, they—they just—they don’t want to hear it. They don’t want to hear there’s anything wrong with water quality of the Rio Grande. They’ll acknowledge it in a—in a half of a nod, but it’s not an accepting, “Yeah, I know we have a problem,” kind of way. So Rio Grande International Studies Center had a slow start. I think it’s—it’s real strong right now. I think people are finally listening to Doctor Earhardt and Doctor Vaughan. Their board is real strong. It has people with real strong environmental backgrounds on it, or people who have a position in the community that, or a profile in the community that—that will help them get their message out. But, basically, this is—this is a city that
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just doesn’t want to hear bad news. The bad news is the city has conducted—allowed business to be conducted in a way that keeps bad things moving into the river, from industry, from ranchers, from farmers, from all the lawns in Nuevo Laredo, or Laredo that—that they’re highly fertilized, highly doctored with pesticides. All that stuff ends up in the river. This whole area is a watershed for—for the river.
DT: And that’s the sole source of drinking water?
0:22:11 – 2097
MG: (talking over David) Sole source of drinking water. I think if everyone understood that gravity prevails always. Whatever you through on the ground, whatever—whatever you get—that—that oil change you let leak onto the ground, you’ll be drinking it sooner or later. You’ll—it’s going to be in your water. But I—I—I don’t know why more of us don’t have that—that concept. But, it’s—it’s science. Gravity prevails.
DT: I understand that you’ve been making quite an effort to teach people about a lot of environmental issues and just general civic events through running your newspaper. Can you talk a little bit about the newspaper called LareDos?
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MG: (talking over David) You know… Yeah. I publish a newspaper called LareDos. It’s a 72 page news journal. And we—we devote a lot of it to environmental issues. And I’ve learned, I guess; late in life that, by educating you can actually change things. You can—depending on who you’re educating. In our case, we’re trying to educate our—our public leaders, our city council members, decision makers in—in city administration who’s work concerns the environment, water, those kinds of things. And sometimes we do it with a lot of decorum in my newspaper and other times we just, you know, just sort of s—slap them around a little bit. Because they don’t seem to really get the ideas that—that we need to do something about the environment. This is a city that should be acting as an example to its citizens with practices it conducts for xeriscape, for water conservation. I mean, why—why are they still planting Oak trees? They should be planting cenizos and—and mesquites and—and things that grow here on the desert. By example, they should be showing the citizens of this town how you have greenery at no cost to the environment, at no cost to your water source. They should be building buildings that are so efficient. I mean, this is the desert, for goodness sake, you know. We should—we should be operating in that fashion. We shouldn’t be wasting water. We shouldn’t be wasting resources. But, this is a city that is big on ceremony. It’s not what we do; it’s what we say, and how we say it. And it’s how much we spent on this reception. And it’s, you know, how much hoopla. But—but that doesn’t translate to action; to—to—to having a conscience about the environment. I served on a committee, the Citizen’s Environmental Advisory Committee, which was appointed by the city council. I served on it for about a year. But it became so clear to me that, you know, this is not a city that’s acting like it has environmental concerns. When the city of Laredo began working on the 4th environmental bridge, and had to build a—an earthen pad out into the river to put heavy equipment on to build the peers for the—for the bridge, it didn’t do what everybody knows you have to do, which is keep soil from running into the river. If soil goes into the river, you’re adding to the turbidity, the salinity, etc., etc. You’re—you’re causing erosion. There had been a large release from upriver. The river
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had a lot of current. It had also rained. And it just seemed—it seemed practical to me that you would do anything you could not to add more soil to the river that is so choked up with silt. No barriers; nothing. Mexico did. The U. S. didn’t. The city of Laredo did not do it. Its contractor did not do it. An employee of environmental engineering pointed it out to the city; pointed it out to me; I pointed it out to city officials with photographs and a polite letter. And never heard back from them, that they had broken the EPA’s laws and no—the Clean Water Act of Texas. I mean, I think that’s real important, that when—when you, a city of Laredo, undertake an infrastructure project, like an international bridge, I think you should be the best citizen there is. I think you should have played by the rulebook. But it was real clear to me that, while I was on this committee and—and—and on the side, as a citizen, pointed this out to people who could have done something about it, no one was listening. It wasn’t—it wasn’t of interest to anyone.
DT: Why do you think they were reluctant or indifference to environmental issues?
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MG: Because progress must occur at any cost, that’s why. That’s the headset of—of governance in Laredo, Texas. It’s—it’s infrastructure first, more roads, more stuff, more public stuff. The environment has always been there. Why—what’s the deal? What’s—it will always be there. I mean, it’s—it’s just a lack of regard for keeping the balance between the environment and infrastructure.
DT: Can you give another example…?
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MG: (talking over David) Yeah I can.
DT: …in talking about the sewage treatment plant and…
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MG: (talking over David) Well, let me—let me—let me talk about another committee I served on, which was the Haz Mat [Hazardous Materials] Advisory Committee. We worked for two years on an ordinance for how you store, transport and document the movement of hazardous materials through the Port of Laredo and into Mexico, and hazardous waste coming back from Mexico. Two years, with lawyers from Saint Mary’s University Law School, part of a law clinic and professors, to help us write this ordinance. Where else could you find free help like that? It was a good ordinance. And it was based on ordinances that existed in San Francisco—in San Diego and other—other cities that—that have trade with Mexico. So we write this ordinance. Our committee is made up not only of Doctor Earhardt and me, the token environmentalist, but members of the trucking industry. And somehow, we all get it. We all work together. We worked for two years to write this ordinance. We delivered it to the city like the piece of gold that it was, because we’d
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learned to work with industry. Industry had learned to work with us. And, we handed it to them and they said, “Thank you.” And that’s the last we ever heard of it. We recommended the establishment of an Environmental Services Department for the city, staffed with someone from another city who—recruited from another city, who knew how to administer an environmental program for a whole—a whole city, especially a border city. They never acted on it. They—they took our ordinance and shoved it inside the Fire Department. And four guys in the Fire Department driving, I think it’s three vehicles, three old vehicles, they have no radios, they have no phones, they have archaic computers, they’re at a fire substation, they are the front line of defense for the movement of hazardous materials through Laredo. From the heart of this city to the heart of the next city, they’re the front line. No equipment, no staff, and they’re—they’re going to over a thousand warehouses inquiring about hazardous materials, writing permits for—for the movement of hazardous materials. You have to have a permit to handle it. You’re supposed to have training. Your forklift operators are supposed to know how to move this hazardous commodity, which can’t be move like this other hazardous commodity. In other words, you need training. You need not to puncture the drums, which is how most hazardous materials get spilled, or they—they topple out of barrels. Those guys are the first line of defense for a city of 185,000 people on the U. S., more than 450,000 on the Mexican side. It’s—and—and if you keep thinking gravity prevails, you know, anything you spill ends up—not everybody calls the Haz Mat [Hazardous Materials] Unit to say, “Oh, I spilled something.” That’s the exception. The rule is probably that they hosed it off.
