The mural on the side of the old Capitol Theater building on the corner of Levee and Eleventh streets in downtown Brownsville isn’t exactly the sort of art that tends to court controversy. It’s pink, with big geometric shapes in various pastel-adjacent hues, and the letters “BTX” painted roughly the size of an F-150. On a spectrum of controversial outdoor art that ranges from “basic Instagram wall” to “Banksy in Gaza,” it’s decidedly closer to the former. The artist who created it, L.A.-based muralist Teddy Kelly, boasts an impressive list of corporate clients who pay handsomely for the sort of art that makes a great backdrop for a photo—Coachella, Facebook, Red Bull, Shake Shack.
There’s nothing not to like about Kelly’s mural in Brownsville—before it was painted, the side of the building that housed the theater from 1928 to 1966 just looked like faded concrete—but it’s more design than art, not the sort of thing that tends to bring out strong emotions. Yet in Brownsville, the largest city in the Rio Grande Valley, it’s stirred them up anyway. The six-thousand-square-foot piece of outdoor art has been one of the hotter topics of conversation in Brownsville since it was completed in September and residents—concerned that an out-of-town artist was hired to kick off a public art project intended to “inspire civic pride”—learned that Kelly was paid $20,000 for his work.
The local arts and culture website Trucha RGV described the mural as “an example of the local inequity in the arts.” Fidel Martinez, a Valley native who writes the “Latinx Files” column for the Los Angeles Times, noted in the paper that “the only sign that you’re in Brownsville is the block letters ‘BTX.’” Even those letters attracted derision—locals are quick to point out that they’ve never heard anyone refer to the city that way. That’s more of an Austin thing. “They did it like ‘ATX,’” Emma Guevara, a local progressive activist, told me. “They’ve been trying to rebrand since the new mayor was elected.”
On social media, the opinions were even more pointed, with locals sharing memes mocking the piece and describing it as a “gentrified eyesore” that needs to be replaced “with art that’s actually inspired by Brownsville.” The Brownsville drag artist and activist who performs under the name Kween Beatrix posted a Twitter poll asking, “Does the new Brownsville mural inspire civic pride in you? I need to know.” Ninety-four percent of the 257 respondents (admittedly, not the most representative sampling of Brownsville folks) said no.
Tensions got higher when local reporters discovered that the funding for the mural came via the Musk Foundation, the charitable arm of Elon Musk’s empire, which includes SpaceX—the aerospace company that in 2014 chose Boca Chica Beach, twenty miles east of downtown Brownsville, as the home for its launch facility. (Cameron County gave Musk a pretty sweet “incentive” for the move—no taxes for ten years.) The world’s richest man has become a hands-on advocate for reshaping the region. In March, he proposed incorporating a city called Starbase near Boca Chica, urging his his 64 million Twitter followers to “please consider moving to Starbase or greater Brownsville/South Padre area in Texas” and announcing big donations: $20 million to Cameron County schools, and another $10 million to Brownsville for “downtown revitalization.” (SpaceX remains in early stages of incorporation for the city of Starbase.)
“It’s upsetting to see tens of thousands of dollars of Brownsville money not go to Brownsville,” Jonathan Cruz, a local artist and photographer, told me over lunch in the city’s historic downtown Market Square. “If somebody who lives here were hired to do it, they’re going to buy the materials here, they’re going to spend their money here, they’re going to hire their friends who are artists here to help them. That money stays here.”
Across from our table, Cruz pointed out the quickly changing facades of downtown Brownsville—fancy new wine bars next to seamstress shops that have been there for years, along with empty storefronts that, he noted, could be used as artists’ studios—and imagined a Brownsville where this newfound prosperity benefited people like him. “We need to invest smartly in the arts, and improve and elevate Brownsville,” he said. “You can’t say that there’s not enough money for it, when we can see that it’s being given to walls, right?”
Brownsville mayor Trey Mendez has a long list of things he’s excited to talk about, but the controversy over Teddy Kelly’s mural isn’t on it. (Kelly himself declined to be interviewed for this story. “Not interested,” he wrote. “Talk to the city about it.”) Mendez, the second-youngest mayor in Brownsville history at 42, is a native of the city who keeps busy—in addition to being mayor, he’s also the principal attorney of a boutique law firm that bears his name, which he runs out of a gorgeous converted 154-year-old house in downtown Brownsville; when he takes lunch, he can walk a half mile to the pizza and wine bar he co-owns a few blocks away from his office.
