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The Kings and Queens of Brownsville

By Jazmine Ulloa

Texas Co-op Power Magazine

When it comes to chess, students in Texas’ southernmost border town make all the right moves

With foldable chessboards in small, oblong bags slung over their shoulders, armies of excited children squeeze through the halls of Filemon B. Vela Middle School on a winter Saturday morning. Everywhere, coaches, teachers and volunteers shuffle groups back and forth from one corridor to the next to gaming areas set up throughout the small campus in Brownsville. Alongside follow mothers and fathers, cousins and grandparents, aunts, uncles and anyone else the competitors’ families have invited to the annual Chess of Champions, one of 10 major chess tournaments held for students in kindergarten through high school in this border city.

Brownsville, with a population exceeding 175,000, sprawls along the southernmost tip of Texas in the Rio Grande Valley. The lush city with tropical temperatures and palm-fringed, artificial lakes, known locally as resacas, attracts avid bird-watchers from around the world and serves as a winter home for thousands of retirees—typically from the Midwest and the North—dubbed Winter Texans or “snowbirds.”
But the city lies in an impoverished area, where the median household income is roughly $30,000, about 95 percent of students are considered economically disadvantaged and 34 percent have limited proficiency in English. When Brownsville and other cities in the Valley make national headlines, it is usually in connection with the politics of immigration or the atrocities of the drug war only a stone’s throw away in Mexico.

Yet, over the past two decades, a different story has attracted the attention of major media outlets, including Texas Monthly, The New York Times, CBS and HBO, as they chronicle the legacy of chess as a phenomenon in the region and the burgeoning of some of the world’s newest young talent.

At national championships, schools from the Brownsville Independent School District have placed among the top five in team competition since 2005. At the state level, they have dominated the Texas Scholastic Championships chess competition, winning about a dozen first-place slots at the elementary, middle and high school levels since 1993.
Tournaments like the one at Vela Middle School are family affairs. Parents, relatives and community members pitch in to raise money, contribute team snacks and meals—be it breakfast tacos or lasagna—and pack schools during competitions, so much so that in some instances, police have even been called out to unsnarl traffic jams.

At Vela, the parking lot is filled to the brink, and cars spill onto the side streets, parked brazenly under “No Parking” signs. Inside the gym, the commotion amplifies. Players search for their places among rosters taped to the walls and press their way through rows and rows of numbered, brown cafeteria tables. Hundreds of chessboards, checkered forest green and white, deck their surfaces, pieces at the ready: rooks biding time to topple kings, queens waiting to capture knights.

Gertrude Sharp Elementary School second-grader Eduardo Campella Rodriguez, or “Campy” as his friends call him, climbs onto his assigned metal chair. He sits on his knees to get a full view of the chessboard in front of him. The pint-sized 8-year-old with bright, chestnut eyes and a quick wit isn’t nervous, he says. Not yet. So far, he has always won his first round. “Maybe by the fourth or fifth I will be, but I get more confident when I win,” he later says with a sheepish smile.

He is good at winning, too. He beams when his teachers list his victories. He placed second in his division at his first national chess tournament. He was 5 then, and in kindergarten. But Campy’s triumph for such a young child does not surprise most Valley educators or chess coaches. There is no mystery—and more to it than luck—behind what has led to the rise of young chess stars like Campy.
It’s due to hard, hard work. It’s due to community effort. “To me, it comes down to expectations,” says Juliet V. Garcia, president of the University of Texas at Brownsville. Children from the Valley, predominantly Hispanic, are often clumped into stereotypes and assigned government labels, such as at-risk or low-income. But when it comes to the game of chess, educators and parents impel them to succeed—and they thrive.
“It’s a pretty powerful change of a paradigm,” she says.

Chess: What the Cool Kids Play

J.J. Guajardo has told this story at least 600 times to friends, family members and dozens of reporters, he estimates, chuckling. But he does not mind sharing it again. It is inspirational, he says, one of the few positive tales told about Brownsville, where the good is often overlooked or forgotten.
School officials and parents consider Guajardo the father of the city’s chess movement. He’s a figure they revere along the lines of Jaime Escalante, a Los Angeles high school teacher whose mentoring of at-risk students turned a failing calculus program into one of the nation’s best. The true story played out in the 1988 film “Stand and Deliver.”
But Guajardo, a soft-spoken, large man with kind eyes, is more modest. On a warm November night, sporting a Hawaiian shirt and a brown, tweed flat cap, he sits with his wife at a small pub in McAllen, a large Valley city about an hour from Brownsville. He is honored by the Hollywood comparisons, he says, but prefers the focus stay on the students. “I don’t think I picked chess,” Guajardo says. “Chess picked me.”

He was a teacher at Brownsville’s Russell Elementary School in 1989 when several children in his rambunctious group of sixth-graders were believed to have broken the gym coach’s vinyl square dance records as part of a prank. No outright accusations were made, Guajardo recalls, but the episode brought the principal marching into his classroom.
The principal urged him to create an extracurricular program that could keep the group of high-energy students busy in the mornings and stop them from causing trouble. She suggested chess.

Chess. The art form—or sport (it is often debated which)—is known as the “royal game,” in which the pieces, kings and queens, bishops and pawns, are moved across a checkered board to attack and capture. Its history spans centuries, a pastime popular among the echelons of the elite who have mastered the skills of strategy and analytical thought.
And Guajardo was charged with introducing all of this to a group of children who could barely keep still. But his students showed an interest, and he taught them how to play, even though he only knew the basics. All of the children built upon the foundations Guajardo taught them, and later, they could win in a match against their instructor.
The students raised about $500 (Guajardo paid most of it out of his own pocket) to attend their first state championship in Austin in the spring of 1990, he recalls with a proud smile. They did not win that year. But they did win two school years later—and every time after that for the next seven consecutive years.

Like the students, Guajardo improved with practice and started organizing competitions at the school. “I started learning the nuances of the game and how to run a tournament, how to read a wall chart, how to make sure the pairings were correct, and we began to become more sophisticated as we participated,” he remembers.
The chess team at Russell Elementary also gained participants, growing from a dozen students to more than 50 after the team won its first school title. Soon the school’s competitions were drawing hundreds. Students from across the country wanted to travel to Brownsville for a chance to compete against Russell players, and newspapers throughout the region began featuring its hometown heroes, Guajardo says. Chess became what the cool kids did.

