LA GRULLA, Texas — Ociel Mendoza was just 18 when he crossed the US–Mexico border with a group of friends and traversed a 400-acre ranch in Texas in search of seasonal work as an undocumented immigrant. Little did he know, more than four decades later, he’d own the land and make it easier for others like him who are seeking a better life, much to the chagrin of US border officials.
“I was undocumented once myself. Who am I to stop them?” Mendoza told BuzzFeed News.
The border was a different place in 1979. It wasn’t as militarized as it is now, and crossing undetected with the aid of a smuggler didn’t cost thousands of dollars. It was midday and no one stopped the group of friends, Mendoza said. Undocumented immigrants frequently crossed into the US and returned home when work slowed down, and he wanted to make enough money to buy a few plots of land in Mexico.
As the group made their way north past rows of melons in a neighboring field, a friend noted how beautiful the ranch was.
“How much could it cost? One day I’ll buy it,” Mendoza joked at the time.
Mendoza first went to Houston, where he worked in construction for seven years, and then made his way back to Rio Grande City, Texas, where he opened a convenience store and laundromat. That business grew, which helped him buy rental properties, a used car lot, and eventually ranches in the border town. One of the ranches ended up being the 400-acre parcel of land he had crossed in 1979. He didn't remember it from his past until, on a friend's suggestion, he scoped it out for possible purchase in 2009.
Once the land was his, he put up hundreds of feet of fencing, with 300 white metal ladders placed in between it every 150 feet. People trying to cross into the US undetected, he thought, wouldn’t damage the fence. Border Patrol agents took notice and asked him why he was making it easier to cross the area.
“You’re the ones who can stop them, not me,” Mendoza recalled telling them.
Mendoza, who got his US residency through his wife in 1982, has seen how the border has changed from both sides.
Since September 2020, the federal government has been trying to acquire the rights to Mendoza’s land to build 4 miles of fencing along the border in Starr County. In December, the government won possession of the land, but the case remains open because just compensation hasn’t been resolved. The Justice Department offered Mendoza $136,000 for two plots of land that sit near each other, where the proposed border fence will go up, but he said he asked for $200,000.
The dispute has resulted in delays that have cost the federal government thousands of dollars; it awarded a $33 million contract to Southwest Valley Constructors to build the wall in Starr County before the land was actually acquired. ProPublica previously reported on the costs related to the delays.
Mendoza, like other property owners fighting the government, had hoped that the incoming Biden administration would stop efforts to construct the wall. On his first day in office, President Joe Biden stopped all border wall construction in order to conduct a 60-day review of whether land needed to be taken. Then in late April, the administration said it would begin canceling all border wall projects that had been paid for with money diverted from the Department of Defense. But four months later, the review has not been finished, the Office of Management and Budget said. And on April 13, a federal judge issued a court order granting the US government's request to seize a South Texas family's property for the border fence, despite the Justice Department in February asking the courts for a delay.
Ricky Garza, a staff attorney with the Texas Civil Rights Project, which is representing some of the affected landowners, said it wasn't enough for the Biden administration to press pause. In cases like the family's land being seized last month, Biden should have dismissed the case or withdrawn the Trump administration's motion for immediate possession, he said.
“The Trump administration basically demanded the judge deal with this as fast as humanly possible. And even if you say ‘let’s pause and do nothing,’ the motion was still on the table,” Garza told BuzzFeed News. “It’s really a misunderstanding for the Biden administration to think they can just walk away and do nothing.”
The Justice Department did not respond to requests for comment.
On a recent afternoon, Mendoza dressed as he normally does — jeans paired with a dry-cleaned shirt with his company’s logo (his last name and a lion because he’s a Leo) — and walked to the edge of a small lake his cows drink from to inspect the water level. It was too low, so he drove to another part of the ranch and turned on the water pump.
Most days, though, Mendoza is not doing manual labor. His day-to-day consists of “mental work,” he said — taking calls, going to the bank, and looking over paperwork. But on Sundays he’s out in one of the two ranches he owns, clearing and flattening out the land to graze the cows he sells.
Standing under a mesquite tree in 88-degree heat near the lake, Mendoza said he knows federal officials will build the wall if they want to.