DT: And is there a worry about fire? I think that…
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MG: (talking over David) Fire. The warehouses are end on end. If you have a fire in one metal warehouse, you know, it’s going to melt with—with all its hazardous materials in it. It would stand to reason that the one right next to it is going to do the same thing. I think it’s going to be horrible. It’s—we’re just asking for some catastrophe to happen. And we’re not taking all the safeguards that you could take, as a city, that cares about the people that—that live and work here. In terms of the—the new international bridge and—and the sewage treatment plant, if Nuevo Laredo is not even using it’s 51 million dollar sewage treatment plant, that you and I paid for as—as citizens of this country, you paid for half of it. If the—if it’s not being used at this time, I can tell you it’s not being used. I can take you to the same place I took photographs at six months ago, six years ago, I can show you the same cascade of raw sewage. You know, I could show it to you this morning. We can go there and I’ll show you, and I’ll show you pictures from years ago. All of the raw sewage in Nuevo Laredo is not going into the sewage plant that we paid for, the state of Texas, the U. S. government and the government of Mexico. This new bridge that’s upriver of Laredo’s water intake, domestic water supply, no one’s even heard of a sewage treatment plant going up on the Mexican side. Where do you think that sewage is going to go when they start—when colonias start springing up, when businesses start springing up to support the industry that surely will grow on the Mexican side as a result of this 4th international bridge? Where do you imagine that sewage is going to go to? Your water supply; your—your Laredo, Texas water supply.
DT: Speaking of the industry…?
0:32:43 – 2097
MG: (talking over David) And so—and so, I want to say this. When we—when we grab for infrastructure, and that’s what it is, you reach in the bag and you grab whatever you can, that’s—that’s the M.O. [modus operandi] down here, you don’t do it with thought. You don’t ever do it with thought. You just grab the infrastructure, sign and get it and start doing it. You don’t think about other things, like environmental impact. Oh, they’ll go through their little studies. You know, they EPA will conduct their little study and everything will check off: no Ocelots living here; no—no Jaguarondi; not to worry. And then—and then you peel back the riverbanks. You—you—you just—you just clear them of foliage. How does that not affect the river below? How does that not effect, you know, if you peel the river banks back to make place for this bridge, for these eight lanes of traffic, for all the infrastructure you need for U. S. Customs and—and all these other—parking lots, aduanas, the—the customs house brokers and the shippers, how is that really suppose to respond to this—to this huge peeled back place that—that is going to run trucks on it and so on? I think environmental concerns come after the fact around here. I don’t think they’re ever part of a new infrastructure project. It’s something that’s considered later, when something goes terribly out of whack.
DW: I have a question. We did a series earlier with Gary in San Diego about the maquilladoras and international boundary wastewater commission, and so forth. And it sounds like a similar thing. But we went across the border to see and shot the factories. And the door would open and you’d see the signs and warnings for all kinds of hazardous waste that wouldn’t be permitted in the United States. And I was wondering if, here, you are having the same kind of problem that the people on this side of the river aren’t playing by the same set of rules that apply on this side of the river? And that’s what makes the spill danger horrible and….?
0:34:47 – 2097
MG: (talking over David) And the horrible…okay…the—the terrible irony about—about what happens because of industry on the Mexican side, is that we own those factories. They’re American owned. So, when we break the law in Mexico, environmentally, and that stuff ends up in the river, who are we hurting? We’re hurting ourselves. I mean, it—I—I find it reprehensible that corporate citizens would behave in that way, simply because the infraction is occurring out of the purview of the American authorities. But I want to be clear about this, when—when you look at the watershed, when you look at the watershed, above Laredo is all ranches. And as you begin the warehouse district on the U. S. side, on the Laredo side, it’s still all ranches in Mexico, okay? So, if the water is getting dirty all of the sudden, it didn’t come from the ranches, it came from the warehouse district, on the American side. It came for whatever reasons. It came from oil, it came from chemical spills, it came from things that happened a long time ago before anybody even stopped looking at it. We had an antimony smelter operating, I think, for more than 50 years, possibly 75 years, where antimony slag was
0:36:13 – 2097
just shoved down the—the creek, Manatas(?) Creek, and into—into the river. We are doing things here, in Laredo and Nuevo Laredo that you would be arrested for in Austin or Mexico City. In other words, there is law—laws are on the books. They exist. But we’re doing things here that you would be penalized here severely if you lived somewhere else. But here on this wide swatch of border, the laws of neither county seem to—to apply. And that’s true about a lot of things. It’s true—in politics it’s very true. It’s certainly true about the environment. I think Laredo—Laredo’s contribution to the river at the warehouse district is some pretty bad chemicals. And those are documented in a Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission [TNRCC] report, done jointly with, not a report but a study do—don’t jointly with the International Boundary and Water Commission. Science. It’s science. It’s all documented there. It’s not just antimony. It’s arsenic. It’s—it’s a lot of things that you don’t want in your water. Chromium, mercury, where in the world are we getting mercury in the water from? It’s in fish tissue. Fish tissue is like a history book. Fish tissue tells you exactly what has happened in this river. And—and your best guess would be that it’s for a very long time. If it has managed to add up in fish tissue, it’s there. It is there. This is not new information. The—the report I’m—I’m referring to was released in 1997. Why in the world w—would you have a city council acting surprised at, you know, at this information? It’s been out. The International Boundary and Water Commission published it and released it in 1997, jointly with the TNRCC, the EPA and other agencies. When they finished being incredulous that the water is dirty, they then go into denial. That’s—that’s how public officials behavior. So the first thing they would tell you is, “There’s nothing wrong with
0:38:31 – 2097
the water in Laredo, Texas.” And there probably isn’t. Biologically, bacteriolo—bacterialogically, there probably is nothing wrong with the water in Laredo, Texas. It’s probably very clean, to where you will not get a stomach ailment from it. But, are the chemicals, god, how—how could they remove all those heavy metals? How—how could you do that, without the—the kind of equipment you need to—without R.O. [reverse osmosis], you know, those kinds of things? So, I believe the water in Laredo is safe from—from bacteria, but I don’t believe—I’m not convinced it’s safe from chemicals. And, of course, the city has to say it’s clean. It would be pandemonium to say it’s not.