Kings and Queens on Campus

Guajardo resigned as Russell Elementary’s chess coach in 1999, but the movement he spurred continued forward. More schools in the Brownsville school district and private schools across the area developed chess programs.

In 1999, Morningside Elementary School gripped media attention when a group of second- and third-graders placed second in the national championships. It was the first time a school from Brownsville had made it that far.

“And it really just took off. We started with six kids, and by the time we left Morningside, we had well over 100 kids playing chess,” says Rusty Harwood, one of three second-grade teachers at the time who, inspired by Guajardo’s success, started the chess team. Harwood, who now serves as the director for the chess program at The University of Texas at Brownsville, went on to teach at Americo Paredes Elementary in 2001. There, he helped start another chess team that advanced to win seven national titles through the years, including six under his direction.

The community rallied behind the students’ successes, and the chess movement grew into a citywide effort, with students and faculty working with families and local businesses to raise funds for tournaments and trips. For many children who had never left Brownsville, traveling to state and national competitions allowed them to explore other parts of the country for the first time. Parents later banded together to gain financial support from Brownsville ISD. Now, the program operates on an annual budget of $400,000.

As the program soared, UTB President Garcia was among its major proponents. While on a visit to Washington, D.C., to serve as chair of the Advisory Committee to Congress on Financial Aid, she told then-U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley about Morningside Elementary’s 1999 feat. It became the first example of success cited by Riley in his speech titled “State of the Union Address for Hispanic Education.”

And when a former college student approached her with the idea of launching a chess program at UTB, Garcia says she did not have to think about it twice. “It felt absolutely natural,” she says of drawing upon an existing pool of students who were quickly surpassing the levels of their instructors and seeking a higher platform to which to advance.

When the UTB chess team formed, one of its loftiest ambitions was beating The University of Texas at Dallas, known for its success at the national level. Now the college students are going head-to-head with Ivy League students from Harvard and Yale: UTB teams have advanced three times to Final Four competition—the country’s topmost collegiate tournament sanctioned by the United States Chess Federation—and have placed in the top five four times at the Pan American Intercollegiate Team Chess Championships, the foremost intercollegiate team chess competition in the Americas.

Better training at the university level also has since trickled down to younger students, school officials say. The area had no grandmasters, the highest title a player can attain in chess, back in the 1990s when Guajardo’s students first started taking state titles. Now, the UTB chess team, including its coach, boasts four of roughly 1,250 grandmasters in the world.

Future Moves

School officials say they do not see enthusiasm for the game ever fizzling out in Brownsville. With university players now serving as coaches, and with former Brownsville ISD students returning to teach, younger students are developing increasingly higher skills.

Chess competitors in the Valley now span the ages. Most train in free, afterschool lessons held three to four times a week. Before violence escalated in Mexico, some families crossed over into Matamoros, only a few minutes’ trip across one of the city’s three international bridges, where they could pay less for coaching than on the U.S. side. There are still some brave enough to try, like the family of 12-year-old Edgar Santoyo, who was featured on HBO’s Real Sports. But most stick to private tutors and computer programs designed to increase proficiency, school officials say.

Many outsiders are amazed upon learning that Brownsville students are so good at chess. Back in the day, Guajardo remembers, intimidated opponents would spread rumors that students practiced instead of going to class—of course, that was not true, he assures. School leaders have more realistic theories; bilingual students, for instance, could have an edge when learning chess because it is a lot like learning another language.

To Garcia, the most important piece, she says, is that educators need to do a better job of tapping into students’ potential. “The discussion is not really about chess, is it?” she asks. “It’s about how the brain really works and how expectations work and how then, why aren’t we able to translate the success children are having in chess into other disciplines?”

Yet some educators have seen chess help students in other areas. It boosts self-confidence and develops high critical-thinking and memory skills, school officials say, requiring players to recognize and memorize elaborate patterns of attack. Teachers and coaches attest to students’ improvements in academics as well, noting higher state standardized testing scores.

And chess also teaches students life lessons, Guajardo says. “One of the basic rules of the game is ‘touch move,’” he explains. “That means that if you touch a piece, you have to move that piece. You can’t take it back.”

You can’t say, “Never mind.” So the children sit on their hands, until they absolutely know what their next move will be and can commit to it. They learn the virtue of patience and to calculate, to predict outcomes, to be self-sufficient. “They learn how to succeed using their own wit, without anyone’s help,” Guajardo says. “Because in chess, you are all alone out there.”

Across the street from Vela Middle School sits Cameron Park, a colonia, or humble neighborhood, considered one of the most impoverished areas in the nation.
But the disparities and struggles of the outside world seem far removed from the classroom where several children have their chessboards laid out on the floor, enthralled in last-minute practice sessions before their next match.

As published June 2012

The Working Life: Jody Blackburn, 45

Blackburn is the founder of the Magick Circle, in Brownsville, where he offers card readings, cleansings, and spiritual healing.
 
As told to Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Monthly
 
I FIRST LEARNED ABOUT folk healing from an elderly woman in my neighborhood named Rita. None of our neighbors in Brownsville liked her much. They called her la bruja. The witch. I was nine then and living with my father and grandparents, just down the block from her home. My grandparents would chide me for visiting her. There were lots of stories, like that she knew black magic and used it on ill-behaved children.
But I had a strange desire to be around her, and as we became friends, I realized that the rumors were just misconceptions. What I remember most about Rita are the plants she used to grow in pots inside her house and around the backyard. She taught me to connect with herbs, to know their scents, feel their textures. I learned how to brew ointments and concoct “kitchen witch” recipes with foods and teas. She taught me that every person, every animal, every plant has its own energy.

Full story.

As published in the March 2011 issue

Photo by Kenny Braun

 

The Iron Canvas

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Texas Observer

ON A WINDY, LATE-FEBRUARY SUNDAY in Brownsville, gallery owner Mark Clark and a dozen artists left the gallery carrying paintings and other pieces. They crossed the street, passed a lone Border Patrol van on the river levee, and arrived in Hope Park, a green space on the Rio Grande that celebrates ties between Mexico and the United States. In defiance of the Border Patrol, they began hanging artwork on the rusty, unfinished wall snaking its way partly through the park, the art’s colors popping against the gritty iron bars and overcast sky. It was a way to “beautify the ugly,” Clark says. “It lets people know that the wall has not gone away as a political issue and that we are extremely disappointed in the Obama administration and their decision to continue this idiocy.”

