By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
On the hot August morning when it all began, Elizabeth Villafranca was sitting in her spacious North Dallas kitchen reading the newspaper when a headline pulled her to the edge of her seat. "Farmers Branch proposal would target illegal immigrants," it read. "Illegal immigrants are responsible for much of what is wrong with Farmers Branch, says City Council member Tim O'Hare."
She threw down the paper in disgust. Then she got up and called her husband, who was already at work at Cuquitas, the Mexican restaurant they own in Farmers Branch.
"You're not going to believe this," she said. As she spoke, spilling out the story and how ridiculous it was and how they had to do something, and her husband responded with his characteristic few words and calm uh-huhs, she resolved to go to the city council meeting that evening herself. Yes, that was it. She would go and take their 6-year-old daughter.
"You know what, Enrique, we're going to have a civics lesson today," she told her husband. He said what he usually says when his wife gets lit up and carried away by one of her ideas, like the time she spent three years lobbying their church to offer Mass in Spanish.
"Aye Eliza, pareces la abogada del pueblo," he joked. There you go, the town lawyer, stirring things up, trying to be all things to all people. Fine, he said, go to the meeting, and maybe I'll try to meet you there.
Elizabeth was born in this country, and she and her family certainly weren't at risk of being kicked out of it. They were citizens and successful businesspeople, living in a six-bedroom home in a glitzy subdivision, running two large restaurants and preparing to open a third. Her parents, however, had emigrated from Chihuahua, Mexico, as teens with primary-school educations. She spoke Spanish at home growing up. Her husband was born in Monterrey. When she read of the proposals to make English the official language and penalize landowners and employers for renting to and hiring illegal immigrants, she was outraged.
Elizabeth Villafranca, 43, is a broad woman with soft, round features and straight black hair. She wears diamond earrings and red lipstick and never leaves the house without her gold Virgen de Guadalupe pendant hanging on a chain around her neck. When introducing herself, she sticks out her hand, smiles and pronounces her last name with a trilled rrr and a flourish. She doesn't walk so much as power-glide, and this sense of purpose and excitement is even more evident when she talks in her disarming cross between TV show host, PTA president and Valley Girl.
"I'm just like this random person off the street," she says, someone with no track record in politics or activism. Until August, the closest she'd ever come to public leadership was her post as senior class president at Woodrow Wilson High School in Los Angeles. A housewife who devoted her time and energy to homeschooling her daughter and volunteering at church, in recent months she's spoken at meetings and rallies, joined a grassroots political group and even considered a run for office.
Elizabeth grew up in East L.A. during the Chicano movement, as Cesar Chavez was leading the grape boycotts and Mexican-American students walked out of schools to demand classes about their heritage. But it wasn't until last spring that she found herself marching in a sea of people screaming, "Si, se puede!" Back in the '70s it all just seemed—well, a bit unsavory. Her family was traditional, and if they participated in group activities, it usually involved church. Besides, if you already felt like you didn't belong, wouldn't standing around yelling angry slogans just make it worse?
So decades later, on that August morning, as she e-mailed friends and told them to go to City Hall to protest Tim O'Hare's proposals, she regarded herself with some degree of amusement. Her, the Catholic schoolgirl turned wife and mother, an activist? It was absurd. Sure, she'd taken her daughter Natalie to the "Mega Marcha" for immigrant rights back in April, but they were two of thousands of people—500,000, actually. Nonetheless, phrases from the morning's article passed through her mind as if on a ticker tape: "less desirable people," illegal immigrants who "get to come over here and get free medical care, get a free education, not pay taxes and...live like kings and queens..."
She would make a sign, she decided, but she wasn't sure what to put on it. She called a friend. "Why don't you pose a question?" he suggested. "How about 'Is Farmers Branch Racist?'" Perfect. She went to lunch with a girlfriend, dashed to Michaels to pick up some poster board and made her first protest sign.
"I didn't comb my hair, I didn't have any makeup on, I was just like Joe Housewife running out of the house," she'd say later. She didn't know that her face was about to be beamed into thousands of households on the evening news.