DT: Can you explain why the city is indifferent? Is it negligence, is it corruption, is it misunderstanding, is it….?
0:39:27 – 2097
MG: (talking over David) When does—when does negligence become corruption? I mean, when you ignore something and start doing other things with money that—that you could have been behaving responsibly to do things to clean up the river, but instead, you’re going to spend money on—on special event centers, or hockey arenas or any of these other projects that they really feel are important? It is indifference. It is indifference. And I think it’s negligence. And I—and I think it’s not far fetched to think that there could be a class action suit against the people here who are supposed to be responsible for public health and public safety, being derelict of duty. Because I don’t think they’re doing everything they could do to make this a safer place to—to live in.
DW: I’m curious. Other cities, like Corpus Christi. They have had several environmental issues and they just love their Senator Truan for jumping in on their behalf. And we’ve heard this story several times now, there actually seems to be some places in Texas where their public officials seem to jump into the fray, against all odds, to care about their constituency. What has been the record of that over the last 50 years of that situation in Laredo, Texas? Have you had dedicated public officials? Have you run against it? ….
0:40:56 – 2097
MG: (talking over David) I think—I think the record—the record is dismal for public officials in this part of—of the state, leading the charge, environmentally. Now, [State] Representative Henry Cuellar did do a lot to stop the nuclear dump upriver of us, back in, I guess two years ago. And he did a lot to stop a sledge dump from—from coming to Laredo. But, in terms of getting the agencies responsible for a clean environment, like the TNRCC, in terms of grabbing them and saying, “You come help us. You get down here and—and—and—and stop lowering the bar for water quality. Help us clean this place up.” There isn’t anyone that’s—that’s—that’s done that. But I think that it has to be the people who live here. The people who breathe this air and drink this water who have to say, “I’m not—I’m not going to put up with this anymore. We have to behave like good environmental citizens.” I don’t think you can rely on agencies to come and help you. Though you would that, you know, that would be part of the equation. I think an agency would come help you if they saw you taking the initiative, you know. And—and then that’s part of my reason to want to serve on—on the Citizen’s Environmental Committee. I thought if they saw a committee of citizens that was pretty vocal, and—and pretty forthright about what they felt quality of life issues you, that we would get help from—from agencies. But, the truth is, the people who govern here, locally, don’t—don’t have any interest in it.
DW: I was wondering if you had or seen any of that as part of the environmental justice movement? This is to say, “Well, what do you have here? Some rancheros, some factory workers. It’s an economically disenfranchised community, therefore they really don’t have power, therefore we can ignore them.” And if so, has there been any people from the environmental justice movement who have tried to foster a community organizing as we’ve seen in that Beaumont, Port Arthur kind of situation…?
0:43:03 – 2097
MG: (talking over David) No. N—Nothing—nothing that aggressive has happened here. It’s still sort of at a—at a discussion stage. I mean, there’s so few of us, I think, that are passionate that would do something more radical if—if it looked like it would—it would fly. There—there isn’t any kind of a coalition of—of same minded, radical environmentalists that have the power to make a statement, get attention and so on. I feel this part of the Rio Grande is right for Greenpeace. I mean, you know, this—this is a place where someone—I think—I think—I think you could prove, I think there’s ways to prove, and there are law firms that could help you prove, that something was terribly wrong with that water and that it caused certain things. And, of course, surely you know that that’s how you leverage people is—is, you know, you—you threaten to do something to them economically, and—and all of the sudden they’re willing to look at your viewpoint. You know what I’m saying? But I don’t think there’s anything fired up here in terms of a coalition that wants to do something radical. That this is such a decorous place, this Laredo, Texas place. And this Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas place. It’s all decorum. You know, Laredo would never go to Nuevo Laredo and say, “I can’t believe you’re still letting 10 million gallons of raw sewage go in the river.” But they would say, “Let’s do this tourism magazine together. Let’s—let’s work on this project together. Let’s get more tourists down here.” They will—they will work together on issues that are soft, and sweet and—and so on. Raw sewage is not—it would be bad manners for us to say, “Nuevo Laredo, what in the world is wrong with you? That is illegal. That raw sewage is illegal. You are hurting all the people that live on this—on this river.”
DT: Do you think that there are some groups of people who have maybe suffered more environmental harm than others, perhaps people who have worked in the maquillas, or people who live in the colonias?