Clark has been fighting the wall since 2006, when former Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and his entourage first came to the border city. Clark picketed Chertoff’s press conferences, participated in citywide protests, and tagged the gallery’s roof with No Al Muro (“No Border Wall”) in charcoal. When Chertoff’s tenure ended in 2009, Clark threw him a retirement party at the gallery, where guests could pummel a piñata modeled after Chertoff and throw shoes at a George W. Bush impersonator.

Clark is still fighting, even though the struggle can feel doomed at times. Immigration reform has fallen on the nation’s backburner, and construction on the wall is rolling along at $12 to $18 million a mile. The rest of the country may have moved on to other topics, but Clark and his neighbors can’t because of the hulking reminder. He no longer rides his bicycle along the levee to work. “It used to be a quiet, serene ride through nature,” he says. “When you have an iron curtain on one side blocking your view, it is a little on the oppressive and depressing side.”

He says he is not going to let the United States forget it’s making a mistake. So on Feb. 28, he turned the wall into a canvas that displayed people’s frustrations with the metal divide. There were paintings of moonlit mojadas, female border-crossers, and the river view undisrupted by the fence. An illustration by Clark depicted dozens of Mexicans marching into the country through a hole in the fence. One Mexican was an unemployed Ronald McDonald selling helados, ice cream, on the corner. It is “every nightmare about Mexican immigration,” he says. There were conceptual pieces, such as a missing-person poster and a pile of stuff including a pair of shoes, a deflated flotation tire, and a water jug left behind by immigrants illegally crossing the border through Arizona. A 30-foot ladder of green bamboo and twine leaned against the fence, reaching toward the sky and swaying in the wind. Artist David Freeman, an arts instructor at South Texas College in McAllen, stuck salva-tree thorns on the rungs to symbolize obstacles faced by illegal immigrants in the United States.

Perhaps the brightest display was that of Susan Harbage Page, a photographer and lecturer at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Page designed a funeral wreath using colored ribbons and plastic flowers arranged like a target. It is a memorial to the lives lost crossing the border, “a beautiful thing that sucks you in but represents many harsh realities and losses,” she says.
The installation came and went quietly, without any clashes with U.S. Border Patrol or local authorities. “I plan to do this every year,” Clark says, “until the wall goes away.”

As published March 24, 2010, Texas Observer

Born To Be Barred

At the border, U.S. citizens are being refused re-entry because they were delivered by midwives.
 
By Jazmine Ulloa
The Texas Observer
 
IT WAS JUST ANOTHER SWELTERING MONDAY MORNING in August. Yuliana Trinidad Castro sat in her truck with her mother, sister, and newborn daughter, windows up and air conditioner on high, waiting to cross into Brownsville from the Mexican border city of Matamoros. That weekend, like so many before, they had visited family on the southern side of the border. The trip back home, a sluggish procession across the international bridge through curving aisles of bumper-to-bumper traffic, was frustrating but familiar. The Castro sisters did it practically every week. “It was just so routine,” Yuliana’s sister, Laura Nancy Castro, recalled months later.

Then they reached the checkpoint. As always, the sisters, both American citizens, rolled down their windows and handed their entry documents to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection officer on duty, Eliseo Cabrera. Laura Nancy handed over her U.S. passport. Yuliana presented her daughter’s Texas birth certificate and her own, along with a receipt proving she had applied for a U.S. passport. Their mother, a Mexican national, presented her visitor’s visa.

The officer, Laura Nancy says, scarcely glanced at the documents—except for Yuliana’s. He examined her birth certificate and application receipt for a few moments, then ran the information on his computer. He was especially interested, the women would soon learn, in the person who registered Yuliana’s birth certificate—a once-popular midwife named Trinidad Saldivar.

Midwifery was once a cultural institution and an economic necessity for many along the border. Since the 1960s, the practice has almost disappeared as regulations for midwives, or parteras, have become more stringent—and as they were increasingly accused of falsely registering children of Mexican families as U.S. citizens. Until the early 1990s, Saldivar was one of the most sought-out parteras along both sides of the Texas-Mexico border. Following an investigation by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service (as it was then called), Saldivar was one of more than a dozen Valley midwives accused of falsifying birth certificates. Some pleaded guilty—to avoid, they said, serving prison time. No one was asked which records they had been paid to forge and which were authentic, making it nearly impossible to determine which children had been delivered in the United States and which had not. Saldivar was never convicted, but her name was tarnished in the process—at least in the eyes of the U.S. government, which included her in a list of more than 230 “suspicious” midwives.

Maybe her name registered that morning with Officer Cabrera. But he appeared to be convinced from the start that the document was false, Yuliana has since stated in legal filings. He asked questions but ignored the answers, she says. He confiscated all four passengers’ documents, directed them out of traffic, and referred them for further inspection. What happened then, Yuliana’s mother says, “I would not wish on anyone.”

The three womens’ court statements tell the same story. They were taken into separate rooms and held for 11 hours. They were interrogated, mocked, harassed, and threatened with deportation or imprisonment—all, they say, to persuade them to sign confessions saying they held fraudulent documents. They were offered neither food nor water. Their requests to call for help or speak to relatives who’d come to the international bridge to look for them were denied. A cousin who wanted to see them was spirited away by officers, the sisters say.

“It was as if we had been kidnapped,” says the mother, Trinidad Muraira de Castro.

“I was so scared,” says Laura Nancy. “No one knew what was happening to us.”

Yuliana remembers hearing her baby, Camila, cry uncontrollably outside in the lobby while an officer interrogated her. She insisted she was born in Brownsville, as the certificate said. Her citizenship had never before been questioned, she told the officer, and if permitted, she could retrieve more documentation, including her mother’s blood work from a Brownsville hospital after Yuliana’s birth. In that icy little room, none of that mattered. “The officer continued harassing me, yelling at me, and telling me that I was Mexican and that he was going to deport me,” Yuliana, then 25, wrote in her statement. “After a while, I realized I had no way out since he told me no matter what I did, to him I was Mexican.”

