Elon Musk has for years been telling anyone who will hear him — and plenty who would prefer not to — that he intends to colonize Mars. On a podcast earlier this year, Musk said that his SpaceX ships would start transporting people to Mars within ten years. The best-case scenario, he said, was a mere five years.
Musk says that he is intent on colonizing Mars because a multi-planetary existence is the only hope for humanity after we render Earth inhabitable. But in his headlong rush to colonize another planet, what Musk has actually done, according to a number of activists and residents, is colonize a small border city in South Texas.
Brownsville, Texas, is one of the poorest cities in the country. The poverty rate is nearly 30 percent overall, and higher for children. Nearly 35 percent of residents under sixty-five years of age are without health insurance. The city was recently ranked as the unhealthiest in the country, with high rates of diabetes among other illnesses. Internet connectivity is a problem. The border militarization of the area following the attacks of September 11 hamstrung the economy the city shares with Matamoros, its sister city in Mexico. The challenges are numerous, and, in a sense, unsurprising. Brownsville is almost 94 percent Hispanic and Latino, its history studded with episodes of colonization and disinvestment.
Despite all of that, Brownsville is a remarkable place. Set on a beautiful stretch of the Gulf Coast, it’s a culturally rich city that has resisted assimilation into the American mainstream. “The first time I really left Brownsville, I left for about six months for some internships, and I remember, almost a week in, I was like, ‘I’m ready to go back,’” says Emma Guevara, an organizer with the South Texas Environmental Justice Network.
Now Brownsville’s future may be out of its hands, and in Musk’s instead.
Musk began looking for a site to base his space travel project in 2011, somewhere near the equator and a large body of water. Sites in Florida and Georgia were reported as potential options. But in 2012, it was reported that a parcel of land near Boca Chica Beach, some twenty miles east of Brownsville on the Gulf Coast, was a leading candidate for the facility. That was enough for the Texas Legislature to spring into action, passing a $15 million incentive package and a bill to allow the temporary closure of state beaches during rocket launches to try to lure Musk. Cameron County kicked in a ten-year property tax abatement.
While the state maneuvered, SpaceX did too, buying real estate around the site and buying out homeowners in nearby Boca Chica Village. In 2014, SpaceX made the announcement: they were officially coming to South Texas.
Many were excited. “We grew up in school being promised that this was going to be amazing, a saving grace to the Valley,” says Caelan Mitchell-Bennett, who grew up in Brownsville. “This was all that we were good for. This was what was going to lift us out of poverty: the world’s richest man wanted to live here. To the poorest city in America, that’s everything.”
Terraforming South Texas
From the beginning, it was clear that Musk thought little of the people and the culture he was joining. In 2018, Musk paid tribute to Brownsville’s rich history thusly: “We’ve got a lot of land with nobody around, and so if [a rocket] blows up, it’s cool.”
For Juan Mancias, chair of Carrizo/Comecrudo tribe of Texas, it’s difficult to miss how the logic of colonialism suffuses SpaceX’s presence in the Rio Grande Valley. If Musk imagines there is no one and nothing on Mars, that it is simply unclaimed land waiting for humanity to wring some value out of it, he seems to imagine Brownsville similarly. “They’ve got this invader mentality,” Mancias said, “where the weaker people are just going to be decimated, and they consider themselves stronger because they have the money.”
Musk has long said that his intention is to terraform Mars — to transform the planet, where the average temperature is -81 degrees, so it resembles Earth and is similarly habitable. Terraforming comes from science fiction, and the term is primarily used to refer to altering other planets. But in his book The Nutmeg’s Curse, the Indian author Amitav Ghosh writes that there is “no intrinsic reason why the concept of ‘terraforming’ should not be applicable to planet Earth.”
Musk is seeking, in a way, to terraform Boca Chica and Brownsville, to make this area of South Texas more supportive of the forms of human life Musk and SpaceX executives are willing to see and able to comprehend.
In August 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, SpaceX added a job listing to its website seeking a “resort development manager” for Boca Chica. The manager would be responsible for supervising the construction of a luxury resort where space tourists — those taking trips to Mars and the Moon in a SpaceX rocket ship or simply taking in the spectacle from Earth — could stay in comfort and style. “SpaceX is committed to developing this town into a 21st-century spaceport,” the listing read.
Future plans aside, SpaceX has already shown flagrant disregard for the land and people of South Texas. SpaceX rockets have exploded on multiple occasions, leaving tidal flats and people’s front yards alike covered with debris. Noise and light pollution are constants. A liquified natural gas project intended to eventually transport 4 million tons of gas annually has residents nervous as well.