0:45:17 – 2097
MG: No. When I first started going to the colonias with Doctor Canne(?), an individual…
DT: Maybe you could describe colonias…
0:45:24 – 2097
MG: (talking over David) …an individual I—I mentioned to you earlier… Yes. In Nuevo Laredo, a colonia is a shantytown that is sprung up, perhaps near an arroyo where water moves. It is sprung up without any kind of sewage infrastructure, or water infrastructure. It is simply the will to have a place to live. It’s—you built your little casita out of pallets or whatever material you’ve been able to—to scavenge. Maybe you were able to buy cement blocks, but, you’re—you’re willing to sign up, to buy this little place, to build this little house, it’s—the piece of property is so tiny, you—you don’t even have the lateral, you don’t even have the—the—the area to move a septic system through it, you don’t, it’s—it’s very small. So where’s your raw sewage going to go? What are you going to do with it? Outhouses? When it rains, it floods and all the outhouses flood, what have you got in the—in the—in the unpaved streets? You’ve got raw sewage. You’ve got children playing in raw sewage. You’ve got dogs running through it, drinking from it. You’ve got diseases. Probably the most heart-breaking thing I ever saw in a colonia was the water barrels outside their homes, 55 gallon drums, harvested from the maquillas, with their chemical names on them, and that’s their—that’s where they dip their ladles to take water into the house to cook with, to drink, to bathe, etc. I mean, if
0:46:57 – 2097
that doesn’t pierce your heart, I don’t know what would. The whole idea that they think they’ve got something that’s there’s, you know, this little dream come true. But it’s—it’s nothing. It’s just nothing. It’s so little. But, I guess, maybe—maybe to them it’s a lot. But, you know, to drink water out of an old chemical drum, that’s—that’s lethal, that’s horrible. No, a lot of colonias have gotten water and—and some of them have gotten sewage infrastructure. Some of them have gotten electricity. But that kind of growth, I think, is just, is—I can’t tell you it’s wrong. I mean, it was—it was like necessary. These people had to have a place to live. They came to the border because the word was there’s work on the border, you know. Farming isn’t working out in whatever part of Mexico, what tomata(?) they’re in, they’re coming to the border. Doctor Canne(?), the friend of mine that was an environmentalist said, “The just thing to do would be to be at the bus station to hand them the money to get back on the bus and say, go home. You’re not going to have a life here. Go home.” The average maquilla worker, I think, has a real short life span in the maquillas. In other words, by age 25 or so, a woman has worked at several maquillas. She may have either gotten sick, in other words, she’s no longer a desirable employee. She’s not the age at which they like to be hired. Her—her maximum use has already expired.
DT: Why is that?
0:48:31 – 2097
MG: The work and—and what you do in the sme—you know, the chemicals and—and so on.
DT: What are some of the typical maquilladora factories?
0:48:40 – 2097
MG: A lot of them are American industry, like Sony, Ford, Delco, Packard Electric, who make parts for further manufacture in the United States. Now, a lot of those folks play by the books. They don’t—they don’t want it—they don’t want it on their resume that they did horrible things to human beings on the border. So a lot of them, just like a lot of the big freight companies in Laredo that have warehouses, they play by the book. They don’t want to be written up. They don’t want to break EPA or Department of Transportation law, they want to do it by the book. It’s sort of the “mom and pop” maquillas, the “mom and pop” shippers that are the—the dirty ones, I mean, that break the laws.
DW: Has your paper ever run a series or an exposé on this type of thing. And if so, what was the type of feedback that you received?
0:49:43 – 2097
MG: (talking over David) We—we haven’t done any exposés on—on maquillas. It’s actually very hard to get into a maquilla. You have to buy a worker’s, in some instances, a worki—and working permit. In other words, you can’t be inside of one unless you’re a worker. So, recently, some nurses and other individuals from the university went to the maquillas. And they ended up having to buy a work permit for fourteen days, to just get in there. We haven’t done exposés. Certainly, we’ve looked at the colonias, which you just—you can’t imagine that people really live like that. The feedback is sort of, not in my backyard kind of thing. Thank god it’s not that way in Laredo, Texas. Oh, those poor people. That’s kind of the feedback. Not a lot of compassion; a little bit, not a lot. Not enough compassion to where they would say to—find a way to say to industry, “Intolerable. We would be doing business in another way. You cannot treat people this way.” That will never happen. It’ll never happen. Laredo hasn’t found it’s—its conscience that way, environmentally, or—or in those ways.
DT: Maybe as a follow up on David’s question, could you talk about the role that LareDos has been playing in trying to promote and discuss some of these environmental problems?
0:51:05 – 2097
MG: (talking over David) You know, by—by Laredo standards, LareDos is just radical, I mean just, you know, just radical. And—and actually, I think we temper things with—with all the things you have to temper things with, when you publish a newspaper. You know, we publish pictures of filthy things that—that need to be addressed on both sides of the river. Now, the city of Laredo hates to be embarrassed. So, if you run pictures of degradation down town, with a headline, “You call this revitalization?” And, you know, the—they’ll call yo—they’ll call me and say, “Ms. Guerra, we cleaned up the parking lot at, you know, such and such Lincoln Street, we’re working on the one on…” They’re very responsive that way. But it takes embarrassment to—to—to move them along. There are some things they won’t respond to at all. Certainly they won’t tell Mexico, “Stop putting your raw sewage in the river.” That’s—that’s—they haven’t found the protocol to do that.
DT: How do you balance your role as a publisher that needs to sell advertising and an editor that wants to investigate and publish…?
0:52:21 – 2097
MG: (talking over David) In the beginning, that cost us—it cost us dearly to—to do investigative pieces. It was—my guess is—is that—that we did loose advertising revenues in the beginning. Because, one of our targets, early on, was the school district. And, of course, that employs a lot of people and buys a lot of products locally. So we—we were leveraged when we would try to sell ads. Some advertisers had already been called saying, “I don’t think it’s in your best interest to advertise in—in that rag,” you know. And they did call us a rag and yellow journalism and all that stuff, which I found sort of offensive. But, I think what we’ve done for five years is sustain our credibility. And how you sustain your credibility, you te—you just tell the truth. Every time, tell the truth. And, don’t write from any place other than a truthful place. Don’t write for any motive other than telling the truth. And so I think that we’ve gained respect that way. And maybe people that who don’t agree with us, environmentally, still advertise with us. A lot of people call us and thank us and tell us things they would never tell us in person. But they tell us, “We’re real happy you’re doing this. Thank you for doing this. Thank you for caring.” We get a lot of feedback. More positive than—than negative at this point. And I think people feel like they have the right to say, “Hell no, I won’t advertise with you. I don’t like what you do.” But more and more we feel like—like there’s more support in the community for—for what we do.
DT: What sort of feedback do you get from the daily newspaper in Laredo?