It was all too much for her mother. Trinidad says she was grilled at length about falsified birth certificates she had indeed obtained for Laura Nancy and Yuliana when they were children—certificates saying they were Mexican citizens so they could attend school in Matamoros. Out of fear and exhaustion, she says, Trinidad signed a confession saying she had falsely registered her daughters as born in the United States.

That was that. By the time Trinidad, her daughters, and granddaughter were released, the sky was dark. Their entry documents had been taken away, and the Castro sisters were stranded in Mexico. What began as a “routine” return home to Brownsville had turned into a nightmare—one that would stretch over months, landing the Castros in a protracted legal battle and separating family members in Mexico and the United States.

They were not, they soon learned, alone. The Castros have filed suit in federal court against Customs and Border Protection. Their attorneys are seeking class-action status for the case, which could broaden its reach and have widespread implications along the border. The Castros’ experience last Aug. 24, their attorneys allege in court filings, was not an isolated incident, but a symptom of a systematic problem—a “window into the cases of dozens, if not hundreds, of similarly situated persons.” It’s also a window into the human costs associated with the U.S. government’s patchwork “crackdown” on illegal immigration.

NOT LONG AFTER the Castros were denied entry, a group of their U.S. relatives showed up at the Brownsville law office of Jaime Díez. An immigration attorney who has worked in the Valley for 12 years, Díez has become well known in the region for his pro bono immigration work, his strongly opinionated columns in a Mexican newspaper, and his weekly television commentaries on border and immigration issues for a Matamoros station. After he discussed the passport problem faced by U.S. residents returning from Mexico on one of his television spots, people started showing up at his studio.

Díez and other immigration attorneys in the Valley have heard of countless experiences similar to the Castros’. “Most people are totally unaware of this risk, which is why they fall into this trap,” says Lisa Brodyaga, who is working with Díez as a lead attorney on the Castro case. “We still do not know how often it is happening,” she says, because “when it happens to someone they end up in Mexico, cut off from access to counsel.”

Jessica Garcia, a Brownsville lab technician, was among those sent back to Matamoros without her legal documents. A few weeks later, after seeing Díez on TV, the 22-year-old Garcia and her mother went to the station to meet the attorney. She told him about her experience at a Brownsville international bridge on Halloween morning of last year—a morning that, she says, “changed everything, turned everything around for me.”

Two years earlier, Garcia’s husband had lost his U.S. work visa, and the family had moved back to Matamoros. Garcia kept her well-paying job at a Brownsville plasma center to support the family, which meant crossing daily through the port of entry.

Like the Castro sisters, Garcia had been delivered in Brownsville by midwife Trinidad Saldivar. Her mother, Ana Maria, remembers shopping in downtown Brownsville one day when she came across a colorful board on Saldivar’s front porch advertising her services. It was decked with a stork delivering a baby, she recalls. “Partera,” it read.

For Ana Maria, it seemed like a convenient way to have her baby in the United States and give her more opportunities. There was no need to commit fraud, she says. “If I had paid for a false document for Jessica,” she says, “I would have bought one for her older brother as well. But he is a Mexican citizen.”

On the ever-hardening line between the United States and Mexico, customs officials have long been accused of mistakenly detaining, deporting, or denying entry to U.S. citizens. Since a heightened security measure called the Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative went into effect last June, most of those targeted for interrogation at ports of entry, immigration attorneys like Díez say, have been U.S. citizens who present birth documents registered by midwives—people like Garcia and the Castro sisters, born in U.S. homes, not hospitals. (See “Locked Out”)

The new mandate requires U.S. citizens to present passports, passport cards, or other “initiative-compliant” documents when crossing from Mexico by land. Even before it was implemented, the requirement brought to light a series of complications faced by people born with the assistance of midwives. For years, the U.S. State Department had been rejecting passport applications from people whose births were attended by midwives, citing the forgery convictions. The issue came to widespread attention two years ago, when an increasing number of border residents began requesting passports to comply with the new travel-security measures.

Immigration attorneys say they began to see a stream of cases in which the U.S. State Department sent applicants in bureaucratic loops, asking them to provide all sorts of supplementary proof of citizenship—including newspaper birth announcements and high-school yearbook photos. Rejected applicants included children, senior citizens, U.S. military veterans and federal employees. The process was so arbitrary, says Díez, that some siblings in the same family would get their passports while others were denied. The Castros were a case in point: While Laura Nancy received her passport within weeks of applying, Yuliana had been asked to provide additional proof of citizenship—and was still waiting when she was denied entry last August.

In a class-action lawsuit against the State Department, the ACLU and immigration attorneys representing citizens whose applications had been rejected claimed that the department had “adopted a blanket suspicion toward one group of passport applicants.” In a settlement last year, the department agreed to initiate new procedures and training for officials taking passport applications. The settlement helped some, but many others’ requests remain in limbo, says Díez. Customs officers at ports of entry, like the ones who sent Garcia and the Castros back to Mexico, are not bound by the agreement.

“These are issues that should be handled in a courtroom, not the port of entry, where people do not have access to counsel, nor their constitutional rights,” Díez says. For many U.S. citizens still awaiting passports, border checkpoints are where their fates are decided, with customs officers serving as judge and jury.

Citing ongoing legal proceedings, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials declined to comment about their procedures. Eddie Perez, public affairs liaison for ports of entry in Brownsville, would not say much, either. “CBP officials are not at liberty to discuss any cases under litigation,” he told the Observer. Perez said the issues can be difficult for customs officers to deal with. “We try to cover every base. We want to make sure every person we process is clear to enter,” he said. “Sometimes that process is long; sometimes it is short.”

For Yuliana and Laura Nancy Castro, the process has been long. Since their ordeal at the international bridge, a federal judge has granted the sisters permission to re-enter the United States, where they live with their husbands. But they can no longer visit their mother and extended family in Matamoros. Christmas and New Year’s were gloomy holidays, they say, spent around the dinner table in Laura Nancy’s Brownsville apartment, cut off from the celebrations of their Mexican family. Their mother is depressed, family members say, and has trouble eating. The separation has been especially tough on Laura Nancy, who was pregnant when she was denied entry and last month gave birth to a daughter. “My mother has not seen the baby,” she says, “only photos my husband has taken of her.”

Her husband and 3-year-old son, Polo, can still visit Trinidad Castro. Laura Nancy has trouble explaining to Polo why she can’t accompany them. “I tell Polo, ‘I can’t go. I am going to the doctor.’ I am always at the doctor,” she says.