When I told Mendez that the response to the mural was what had initially gotten me interested in coming to Brownsville, he was nonplussed. “So you guys are writing a story about the backlash to a mural?” he asked. He’d rather focus on the ambitious growth, education, and infrastructure developments he’s cooking up in the city of 182,000 he was elected to lead in 2019.
Brownsville could use them. A 2018 analysis found it to be the second-poorest city in the U.S., and its current unemployment rate of 8.1 percent is close to double the national average. Mendez is eager to talk about the broadband expansion happening in the city, thanks to a $19.5 million investment in a fiber network (in 2018, Brownsville was also ranked as the second least-connected community in the nation, behind only Laredo). That’ll help realize the new opportunity he sees for the Brownsville to become a high-tech hub for the space industry—an opportunity that didn’t exist before SpaceX. The mayor is working with both the University of Texas–Rio Grande Valley’s Brownsville campus and Texas Southmost College to fast-track engineers and other skilled workers to jobs in the industry.
“Our workforce is young, we have a university and a community college, and we have our neighbors to the south in Matamoros that are one of the better advanced-manufacturing hubs for different industries,” Mendez said. He envisions a Texas space boom that could ultimately rival oil and gas as a part of the state’s economy, based on estimates that it’ll grow into a trillion-dollar industry over the next twenty years—and one with Brownsville at its heart as the “Silicon Valley of space,” as an international financial advisory group that recently moved into the city declared it.
That would surely be transformative—and not just for the newcomers who heard the siren song of Elon Musk’s call to come to “Starbase.” (It’s impossible to know how many of those there are, but YouTube has plenty of folks posting video of their pilgrimages.) Right now, if you’re a bright kid with an interest in engineering who’s growing up in Brownsville, the sort of high-level job you might dream about is going to require you to leave the Valley. In the future Mendez imagines, that kid won’t have to choose between pursuing her dream or staying in her community—she can have both, the way that kids growing up in Austin or Houston can. The high-tech manufacturing jobs he sees space bringing to the region, meanwhile, could elevate the standard of living for folks without engineering degrees, who could complete a short-track program at Texas Southmost to get a certification that will allow them to serve the needs of the industry at a solid starting wage.
There’s reason to be skeptical that all of that will come to pass, of course. Over Thanksgiving weekend, Musk sent a memo to SpaceX staff warning that the entire enterprise could end in bankruptcy if rocket production weren’t scaled up immediately, which speaks to the potential fragility of these plans. (Musk was subsequently photographed spending time on the production line.) “There’s always a possibility that things go south after a while if these investments don’t go as expected,” Cecilio Ortiz-Garcia, the chair of UT-RGV’s Department of Public Affairs and Security Studies, told me. “What happens then, and who foots the bill, is always the big question.”
Mendez clearly thinks it’s worth a try—and he’s tweaked the city’s longtime motto, “On the Border, by the Sea,” to include an aspirational “and Beyond.” “We want our students to aspire to lofty goals, and having industries like we have here now makes it very real for them,” Mendez said. “SpaceX is just the beginning, and they’re certainly the anchor, but it’s opened the door for us to so many other things.”
So you can see why Mendez gets a little frustrated when he has to talk about some local criticism of a mural that is perfectly professional. “It’s really coming from a very limited amount of people that get a lot of attention,” he told me. “The majority of citizens of Brownsville are very supportive of arts and culture in our city, and of different perspectives. And, you know, the mural was controversial, but that’s what art is supposed to be. Art is supposed to be controversial.”
That might be true, but the controversy isn’t so much about the feelings aroused by the pink backdrop and colorful squiggles on Eleventh Street—rather, it’s about the city’s decision to pay an out-of-town artist $20,000 to paint it, and what that decision says about everything else going on between Brownsville and SpaceX. Mendez told me that the project was always meant to comprise three murals, including one created by a local artist (another, by Mexican artist Sophia Castellanos, was painted in October, and incorporates images of the migratory birds and butterflies that have long been associated with the city). Kelly’s went up first, Mendez said, for scheduling reasons. “The third of the series is going to be completely local artists, and was always supposed to be local artists,” Mendez told me. “You had people criticizing without even knowing what the project was about or what the plan was.”