0:54:01 – 2097
MG: We’ve—we’ve been through several stages of—of animosity and—and—and peacefulness. We are in a state of peace right now. We’ve stopped—we’ve stopped beating them up, like we used to. We used to beat them up for not using spell check. You know, for just the most worst, terrible, terrible headline errors, and bad, bad stor—bad grammatical errors. They’re very different from where—from we are—from what we are. They’re conservative. They’re a Hearst paper, a daily. We seem to serve another function, like—like a bigger take on the story, the whole story, not just the blip, not just the little bite that you might form an opinion with. We’re going to go ahead and tell you both sides of the story. And then you decide, you know, what the story really is. Like in—in these elections now, that are upcoming, we’re trying to present every side of the story, so that you can make an educated decision when you go vote. I think that’s really important. And we do the same thing with—with politics, with the environment. I’m sorry, I lost my thought.
DW: Have you ever been at odds with your feelings as an environmentalist, advocacy, and yet your role as an editor of a newspaper? And do you subscribe that notion of “objective journalism?” In other words, when would your concern for a story override the need to tell the other side, as the other side is clearly just wrong? Have you ever found yourself in that conflict?
0:55:51 – 2097
MG: (talking over David) I think—I think you always have to tell both sides of the story, whether it’s a conflict for you, personally, or not. This is a really strange town. We ran a—we ran a story on a hospital that pretty well did this man in. There was a huge lawsuit. So we wrote about the lawsuit, 50 million dollar lawsuit, 15. And if the outcome of a lawsuit is proof that there was a lot of negligence involved, then that’s the story you’re going to read in LareDos. In other words, why would a hospital that committed no error in this man’s condition, kindly write them a check for 15 million bucks, you know what I’m saying? So I’m telling you about this—this story we ran, which made a lot of enemies for us in the medical community. But they were already our enemies from a story we’d written previously. There’s two medical factions in Laredo. Just like there’s two political factions, there’s two medical factions; the independent docs and the docs that practice for a certain hospital. We ran our story, it was an excellent story. It read like a—like a—like a thriller story. The narrative was—was—was real good. The hospital calls us next month and wants to run a 550-dollar ad in our paper. The same hospital that we wrote about, that we—that we, according to them, disparaged.
0:57:20 – 2097
Well, you know, it gave me pause, for sure. I accepted the ad. I don’t turn down revenues. But they wanted to be sure that they ran an ad that said they’d won this big award, top 100 hospitals in the country. This on the heals of this story I ran that said this bad thing happened there. But they wanted to be sure that we ran this—this ad with—with notice of their award. And we ran it. We ran it. And—and I know that was puzzling to some people. But, you know, they invented the ad, it was their ad. LareDos was—was not saying, “This is one of the top 100 hospitals in America.” It was their ad that—that said that. Now why it was important to them to appear in our newspaper, I have no idea. They had already been in the daily, they’d been on TV, they’d been everywhere. It was on billboards. But I—but it was important to them.
DT: Where do you draw the line between trying to maintain an objective and factual coverage of the news and also running ads that may put a spin on issues that you don’t really approve of?
0:58:35 – 2097
MG: I, well, that would be almost every political candidate in—in races today. You know, I—I don’t—I don’t turn away advertisements. It’s—it’s the lifeblood of my newspaper. It allows me to keep my objective voice, my stories, you know, an ad looks like an ad, a story looks like a story, reads like a story, smells like a story, walks like a story. And, there’s a huge difference. Now, when we run stories on political candidates, for instance, they’ve sent us a glowing press release. We clean up the glowing press release to sound like a story. In other words, this was his education, this was his—during his tenure as a city councilman he was part of these decisions and so on. In other words, we won’t print the glow version. We’ll print a new story that says, “This guy’s running for reelection,” or, “He’s running for this new position,” you see what I’m saying? To where, what you read is not just a glowing report of so-and-so, Mr. Popular, who did wonderful things, he’s now going to do—he’s now offering to do more wonderful things. We keep it in—in—in a news—in a news format. The ads are—are something else. We can’t create ads that are—that are libelous. You know, we just—we just, I mean we have our standards for advertising. And, you know, political candidates will—will—will just tell you only the best stuff on their—on their ads. That may not be something you’ll see in a story that we’ll run. But, you’ll see it in advertising that they paid for. At the bottom it says, “Paid Political Advertising By—By The Committee To Reelect So-and-So”. But, you know, the revenues are why we’re still here, being able to do what we do.
DT: How do you deal with individual public opinions, for instance letters to the editor? How do you deal with…?
1:00:43 – 2097
MG: (talking over David) We print them. If they’re free of libel and—and gratuitous tones, we—we will run them. We—we certainly run them if they’re about us and they didn’t like us. We—we run those too. We run almost every letter to the editor. We won’t run an anonymous letter. I get a lot of anonymous mail. I get a lot of—I get a lot of mail that makes me sick. You know, I get—I get stuff that isn’t very nice, sometimes. And, I mean, I could always—I—I can see them in a stack of mail before I even open them. They—they look a certain way.
DT: Can you give some examples?
1:01:18 – 2097
MG: They’re usually a letter—we’ve written something about somebody and they disagree. And so they write us a filthy letter about, you know, “Don’t you know what kind of skuz bucket your—your business profile guy was from last month?” And he’ll tell us some choice details. And, “Did you know she built so-and-so out of this land deal?” And, you know, they’re entitled to their opinion, but if they won’t put their name on it, they’re not entitled to—to publication in my paper. Norton—and if they’re libelous, they’re certainly not entitled to—to publication in LareDos. And then—and then I will get some mail that’s—that’s directed at me, that’s—that’s unkind and—and, you know, just mean, just mean spirited. And—and so I know that—that—that I hit something on the head. I mean, I just, you know, I—I guess I made my point, you know. But you get thick skinned about those. The thing you care about most is—is whether they cause harm to people you care about. That’s—that’s—that’s what—that’s what you care about, you know.
DT: Do you find that your environmental coverage….?
End of reel #2097.