Her son does not understand. Her teenage niece does. She planned to have her quinceañera this month. The coming-of-age ceremony is held on a girl’s 15th birthday. Her niece, Elvira Alexandra, had a band and dance hall booked in Matamoros, but she doesn’t want to have the party without her aunts, whom she calls her second mothers.

“Now the date is open,” says the girl’s mother, Maribel Ramirez de Castro. “It may seem like little changes, but they really affect your life.”

As published May 13, 2010

Photo by Jazmine Ulloa

 

U-visa applicants mired in bureaucracy

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
He erupted in rage one night, slamming her against the wall while she wrapped her arms around her stomach in an effort to protect her womb. He stormed through their home, yelling, cursing, “breaking everything in sight,” she recalls.

When he left, shattered glass and tears were riddled across the floor. She called the police, then made the decision — perhaps the toughest she has ever made — to press charges against her husband. An immigrant woman from the small Mexican town of Silacayoapan, she had no legal documents, no steady income, no family members nearby.

“I felt I had nowhere to go, that he was my only salvation, that without him, I could not do anything,” she says, taking a deep breath. But she had been six months pregnant, and her son, then 16 years old, had witnessed the abuse.

Though she did not know it then, the police report she filed that night in 2006 would become her way out. By coming forward to the authorities, the immigrant woman, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation from her husband, became eligible for a U Visa, a temporary legal status for victims of violent crime in the United States who cooperate in criminal investigations.

The visa was created through the Victims of Violence and Trafficking Act in 2000 to encourage a vulnerable immigrant population to report crime without fear of deportation. But it took seven years for the Department of Homeland Security to issue the regulations that would govern the application process, a delay that has mired legal services agencies aiding visa petitioners in a bureaucratic tangle.

From 2000 until October 2007, while the rules were under negotiation, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services did not grant the visa, but “interim relief,” which had to be renewed every year and authorized work and travel but not legal status.

Next week, the interim relief period ends — meaning that by then, all who have qualified for the temporary status should have filed their paperwork again under the new application process.

That has tied back legal service agencies in the last two years. Before the formal rules were established, agencies had created their own forms, working out the process as they went along, said Celestino Gallegos, an immigration attorney at Texas Rio Grande Legal Aid in Edinburg.

“It was a piecemeal, time-consuming process,” he said, and in a way “revictimized” immigrants by its sluggishness and unpredictability. Now the new regulations require additional documentation or records that some petitioners no longer have, putting victims through another long process, Gallegos said.

“Congress intended for victims to have immigration relief. I do not think Congress intended for them to be bogged down in red tape,” he said. “It should have been, from the very get-go, a simple process.”

Some immigration advocates said bureaucratic reshuffling after Sept. 11 caused the delay in regulations, others said the change in administration has now accelerated the process. But establishing criteria and training for immigration officials was a complex procedure, which took time, said Chris Rhatigan, spokeswoman for U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

The national immigration agency is making progress, she said. It can grant visas for up to 10,000 petitioners plus family members each fiscal year, according to the limit set by Congress. While a little more than 50 were approved in 2008, about 6,000 were approved the following year, Rhatigan said. This year, the agency has begun to process more than 11,000 requests.

“We really have done a tremendous effort to reach out to those people who have not responded to our request for supplemental information (for the visa application),” she said.

Proyecto Libertad, an immigration legal services agency in Harlingen, has helped about 80 petitioners qualify for the visa and, like other area service agencies, has dozens of more applications pending. Despite the backlog, Juan Rios, an assistant coordinator at Proyecto, urged people not to become discouraged.

“We are helping people, not at the rhythm we want, not at the level the community is demanding,” he said. “But we want people to still come in and ask questions and to know what rights they have.”

Immigrants also should not be afraid to report crime to the authorities, said Cameron County Sheriff Omar Lucio. Law enforcement officials have viewed the U Visa program with skepticism in the past, believing it encouraged some to exaggerate crimes or create scams. But on the positive side, the program is a way for authorities to build trust among immigrant communities, Lucio said.

“People can come here and report a crime and they will not be questioned about their citizenship,” he said.

Like the woman from Silacayoapan, at least three-fourths of applicants from across the country and more than half in the Rio Grande Valley have been victims of domestic violence, according to immigration services agencies.

For many women, the choice to call the police comes with great pain, Maria Salas Aquino said. She endured an abusive relationship for more than a decade before she finally reported her husband to the authorities.

Her husband’s blows were first psychological, she says. He took away her pride, her beauty and her self-worth. The physical abuse followed.

She thought he would change — that she could change him. And she had withstood it all, she recalls, even his addiction to cocaine. But seeing him wring her teenage child’s shirt and lift him off the ground one day in June tore her apart.

She dialed 9-1-1 and arrived at local women’s shelter soon after. There, she learned she could apply for a U Visa even though she and her husband were in the country illegally.

The process was long, but it opened doors, Aquino said. The day she got her first job at a local tortilleria, she cried out of joy.

“At the shelter, we would have night discussions. We would think, ‘poor him,’ ‘poor him.’ That is when we learned to think, ‘poor me,’ why should I tolerate this?” she said. “I am very happy now, my children are safe. I am grateful.”

As published Jan. 24, 2010

 

Mexican citizens looking for sanctuary

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
A middle-aged woman was driving along a busy street in Matamoros on her way to visit family, when she passed a Soriana grocery store barricaded by a throng of Mexican soldiers and vehicles. Gunshots cracked in the distance.

She kept her eyes on the road and pressed on the gas, following what many Mexican citizens consider unspoken policy: Look away. Mind your own business. Keep your mouth shut.

“These things don’t come out in the newspapers,” said the woman, who works as a housemaid in Brownsville and asked her name not be used out of concern for her family’s safety.

In recent months, she and other residents say, sporadic shootouts in broad daylight, like this one, seem to have become more common in Matamoros, once one of the quieter cities along the Texas-Mexico border.

With little trust in authorities and few reports from the media, it is difficult for Mexican residents to discern what is fact from hearsay. But to be caught in the crossfire is a legitimate fear, families say — even more distressing, is constantly seeing their schools shut down, their news outlets silenced and their streets blockaded by Mexican soldiers and military trucks.