“All of that land is being destroyed for buildings and launchpads to be built,” Guevara said. “There have been a lot of issues with ocelots being hit by cars because of the road closures or the traffic in general,” and “a lot of issues with birds and pelicans being hit as well.”
Then there is the beach. As the Texas Observer’s Gus Bova highlighted in the fall, Boca Chica Beach is not just any strip of sand. It is, for many in Brownsville and the surrounding area, a treasure: a place where generations of local families have gone to fish, picnic, engage in community cleanups, and unwind in the South Texas heat. The beach is also a sacred gathering and trading site for the area’s indigenous peoples. But since SpaceX started launching rockets next door, people have increasingly been unable to access their public beach — or, in a few cases, have gotten stuck on it.
Mitchell-Bennett said that, in February 2020, his father and sister were at the beach when a SpaceX prototype burst apart during a pressure test and the only road from the beach back to Brownsville was closed. Mitchell-Bennett’s family members did not arrive home until 3 AM. Musk tweeted a video of the test failure with the caption, “So . . . how was your night?”
Under the terms of the original agreement, SpaceX is supposed to give two weeks’ notice if it wants to shut the beach down for testing and is only permitted to shut it down for three hundred hours per year. In practice, that three hundred hours has not been enforced, and the two weeks’ notice has at times turned into just a day’s notice or less. Guevara said that they often get text messages multiple times per day announcing that the beach is closed effective immediately.
For many in Brownsville and the Rio Grande Valley, all of this inconvenience is a bargain worth making to have Musk bringing jobs, investment, and positive attention to a community and an area of the country that has for so long been neglected. For others, there is nothing new or exciting about a wealthy and powerful outsider bulldozing his way through this part of Texas in pursuit of more wealth and power.
“What are we to them in the end aside from cheap labor? It’s just insulting,” said Michelle Serrano, a communications strategist with Voces Unidas RGV. “Ultimately, what Brownsville is right now is not just militarized on all sides, it’s privatized on all sides. And we are just the workforce that is being utilized as a means to an end. We’ll fill in the gaps that nobody else wants to fill because we’ve done so forever.”
SpaceX has hired its share of South Texans. But many of the jobs it offers, particularly the highest-paying jobs, require advanced degrees in a town where fewer than 20 percent of residents have graduated from college. As a result, many SpaceX employees have arrived in Brownsville from elsewhere in the country — driving up housing costs in the city by nearly 25 percent in the last year alone. The Brownsville metropolitan area and the entirety of the Rio Grande Valley is already one of the least affordable places to live in Texas, a state that includes a capital city where rents rose 40 percent last year.
It appears that Musk and SpaceX are trying to change Brownsville via other avenues as well. Last year, shortly after tweeting out a plea for engineers, technicians, and builders to move to Brownsville and bring their friends along, Musk donated $10 million to Brownsville for ambiguous “downtown revitalization.” In furtherance of that goal, Musk’s foundation tossed more money to the city to hire a Los Angeles–based muralist who painted a massive six-thousand-square-foot mural on the side of the old Capitol Theater downtown centered around the letters “BTX” — a moniker that Guevara said no one in Brownsville is familiar with.
The mural has continued to be a lightning rod in the new year. Just last week, a local activist and coworker of Guevara’s was arrested for allegedly vandalizing the mural with the words “Gentrified Stop SpaceX.” The small act drew a significant response from Brownsville’s pro-SpaceX mayor Trey Mendez, who posted the activist’s mugshot to his public Facebook account and wrote that “the City of Brownsville takes all crimes, especially those to city property, very seriously.”
Others in Brownsville feel that there are more important matters to attend to than the public persecution of someone charged with a misdemeanor.
“People see a billionaire coming in and trying to build stuff, and it’s bad news,” Guevara said. “Because we’ve come to learn that rich people showing up to our community usually doesn’t mean good things for us — and the only people who actually believe those things are the people who are usually richer than the rest of us and are deluded into thinking that they can reach that level of capital. It’s very, very textbook.”
Of the people who’ve moved to Brownsville to work at SpaceX in the last four years, Mitchell-Bennett says, “They are somewhat hostile. The original SpaceX employees from when the first rocket pad was built called themselves ‘Mudders,’ because, they say, ‘When we got there, there was nothing but mud.’”
All of the investment from and excitement about Musk, from the remaking of Boca Chica to the downtown Brownsville mural, seem aimed at crafting a new urban identity unmoored from the experience of people with roots that run decades and centuries deep in the area.
“Five hundred years ago, they showed up in this land here,” Mancias said. “They came here for one thing: to take resources and export them back to where they came from. Five hundred years later, it’s still happening.”