“Morally, I don’t agree with the wall, but there’s not much I can do about it,” he said. “But give me what it’s worth.”
Over the years, he’s had a few interactions with smugglers working with the cartel; once, he came across two young men who had recently crossed the border with a group of immigrants. They asked Mendoza to tell the owner of the ranch, not realizing it was him, how much it would cost to use the property to smuggle people into the US.
“My boss says to tell your boss not to worry. They can cross whoever they want. Just take care of the fence,” Mendoza recalled telling them.
“You sure?” one of the smugglers asked.
“Yes,” he replied.
Even if he wanted to stop smugglers from going through his property, Mendoza said, immigrants would find a way to cross. About a month later, he said, he ran into the same pair of smugglers while working on his ranch. They asked him to thank his boss on behalf of the cartel.
“They never knew it was me,” Mendoza said with a laugh.
He never worried about the cartels, he said; local authorities had long suspected him of working with them to traffic drugs and people through his property, making him a constant target of surveillance.
“I joke that I don’t need protection; the police are always here to protect me,” Mendoza said. “They’re my bodyguards.”
Mendoza grew up in Ochoa, a small town in the Mexican state of Tamaulipas that borders Texas. When he was 1 and a half years old, he was sent to live with a maternal aunt and uncle who never had kids of their own.
His family didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but Mendoza said he didn't notice until he was about 8 years old. An older cousin had come back from the US and invited several friends and family members to a lavish cookout at his home. The cousin was also installing cement boards on the roof of his house, which was unheard of in their town.
When Mendoza went home, he asked his aunt why his cousin, despite being younger than his father, was installing such a fancy roof. His aunt told him that his cousin had been working “on the other side.”
“What’s the other side?” Mendoza asked.
“The United States,” his aunt said.
At school, he and his classmates were still learning all the world capitals, but it was the first time Mendoza had really thought about the US. His aunt explained that the US dollar went much further in Mexico than the peso.
“That’s when I first got the urge to come to the United States,” Mendoza said. “I told [her] then and there that when I was an adult I would also go.”
Before he left for Houston in 1979, he asked his aunt to bless a dollar he had. Once in the US, he started to send his family whatever money he could, starting from his first week in construction. The aunt who raised him died before he launched his businesses.
Rigo Marroquín grew up in Las Lomas, Texas, where Mendoza opened a small grocery store in 1988. Residents of the low-income colonia came to rely on it. He saw Mendoza's business ventures expand. As a musician and songwriter, Marroquín was impressed with the story of an undocumented immigrant who would go on to buy a slice of the border. He knew others would be, too.
"He really is an exceptional person," Marroquín told BuzzFeed News. "My corridos, my songs — they have to come to me from the universe. When they come to me, I go write. Being around Mendoza, seeing how he is and knowing his life, the corrido just came to me."
Marroquín, who went on to have a successful music career, including playing with Los Invasores de Nuevo León, a well-known Mexican norteño group, titled the song “The Ballad of Mendoza.”
Over the years, Marroquín has heard from fans of the song on both sides of the border. He thinks many of them can relate to the dream of making it in the US.
“These types of stories motivate you and reawaken the dream that many people have,” Marroquín said. “Sometimes people have lost their faith and hope of reaching those dreams, and hearing these stories is like throwing gas on flames that are about to extinguish.”
This small area of Starr County is where Mendoza and his family got their start as small business owners — operating a grocery store, laundromat, gas station, and car dealership. Running several businesses and living in the same community has allowed him to meet many of his neighbors, making it impossible for him to go anywhere without running into someone he knows.
At a gas station, a man in his early twenties thanked Mendoza before driving off in a car the rancher had sold him, the business logo with the lion etched in plastic surrounding the license plate. At a Chinese restaurant, a woman who hadn’t seen her son in a long time asked if Mendoza knew how he was doing. Moments later, a man who runs a taco stand also came up to say hello.
Mendoza has come a long way from the small wooden home where he spent his childhood. He considers himself to be rich — but more than anything, he wants to be someone of importance. He revels in his story as an undocumented immigrant growing up in poverty who worked in construction and became a successful business owner.
“I want people to know that a wetback became who I am today,” Mendoza said. “It’s important to have money, but you truly feel rich when you're someone important.”
Nisha Venkat contributed reporting.