Such concerns are driving Matamoros families away from the border city and into the Rio Grande Valley, residential and commercial real estate agents said. The migration follows a steady stream of Mexican nationals, including journalists, officials and business leaders, who have relocated to the United States since Mexican President Felipe Calderón launched a sweeping battle against drug cartels in 2006.

But families from Matamoros have only been moving to the Valley in higher numbers since last year, real estate agents said. And some brokers noted calls from Mexican nationals had become even more frequent in the last six months.

“They call and tell me, ‘I need (a home) fast. I want to take my children out of school. There is too much danger here,’ ” said Sandy Lee Galvan, a real estate agent with Century 21 Johnston Company in Brownsville. “Many want to pay cash upfront.”

‘Violence escalates, migration escalates’

Drug war violence along the Mexican side of the lower Texas borderline began to intensify in late February, first after a bloody turf battle erupted between the Gulf Cartel and its former armed wing, the Zetas, and now has amplified as drug cartel men increase their assaults against the Mexican army.

“As the violence escalates, the migration escalates,” said Mary McGowan, broker and owner of All Star Realty in Brownsville.

Real estate agents are taking inquiries from Matamoros, Monterrey, Victoria and Valle Hermoso, and even from families living farther in the interior of Mexico. Many Mexican nationals are not stopping in the Valley but choosing to go farther north, to San Antonio or Austin, and even into other states, agents said.

But those who do stay prefer gated communities and condos throughout Brownsville and Rancho Viejo. Near McAllen, the sweetest deals are in the Sharyland community, said Leanne Richards, broker for Trendsetters Realty in McAllen.

“Everyone wants to get their children into the Sharyland school district,” said Richards, who has worked in real estate in the Valley since 1994. In the past, Richards recalls few Mexican families calling in to inquire about homes in the area. When they did buy, it took time and they purchased expensive $500,000 homes, she said.

Now people are buying properties costing between $80,000 to $120,000 because they want to move out soon. Many also choose to rent.

“They tell me, ‘We are not going back to Mexico, we are afraid,’” Richards said.

The high number of asylum applications from Mexico in part shows this increase in migration. The number of people applying for asylum under “credible fear of persecution,” jumped from 179 in 2007 to 312 in 2008, and increased again slightly to 338 in 2009. These figures were based on people who pleaded for asylum at the nation’s southern ports of entry, according to U.S. Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services.

Separate statistics collected from U.S. immigration courts showed an increase in the number of asylum petitions from Mexico in the first two years since Calderón initiated the drug war offensive, from 2,793 applications in 2006 to 3,459 in 2008, according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review under the U.S. Department of Justice. But the number of petitions dropped to 2,816 in 2009.

Hard to keep count

Nonetheless, tracking the number of people coming into the Valley, Texas or the United States from Mexico out of fear is difficult, experts said. No agency seems to be keeping count.

Part of the reason is because the way Mexican families are moving into the country runs the gamut. Some Mexican nationals have double citizenship, others apply for investor visas or asylum, and some come in illegally.

To judge the economic impact, thus, is much tougher. But Howard Campbell, professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at El Paso points to Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, as an example.

Between 30,000 to 500,000 people have fled from Juarez to the United States, according to estimates based on the number of abandoned homes and the assumed number of people per household, he said. The number may be exaggerated, and it is uncertain how many of these people reside in the bordering city of El Paso, “but the impact is tangible. You can see it,” Campbell said.

“It is very sad and tragic but the suffering in Juarez is contributing to the economic stimulus of El Paso,” he said. “There is also a cultural side. There is a sort of rejuvenation and reincarnation of Mexican culture in the United States.”

Many of the people fleeing Juarez are some of the wealthiest in the city and have injected a lot of money into El Paso’s economy, the professor added.

Business boom

Real estate agents in the Valley said Mexican nationals moving in are helping keep the housing market afloat. Richards, for instance, estimated Mexican nationals to make up between 40 to 50 percent of Trendsetters’ clientele in Hidalgo county.

Many families also are “realizing it is a great time to make investments in the United States,” said Norma Rasco, a real estate agent with Rancho Viejo Realty.

“Mexican nationals are cash buyers, and in this economy, cash is king,” she said.

The stimulus is true of business in the Valley as well, financial leaders said. Larry Jokl, a commercial real estate agent with Brownsville Real Estate Management Company, said he helped six Mexican clients move their businesses to the Valley last year.

“In the first three months of this year, I have had a dozen clientele from Mexico who have looked to locate their businesses here, two of whom already have,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Brownsville Economic Development Council has hosted about half a dozen prospects, or companies serious to relocate in Brownsville, from Mexico since January. On any given year, that number would have been about two, said Gilbert Salinas, spokesman for the city’s development council.

“A recurring theme has been that due to security issues in their country, they are now putting their plans on a fast track to break into the U.S. markets,” he said. “Business men and women always have that — breaking into the U.S. market — in the back of their mind. Now they are making it a priority.”

As published April 3, 2010

 

Proposal calls for upscale businesses

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald

Ropa usada stores are ubiquitous in downtown Brownsville. They are the hole-in-the-wall places where shoppers rummage through bundles of second-hand clothes to the murmur of portable fans, items are often sold by the pound, and bargains can be negotiated.

But these run-down little shops might not mesh well with revitalization plans the city is considering for the area. The city’s planning consortium, United Brownsville, is looking to transform downtown into a tourist draw and a cultural and economic boon for the city. And that signals the need to attract more upscale businesses to the area.

In the works is a proposal to create an entertainment district centered on Adams Street/Market Square. City leaders aim to spur the development of entertainment along the street by cutting fees for coffeehouses, brewpubs, bars, dancehalls, nightclubs and restaurants among other approved establishments.

The city will not shutter ropa usada stores by mandate. But with the revitalization plan, rents are expected to increase to the point where many vendors will be forced to shut their doors. If a ropa usada shop closes, another will not be allowed to open in its place, as second-hand clothing stores are not on the list of approved entertainment establishments for the area.

Still, many ropa usada vendors along Adams Street said they welcome the proposal, even if they have to close their stores. As Nena Garza, manager of Nena Ropa Usada, said, “It may affect our businesses, but the district, if it ever is created, would be an overall good for the city.”

