Downtown Shutdown: COVID-19 and the Border

Downtown Shutdown: COVID-19 and the Border

John Escareno, Co-Editor

For many, when people think of Downtown Brownsville, they typically just see nothing but the border, or “the bridge” for some. The buildings that surround the border are just road candy for passersby. But for me, Downtown Brownsville has always been a place that I’ve had deep connections with. As a child, I lived in a building that was almost a five minute walk to the border, right in what is now the center of Downtown. After moving out, my family, almost religiously, walked through Downtown at least twice a week. Both I and my family have changed, and that’s evident by the way the walks themselves have changed. When I was younger, we’d only walk a few laps around Washington Park. Now, as a young adult, we walk a small tour of Downtown, walking down and across a few streets, finishing at the park. Now, why is this information necessary? Because I’m not not the only one who has this connection to Downtown. Far from it. There are plenty of children who played in Washington Park, plenty of families who lived in the Colonias by the border, plenty of students who took and still take classes at UTRGV Brownsville. And as of recent, that’s completely changed, for everyone.

On March 25th, a Shelter-In-Place order was enacted for Cameron County by Judge Eddie Trevino Jr.. This is due to recent outbreaks of COVID-19, typically known as the Coronavirus, occurring across the world. While many were expecting this, plenty of Cameron County citizens were still shocked. To the few unaware, a Shelter-In-Place order means that those who don’t have necessary duties or jobs must stay within their own homes. For many people, this meant being able to relax for a bit, and many started to enjoy the quarantine life. But, for others, this order was worrying. See, this order specifically states what types of businesses are essential and non-essential. To put it simply, the main essential reasons one could leave their house are these: groceries, medical care, pharmaceutical needs, and if someone’s caregiver needs to transport themselves. Many jobs are also considered essential, such as most people in the medical field, those who handle city management and infrastructure, etc. Most people online are saluting and giving many kudos to those who are still working in these times, but what they fail to realize is that many who are still working today are lucky. For a prime example of this, you can head to Downtown Brownsville.
After the order was put into place, my father and I still continued to walk Downtown. While it probably wasn’t allowed, it would be the only way to get exercise, seeing as all gyms were closed. Over about a period of three days, my father and I walked three times around Downtown. Once in the afternoon, once at night, and once in the morning. We’d take our same usual route, with only one minor difference. Downtown, no matter the time, is bustling with some sort of business, whether it be a breakfast/lunch/dinner/drinks crowd, people shopping for clothes or other things, border traffic, or typically all of the above. Those three days, we saw little to no foot traffic Downtown. That may seem like an exaggeration, but it’s not. As mentioned earlier, my father and I always finish the walk going around Washington Park a few times. Typically, you’d see people playing soccer, biking and walking around the park, or sitting in the gazebo. All three days my father and I walked, the most people we’d see besides us at the park would be 2. Looking back at it, that statement reflected what most of Downtown looked like. Empty. This place that I’ve known all my life as loud, packed, and alive became this cluster of soulless streets, shopper-less stores, and empty restaurants. This thought remained with me after every walk. Then I realized, what about the people who worked and lived Downtown? How are they even surviving right now? That resonated with me throughout the night. The fact that these essential figures of Downtown Brownsville are now without a steady workflow was near insane. I thought about how they may be dealing with these new policies, and how they’ve witnessed the changes of Downtown. Then I realized, I could ask them myself. It’s not like these people are miles away, if anything they’re in my backyard. So, with the help of an informant of mine, I was able to track down a few people who were willing to voice their opinions and thoughts on recent events.

Bob Torres in his office space

The first person I met with was Bob Torres, a realtor who works out of Downtown. His office is right under where I used to live, with a literal window to Downtown and whatever happens that may be going on. His blind dog, Bumper, accompanied us during this interview, but at the moment, there was a more pressing matter than that precious dog. “There’s less traffic.” Stated Torres. “My clients don’t come that much to my office. I have had some of late say that they really don’t wanna go Downtown.” He goes on to mention the anxieties that people have, and how it’s understandable to have said anxieties. “Some people have different fears, and are taking different precautions.” As the interview went on, Torres talked about how recent events have changed the realty field as a whole. “I’ve actually been busier, I have more contracts. People are taking the opportunities they’re given…Right now, there’s a two month grace period on house payments.” Torres continues, stating that COVID-19 isn’t like anything we’ve faced. “This is not like catastrophes that have happened in the United States before. If we get hit by a hurricane, the United States can send stuff to us to help us…Now we’re all affected, and nobody’s escaping this.” Near the end of the almost twenty minute long interview, Torres laments that there’s something to learn from all this, “If there’s a silver lining to this, it’s that we’re going to learn to appreciate things more. I think we’re going to appreciate cleanliness more. Everyone blames the disease on the Asian countries, but look at them. Even before this, they wore masks almost every day. Sure it was because of air pollution, but they were already protecting themselves from this. And look where they are now.” Soon after, the interview concluded, and with the help of Torres, I was able to secure another interview.
Dodici Pizza & Wine staff