But it wasn’t easy for folks to know what the plan was; the city’s announcement of the “civic pride” project didn’t mention using a local artist, and there’s no process for candidates to apply. When I followed up with Mendez earlier this month to ask about whether the plan for a local artist was still in place, and whether she’d be paid $20,000, he replied: “Yes, we are still planning on doing at least one more mural and I’ve had discussions with the Musk Foundation to have more. The price for the third has not been set yet, but it should be in line with the previous two.”
Mendez’s critics aren’t professional malcontents. Most of the artists and activists I spoke with, like Cruz, voted for the mayor when he ran in 2019. They’re generally okay with the idea of a future Brownsville—let’s call it BTX instead of Starbase—where a young engineer can stay and contribute to the community while working at SpaceX or another aerospace firm. The problem they see, which the mural process exemplifies, is more existential: what if whatever Brownsville is changing into doesn’t have anything to offer for them?
A few blocks away from Kelly’s mural, there’s another piece of public art, this one painted by a local artist. It adorns a former used-clothing store on Adams Street, reads “Boca Chica to Mars,” and features Musk’s smiling face, with the red planet glowing in the background. Musk murals have popped up all across the Rio Grande Valley. A few miles away, at the city’s Broken Sprocket food trailer park, there’s one of Musk preparing to take a big puff of a joint, captured from an episode of Joe Rogan’s podcast; on the other side of the Valley, at Rooster’s Barbershop, the billionaire casts his gaze starward as rockets take off around him; there’s yet another of Musk grinning on the side of a van that you might spot driving around the Valley. In San Benito, a few minutes’ drive from Brownsville, a house just off Interstate 69E is adorned with a host of enormous Musk-themed paintings, including one that depicts Musk behind the wheel of a Tesla driving at a 90-degree angle toward the stars, and one with him next to a space-suited Shiba Inu (a reference to the Dogecoin cryptocurrency that Musk pumped on Twitter into an enterprise with a market cap in the billions). The NASA logo appears, but with the letters “E L O N” inside the familiar blue orb.
For those who worry that the region is becoming too devoted to the billionaire’s robust cult of personality, it’s all a bit much, like walking around Soviet-era Moscow and seeing endless portraits of Lenin. “There are people who are like, ‘He’s our savior, he’s the richest person in the world, and he’s going to take us back into space,’” Cruz said. “But you’re never going to find him walking around downtown Brownsville.”
The artist who painted all of those murals of Musk has a different perspective. Alexandro Gonzalez-Hernandez, who does his work under the tag @popc_ulture, has some of the same concerns that Musk’s local critics did—he’s worried about the damage to the beaches when a rocket explodes, for instance. But he also loves seeing the Valley put on the map. “Back in the day, they were debating if they were going to bring the company here or elsewhere, and I was like, ‘I want that to come to the Valley,’ because, you know, usually the Valley . . .” He trailed off, indicating that it was rare that his home ended up on the cutting edge of something that attracts the world’s attention. “But then everybody started going crazy—good comments, bad comments—people were happy because the economy could go up, but not happy because the rockets were exploding. But I believe it’s more good than bad.”
Gonzalez-Hernandez is a Musk fan. He fantasizes about one day being asked to paint something at the company’s Boca Chica facility, and maybe even to have his work go up into space. He refers to the billionaire as Uncle Elon, a meme Musk’s supporters have adopted online, which has led some local activists to believe that he’s Musk’s actual nephew. (He’s not.)
The Musk murals are part of a larger project for the artist, who approaches his unlikely career with a hustler’s flair for self-promotion. At the start of the pandemic, laid off from his construction job, he decided to rededicate himself to his passion for large outdoor murals. He found a bar owner in McAllen who agreed to let him do his first one—a portrait of Kobe Bryant, shortly after the NBA star’s death—with cheap spray paint purchased at Walmart. From there, he took on a host of other projects, as part of a goal to complete a hundred murals across the Valley. He’s come close already, estimating that he’d completed about ninety as of early November. Along with Musk and Bryant, subjects include a wild collection of figures such as Mexican middleweight boxing champ Canelo Álvarez, Chadwick Boseman, Bad Bunny, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Vanessa Guillén, Matthew McConaughey, Selena, and Valley punk rock icon Eric “Fly” Lopez. Ultimately, Gonzalez-Hernandez wants to paint murals on every continent. Even Antarctica? “There’s no walls there, but I could take plywood,” he said.