Others, however, lamented the demise of the used-clothing trade in Brownsville, which once thrived and sparked an entire culture, where small-time entrepreneurs with backyard businesses in Matamoros and Reynosa would come to buy clothes, rubbing shoulders with big-time traders with space at large flea markets in Mexico City who were on the same mission.

Maria Rangel, a cashier at RYB Ropa Usada, said she was skeptical the high-end businesses city leaders were hoping to attract would even survive the tough economic climate. Like other used-clothing retailers in downtown, most of her customers are Mexican nationals, many with large families and low incomes.

“They are looking for cheap stores where they can buy clothes for the whole family. If you bring in all these expensive stores, they are going to be empty,” Rangel said. “If we have to close these secondhand stores, it would be outrageous.”

The only large retail chain that has opened downtown in recent years has been Ross, whose catch-phrase epitomizes what this demographic is looking for: “Dress For Less.”
Virtually all the used-clothing vendors said business has been tough the last few years. Increasingly stringent immigration policies at international bridges and escalating violence in Matamoros have discouraged many families from making shopping trips to the United States.

Marta Hinajosa, co-manager of Hinajosa’s Ropa Usada, said she and her sister have already been planning to move their store out of downtown and deeper into the city because of the drop in sales.
“The (ropa usada) business in the city is just not what it used to be,” said Hinajosa.

Some vendors pointed to dismal sales as further evidence that downtown revitalization plans need to go forward. Maria Cordova opened Sueños Outlet just a few months ago and barely makes ends meet, she said. But if the rent goes up and she too closes her doors, she said she would be flexible enough to open an entertainment business.

“I think the district will inspire other people to open different kinds of businesses other than ropa usada stores,” she said.

Miguel Tavera, owner of Supertienda Miguelina II, said he too would be quick to adapt. Brownsville needs an entertainment district like 17th Street in McAllen or 6th Street in Austin, he said. It would give the city an economic lift and bring a new customer base to downtown, including many young people.

“We do not need to frighten ourselves — progress is good,” he said.

As published July 02, 2010

Meeting the ghosts of the past

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald

Thursday afternoon had all the makings of a ghost story. Wind rustled through the trees of Brownsville’s Old City Cemetery. Cloudy skies intensified the colors of the graveyard — flowers resting on the headstones, the green of the grass and the hint of gray in Yolanda Gonzalez’s eyes.

At 79 years old, Gonzalez is a petite woman with an encyclopedic knowledge of the city’s history and folklore and has long been associated with the supernatural. She became locally known as the “Ghost Lady” during the 47 years she worked as a librarian for the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College. And she also has a collection of macabre stories about Fort Brown.

But on Thursday, she was not out hunting for ghosts — at least not the kind in storybooks. As one of the most sought-out genealogists in the Rio Grande Valley, she is interested in the spirits of the past captured in the names, dates and epitaphs etched into the tombstones.

“What do you find in a cemetery?” Gonzalez asked, running her hand on the surface of a marble grave marker. “You find names, dates, sculpture, poetry…You find surprises.”

The cemetery is a place of reverence and history for Gonzalez, who has spent countless hours walking through graveyards in her quest to link family names. And the Valley is riddled with cemeteries, said the Brownsville native, because the area was once made up of ranches, each with its own burial ground.

For anyone from the Valley hoping to look into his or her family history, the cemetery is a good place to start, Gonzalez said.

“I would come here with people and they would show me their grandfather’s grave,” Gonzalez said. “Then they would realize (another relative) was buried here also, and then another relative.”

Gonzalez would write down names and dates to later comb city records and find the connections, she said. Reading epitaphs throughout the graveyard would also help her know more about a certain time period, such as if there was a disease or a plague, Gonzalez said.

“I transport myself to the time in which I am doing my research,” she said. “I know what people ate, what they wore, who they were.”

Gonzalez began studying ancestral “ghosts” at the UTB-TSC library, where she began working in 1954 as a student. She picked up the treasured hobby from her father, who was also a prominent genealogist.

Tucked away in the Hunter Room of Archives at the Arnulfo L. Oliveira Memorial Library, Gonzalez would help families research their roots daily before she retired in 2001.

“Eight years later, we still get people calling for her,” said John Hawthorne, the manager of the Hunter Room, who has Gonzalez’s telephone number memorized after all the times he has been asked for it.

At the library, janitors and students also remember Gonzalez as the woman they would share their ghost encounters with, Hawthorne said.

And Gonzalez says she even had a few eerie experiences of her own. She remembers seeing the door of the Hunter Room open and close on its own and books topple off of shelves when no one was around.
“I have some very friendly ghosts,” she joked.

As the holiday season approaches, now is the time for people to communicate with their own ghosts, she said.
“Knowing your history allows you to value who you are,” she said.

As published Oct. 30, 2009

 

Women play major roles in the drug trade

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
At the lowest level of the illegal drug trade are cases like that of Laura Trevino, her mother and two sisters.

The four women arrested in June allegedly stashed approximately 37 pounds of cocaine packages inside “girdles” three of them wore underneath their clothes. Authorities said they attempted to smuggle the narcotics through the B&M International Bridge.Court testimony later revealed Trevino had admitted to organizing the operation and would be paid $2,000 after they had crossed into the United States, a small percentage of the nearly $1 million estimated street value of the drugs.

The case was the first of its kind in the Rio Grande Valley. But among the roles women play in the illegal drug business, a majority of them, like Trevino and her family, still take a huge risk for a small cut of their load’s worth.

Women have had long-standing roles in Mexico’s illicit drug trade despite presumptions that in the country’s macho society the business has been entirely male-dominated. Many have also historically held powerful positions, though they have had to “pay their dues twice as hard” to move up the drug syndicate, officials and researchers said.

In the past, women in the narcotics trade tended to fall behind-the-scenes, but their roles have grown more prominent in recent years as their participation in all areas of the business has increased – and continues to rise.

To track the increase, researchers point to the number of women behind bars for drug-related crimes, which began to rise at alarming rates in the 1980s.

From 1990 to 1996, the number of women incarcerated for drug offenses rose by 101 percent, according to a 1997 prisoner’s report from the Federal Bureau of Statistics. Since, the increase has slowed, rising only 3 percent by 2006, as the latest figures show.

However, the Sentencing Project estimates that the annual growth of female inmates, a third of whom are incarcerated for drug offenses, is increasingly at nearly double the rate for men.

