Words by Josue Rawmirez, edited by Freddy Jimenez
On May 20th, 2020, a deafening explosion interrupted the call of the gulls that make Boca Chica Beach on the southernmost tip of Texas their home. Residents of the nearby Boca Chica Village felt their walls rattle, some described the event as “an earthquake.” The boom was accompanied by a burst of flames and a smoke cloud that reached the sky and trailed from SpaceX’s South Texas facility. A fuel leak during a test-fire of the Raptor engine caused the SN4 rocket to explode violently, scattering burning spaceship debris along the Texas gulf line. The event highlights several of the contemporary realities of the Lower Rio Grande Valley (RGV) that a few years ago might have seemed like something out of science fiction.
Undoubtedly SpaceX leadership has a specific vision for the future of the new space station. Envisioning a, “truly commercial launch site like you have commercial airports.” During the groundbreaking ceremony SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk mentioned that, “It very well could be the first person to go to another planet, could launch from this location.” Since construction of the SpaceX Boca Chica facility began in 2014, the local investment and operations for the aerospace transportation and manufacturing company increased dramatically and continues.
In an eerily utopian premise, the City of Brownsville now promotes itself as the “New Space City,” setting a goal for accomplishing this by 2030. Not to be outdone, in a series of tweets in March 2021, Musk proposed the development of a new municipality which he proclaimed as Starbase, Texas. In May 2021, a sign with that namesake was installed along State Highway 4.
This unraveling narrative intermingles the future of orbital technologies, interplanetary travel, and global capitalism with the now of La Frontera as it is currently defined. By a stark socioeconomic divide, by unending environmental injustices, and neoliberal policies that historically militarized and policed Native communities and their immigration patterns. Like any riveting Sci-fi story, it is full of vivid visual imagery that showcases actuality and potentiality. In this instance of the Rio Grande Valley’s primarily Mexican American community.
New Space City Brownsville is a goal for a new identity for the southernmost Texas city that is now a focal point of space privatization and exploration. The development of the SpaceX Boca Chica Station was sold to the political elite with the vision of a new industry of space travel for the region and a boost to the economy. The idea of a burgeoning private space industry enticed the State, County, and municipal governments. They quickly expedited SpaceX’s settlement of the region through tax abatements, access to land, and cheap labor.
The introduction of the astro capitalist to the RGV came with millions of dollars in lost subsidies for local communities, placing market expansion over general quality of life. The RGV remains one of the most socioeconomically distressed communities in the United States. There is a large gap in inequality. The U.S. Census Bureau, ranked the McAllen-Edinburg-Mission and the Brownsville-Harlingen Metropolitan Statistical Area(MSA)s, first and fourth in the national list of MSAs with the highest poverty rate. SpaceX will only exacerbate that by continuing to suck the resources from the community, including the cheap labor used to create the station.
The situation resembles the effect of NAFTA and the insertion of maquiladoras that became definitive of the economies of Northern Mexico. Just like the events of the ‘90s, the incoming wave of capitalism promises upward mobility and financial stability through new economies. Offering the jobs of the future is impressive, but are they being truthful about who gets those jobs now?
In 2012 the then Texas Workforce Solutions Cameron County Executive Director Pat Hobbs spoke of the unemployment in the region, which was well above the national and state average. In the interview, Hobbs says that jobs are plentiful, specifically management and technician level careers but what is missing are qualified workers. According to Hobbs, a “significant event that would cause a major impact on the economy and the job market” had been lacking. He suggested a company like SpaceX could come “into the area to create that change.”
Eight years after Hobbs’ comments, the article, New Space City by Amy Casebier was published in RGVision Magazine. It covered a panel lecture series titled New Space Brownsville that featured SpaceX’s benefits to the local economy. The panel mentioned that the jobs created by a “viable spaceport aren’t all limited to engineers and astronauts. Support staff like janitors, cafeteria workers, and other positions are critical — especially if those individuals can get security clearance.”
By doing so, she points out the level of socioeconomic inequity in the RGV and also continues to relegate stereotypes of the docile Mexican on the local communities. Having a “viable workforce to support all that economic activity” is a priority for SpaceX but, it is only available for those who behave. The reality is that the careers that define the space industry like engineers, mathematicians, astronauts, scientists, and technicians will most likely not be the jobs of RGV locals. Mainly because of the gap in educational and technical capacity. Musk himself has taken to Twitter for outside recruitment.
But New Space City is more than the engineers, the astro capitalists, and their money, according to the Director of the South Texas Astronomical Society, Victor De Los Santos. In the article titled Brownsville Aiming to be Space City by 2030, he suggests that to “become the Space City, it’s the culture and it’s the people and we’re all a part of it… it’s not just big corporations coming in and doing all the work.” Reaching New Space City status is therefore facilitated by more than policy changes and tax-abatements, it is a cultural shift.
