916.695.6882; jazmineulloa@gmail.com

Human interest and news articles with a softer touch.

Apartment walkway collapse could lead to tougher code enforcement

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
Five months after a walkway collapsed at the Wood Ridge Apartments, little progress has been made on repairs at the Southeast Austin property, and community leaders say the city is allowing slumlords to go unchecked in low-income neighborhoods.

With another apartment building in the same area evacuated last month, city officials say they want to toughen code enforcement efforts at aging, multifamily complexes by actively inspecting properties and working with owners to improve safety conditions. But skeptics say the efforts don’t have real teeth.
Full story.

Hope slowly returning for Bastrop fire victims

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
BASTROP COUNTY — There are things the wildfire did not take from Jerry Tuttle last September, a ring his girlfriend gave him four years ago among them.

He wears it on his left hand and spreads his fingers to show it off, a darkened Black Hills gold band engraved with clusters of grapes and what he thinks are maple leaves.
Full story.

The Kings and Queens of Brownsville

When it comes to chess, students in Texas’ southernmost border town make all the right moves
 
By Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Co-op Power Magazine
 
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.
Full story.

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.”
Full story.

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.
Full story.

She still wears black

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Magazine
 
Sgt. Yvonne Vann wants to testify. She wants to tell the jury what was taken, what she lost in the early hours of May 28, 2011, when authorities allege 42-year-old Mark Anthony Gonzales, intoxicated and on antidepressants, opened ambush-style fire on Bexar County Sheriff Deputy Sgt. Kenneth Vann, her colleague and husband.

A veteran and sheriff deputy for almost 24 years, Kenneth, 48, had been waiting in a marked patrol car at a red light in east San Antonio when he was attacked. He died at the scene, and the slaying ignited a massive investigation that involved local and federal agencies and garnered national headlines.

What the killer took, Yvonne says, with a solemn gaze out of round, dark eyes, was her most trusted friend, her deepest supporter, and the man whom she had built a house and a life with on the rolling hills of northern Spring Branch.

On Memorial Day, the anniversary of his death, craft supplies spill across Yvonne’s kitchen table—paper, scissors, labels, ribbons and plastic flowers, all in red, white and blue. Three large wreaths sit on thin metal stands before the bright disarray. They are covered in patriotic insignia and the colors and crest of the U.S. Marines. She was up past midnight cutting and pasting, arranging and rearranging their display. Kenneth, contemplative and stern in his deputy uniform, gazes out of blown-up photographs attached to the middle of each crown. “It’s true: if you want something done right, you have to do it yourself,” she says. A smile spreads across her face, copper blonde hair falling at her shoulders.

Yvonne, 45, gets things done. She began her 20 years in law enforcement as a detention officer on the overnight shift at the Bexar County Jail and worked her way up to the patrol division and later the investigative unit. Today she is dressed in jeans and a navy blue T-shirt, ready to run errands in preparation for the small ceremony she has organized, where about three dozen friends and relatives will gather in the sweltering summer evening to share their memories of her husband. This is the reason for the service, she says, pointing to the lettering on a garland: “A hero remembered never dies.”

On her first stop of the day, Yvonne rolls her red Ford Explorer into a parking lot beside the towering, dusty brown complex of the Bexar County Jail in downtown San Antonio. Behind her, 16-year-old Kenneth Vann Jr. and a teenage friend pull up in another SUV and carry one of the wreaths from the trunk to a small outdoor courtyard.

Rectangular plaques, slender and silver, are fixed in a brick ledge commemorating sheriff officers and officials killed in the line of duty over the decades. The first was Joseph Hood, Yvonne explains to her husband’s youngest son, who is looking over the fallen sheriff’s inscription, dated 1840. He was slain in a battle against Comanche chiefs.

She walks over to the black tablet where her husband’s name is engraved in thin, gold letters. Kenneth was the 17th deputy to die on duty and the last in almost a decade. At 2:12 a.m., dispatchers held a moment of silence in his honor over the radio. Officers who had worked with him on the night shift decorated the scene of his death with flowers and placards. “They were sitting out there reminiscing and eating gummy bears,” she says, “just like he always used to do.”

When she thinks of the senselessness of it all—of a crime without reason—she becomes angry and her voice trails away.

At the memorial, the hum of cicadas and birds fills the silence as friends and relatives make their way to Kenneth’s grave behind St. Joseph Catholic Church in Spring Branch. Kenny was a troublemaker as a child, they recall, and trade smiles. He straightened up when he joined the military and became a loving husband and devoted father.

He was a lot smarter than he looked, a childhood friend jokes, and he dreamed of having a family. No one fit that plan better than Yvonne. Drying her eyes, she finally stands before the cluster of loved ones to speak. “I just wanted us to share memories of Kenneth,” she says, a slight tremble in her words. “Thank you all for all of your support.”

Kenneth was married when they first met in 1994 responding to a report of a burglary in action. She was training to become a sergeant. He was a traffic officer. While he attempted to bust down the door, Yvonne entered the house with other deputies through a sliding door in the rear. She caught one of the burglars, too—the “Maytag Kid” who hid in the dryer. “We made three good arrests that day,” she recalls.

