Josette Cruz’s daughter was watching the SpaceX launch along with her teacher and classmates. When the rocket left the launch pad, the classroom erupted in cheers, but Cruz’s daughter cried.
“My daughter cried the day of the launch and that pissed me off more than anything,” says the community advocate and mother of two.
“To explain to her these things that there's this greedy man who is, you know, coming to town, and just because he has all this money, he can be a bully.”
For Cruz and her family, the launch was not a time of celebration, it was a time of mourning.
Long before it was the launch site of SpaceX, Boca Chica Beach was a sacred place for a lot of local residents, particularly the Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe. It is where all of life is said to have started. Today, that sacred place is off-limits, despite the fact whole communities have fished and performed cultural and spiritual rituals there for generations.
“I believe that this beach is worth fighting for because my grandparents were born out there on opposite sides of the river,” explains Cruz.
Local Indigenous communities have been vocal about their concern that any expansion of SpaceX will destroy ancient village sites, burial grounds and artifacts. The Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe, along with a community group and several environmental organizations launched a lawsuit this week aimed at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The suit claims the FAA gave SpaceX approval to launch its April 20th rocket without there being a comprehensive environmental and community impact review.
“Yes, I believe with the tribe that this is where all life was created,” says Cruz.
“So do I believe that it is worth fighting for? Yes, and I will fight you Elon, especially because you made my daughter cry.”
At a staggering 400 feet tall, SpaceX’s Starship is the largest and most powerful rocket ever made. It failed to separate from its boosters and destroyed its launch pad, but it also had a damaging impact on the homes of residents and the local ecology. In an email statement shared with some media outlets, the U.S. fish and Wildlife Service said the blast hurled chunks of concrete and metal thousands of feet away and even sparked a 3.5-acre fire nearby. Social media accounts were filled with photos taken by local residents of purported damage. Media reports described the shower of particulate matter and debris which poured down miles from the launch site.
Josette Cruz says she was astounded by what she was reading on social media.
“It's raining sand like five miles away or three miles away in that three-mile blast radius,” she says.
Gloria Thomas, a Brownsville resident who is affiliated with the Rio Grande Valley Chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America points out this was not the first time local residents had experienced the devastating impacts of a SpaceX launch.
“Before the space launch, there was a static launch that burned 600 acres,” Thomas explains.
“But then I'd see Elon's fanboys trying to say, ‘Oh, that's good for the environment because it burned and it's going to grow back or something.’”
“It shocked me, right?” she adds. “You're literally seeing evidence of destruction and somehow that doesn't faze you?”
It’s a sentiment that rings true for Josette Cruz as well who says she’s constantly frustrated that the concerns of local residents often go ignored by authorities.
“How are we going to sit there and normalize this?” she asks.
The population of Brownsville is predominantly Hispanic, and both Cruz and Thomas say it’s easy to see how the SpaceX issue boils down to race. They say as marginalized people, it is difficult watching their needs and concerns pushed aside so often.
“Why is it that we are okay with doing harm to these communities that are predominantly communities of color?” Cruz asks.
Despite the damage these launches cause and the fact it affects so many local people, a lot of Brownsville residents remain silent. Thomas explains the reasons for this are complex.
“They just kind of know like everybody's corrupt, right? Like you just [have] to survive [that] kind of thing.”
When Brownsville community members have raised concerns in the past about lax environmental policies for SpaceX or oil and gas companies, they’re often met with silence. Making matters worse, even if a community member does speak out - there can be frightening repercussions.
On February 16, 2022 Bekah Hinojosa, an outspoken activist with the Sierra Club who has been very vocal about Spacex, was arrested for allegedly spraypainting anti-SpaceX rhetoric on a building. In Texas that’s a Class B misdemeanor and most likely results in a citation. Yet Brownsville police arrested Hinojosa at her home. She was not allowed to change out of her pajamas, put on her shoes or grab her prescription glasses and was jailed for over 24 hours. She taken in by police on a Wednesday and by Friday the graffiti was gone.
During that time the Brownsville mayor posted Hinojosa’s mugshot and place of employment on Facebook saying she had been arrested for the graffiti. His post also said she had been quoted in so-called “anti-SpaceX” news stories. There was an outcry of support for Hiojosa but those who didn’t support her turned to social media and spewed hateful rhetoric. The whole experience is something that scared both Josette Cruz and Gloria Thomas.
“You have people out here who are, you know, saying, well, she broke the law. How do you know that?” Cruz asks.
“These are accusations. What [ever] happened to the process of innocence until proven guilty?”
“It makes me worry about my community that we don't know our rights, that we are so quick to just throw someone under the bus and just be like, okay, with whatever the mayor said.”
SpaceX has continued its test launch activity with another major launch expected in coming months. For Gloria Thomas, it means bracing for more destruction. She says she feels what’s happening in Brownsville with SpaceX is symptomatic of a much larger societal issue.
“I think all of America really is like, strategically planned so that the worst effects always go to the most marginalized.”
This story is part of a People over Plastic investigative series that examines key environmental justice issues in America’s Gulf South. The series will feature stories about BIPOC communities living in the shadow of petrochemical production. Follow us on Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter and visit peopleoverplastic.co for more coverage. You can subscribe to our monthly newsletter here.