"It's Like Nowhere Else on Earth"
The Rio Grande Valley is a cultural crossroads, with folks from all walks of life.
We met so many friendly folks in our visit to the Valley it would be impossible to describe them all.
But we'll try.The Game Warden | The Ray Girl | The Butterfly Hunter | The Mascot | The Curator | The Park Boss | The Landscaper | The Turtle Teachers | The Historian | The Monarch Lady | The Guy Who Took Jimmy Carter Birding | The Linguist | The Boat Captain | The Waiter | The Bus Driver
The Game Warden
Game warden Sgt. Jarret Barker grew up in Georgetown but fell in love with the South Texas coast during a cadet field trip. As luck would have it, Barker was stationed in the Brownsville area, and now, 15 years later, he’s still there and enjoying the bays, jetties and Gulf that brought him here. As a sergeant, more of his duties have become administrative, and he laments that he doesn’t get to be out in nature as much now. He does look forward to periodically heading out with boat teams for offshore patrol. EN
The Ray Girl
At the Gladys Porter Zoo, 14 cownose rays circle inside the waist-high tank of salt water like roller skaters at the rink. As my eyes adjust from the bright sunshine outside, I can make out someone way at the other end, dipping her hand down into the water.
What amazing luck! We’ve arrived at just the right time — afternoon feeding.
University of Texas Rio Grande Valley student and touch-tank interpreter Brenda Peña slips bits of shrimp, fish and clams to the eager mouths of these adorable smaller cousins of the big manta rays. She urges me to put my hands in, and the rays slide eagerly over to me. They are disappointed that I’ve got no treats, but they obligingly let me caress them along their velvety backs.
Peña points out her favorite, little Tyrion, an affectionate baby ray recovering from an injury. I’m smitten and gush to Brenda that she’s got the best job in the world.
“I know,” she says, smiling at her luck in landing the “perfect” internship. “I don’t know why they picked me, but I’m so happy they did.” LB
The Butterfly Hunter
While reveling in the riotous greenery of the National Butterfly Center in Mission, I suddenly spot a looming figure with a camera emerging from the thick vegetation, outfitted in a way that immediately draws my attention. Head to toe, John Rosford is ready for action. Layer upon layer of protective gear is utilized: kerchiefs protect neck and brow under his sturdy sun hat, heavy-duty knee pads and high leather boots cover his light khaki pants, and only the very tips of his fingers peek out of the rugged gloves. A bit hot, a bit too much? It takes only one demonstration from this frequent visitor to prove the success of his resourceful methods for preventing injuries during his butterfly quests. He points out various species to me as we talk about nature photography and his five years traveling the country before settling down in nearby Mission seven years ago. His wife loves birds; he loves butterflies. A match made in Valley wildlife heaven. LB
Director Marianna Treviño Wright calls the mascot of the National Butterfly Center in Mission “the world’s most spectacular non-butterfly.” Spike, a giant African spurred tortoise, is a rescued resident who holds court in the garden, enjoys cake for his birthday and loves to have his head rubbed. LB
Harlingen Arts and Heritage Museum coordinator Stefani Miller balances history and art in this unique facility. Out back, historic buildings hold rooms full of fascinating details, like dental tools and general store items. Inside, Miller hosts exhibits of Día de los Muertos altars, Christmas trees decorated by the community and revolving art exhibits. Miller takes pride in discovering local talent like Mario Godinez, whose work is featured in the exhibit “Visions from a Subconscious Mind,” a trippy pop-art collection. LB
Javier De Leon
The Park Boss
Javier de Leon started his career in the outdoors as an intern at the National Butterfly Center in Mission; he later got hired there full time as a naturalist. After that, it was the Edinburg Scenic Wetlands. Then came Bentsen-Rio Grande Valley State Park.
When the superintendent job came open at Estero Llano Grande State Park, he decided to go for it. He’s been superintendent there since 2014.
“I think it’s important to teach as many locals as we can,” he says. “The more people in the Valley who are educated about our nature — the more people know about green jays and chachalacas and kiskadees and how special they are — the more powerful of a voice we can create to keep the Valley green.”
The Valley is growing, and de Leon wants the new development to be responsible development.
“Development should include green space,” he says. “There has to be a balanced quality of life. They need to think about how it will negatively affect wildlife.” RR
Terry Barrett’s Laguna Heights home overlooks the Laguna Madre, a view he enjoys before departing for his day job as a landscaper. Barrett's held many jobs, including work in the movies — he even portrayed a zombie in the original Night of the Living Dead. When landscaping brought him to the Valley, he fell in love with the area.