DT: Could you tell us about the response that you’ve gotten from some of your stories and letters to the editor and whether those stories hit those hot buttons?
0:01:38 – 2098
MG: Up to this point, the environmental stories haven’t triggered that kind of response to where, you know, I feel like my life is in danger or any of my staff members were—were in danger. But I—I think we’re going to get a lot more aggressive about what we publish, what we find on people’s property, things we see, things we want answers for. As I mentioned to you earlier, the—the thing that evokes change or—or ferments change around here is embarrassment in—in print. You know, photograph with a cut line or a story staying that they’ve just done a dirty on the environment, you know. You—you’ve got a copy of my newspaper that I sent you about the monuments of environmental disregard in Laredo, Texas. When that story came out, I got a call from the Mayor and she—the story came out on Friday, she got a hold of me finally Saturday sometime and she said, I couldn’t sleep all night. I was so upset about this. And I thought oh, she’s going to act on some—some of these things. But I guess what she was upset about was—was that they’d been embarrassed. Though I believed her—I believed her—I believed that she was going to—the conversation I had with her was, you could be the hero in all this. You—this could be the hallmark, Laredo’s first woman mayor, person with a conscience, cleans up the environment. But we haven’t got anywhere on that.
DT: She lost sleep on the story, not over the…
0:03:21 – 2098
MG: Well my guess is she lost sleep over the publicity, not the substance of the story because I’ve never heard from her again.
DT: Maybe you can talk about the line you tread between being a chronicle of events and a booster of the city and trying to be a critic of the status quo.
0:03:47 – 2098
MG: I think that when a new city administration comes in, it’s wrong not to give them a chance to, you know, take their leads and—and do something remarkable. I mean, you sure don’t want to start swiping at them right away to where they lose heart or—as a matter of fact, you want to congratulate them for the—the little baby steps they’ve taken in the environment. So you—you really want them—you want to—you want to get to feel like—like they’re headed somewhere and that you need to be supportive. And so we—we had been up to a point. In other words, but I think after two years, when you don’t see them doing anything about the environment, you’ve given them that chance. You’ve—you’ve allowed them settle into their jobs, get their bearings but it’s really time they should be calling shots. And when you don’t see them do that, I think you then can be critical and should be critical.
DT: Here’s another…
0:04:45 – 2098
MG: I—I try to be fair. I try to give everyone a chance as—as they’re, you know, taking—taking their new position and—and growing into it and stuff. But when you see them being, not just inactive, inert but, sort of thumbing their nose at it, I think it’s incumbent upon you to—to say something.
DT: Some of the stories you do are investigative, muckraking kinds of stories. On the other hand, to do those stories, you need to have people who will confide in you, tell you things, but after you’ve printed those stories, I guess, the tendency is for a lot of your sources to dry up. How do you maintain the ability to write these stories and make them hard-hitting?
0:05:42 – 2098
MG: We do a lot of our own research. We may hear from someone about a—a certain event that happened that we need to look into but we’re sort of relentless about dogging that information till we get it with open records request. You know, we—we will just pursue it till we get in hand what we need. Sometimes it’s really easy. Sometimes they hand you a sheaf of paper as it’s—that you think someone should have burned because it’s so incriminating. But that’s—that—that—that speaks to how much people think they can get away with down here, how comfortable they get with, well you know, wi—with what they do and how they do it. Sometimes they keep meticulous records and it’s those records that just do them in when we—when we get hold of them. Sources drying up, that’s not real—people always want to tell us. They always want to tell us, on-the-record or off-the-record, mostly off the record. And—and we respect that. We—you won’t catch us repeating or attributing a name to an off-the-record source.
DT: Do you have a good network of whistle-blowers and sources?
0:06:58 – 2098
MG: I feel like we do but—but I don’t think anyone ever gets treated like a whistle-blower in this community. Usually they get labeled malcontent, disgruntled employee, yeah, get them another job, get them out of here, that kind of thing. When you have someone who is a whistle-blower, they usually don’t end up with the right legal defense and, you know, this is Let’s Make a Deal town, the—the borders, Let’s Make a Deal. So whistle-blowers don’t ever end up where they need to be to make the effective change they need to make. I’ll give you an example, we had a tip from—about the Community Action Agency and all these free government air conditioners that were supposed to go to the elderly and the disabled. We—we’re in a drought. It’s very hot down here. There’s a heat wave. Old people who are not well and little children who are not well need relief from the heat. That’s what these government air conditioners are for. When I heard they were being administered through the Community Action Agency and I knew who the Director was, an alarm went off in my head. You know, I—I knew that this was the—that the air conditioners were going to be leverage for something else. And, as it turns out, I was right. It was for poli—it was for—for votes. It was—it was rewards. These A/C’s are your reward for—thanks for delivering those votes in the last election, you know. We got a tip saying that some air conditioners were going to be moved out of this warehouse, this county warehouse. So I went ahead and parked outside this warehouse, had my telephoto, caught the whole scenario, followed these two truckloads of county trucks of air conditioners to a colonia in—in—in Laredo—in East Laredo. A political hack was receiving them. They were being stored, not at a warehouse but, in something as open as this, the rain might not fall on it directly but it had no sides. It was not a place you’d put government property. When you consider that to get an air conditioner, you had to fill out an application and prove, medically, that you were disabled or that you were elderly and disabled, you had to have an application. So I—they delivered them and I asked the guy, I said, can I see the applications? And—and he showed me some applications. They weren’t filled out. They were all made out to him. They weren’t to anybody in particular.
