South Texas tribe vows to fight border wall, sues to preserve cemetery where ancestors are buried

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The number of graves at the Eli Jackson Cemetery has been updated and corrected, as well as the tribal headquarter location.

YALUI VILLAGE, Texas (Border Report) — Sitting outside near the historic Eli Jackson Cemetery near a tranquil field about a mile from the Rio Grande, the leader of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas was surrounded by nearly a dozen supporters on Thursday morning.

They came from places as far Seattle and Washington, D.C., and slept in tents pitched on the very grounds they want to protect from a border wall. The cemetery contains the remains of some of their ancestors, as well as several World War II veterans. tribal leader Juan Mancias says.

They scrounged for breakfast in a tent, opening cans and admitting they were barely trying to wake up after another night spent in the open air.

Since Jan. 20, at least one person has been at this village at all times to guard it against “the invaders and oppressive colonizers.” That’s what Mancias calls the government contractors who want to get on the property to survey it for a planned border wall.

More and more people who want to help their cause are showing up lately, he said. They come because they have heard about a lawsuit that his tribe has filed, along with several other plaintiffs, to stop border wall construction on what he says are “sacred lands.”

And as the date draws nearer to a scheduled Dec. 16 court hearing in Washington, D.C., he said he takes heart that more and more supporters are reaching out daily.

Juan Mancia has led the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of South Texas since 1991. He is seen near San Juan, Texas, on Dec. 4, 2019. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

The case, Ramirez vs. Trump, challenges the president’s right to declare a national emergency and access funds to build a border wall on the Southwest border that would cut through this cemetery — which has been declared a historic site — and several other properties in South Texas. A hearing is set in U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia in which the federal government is requesting the case be dismissed.

“The whole issue is to continue to be a historical marker for future generations and that is why we are here fighting for the things. The fight is not going to stop here, the struggle is not going to stop here,” Mancias said. “We feel very supported but we could use more of it.”

The Esto’k gna

Wearing a black T-shirt bearing his tribe’s logo, Mancias explained how his people have for decades been stripped of their lands and even of their real name, which he said is Esto’k gna.

They became known as the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe, named by the settling Spaniards who marveled at how they made their homes out of river reed and carrizo cane; and the Mexicans who made fun of their diet — which consists of eating raw kidney and livers — calling them comecrudo, or raw eater, he explained.

But he said he has surmised they will get nowhere unless they change the narrative about their people.

“We have to be able to stand up on our own two feet and quit being on the knees begging for stuff. And that goes for everybody along the river,” Mancias said. “They want to ignore us that way they can take whatever they want. They have no regards whatsoever.”

We have to be able to stand up on our own two feet and quit being on the knees begging for stuff. And that goes for everybody along the river.”

Juan Mancias, tribal leader of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation of South Texas

Mancias, who is now 65, has led this nation of about 2,000 since his grandfather died in 1991. And as their numbers shrink, their lands are reduced and they feel more constricted, he said. The tribe’s greatest obstacle is that they are not federally-recognized. To be so would cost about $150,000 in lawyers fees, “which we don’t have,” Mancias said.

And so they are dependent upon pro-bono lawyers and earnest supporters.

A sign bearing the name of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe in their ancestral tongue hangs from a tree at the Eli Jackson Cemetery near San Juan, Texas, on Dec. 5, 2019. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez).

Lawsuit in DC court

The lawsuit, filed by Earthjustice on behalf of the tribe, alleges that President Trump had no legal right last February to declare a national emergency on the Southwest border in order to divert billions of dollars in federal funds to build a border wall. The declaration was made while the government was in a shutdown and a fiscal budget had not yet been agreed upon by Congress.

“The president’s overreach has real and dire impacts for communities living along the border,” the lawsuit states, calling the fund diversion an “executive abuse of power” that “threatens to desecrate graves and spiritual ancestral sites.”

Sarah Burt, a San Francisco-based lawyer for EarthJustice who is leading the lawsuit, said it is being brought forth because “the Eli Jackson Cemetery and the Jackson Ranch are special” and deserving of a carve-out to exempt them from a border wall.

Burt added that recent meetings her nonprofit has had with members of the Appropriations Committee have left them hopeful that the historic cemetery might be saved. Congress has exempted other historic and popular sites in South Texas, including La Lomita Chapel, the National Butterfly Center, and Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge.

U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, a Democrat from Texas who is vice chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, told Border Report during a visit to South Texas earlier this week that he has added language into the next fiscal budget appropriations bill that would exempt “historic sites” such as Eli Jackson Cemetery.

Although the Eli Jackson Cemetery is not specifically named, Cuellar said: “it is protected.”

Ruth Garcia of the Carrizo/Comecrudo Nation shows a grave of her seventh cousin on Thursday, Dec. 5, 2019, which is located at the historic Eli Jackson Cemetery near San Juan, Texas. Plans for a border wall could plow through the cemetery unless Congress acts to exempt the cemetery. (Border Report Photo/Sandra Sanchez)

“I put the ‘historical cemeteries’ because there are probably some other areas that we want to protect. So instead of putting that by name. That language is already in the appropriations and accepted by the House that has historical cemeteries will be protected,” Cuellar said.

Mancias said the cemetery will be at risk until it is specifically exempted. And he challenged Cuellar and other federal lawmakers to come down and visit it to see what they are enduring as they try to fend off contractors and survey crews that he says have been trying to access this site for months.

Said Mancias: “The Indian wars are not over; only the battlegrounds have changed. Now we have to fight those battles in courtrooms, in legislature floors.”

Border infrastructure would ‘cut through’ cemetery

The Rio Grande Valley is slated for 65 miles of the new Border Infrastructure System, which the U.S. Customs and Border Protection says would include a 30-foot-tall border wall and 150-foot-wide enforcement zone with all-weather roads, floodlights, infrared cameras and recording equipment and underground sensors.

If carried out, then the barriers will cut through the cemetery unless Congress acts to specifically name it as an exemption, said Ruth Garcia, Mancias’ niece.

Garcia took Border Report on a tour of the historic cemetery on Thursday, which has about 60 marked graves dating back to the 1800s., as well as several poles where she said the tribe has identified the location of additional remains that they are trying to investigate.

As she paused by the grave of her seventh cousin, a corporal in the U.S. Army who died in 1999, she said, “We’re fighting to keep them where they are. Because when you lay your family to rest you expect to keep them there. Not for them to be disturbed.”

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