“I’m hoping to live here the rest of my days until I die,” the former zombie says. EN
Susan Kerens and Rita Galloway
The Turtle Teachers
Once a teacher, always a teacher. Rita Galloway and Susan Kerens, friends and retired teachers from Harlingen, volunteer together at least once a month at Sea Turtle Inc. on South Padre Island. The Texas Master Naturalists enjoy sharing their knowledge about wildlife and counting nests together each season. LB
Park guide Ruben Reyna looks so resplendent in his uniform, we just have to catch a shot of him in the morning sun at the Palo Alto Battlefield in Brownsville. Hired for his technological wizardry, Reyna shows us how technology makes the battlefield experience more satisfyingly interactive for park visitors. LB
The Monarch Lady
We find Patty Daigle in the gift shop when we visit the glorious South Padre Island Birding and Nature Center in September. While we wax on about the wondrous birds we’ve seen on the boardwalk, she's disappointed we’ll miss the huge monarch festival in late October. “The whole city gets involved!” LB
The Man Who Took Jimmy Carter Birding
Roy Rodriguez worked for years as a professional birding guide, leading trips around South Texas and Mexico. He also leads groups of blind birders, who identify birds by their call.
When Jimmy Carter, a dedicated bird watcher with more than 1,000 birds on his life list, decided to take a bird-watching trip to the Rio Grande Valley in 2004, Rodriguez got tapped to lead him around.
“I said ‘Jimmy Carter? Like the president Jimmy Carter?’” he recalls.
Rodriguez took Carter to some of his special birding spots such as the McAllen sewage ponds — places the Secret Service had not assessed for security risks.
“They were not happy with me, but I got him 35 lifers,” he said, referring to bird species Carter had not previously seen. RR
Fernando De Leon
The morning sun is turning the heat up at the Hidalgo City Hall Plaza as we approach city employee Fernando de Leon. Spanish is ubiquitous here in South Texas, a stone’s throw from the Rio Grande, so we enlist a Spanish-speaking friend to ask the all-important question: “Where should we grab breakfast?”
The two engage in earnest conversation, hand gestures and Spanglish phrases flying around, before settling on directions to a taquería down the road. We offer a halting “Muchas gracias!” with a nod to show our appreciation. De Leon busts out a wide grin with the humor that seems to emerge from many of our encounters with the people of the Rio Grande Valley.
“I’m just messin’ with y’all,” he says merrily. “I speak English.”
The Boat Captain
In the outdoors, short conversations can lead to lifelong friendships — especially when you are confined on a boat in a small group. When part of the team is invited to spend an excellent morning exploring the Lower Laguna Madre on Stanford Knowles’ boat, the connection is immediate.
We meet Knowles at his Arroyo City home, where he makes a wonderful first impression with hot-out-of-the-oven banana bread.
Impressed by the fishing awards on his wall, I congratulate him on the trophies.
“Those are my wife’s!” he tells me with pride.
Originally from the East Coast, Knowles’ family moved to Houston when he was young. He attended architecture school at the University of Hawaii with a swimming scholarship and became a champion surfer.
Knowles’ architectural firm is based in South Texas, and he has served on many conservation and civic governing boards. Fishing and sharing his experiences on the water are his passions today. RB
Waiter Paul Cortino adds a large dollop of wit to the classic Italian entrees he serves at the Weslaco family-owned restaurant with which he shares his name. Jokingly ask him if anyone ever orders the menu item listed as “Meat Ball, $1.50” and — poof! — one perfect, marinara-coated orb arrives for sampling. Laugh at the enormous size of the tiramisu portion at the next table and soon you’ll find a veritable mountain of delectable soaked ladyfingers and fluffy cream for the group to share.
The gleam in Cortino’s eye turns from humor to pride as he describes the packed house for last year’s 50th anniversary celebration on Father’s Day. “If the winter Texans had been here,” he says, “we wouldn’t have ever gone home that day.”
He slips us a menu as we head out the door. “Come back tomorrow for lunch,” he smiles. “We’ll be here.” After a half-century, it’s a sure bet. LB/TA
The Bus Driver
As high school students wander around the tropical gardens of McAllen’s Quinta Mazatlan, I notice a poised, graceful woman sitting patiently on a bench, waiting for the school activities to conclude. María Barrera tells me that she has been a bus driver for the McAllen school district for a decade and loves these outings.
“I’ve lived in this area for more than 45 years,” she tells me. “I can’t imagine wanting to live anywhere else.”
While I take her portrait beside the bus, she reveals that in the 1970s she was a model for J.C. Penney. She’s still got it! EN