“Recently, women have been entering the business at increasing levels at every level of the drug cartel,” said Howard Campbell, anthropology professor at the University of Texas at El Paso. “But most women in the trafficking business don’t get caught. So, incarceration and indictment rates may not fully speak to the issue of who is doing it.”

He found rising numbers of women incarcerated for drug-related offenses at U.S. and Mexican prisons, increases of women dying in drug violence and interviewed dozens of women for a study published in the winter edition of the Anthropological Quarterly.

Two key reasons account for the increases: Mexican drug cartels are at large and have grown in size and profitability, while poverty in Mexico and along the border remains high, Campbell said.

Women have then been able to expand their positions in the drug trade, where many find the lucrative opportunities to move up economically. Their position can serve as a vehicle to empowerment, Campbell said.
At the highest level of drug cartels in the recent limelight have been “queen pins” Enedina Arellano Felix and Sandra Avila Beltràn. Felix is alleged to have become one of the leaders of the Tijuana cartel across California’s border after her brothers were murdered.

Beltran, dubbed the “Queen of the Pacific,” was indicted on drug charges in Florida four years ago and is said to have developed smuggling routes through Mexico for a Colombian cartel. A beautiful woman, Beltran would ask to do her make-up before her court proceedings and gained even greater fame for her haughty and arrogant behavior.

More women have also become notorious brokers and money launderers. Large sums of money are laundered in a small street in Mexico City, where beautiful women in low-cut dresses provide currency exchanges for tourists, Campbell said.

However, the majority of women continue to fall into the lowest levels of the illegal drug trade, said Correctional Program Specialist Marueen Buell of the Prison’s Division for the National Institute of Corrections.
In the business, these women are known as “sirenas,” “las sanchas” and, as in the case of the allegations against the Trevino family, “mules.”

The most expandable and most essential group is the “mules.” They are the “laborers” who run the risk of moving the illegal narcotics from Mexico into the United States.

“There are risky, huge implications for carrying drugs, but there is a susceptibility among these women because they may not be as aware of these risks or the economic circumstances are so bad at home,” said Rosalie Pacula, director of Rand’s Policy Research Center.

Although not the case for all, the majority of women who enter the lower levels of the narcotics trade tend to be poor and living in desperate conditions, said Jasmine Taylor, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. As a growing number of them become the head of the household, they must provide for their families.

“So their life situation is used as an enticement to enter this line of work,” Taylor said. “Another way they join the drug trade is by being coerced by a male actors, husbands, boyfriends.”

While women might be entering the business in higher numbers, illegal drug organizations may have also increased their use of women as drug couriers in response to past law enforcement strategies, Pacula said. As technology becomes more advanced, smugglers need to find new, creative ways to get the drugs across.
Traffickers know women can play on gender stereotypes to avoid being questioned, researchers and law enforcement officials said. Women are also told to wear sexy clothing and flirt with officials.

“There have been more women, women with children and whole families [caught smuggling],” said Capt. Jack PeÐa with the Criminal Investigations Division for the Texas Attorney General’s Office. “Drug traffickers think that they can use women to cross the drugs because they may look less suspicious. But we are checking everyone.”

However, U.S. Customs and Border Protection officials said smugglers are constantly changing their methods.

During various periods, teens and even senior citizens will be used to cross narcotics, said Roger Maier, U.S. CBP public affairs officer for El Paso.

“If you happen to see more instances of females caught with drug loads recently, it may not necessarily be indicative of an overall trend because we have seen it before and we will likely see it again,” said Rick Pauza, Laredo’s U.S. CBP public affairs officer.

Whether women are being used at higher rates also depends on the region smugglers are in and possibly the drug being crossed, Pacula said. The booming Mexican city of Tijuana across from southern California, for example, has a large population of young people from which drug-traffickers draw upon, she said.

Nevertheless, as the illicit drug trade expands in profitability, women are going to take the risk to enter into the trade by their own accord, Taylor said.

“Now in the last three years, the number of women searched has increased,” she said. “But money is still a strong motivator for women to join the business.”

As published Aug. 17, 2008

Restaurants taking no risks with salmonella outbreak

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
When customers ask Fidela Montelongo whether she serves tomatoes, she points to a large eraser board hanging on a wall of her restaurant. In red letters, it reads in Spanish:

“If you wish for tomato to be served with your food, please ask for it…for your health.”

Montelongo, owner of Refresqueria and Taqueria Montelongo on Southmost Boulevard, isn’t the only restaurateur in Brownsville to take the red fruit off the menu after a multi-state salmonella outbreak was linked to raw Roma, red plum and round red tomatoes.

Other businesses are not giving customers an option when ordering.

Jason’s Deli, El Pollo Loco and Whataburger all have signs alerting customers they will not serve tomatoes until further notice. Carino’s Italian Grill has stopped using them in every dish, including salads and sauces, and Taco Palenque is only using tomatoes in their salsa, which is heated to kill bacteria.

But the city also has local fare specializing in Tex-Mex and Mexican dishes that have stopped adding tomatoes to flautas, tortas, tacos, tostadas and salsas. Customers haven’t complained, restaurant owners said.

“I’ve had no trouble with customers,” said Yolanda Barrientos, as she prepared cheeseburgers at her small taqueria on Southmost Boulevard. “In fact, they ask me not to serve them tomatoes. Who wants to get sick?”

Barrientos, owner of Taqueria Mely, said she doesn’t buy tomatoes even though some grocery stores have been authorized to sale them. Other restaurants, like Kikis2, have temporarily switched to using canned tomatoes.

“The food doesn’t taste the same,” owner Marco Martin said. “But what can I do about it?”

The Texas Department of State Health Services has confirmed 68 cases of salmonella in Texas as of June 12, according to its Web site.

Salmonella bacteria cause diarrhea and vomiting, which can lead to dehydration. The bacteria are spread by tainted soil or water and can only be killed effectively with heat.

No city ban on tomato exists because the exact source of the outbreak hasn’t been pinpointed, said Arturo Rodriquez, director of Public Health for the city. Health officials have only recommended restaurants not to use thethree types of tomatoes that have been linked to the outbreak, unless cooked at 145 degrees.

Health officials also advise consumers to properly wash tomatoes.

As published June 12, 2008