Splitsville

No border fences make for mad neighbors in Farmers Branch

Natalie, her smile revealing two missing teeth, said, "The last time we had a birthday party, the last person to leave left at 1 a.m. We're really Mexican."

When Elizabeth and her husband go to Mexico to visit family, they make sure Natalie notices the shantytowns and the children begging in the streets. "We live a very privileged life, and we have to teach her that most people don't live like that," Elizabeth says. When Natalie asks her mother why "they want to send those people back" to Mexico, Elizabeth explains that people are either motivated by love or fear, an idea she gleaned from self-help giant Marianne Williamson, whose books line the shelves of her study alongside volumes by Deepak Chopra and Thicht Naht Hahn and a framed photograph of George and Laura Bush.

Elizabeth makes sure her daughter knows that her parents didn't always live in a spacious brick house with white pillars in front and a pool in back. Elizabeth's mother cleaned offices, and her father worked as an electrical contractor. After her parents divorced, she worked afternoons and weekends at their Catholic rectory to help with the bills. She recalls that one Thanksgiving, someone from church gave them a turkey.

The subject of immigration has caused a rift in the community of Farmers Branch
Illustration by Craig LaRotonda
The subject of immigration has caused a rift in the community of Farmers Branch
Elizabeth Villafranca had never involved herself in politics before, but recent proposals targeting illegal immigrants in Farmers Branch prompted her to protest and speak out with her 6-year-old daughter, Natalie.
Steve Satterwhite
Elizabeth Villafranca had never involved herself in politics before, but recent proposals targeting illegal immigrants in Farmers Branch prompted her to protest and speak out with her 6-year-old daughter, Natalie.

Enrique came to the United States at 25 and became a legal resident as part of the 1986 amnesty. Before his mother opened the original Cuquitas and he worked as a cashier there, he manned registers at McDonald's. In 2000, he opened his own Cuquitas on Spring Valley Road, and five years later opened the one in Farmers Branch.

"We're living the American dream," Elizabeth says, walking through their airy living room, where a Virgen de la Caridad figurine gazes out from the mantel. Assimilation, she says, need not require shedding one's past. "I'm as American as you are, and at the same time, I'm as Mexican as my parents were. We barbecue on the Fourth of July, we make turkey at Thanksgiving...and at the same time, the Mexican culture is so rich with traditions—the folkloricos, the mariachis, the piñatas—and did you know salsa is the No. 1 condiment in this country?" Then in the same breathless tone, she tells of calling into a radio talk show after the host decried a Fort Worth school for "forcing" students to celebrate Mexican Independence Day. "Give me a break!" she says. "If you go out on St. Paddy's day, will you be forced to become a Catholic?"

In addition to showing up at City Hall and calling radio shows, Elizabeth joined Uniting Farmers Branch, a grassroots organization formed by a group of residents, including several LULAC members. So far, they've held biweekly meetings, discussing ways to diversify the town leadership.

"I think I've found some special talent," she says. "LULAC wants me to run for city council—they're like, where did you come from? I could be the poster child for the apathetic. I could go on TV and say, 'yo era igual que tu—I was just like you. I didn't vote, I didn't participate, I stayed at home watching telenovelas...I thought my vote wasn't important. And here I am."

Salvador Parada was another accidental activist transformed by the August 21 council meeting. A 27-year-old former Marine, he came to Texas as a toddler with his family, fleeing the war in El Salvador. He's stout and muscular, with soft brown eyes and closely cropped hair. An aspiring teacher, Parada is using his GI Bill benefits to take classes at Brookhaven College. He lives with his wife and three children on the same block as his parents. His mother has worked as a housekeeper at the Farmers Branch Holiday Inn for nearly 20 years, and his father worked car washes and construction, "typical immigrant jobs," as Parada calls them. Like Elizabeth, the first time he participated in a demonstration was last spring. But that one "wasn't personal," he says.

Parada heard about O'Hare's proposals on the radio on August 21. "I was just going to go home and think nothing of it," he says, "but then I drove by [City Hall] and saw three friends from high school—these guys I never expected to see there. We were never involved in politics—we were kind of on our own program."

Once inside, he wasn't sure what to say, but he raised his hand to speak anyway. As he approached the microphone in khakis and a T-shirt, he clenched his fists.

"I'm a product of an immigrant family," he began. "I became a citizen in 1999. I served in the U.S. military as a Marine for four years, and I'm very proud of that. This issue pretty much divides Farmers Branch. I've lived here and enjoyed the community places, the parks; I remember seeing Mayor Phelps every year in Little League...but this issue hurts me deeply because I'm from an immigrant family." His voice quavered. "I just want to say I feel it's unfair—this divides the city a lot. That's all I'm going to say."

The next day, members of LULAC and other Hispanic civil rights groups held a news conference at the Farmers Branch Justice Center. They called for a boycott of city businesses and demanded that O'Hare resign. No formal ordinance had been proposed, but the advocates vowed that if the town passed one, they would file a lawsuit challenging its constitutionality, as the ACLU had done in Hazelton the week before.

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