Cultural shifts happen when people’s perceptions change because they feel different about certain things. Individual emotional changes allow for collective opinions on a topic to form and to be displayed through creative productions. These productions can also be used to manage and mediate opinions, as is the case with propaganda or more recently with the advent of fake-news. Through time, the arts and culture have proven effective in reaching viewers emotionally and are integral to shifting culture, even through the use of lies and force.
The South Texas region has witnessed involuntary cultural shifts before. The steps to rebrand the City of Brownsville into New Space City and to change the local culture resemble the place-making actions of White Northerners in the early 20th Century when creating the myth of the Magic Valley.
The Magic Valley: Branding the South Texas Border Region
In the article Inventing the Magic Valley of South Texas 1905-1941, authors Christian Brannstrom and Matthew Neuman describe how Anglo land-developers used “language, iconography, and performance” to market and paint a rosier picture of the region and its “opportunities”. The false notion of place, an imagined landscape that “inscribes the actual landscape with “place-myths”, was created by outside investors.
The 1918 pamphlet that first published the mention of the “Magic Valley,” described it as a place “where the Northern farmer has planted and claimed the land for his own.” It described local labor as, “cheap and plentiful and will always be” because of the “numerous Mexicans living on the Texas side of the river who welcome the coming of the new blood with its capital, energy, and enterprise.” Promotional materials pushed by land boosters included pamphlets, descriptions, and images of the region that primarily benefited the sales of land and irrigation.
Developers and railroad companies recruited midwestern prospects through staged performances and carefully orchestrated “home-seeker tours,” where white families were transported to South Texas to generate interest and investment in the “cheap land” and opportunities. John Shary, founder of Sharyland, prominently celebrated the Magic Valley place myth. He paraded prospects across the region to specific fruitful orchards, to modern irrigation systems, and hosted promotional talks with select community members. Shary wined and dined potential buyers with hunting excursions, fishing trips to the coast, and entertainment across the border. These performances sold a specific vision of the Lower Rio Grande that required the change of the landscape and the use of resources, which included local residents.
Another example of the Magic Valley place-myth is in A Little Journey Through the Lower Valley of the Rio Grande: The Magic Valley of Texas, by author Julia Montgomery. The text features a map of Starr, Hidalgo, Cameron, and Willacy Counties and the border with Mexico by artist Wilfred Stedman. The visual language of the marketing showcases racist portrayals of Mexicans and paints a vision of modernity at their expense.
The images on the American side featured vehicles, refineries, steamboats, bountiful produce, and highrise buildings, schools, churches, a lighthouse, and military forts. In contrast, the Mexican side featured shacks, individuals napping, sitting in the shade of a palm tree, smoking idly, dancing and cockfighting. Bulks and crates of produce are stacked by the river, pointing to trade and export goods from the south.
These examples show how visual art and creative productions in the early to mid-1900s facilitated the destruction of the local people, cultures, and the natural environment for irrigation and mass agribusiness through the visualization of the Magic Valley.
According to Neuman and Brannstrom, the place-myth of the Magic Valley as created by white northerners in the early 20th Century was that the Rio Grande region was bountiful, plentiful, and for the taking. The “Magic Valley” would amazingly give fruit to outside investment because labor was cheap, the people and local history were disposable, and the natural environment and resources needed to be managed.
Since then, the patterns of violent extraction have continued in the region. Despite demographic changes in the general population and in the local governance representation, market forces like SpaceX continue to dictate the regional identity.
Nowadays, if you are in Brownsville, you don’t have to look far to see pro-Musk propaganda. But cues of the City of Brownsville’s interpretation of a “New Space City” began appearing years ago, through municipally funded or supported cultural productions including “community organizations,” social events, and the visual arts. When these cultural creations are analyzed as place-images they provide a larger view of the New Space City place myth.
Examples of Non-Governmental Organizations include NewSpace Brownsville, Expanding Frontiers, and the STAR Society. They were founded to help Brownsville, “seize opportunities presented by the burgeoning space industry.” In contrast to businesses, these entities are organized and operated for a collective, public or social benefit. NewSpace Brownsville’s mission to empower and foster, “an out of this world workforce training environment for the Rio Grande Valley and beyond,” however well-intended, presently paves the way to a hellish reality full of increasing housing costs, a larger gap in income inequality, limited access to Brownsville’s only beach and continued resource extraction.
These groups follow the model of the Magic Valley land speculators by integrating the “New Space City” messaging through a cultural strategy that includes public events. A contemporary example of this type of performance was the Vibrant Lecture Series, held during Brownsville’s 87th annual Charro Days Fiesta Celebration week at the Crossroads Festival. A three-day event with “opportunities for learning, networking, and innovation through a collaboration of paths in film, music, food, politics, art, and innovation.”
