Latinx Files: How a butterfly sanctuary became a victim of the border debate

A photo illustration including a section of the U.S./Mexico wall and butterflies
On Tuesday, it was announced that the National Butterfly Center, located in the borderland region of the Lower Rio Grande Valley, is shutting down indefinitely because of security and safety concerns.
(Martina Ibáñez-Baldor / Los Angeles Times; Getty Images)

The Rio Grande is for the birds.

And for the butterflies.

It’s true. The borderland region of the Lower Rio Grande Valley is considered to be “a birdwatcher’s paradise” where more than 500 species have been documented. The presence of these majestic creatures is so ubiquitous that you can find great egrets just casually chilling in the water hazards of a public disc golf course.

The area also boasts the National Butterfly Center, a 100-acre former onion field in Mission, Texas, that has been transformed into a sanctuary where more than 200 types of butterflies have been spotted. It is an idyllic place that sits next to the heavily politicized and militarized river.

For the last few years, the center has also become the target of harassment from right-wing extremists because of a conspiracy theory that claims it is being used for child trafficking.

On Tuesday, the board of the North American Butterfly Assn., which oversees the preserve, announced that it was shutting down the National Butterfly Center indefinitely because of security and safety concerns.

How exactly did a space dedicated to the study and preservation of the lepidoptera land in the crosshairs of far-right extremists?


You have Brian Kolfage to blame for that. Kolfage was one of the organizers behind the anti-immigrant group We Build the Wall, which crowdfunded millions of dollars for a private wall along the U.S./Mexico border.

In November 2019, the group began clearing the land next to the private nature preserve to build its wall. The National Butterfly Center opposed the pending construction, citing that it violated international treaties and would be ecologically detrimental to their property. That’s when the attacks began. Kolfage took to Twitter to disparage the group, accusing it of aiding in human and insect smuggling.

The following month, the National Butterfly Center obtained a temporary restraining order against Kolfage and We Build the Wall, and filed a suit claiming defamation.

In 2020, Kolfage, former Donald Trump advisor Stephen K. Bannon and two others were federally charged for allegedly using part of the money to enrich themselves. The Northwest Florida Daily News also reported in September that lawyers representing Kolfage in the conservancy group‘s lawsuit had been granted permission by a federal judge to withdraw their representation, citing lack of payment.

The attacks against the National Butterfly Center have not stopped. Mariana Treviño Wright, the executive director, recently told Buzzfeed News last week that harassment had begun to “ramp back up” in the lead up to a pro-Trump rally in nearby McAllen that took place over the weekend. On Friday, the Daily Beast reported that fringe congressional candidate Kimberly Lowe and another woman claiming to be with the Secret Service showed up unannounced and got involved in an altercation with Treviño Wright and her son. The cops were called, but the police didn’t show up until an hour later.

Dr. Jeffrey Glassberg, president and founder of the North American Butterfly Assn., said the center will reopen “when the authorities and professionals who are helping us navigate this situation give us the green light.”

Until that happens, the residents of the Rio Grande Valley, one of the most impoverished but culturally rich parts of the country (Puro 956 cuh!), will be deprived of a place that highlights the area’s natural beauty. All because a bunch of unhinged people who don’t even live there believed a lie told by a man who has been federally indicted.

That to me is the real tragedy taking place at the border, not the politically motivated fabrication that makes the news every time Republicans want to kill meaningful immigration reform.

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Send us your Valentine’s Day stories!

Next week’s Latinx Files will come out a few days before Valentine’s Day, and we have a few little things planned for it. One of the things we’d like to do is to turn some of this space over to our readers, so if you have a memorable story of love and/or heartbreak, send it our way at

Things we read this week that we think you should read:

— For its politics issue, the New Yorker profiled Andrea Flores, who joined the Biden White House at the start to help undo the damage done by former President Trump’s immigration policies only to see the current administration abandon its campaign promises because of political pressure from the other side. Flores eventually left the White House and now works for Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey.


— Former Miami Dolphins coach Brian Flores has filed a class-action lawsuit against the National Football League and three teams alleging racial discrimination. At the heart of the lawsuit filed by Flores, who is Black and of Honduran descent, is a series of text messages accidentally sent to him by New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick congratulating him for getting the New York Giants job days before he was supposed to interview for the position. I also recommend these columns by Dylan Hernández and LZ Granderson.

— Marjua Estevez has put together this wonderful primer on the Black Latinx musicians of yesteryear as part of Refinery29’s Black History Month coverage.

— One of the narratives that emerged from the 2020 presidential election is that Latinx voters were moving further to the right, that they were leaving the Democratic Party in droves and switching sides. It turns out that storyline is more fiction than reality, according to a recent Gallup poll.

“We do not see a major shift at this point on the party with whom Hispanics nationally identify,” Gallup senior scientist Frank Newport told NBC News.

— Santa Monica might fancy itself as a liberal enclave, but that image is being challenged by the city’s heavy-handed policing of street food vendors. Column by Gustavo Arellano.

— My colleague Molly Hennessy-Fiske has this Column One story about efforts to preserve the sole remaining building of the Blackwell School, a segregated school for Mexican Americans in Marfa, Texas, where students had the Spanish beat out of them.

From the “Imaginémonos cosas chingonas” Department: Priscila Coronado, 24, was selected as the next president of the Harvard Law Review. Coronado is the daughter of immigrants, grew up in Downey, was the first person to go to college and is now the first Latina to be in charge of the law journal in its 135-year history.

Coronado said in an email Sunday that her experiences growing up as a Mexican American have informed her perspectives and that she wanted to “work hard to show how being a Latina is an important part of who I am.”

What we’re listening to: On Tuesday, Futuro Studios and Sonoro dropped all episodes of “Ídolo: The Ballad of Chalino Sánchez.” The eight-episode podcast is a blend of musical history and true crime that explores the legacy of “El Rey Del Corrido,” a man beloved because he lived as fast and dangerous as the narco characters that he sang about, and all the theories that stemmed from his murder in 1992 at a concert in his native Sinaloa.


What struck me about “Ídolo” is that it’s bilingual, which makes sense given how much Chalino is beloved on both sides of the border. Erick Galindo reported from the U.S. side and hosts the English episodes, while Alejandro Mendoza reported from Mexico and narrates the podcast in Spanish. You can find all episodes on Apple or Spotify.

The best thing on the Latinternet: I’ve avoided the popular game Wordle largely because people are annoying about it on Twitter (literally absolutely no one cares about your score, guys!).

You know what’s not annoying? La Palabra, a Wordle-like game inspired by Bad Bunny’s lyrics created by the homie Lucio Villa. Needless to say, I’m hooked.

And now, for something a little different...

Illustration of the Virgin Mary and a portrait of author's mother in the sun
“The image of the Virgin Mary is a crucial part of my mother’s identity,” said poet and artist Cesar Javier Erhard.
(Cesar Erhard / For The Times)

Cesar Javier Erhard is a poet, an artist and a writer. “I am inspired by fleeting time, fragile memory, and abundant forests,” he said. “Through my work I aim to create very raw and unclean beauty, because life is very much a balance of both these things: brutal ugliness and sublime magnificence.

“For this piece I wanted to honor the memory of my mother through the symbols I have come to associate with her love and strength. The image of the Virgin Mary is a crucial part of my mother’s identity, and I have come to realize that being a nurturer does not necessarily imply femininity, but that everyone has the capacity to nurture that which can flower; it’s a reminder to keep the gentler parts of my nature in focus.”

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