Dante Pensa is one of the co-owners of one of Downtown’s hit restaurants, Dodici Pizza & Wine. As you may have expected, they serve upscale pizza and wine, and are right in the center of Downtown. The restaurant itself is nice, with both calm, classy indoor seating, and beautiful, fresh courtyard seating. But, as of recently, the only people inside the restaurant have been staff. “Things have slowed down. Less foot traffic, less sales, everything has slowed down.” Behind us, a man was being delivered a pizza to his car. Dodici had started a curbside delivery service, to reduce contact between staff and customers, in an attempt to reduce COVID-19 cases. When asked, Pensa had this to say, “It’s done well, with a little bit of fine and a bit more awareness, it’ll pick up.” In regards to why they’re doing this instead of staying completely closed, Pensa had an almost tear-jerking response. “For us, we have a duty not only to them [Dodici employees] and to the community. A lot of people think we’re open to make money, that’s not what it’s about for us at all right now. It’s all about providing wages for our crew and taking care of them.” When asked about what else has changed Downtown besides business, Pensa mentioned the plasma donation center down the street. “Only thing that’s picked up is the plasma donation, which is weird.” On every outing I made Downtown those past few weeks, the CSL Plasma centers have been brutally packed. Streets were lined with people ready to make a donation. Which, donation isn’t exactly the right word. People get paid to give their blood plasma to places like CSL. It’s a very common practice all over the country and a quick way to get some money. Multiple times, I tried both in person and through email, I attempted to get an interview with a CSL representative to get some information, but nothing came of it. I asked Pensa if he believed that if people had done more, things would have stayed the same Downtown, which he responded to with an odd sentiment. “We can always look back and say we could’ve done more. I believe that our leadership locally has done a good job to be proactive.” Which was very true. County Judge Eddie Trevino Jr. has taken multiple legal precautions against COVID-19. The most prominent being the Shelter-In-Place order. But Pensa does believe that there is one thing everyone could have done a bit more of. “The one thing I think we could’ve done more of is be connected to the people we love, and not use now as an excuse to connect with them and tell them how we really feel, because now we don’t really get to interact with them as much.” When asked about the bill congress had just passed for a $1,200 relief fund for each American, Pensa stated that, “I don’t believe in anything being free, that if you pay your taxes, do the right things as a business owner, take care of your crew, I think that you should be afforded certain luxuries for a short period of time to get you through it.” At the end of the interview, Pensa gives advice that most of us have listened to, but some still need to. “The most important thing right now is that we stay home, stay clean, stay isolated. Because it’s not a matter of if, but when we get infected, so if we can buy everybody some time, that’s the most important thing.” And after a few photos of the staff, which at least one is pictured in the article, I left to take some shots of Downtown.
Now, this time, my journey through Downtown didn’t exactly have a path, as I just wandered the streets, looking for solid shots to take. I still needed two interviews, but there was a high chance they’d be done online. That was until I had the brightest idea to ask if one of the interviews I could do in person. I had no idea if the person was where I expected them to be, but I knew where he worked was open. I texted him right after the Dodici interview, and by the time he had texted me back, I was about three quarters of a mile away from him. Cut to me running for 20 minutes all the way over to the interview area, wearing a long sleeve because I forgot I lived in south Texas that morning.
Main Street Deli Storefront

I entered Main Street Deli, sweaty, and ready for an interview. Hector Zavala met me at the front, and we had a seat at the table. When asked how recents events had changed his work, he replied with, “It’s slowed down a lot, business has slowed down a lot, our dine-in areas are of course closed, but actually we’ve done better than we expected with carry out and to-go orders.” Hector goes on to mention that Downtown has essentially become a ghost town, but that the good thing about that is that there’s plenty of parking space. In reference to the bill Congress just passed, Hector said that anything would help at this point, any source of income would help everyone out, and would be useful. “But, whether it will pick everything up again, we’ll see.” And with those ominous parting words, the interview had finished. Rather quick, but I was craving something to drink, and that bottle of water I had left in my car days ago sounded great. I asked Hector for a picture before I left, but he said he’d rather have a picture of the store, and when looking at my own sweaty clothes, I respected his decision. Main Street Deli serves some great sandwiches on fresh baked bread, and it’s atmosphere is very humble and enjoyable.
After the interview, my father called and told me to meet up with him and my uncle at a nearby place. My uncle, who actually helped me get contact info for these interviews, works at the Downtown Charro Days center. Charro Days is it’s own thing, but basically it’s a celebration of union between Mexico and America. Ironic. But, due to him working there, he knew a lot of people Downtown, and really did help me out. After snapping some more shots of empty streets, I headed home and got ready to work on the article.
A glimpse of what’s going on at the border

A few days later, I got a text I completely forgot to expect. A Border Patrol agent by the name of Leo Barrera had opted in for a text only interview. I had sent him the questions days ago, but he had needed clearance to answer them, which is still confusing, as they were the same, almost surface level questions as I had asked everyone else. Maybe It’s because I switched the word “Downtown” with “Border.” But, he had given me his answers, and to put it short, Agent Barrera has kept at his job as usual, no major changes have arrived to the border, foot traffic is light, and he’s gotten to spend more time with his family and value them. Which these days, is all that you can ever wish for.
So, what’s to pick up from all this? I mean yeah, a bunch of businesses suffering from events out of their control, and what? What are we supposed to do? You’ve probably picked up on it but if you haven’t, support local businesses. These people are literally risking their lives to provide food for people. Go get food from them! McDonald’s is going to survive this, but that nice woman who runs a taco shop with her family might not if people don’t support her. The restaurant owners I interviewed might just have the only restaurants open Downtown. It was almost unsettling walking through this ghost town, and passing by places I’ve been to or eaten at, only for them to be closed. These people might not make it through this pandemic. They deserve as much business as Domino’s or Pizza Hut is getting. They are doing the same work, but are being overshadowed by larger brands. I don’t wanna sound like an activist screaming on street corners, which I probably already do, but just don’t forget about those people out there who have served you for years. Give back to them while this is going on. It’s the least you can do. That, and wash your hands. And appreciate those you love. Basically, all the stuff we should’ve been doing before this happened.

All photos taken by John Escareno.