0:09:24 – 2098
Anyway, he got on his cell phone, called whomever he called at the County and said, that lady from the newspaper’s here. And you probably read that story. Anyway, they immediately loaded them back into the—the vehicles, the County vehicles and—and got rid of them, back to the—where they were supposed to go. But it was real clear to me that this was happening and it shouldn’t have been happening. And the way I was able to—to substantiate that, was by asking a lot of questions, by looking at delivery receipts, asking to look at applications, which I couldn’t really see because it violated the privacy of some of the individuals at poverty level. So I also compared what other cities did. How does San Antonio administer this program? How does Austin administer this program? What is the Texas Department of Community of Housing going to tell me about how they think it’s supposed to be administered. They were the umbrella agency. And it was real clear to me somebody was having a lot of fun with these air conditioners and that they were being allocated as rewards for good behavior. They were being given to homes that didn’t even have electricity. Water coolers were going to homes that didn’t even have water. There was an air conditioner operating in a house, inside the house, cooling and heating the home at the same time. You know, those kinds of things. Those are the things we—we looked at. And—and though the director of that agency, the Community Action Agency, didn’t resign real quickly, in a matter of a couple of months, he had left as the director. It’s a post he had for a long time. You know, that’s—that’s—that’s an example of—of how dogged we are about pursuing a story when we sniff something out. We did have good inf—good information coming in from someone, a tip, someone calling us. But we also followed it up with looking everywhere to make this story have the kind of substance we knew it needed so that this action would stop, this—this A/C
0:11:24 – 2098
boondoggle would stop.
DW: Do you have an environmental story that has a similar genealogy?
0:11:30 – 2098
MG: Not yet. Not yet. Not yet.
DT: It seems like your role as a publisher and editor, you walk a narrow line between being an insider with very deep roots in the Laredo community and to South Texas, going back hundreds of years but, on the other side, being an outsider who’s trying to change the community and how do you walk that line?
0:12:01 – 98
MG: This is how I walk that line. If I hadn’t left for twenty years, I might be someone I was writing about, you know, in some fashion. I mean, not really but certainly I’d be really good friends with them or they’d be part of my social sphere or something along those lines. It was really good to detach from here, to go somewhere else, to live somewhere else, to see how another city conducts its business, other cities, and to come back here. I mean, it was just the most opportune time to come back. I had learned something while I was gone.
DT: Laredo may be more than many communities because of NAFTA and the maquilladoras and the Brasero program years ago, is subject to lots of global forces. How do you talk about local issues when sometimes Laredo is like a little cork in a very big city?
0:13:10 – 2098
MG: I’m not sure. I think we always try to keep it local. I’m—I’m not sure I understand the question but yeah, Laredo is suffering or enjoying the impact of—of something much bigger than Laredo, NAFTA, world trade. I think as long as you keep your local perspective, you can tell any story if you’re—what you’re writing about is—is how something affects, you know, the community. I’m sorry, I’m—I’m probably not being real clear.
DT: How do you draw the scope or focus of your newspaper when a lot times it’s difficult to tell just the Laredo story without talking about what’s happening in Mexico, what’s happening in the United States and around the world, especially environmental issues?
0:14:06 – 2098
MG: If you read LareDos you—you’ll see that mostly it’s local. It’s really—it’s really what we’re looking at. How does it affect this day-to-day? Of course, we have to drag Mexico in because Mexico’s one of the perpetrators of—of filth with not only the sewage plant but—but the maquilla waste also. But we’re real clear about this. We are also the perpetrators. We, Laredo, Texas, are also the assaulters on the environment. You can’t just say, it’s just happening on the Mexico side. That’d be ridiculous. I think we just look at it regionally is what we try to do. That’s all you can do. If you make the picture too big, you won’t—you won’t get anywhere.
DT: Would you talk about other media, whether it’s the local TV station or the radio stations or the magazines, how do they treat environmental issues…
0:15:04 – 2098
MG: They don’t. They don’t. You’ll see it on TV if it’s—it’s really juicy, you know. If it’s just like some seeping barrel of green stuff and children were playing nearby, you’ll see it. You’ll—you’ll see them just talk about it like it’s a horrific thing. But you won’t really see them tell the story that’s played out everyday, raw sewage in the river, maquilla waste, you know. They’re only going to go for the juicy sound byte. The other newspaper actually did some really excellent coverage on a concrete company that had sort of just been backing up to the river for—for probably a decade and kind of defecating in the river daily—on a daily basis, you know. Everything you could imagine was just being shoved into the river. They’d even made their bank—their property bigger by dumping stuff that became solid and part of the bank, you know. Where is the International Boundary & Water Commission on this concrete company changing the boundary of the Rio Grande? You—you—back to your question, so some media does respond. Some does. But mostly it’s—it’s ignored. You’ll find more stories about the environment either in LareDos or in the San Antonio Express. You’ll find more hard-hitting stories about politics either in LareDos or in the San Antonio Express.
DT: What sort of stories do they typically get attracted to in Laredo?
0:16:53 – 2098
MG: The hot stuff. Just injustice, peo—a lot of people affected by one bad actor, a political official who’s just, you know, real corrupt.
0:17:06 – 2098
MG: There—there’s temerity in the local. That—that’s accurate. It’s temerity.
DT: What are they frightened of?
0:17:13 – 2098
MG: Losing advertising revenues.
DT: It’s not fear of violence.
0:17:23 – 2098
MG: It may be—it may be a fear of violence.
DT: …personal safety…
0:17:28 – 2098
MG: I’d—I’d be lying if I told you I hadn’t. But it’s been rare and, you know, I’m so public about what I do they’d, you know, they’d be stupid to—to, you know, you see a story in LareDos one week about how crooked they are and I’m stiff the next week, I think maybe it’d be easy to figure out, you know.
DT: Are any of the environmental stories ending up as possible topics for non-fiction or fictional writing and I imagine you know a lot of writers in the Laredo area?
0:18:07 – 2098
MG: Not as fiction. I don’t know of anyone that—that would turn all of this into fiction. I—I do hope someday to write a definitive novel about—about Laredo, about this whole region and—and certainly the environment would—would play a—a role in it. You know, these—these pompous city officials that—that just will tell you everything’s great down here. This is what I don’t understand, why are we inviting people to come live here? It’s horrible. It’s—it’s—it’s a—it’s a mess. You don’t have enough parks. You’ve got just a lot of pavement. You’ve got stalled trucks. You’ve got filthy neighborhoods butted up to a really nice neighborhood. You don’t have zoning in place like you ought to. And you don’t have clean water or clean air. What are doing inviting people to come down here to play or to live?
DT: Can you tell us what you foresee when these people do come to Laredo?
