Jr Rodriguez told his story to producer Cat Jaffee for an episode of The Daily Rally podcast. It has been edited for length and clarity.
It’s really hot and they’re just like, Wait, when are we gonna get there? And we’re like, “It’s around this bend, and we want everyone to look up at this area.” They see this really big, brown blob. And one kid says, “What’s that big brown blob? It looks like a monster.” We’re like, “That’s the nest. That’s the bald eagles’ nest.” They’re like, “What?”
It’s the size of a Volkswagen Beetle. It’s a very large nest that this pair of bald Eagles has been living in for a long time.
I’m a Mestizo filmmaker and photographer based out of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. I am from Houston, Texas. Born and raised. I like to say the Bayou City, it throws people off.
I grew up, on the north side of Houston, pretty poor. I was the first person to graduate college in my family, first-gen. So that’s a pretty big deal that I think not a lot of my close friends even know.
The year was 2015. I was 25. I had scheduled an interview for an environmental conservation organization.
I don’t know if you know, but Houston floods. There’s a few seasons in Houston. There’s hot, hotter, and hurricane. So when there’s a hurricane, it’s just dumping. And because these Black and brown neighborhoods don’t have flood mitigation, these bayous swell up and homes get flooded.
This organization would couple federal dollars to establish these flood mitigation banks, which are essentially holes in the ground to store water, during hurricane season. But the other seasons, they double up as parks.
I took this job to try and be a part of a solution in my community.
We took a group of like, God, I wanna say it was like 20 kids, and it’s a lot. I don’t know if you’ve ever worked with kids like that age, middle school, high school range. They’re a lot to handle, people say, like herding cats. I think they’re more like herding different species. Imagine Noah’s arc and it’s you got a goat, you got an elephant, you got a giraffe. They all have their own characteristics, their own way of being. Trying to wrangle them, not only the kids on land, but then you put them on water, we put them on kayaks. You add this element of the bayou having a negative connotation. That’s what we’re taught, as kids. You throw your trash in the bayou, you see carts of trash just floating in the bayou.
A bayou is a meandering stream. It’s not technically a river; it’s usually man-made. It used to have a natural flow, but if you go to Houston, the banks are concrete because they really are just trying to move water out of where people live. There’s not a lot of current, so it’s fairly easy to paddle up the bayou.
We’re going up, and there’s one bend after about a quarter of a mile of paddling. It’s really hot in Houston. This is the hot, hot time. We hear a huge whap. And the kids were like, “What was that?” Somebody yells, “Enrique just slapped the water!” And Enrique’s like, “No, I didn’t.” And then it happens again, slap, and it’s really loud. I’m scared. I’m like, What the hell? What is happening? And I look at my guide like, What’s going on? You know, the old head shake with the big eyes, and he’s like, “Oh, that’s an alligator gar.” And I was like, OK, I know what an alligator gar is.
They can get really big, they have a very large snout, very sharp teeth. If you watch River Monsters, there is an episode about alligator gar.
So I have this thing in my head. I was like, Oh God, this alligator gar is trying to defend its territory because there’s 10, 15 boats in the water. If it’s making that big of a noise, it’s really big.
The kids are kind of freaking out. Just knowing that there is a large predator fish around was very nerve-wracking, and just keeping the kids calm and telling them, “We’re in their ecosystem. This is the nature that we wanted. It’s not all majestic, it’s real out here.” And as we’re all gonna calmly turn our boats around to start heading back to our entry point, another kid is like, “Oh my God, look at the bank!” There’s a sunbathing alligator. And the kids just start screaming.
We calmly all start going back to our entry point. Things calm down, and you just hear a lot of laughter. You hear a lot of, “Oh wow, I had no idea. I wonder where else we can see big birds?” I think that’s what I was trying to teach those kids. It’s like right in, not only their backyards, but it’s under the bayou. You’re driving around it all the time. If you just look up, Houston is in the flyway of all these migratory birds. There’s a lot of greenery that exists in Houston, and so because of these bayous there’s a lot of water. That’s nature. Nature is the overgrown lot next to your mom’s house. That’s what I had, and I had the opportunity to try to change their perception of what nature is, because in media they’re gonna show you one specific type of nature and I think the kids in my neighborhood, we have the overgrown lot, and that’s just as good and just as powerful and it’s gonna teach you the same things.
That’s why I came back, because I learned the same thing that the kids did. That nature is in Houston, Texas. It’s in the, people like to say, the inner city. It’s the tree in the neighborhood. Trying to reconcile that within myself because I did feed into the like, go climb the big mountain, go experience this far away place.
And our reality is over here, and it’s not that you shouldn’t chase that, but what we have is equally as valuable.
Junior Rodriguez is a first-generation bilingual, bicultural storyteller, conservationist, and multi-sport athlete, born and raised in the Bayou City. He currently lives in Jackson, Wyoming, where he focuses on creating projects that empower communities to tell their own stories. To learn more about him, visit jrrdrgz.com.
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