I asked him if those ambitions included doing the sort of large-scale work that had attracted so much attention in Brownsville. “Those guys are getting paid $20,000, you know? I do charge a good amount of money, but it’s not that big,” he said. (His personal record is $10,000 for a series of nine panels at a local food-trailer park, and he does a lot of work for free.) The “BTX” version of the city might have opportunities for engineers to make a good living without leaving the region, but even one of Musk’s biggest admirers accepts that the money going around is unlikely to land in his pocket. Does he think he’s capable of delivering work of the scale and quality of the “pride” murals? “I know I could,” he said. “But in order for me to do that, I’ve got to move out of the Valley.”
Brownsville has a long way to go before it’s BTX, but you can see signs of that kind of change along its highways. There’s a Tesla dealership on I-69E, where residents who can afford a car whose entry-level model starts at $45,000—$7,000 more than the city’s median family income—can pop in and order their aspirational electric automobile. (Mayor Mendez touted it as evidence that “Brownsville is undoubtedly the innovation capital of the RGV.” The dealership was not busy when I stopped by.) Driving along Texas Highway 4 out to Boca Chica, meanwhile, you’ll see the SpaceX facility begin to emerge as you approach the beach. There are giant, boxy, black monoliths that look like the Borg cube from Star Trek leading up to enormous fuel silos distinguishable from the grain silos of rural Texas only by the giant sign with the word “Starbase” you pass before you see them. There are school and tourist buses on the road, and amateur photographers setting up their tripods along the side of the highway in order to capture shots of the rocket. It might be the only beach road in America where it gets easier to park as you get closer to the shore.
If tourists are making the trip to the Valley to watch rockets take off, they’ll need something to do when they’re not standing outside the launch site. The $10 million the Musk Foundation gave to Brownsville for downtown revitalization should help ensure that those visitors can enjoy themselves during their stay in the city. But giving folks—locals and visitors alike—more reasons to head to downtown Brownsville had been a goal long before anyone painted “BTX” on the side of the Capitol Theater building. The question of who Brownsville is for is, thus, not exactly new—it has just taken on increased urgency as the Musk money started flowing to the city.
Claudia Michelle Serrano knows that as well as anyone. Together with her husband, she ran Brownsville Artists and Musicians (BAM), a downtown space that hosted gallery events and live music, from 2014 to 2016. The two had big ideas about what Brownsville could be for artists, and with BAM they would take advantage of the city’s dirt-cheap rent to offer opportunities to creative locals and touring talent. “It was really successful. We had big punk bands come in from the U.K. and elsewhere, and the experience was just wonderful,” she said. “We always got told by old-timers—people who were just, like, legends—that, ‘You’re doing what’s right. We don’t see spots like this anymore. Keep it up as much as you can.’ It was very motivating and exciting for us to be creating these experiences for a generation that missed out on them.”
Eventually, though, it all fell apart. The city bought the building BAM was housed in, and began a months-long project on the facade, which restricted access to the space. (The building now houses city offices.) Serrano says that city officials promised her and her husband financial support, but then asked them to submit an economic-impact report they couldn’t afford to commission. “The city kind of reneged on their promise to support us,” she said. She thinks it was because the art they promoted “didn’t fit into the box of a mainstream, happy, family city” that its leaders are trying to create. “I think they changed their minds because we were having, like, punk rock shows on the street. We didn’t have an agenda for gentrification.”
When Serrano saw Teddy Kelly’s mural go up downtown, she saw it as another example of how she’s come to believe the city sees art. “It’s a transactional exchange,” she told me. “That’s how they’ve treated the whole situation.” The city, to her mind, is ticking boxes on its way to becoming BTX, and having art by the likes of Teddy Kelly downtown is one of those boxes. Back in the Brownsville that exists right now, everyone agrees that the city is at an inflection point. Cruz, Serrano, and the other locals who feel ambivalent about the change headed to Brownsville agree with the mayor that it’s inevitable. The region has long attracted tourists for its butterflies and birds; now it’s attracting them for its rockets and drones. Its population boomed over the past two decades, driven by immigration from the south—but now, Brownsville might see its newcomers coming from MIT and Stanford. The big pink wall is probably as much for the Brownsville that’s coming as is the fiber network being built underground. The Brownsville of 2021 might be divided on the mural, but the BTX of the future could well be full of people who’ll love it. Where that will leave the artists and activists of today—or anyone whose vision of Brownsville has room for used clothing shops downtown alongside the fusion restaurants, or for cheap rent in neighborhoods where others are parking their Teslas—is anybody’s guess.