The timing wouldn’t be right for more than two years after his divorce. In 2004, at the prodding of friends, Kenneth finally built up the courage to ask Yvonne on a date. Fellow deputies knew they were in love. She was the missing piece in his puzzle, they say. Outgoing and sweet, she softened him up and pulled him out of his shell.

They moved into their new home on his birthday, Nov. 2, 2004, with his three children: Kenneth Jr.; Justin, now 20; and Rachel, now 26. Like any couple, they had their troubles and their fights about bills, credit scores and retirement. But they were an all-American family and shared all the responsibilities. She worked by day and he worked by night. “Kenny would tell me we were two ships passing in the night,” she says.

Yvonne would take Kenny Jr. to school. Kenneth would come home and sleep, then pick his son up and sometimes surprise her with dinner.
A skilled mechanic, he would work on their renovated green RV for hours, and they would take it out on weekend vacations and cross-country road trips—first with the kids, and later as they grew older, on their own. She would drive by day and he would drive by night. They were happy.

Courtesy photo

They had plans to retire, to travel to California and Florida and maybe Colorado, and to someday renew their vows on a Jamaican beach. But despite what Yvonne has lost, she still has her strength. “I am a fighter,” she says. “I have always been a fighter.”

She had been asleep in the dark morning hours when she heard the knock. Through the glass doors of her home, she could see flashing lights behind several deputies and her mother. She knew what a visit like this meant. She and Kenneth had often discussed the dangers of the job and the fear crossed her mind that he could be seriously wounded. But the pain that coursed through her in those moments as she learned of her husband’s death was unbelievable.

They had been days away from celebrating their third marriage anniversary. For the first time, she felt the push and pull of her two worlds collide and did not know which role to play—deputy or wife, wife or deputy.

She was infuriated by the lack of details. She wanted to rush to the site herself, to interrogate every person within miles, to put together the evidence like she had in hundreds of investigations throughout her career.

Now, however, she was the victim. There were rules to follow, and a crime scene that could not be jeopardized. Sheriff department protocol dictated she could not visit the area. She had to surrender her gun, a policy of which she reminded her colleagues; in retrospect, probably more for her own good, she says. She waited until sunrise to tell the children and finally broke down when she was alone.

Before authorities had any information, there were theories the killer could have been someone she or Kenneth knew or had arrested in the past.

Then a man came forward and told authorities he and Gonzales had planned to meet at a nearby Denny’s. According to court documents, less than an hour after the shooting Gonzales called the man and said, “I killed a cop. Don’t tell no one, not even your wife.” When investigators arrested Gonzales a week after the incident, they said he had no connection to the Vanns and they had found no motive. An arrest warrant affidavit states the suspect had been drinking all day and taking medication before the slaying.

Jury selection for Gonzales’ capital murder trial was previously set to start in July, but a district judge granted a motion filed by the defendant’s attorneys to postpone the trial. A new date has not been selected. Yvonne is prepared, she says a couple of days after the memorial. She has not forgiven her husband’s shooter and does not believe she ever will, but she has found ways to heal.

She took a three-month leave of absence after Kenneth’s death but came back to the job because she believes she has so much left to contribute. She patrolled southwestern Bexar County upon her return, which was tough and made her family and coworkers uneasy for her safety. When a position opened up with the mental health unit, she took it. She assists the courts, serves warrants and helps transport inmates considered criminally insane to treatment facilities. It is more of a desk job, she says, but mental health is an area often neglected, and she finds the responsibilities rewarding. With her bachelor’s degree in public justice and a master’s in management, she plans to pursue a career as a lieutenant.

She keeps busy as a volunteer, as well, working with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, an organization focused on promoting new legislation and enforcement of federal and state gun control laws, regulations and public policies. She shares her story at local and national events and lobbies to keep weapons out of the hands of convicted felons, like the man accused of killing her husband.

She hopes some good emerges from the tragedy. And she wants to do more for victims. Her husband’s death thrust her into a new world. “I had never been on that side,” she says. “It always happens to someone else. It never happens to you.”

What moves her forward every day, she says, are Kenneth’s children, whom she considers her own. Especially in the boys, one can see their father’s handsome features, a strong jaw and serious eyes. Their daughter is about to be a mother, their eldest son is majoring in biomedical engineering at Texas A&M University, and the youngest is a junior at Smithson Valley High School. After his father died, he chose to continue living with Yvonne, rather than his biological mother.

Yvonne didn’t think they would ever marry. He didn’t seem to want to after a difficult divorce. She just wanted to be near him. But on Christmas Day in 2006, she found a little box with a ring hidden in the pine tree in their living room. In that romantic side he rarely revealed, he knelt down on one knee and popped the question.
She doesn’t know if she will ever marry again. But she does know she will never love someone as much as she does Kenny.

As published September 2012

Photo by Josh Huskin

 

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

 

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