0:19:12 – 2098
MG: There—there are some people that come with their hearts wide open and they end up really liking the people that live here, that they make friends with either in their university environment or their, whatever it is that they’re doing down here, their business environment or working for the City. But then there’s some people that just hate it. They hate the inefficiency of city services. They hate environmental inaction, the long lines of traffic and so on. Some people fare rather down here even though to—to some it may feel like a—like a completely different cultural experience than the one they were—they’re used to, you know, the language difference, the customs are different. But then there’s some that just—that love this place because the people—the people that live here are wonderful people. A lot of them are great human beings.
DT: Can you look into the future and think about what the environmental issues and challenges will be for Laredo?
0:20:13 – 2098
MG: It’s not going to be just enough water. It’s going to be the quality of it. And I think what they’re looking at, at this point, is wells that will generate enough drinking water, fresh water for this region so that it can grow. I—I think it’s really easy to clean a river. I think you just—you just stop doing what you’re doing to it. You just stop assaulting it and it comes back. That’s—that’s the story of rivers. That’s the story of harbors that are real degraded. They—they tend to come back. Sooner or later, green politics will make a difference here, much later. It’s too soon.
DT: I understood there was a green party official who…
0:21:05 – 2098
MG: Yeah, yeah. She was here.
DT: Can you tell about that?
0:21:07 – 2098
MG: Yeah it was—it was a—a real intense visit with this individual. She had great ideas but she was pretty much years ahead of what would be able to happen in Laredo, Texas. There won’t be a green party candidate here for some time. Basically, she had a slate of officers, many of them were from Austin and Houston, for state offices. The way new parties work, of course, is—is they leverage. You don’t really change things by being directly in the center of them but they can leverage things from the outside with endorsements and those kinds of things.
DT: Is there a role for a third party in a very heavily democratic part of Texas like Laredo? Is there a niche?
0:21:58 – 2098
MG: Yeah, yeah, I think there’s a niche. I think there’s a niche eventually, not—not now. If you’re talking about the Green Party.
DT: I was even thinking about the Republican Party. I hear that the Democratic Party is very strong and very defensive.
0:22:14 – 2098
MG: Entrenched.
DT: Yeah.
0:22:15 – 2098
MG: Entrenched. Yeah this—that’s—that’s what this is. Democratic politics. And—and even though a lot of us like to believe that the Patron system has gone by the wayside, it’s still here.
DT: What is the Patron system?
0:22:27 – 2098
MG: The Patron system is a system of controlling votes and jobs by leveraging things that people will—will accept in return for jobs or votes. Sometimes it’s things as simple as—as—as food or shelter. The Patron system was—was very strong here up until the late ‘70’s. It got dismantled and then, since then, it’s reinvented itself. It’ll—it’ll get whacked out somewhere else and then it—it diminishes a little bit and ends up somewhere else. Right now, that system is largely in—in county politics. That’s—that’s what’ll determine—there’s still a machine that determines elections in—in county elections. And—and the environment plays in no way into the Patron system. It doesn’t exist. It’s—the Patronas haven’t even thought about the environment.
DT: How do you get children to think about the environment?
0:23:36 – 2098
MG: You—you get their teachers to—to instruct them. And that is something that’s happening. That’s—that’s the only hopeful thing that I see down here is you’ve got these really incredible biology teachers throughout the school districts that are doing things with kids on the river. You got little—little kids going home and telling their parents how to recycle. You got little kids telling their parents, Pappy no tiros a la aceite, you know, don’t—don’t put it on the ground. There’s a—there’s a place for that oil that you just drained out of the crankcase. That’s how you change things, is you teach children. And really if all of us just were to look at it like changing our own children, making—making sure our own children have the right message, I think we’d all be on the right track here. You know, control what you can. Do something about what you can do which is what I’ve always tried to do about my immediate environment and—and about my child, is make sure he knows what he needs to know to be a good citizen out in the world, a good environmental citizen.
DT: Would you tell about a favorite spot that has a special beauty for you to enjoy?
0:24:54 – 2098
MG: Well I love this place. I love this place. It has some incredible some incredible arroyos, some incredible drops of land. It’s one of the highest places in the county. It has—actually has hills. So I love this place. I love the criss-cross of the cow paths all over it. You know, you can smell—sitting here you can smell what it smells like. It—it’s very fragrant. It’s very clean. I love the sounds of wildlife that—that you can hear here. But, in other parts of Texas, I—I’ve always liked Enchanted Rock, Little Arkansas in—in Blanco.
DT: Little Arkansas has…
0:25:34 – 2098
MG: It’s gone. It’s gone. Developers have taken it. It’s—it was a limestone—sort of a limestone bucket in the Blanco River with—with little bluffs and cliffs and—and limestone bottom and huge Cypress trees, a great swimming place, fishing, camping, all that kind of stuff. We don’t camp anymore since we moved to the ranch. It seems sort of—why would you if—if you’re on the ranch? But anyway, that—that was one of our favorite places in the hill country?
DT: What happened to it?
0:26:11 – 2098
MG: I think developer encroachment and the kind of attrition that property falls into when it—when it gets handed down or has to be sold or, you know, people are undecided about who ends up with what. But those are all real beautiful places in Texas. The Big Bend part of Texas, Fort Davis, all that is just beautiful. It’s beautiful because it’s sparsely populated and development is not a—a huge issue. Now as you drive into Laredo right now, about fifteen miles out, start looking on the left and on the right side of the road. It’s—it’s bald, it’s peeled back. It’s going to be tract houses. So that’s—that’s what I foresee is more population growth that affects the environment that affects traffic. More traffic that affects the environment. Those kinds of things.
DT: I hope you can keep the ranch intact. It’s been really pleasant visiting with you.
0:27:18 – 2098
MG: The—the ranch will have to stay intact for, I think, the next seventy-five years. I think that’s how it’s written. It can’t—it can’t go anywhere.
DT: Well that’s good news.
0:27:29 – 2098
MG: Yeah, it is good news.
DT: Thanks very much.
0:27:32 – 2098
MG: Thank you.
End of reel 2098.
End of interview with Meg Guerra.