It featured film premieres with actor RJ Mitte, Border BBQ with the Texas Monthly, an art exhibition by Cande Aguilar, a mainstage performance by the band KINKY and much more. The festival also showcased NewSpace Brownsville’s event “Brownsville 2030: Space City”, which included panelist Dr. Fredrick Jenet, founder of StarGate and Expanding Frontiers.
Dr. Jenet introduced New Space City Brownsville as an example of the 3rd generation of human space endeavors or the “commercial space industry.” A commerce facilitated by the US Government onto the market and aggressively pursued by private “astropreneurs.”
These investors developed a new business discipline of thinking about what the cosmos is and how one can benefit from it, Dr. Jenet refers to it as New Space. The UTRGV professor described New Space City as the opportunity to be a part, “of the global phenomenon of launching the trillion-dollar space economy.” These selling points are similar to the messaging and activities of land speculators who created the Magic Valley as a place-image of abundant opportunity and a new frontier to wealth. In this case, from the riches extracted not only from the Rio Grande Valley but from Space, the Moon, and potentially from Mars.
Another example of a pro-space place-image can be seen in a public mural titled “The Palm Forest” by Austin-based artist Cody Schibi. Commissioned by the City of Brownsville in 2019, the mural located in the Downtown Recreation Center depicts a colorful sunset scene of adults, children, and animals exercising, playing, and relaxing in a palm tree forest. The scene is serene except for a rocket that whizzes through the palms leaving a cloud of dust in the background. None of the characters in the mural seem to notice or mind the projectile flying above them. The portrayal of what can be assumed as Brownsville, while playful, touches on several themes.
Its main focus is to show a future where aeronautics and space travel is a commonplace in the landscape of the city. This future also includes the idea of Brownsville as an active community, as seen by the joggers, the reference to cycling, and the enjoyment and appreciation of nature. A primary focus of the mural is a gorilla on a bike, a reference to the Gladys Porter Zoo and the viral Harambe. The place-image that can be deduced from the mural is that New Space City is a child-friendly, healthy and active community with plenty of family-oriented attractions and activities. It is a community that appreciates knowledge, as referenced by the child reading, and that is a part of popular imagination and culture.
However, upon closer analysis, the mural also shows the inequity that comes with New Space City. A striking observation is that the mural is composed mostly of individuals with the same skin tones except for the unidentifiable figure in the background flying the kite. The lack of brown and black figures continues a legacy of exclusion in the cityscape and colorism within the Mexican American community.
Additionally, this iteration of the city is also reliant on tourism, as indicated by the odes to the Gladys Porter Zoo that include the giraffe and the silverback gorilla. The zoo is one of the City’s largest earmarks under the Tourism budget therefore it is representative of the City’s interest in continuing to support and maintain the status quo. The imported animals and the symbolism of the palm tree continue the existing place-images of the Magic Valley as a tropical and exotic paradise. It erases the local natural environment being harmed.
Other examples include the Brownsville Museum of Fine Arts exhibit Boca Chica to Mars, which will be the topic of its own conversation. However, while there are many more examples, the two cultural creations analyzed are good references to what compromises the prominent New Space City place myth. Like the advertisements and cultural performances from the turn of the 20th century, these contemporary productions create a place-myth that relies on the exploitation of the people, the erasure of history, and depletion of the region’s natural landscape in exchange for predominantly outsider resource extraction, wealth accumulation and the sake of modernity.
The New Space City place-myth locates the region as the final frontier for boundless opportunities, similar to the Magic Valley place-myth. They both appeal to the sense of exotic adventure in the location and fiscal investment. The New Space City place-myth also paints a portrait of a local life full of technology, enjoyment, nature, and recreation- but only for lighter-skinned individuals and the wealthy. Everyone else is left out of the picture, quite literally, or if you are well behaved, as Ms. Casebier pointed out, you are relegated to the service industry. What these two interpretations of the region have in common is that they were created by outside forces and facilitated by the state. They were placed upon the Rio Grande community primarily for others’ benefit.
Nonetheless, these place-myths have become engrained. They are consciously and subconsciously enacted by locals who uphold the values of settler colonialism, capitalism, white supremacy, and patriarchy. Most recently, a slew of individual local artists have supported the astro capitalists through street art murals, commissions, and gallery shows. While there is plenty to be said about artists who of their own volition participate in said part of the cultural shift, there is more importance in exploring the work of creatives who are fighting back the place-myth of New Space City.
For now, one must acknowledge the reality as De Los Santos referenced. There is a cultural shift happening locally. But, let’s be honest and call it what it is; a forced rebranding of our region for the benefit of SpaceX. These strategies to rewrite local narratives have been done before when the Rio Grande Delta was transformed into the Magic Valley. History has taught us who the primary beneficiaries of these coerced changes have been. We must remember that we have a right to define ourselves now, to shape our narratives in the present.
The people locally have community values based on this land, it’s resources and lived experiences. Said values should be definitive of our region’s identity, not those imposed on us or facilitated by money and promises of future technological prosperity.