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A Night at Chico’s

Savoring an institution from 9 p.m. to 2:30 a.m.

By Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Monthly

Chico’s Tacos sits on Alameda Avenue in a humble area of El Paso known as the Lower Valley. Though a chain of five eateries now share the Chico’s name, el original is this one. Here, wedged between a graveyard and a small park where the homeless often congregate, the city’s most famous hangout has been sustaining El Pasoans with its processed cheese and soupy tomato sauce since the day that late boxing promoter Joe Mora opened its doors, on July 4, 1953.

As a kid, this was my favorite place to go on Friday evenings with my grandmother. I’ve since moved away—for college, for work—but as anybody from El Paso can tell you, Chico’s leaves a greasy imprint, and one cool night this past November, I returned with friends. The restaurant looked radioactive in the darkness, a humming beacon with fluorescent lights that turned the beige brick walls yellow. Inside, the booths were the bright-red vinyl I remembered. Arcade games, the same ones I’d begged quarters from my grandmother for as a rotten eight-year-old, blinked in the corner. It was almost nine at night on the Friday after Thanksgiving, but it was as busy as a lunch-hour rush. An employee rattled off orders over a crackling intercom as families, trailing children in pajamas, pushed through the doors. A group of teenagers giggled by the counter.
Full story.

Photo by Jazmine Ulloa

Personalities who move and inspire.

Austin data buff gives civilians tools to help fight crime in their communities

By Jazmine Ulloa
Austin American-Statesman
 
In his fight against crime, Jack Darby doesn’t sport a cape. The creator of krimelabb.com wields a keyboard.

An information technology analyst with more than 20 years of experience, Darby has worked for six technology consulting startups in Austin, modeling and converting data and forecasting trends. He is a numbers buff.
Full story.

The Working Life: Mina Thornton, 47

As told to Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Monthly
 
People always ask, “Does this color look good on me?” I never ask. There’s not a color I won’t wear. I’ve liked clothes since I was a little girl. I’d always mix and match shades and patterns. But I was the youngest of ten, and my parents could only afford to give us so much. So I grew up to be resourceful, even as I sought out expensive brands. I remember how, after those rare trips to the mall, my sisters would come home with double the number of outfits that I did. I was particular. I preferred having fewer garments of higher value.

I still choose quality over quantity. I don’t have a closet full of shoes. I don’t wear many accessories. I keep it simple, classy. That’s what guides my ropa usada philosophy. Used clothing has long been a thriving industry in Hidalgo and all over the Rio Grande Valley. Like other ropa usada dealers, I buy my secondhand clothing by the pound from all over the country; I then sell the bales internationally, mostly in Mexico. But I also sell some of the clothes at my store. While most vendors traditionally focus on either selling wholesale, by the truckload, or retail, in a storefront, I was one of the first store owners in the city to do both.
Full story.

The Working Life: Jason Macias, 40

As told to Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Monthly
 
A police officer is the first stopgap against crime. We patrol areas with high levels of illegal activity, and we write tickets—lots of them. These are often for minor offenses, but they are the first measure when we can’t, say, catch a drug dealer in the act. Our citations enable investigators to build a case that allows for a raid. I have friends, for instance, who go out to the areas known for being rife with drugs. They keep busting the same people, helping narcotics detectives zero in on who’s selling and who’s buying.

I oversee the shallow West Side of San Antonio, which officers used to call the “wild, wild West” back in the day. The area has calmed down, but it remains one of the rougher parts of the Alamo City. In my square, where Guadalupe Street crosses South Sabinas, there’s a lot of prostitution. There are several closed-off roads where guys go to pick up the prostitutes. Even though I have probable cause to stop all of them for being there, and I know what they’re doing, I can’t always arrest them for prostitution. It’s difficult to prove. So I bust them for other things, such as walking in the street or other traffic violations. I try to keep these women and their johns away from the neighborhoods, but there are a lot of narrow alleys and empty lots, and these people are pretty unashamed. The tickets I issue pile up for the frequent offenders, and detectives—say, on the vice unit—can later break up the larger sex rings.
Full story.

Family remembers victim of fiery crash

By Jazmine Ulloa
San Antonio Express-News
 
When Francisco Perez wed his wife almost 25 years ago, she knew how to cook only one dish, he recalls.

“Arroz con pollo,” he said in Spanish with a faint chuckle. Rice and chicken. “Practically every day for the first two months of our marriage that is what she prepared for me: arroz con pollo. Arroz con pollo. Arroz con pollo.”

But Matilde Perez, 39, killed in a fiery crash on the South Side early last week, had mastered the culinary arts and had been working as a caterer in the months before her death, her husband said. A vivacious woman who loved to dance, laugh and work with her hands, she made some mean chiles rellenos and a mole no one in the family could duplicate.
Full story.

The Working Life: Jody Blackburn, 45

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.

Gloria Brooks shares a few cooking tips

By Jazmine Ulloa
The Brownsville Herald
 
Gloria Brooks is known in Brownsville for her sandwichón, a twist on your typical sandwich that looks like a cake and layers chicken or ham with bread and cream cheese.

She bakes a wide assortment of treats that have earned her the nickname the “Cookie Lady.” And she makes some mean empanadas that back in the day made her popular across the city.

But most requests coming into her kitchen during the winter season are for a traditional treasure — fresh, golden tamales.
Full story.

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.
Full story.

The Working Life: Jason Macias, 40

Macias has served as a patrolman with the San Antonio Police Department for the past seven years. He works the shift that runs from 10:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. (known as the “dog watch”) and is based out of the Central Substation, which oversees downtown and
its surrounding area.

 
As told to Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Monthly
 
A police officer is the first stopgap against crime. We patrol areas with high levels of illegal activity, and we write tickets—lots of them. These are often for minor offenses, but they are the first measure when we can’t, say, catch a drug dealer in the act. Our citations enable investigators to build a case that allows for a raid. I have friends, for instance, who go out to the areas known for being rife with drugs. They keep busting the same people, helping narcotics detectives zero in on who’s selling and who’s buying.

I oversee the shallow West Side of San Antonio, which officers used to call the “wild, wild West” back in the day. The area has calmed down, but it remains one of the rougher parts of the Alamo City. In my square, where Guadalupe Street crosses South Sabinas, there’s a lot of prostitution. There are several closed-off roads where guys go to pick up the prostitutes. Even though I have probable cause to stop all of them for being there, and I know what they’re doing, I can’t always arrest them for prostitution. It’s difficult to prove. So I bust them for other things, such as walking in the street or other traffic violations. I try to keep these women and their johns away from the neighborhoods, but there are a lot of narrow alleys and empty lots, and these people are pretty unashamed. The tickets I issue pile up for the frequent offenders, and detectives—say, on the vice unit—can later break up the larger sex rings.

Full story.

As published in the July 2011 issue

Photo by Sarah Sudhoff

 

The Working Life: Mina Thornton, 47

Thornton opened Tres Hermanos Ropa Usada thirteen years ago in Hidalgo. As president of the 25-employee business, she buys ropa usada, or used clothing, from around the country and resells it in South Texas and throughout Mexico.
 
As told to Jazmine Ulloa
Texas Monthly
 
People always ask, “Does this color look good on me?” I never ask. There’s not a color I won’t wear. I’ve liked clothes since I was a little girl. I’d always mix and match shades and patterns. But I was the youngest of ten, and my parents could only afford to give us so much. So I grew up to be resourceful, even as I sought out expensive brands. I remember how, after those rare trips to the mall, my sisters would come home with double the number of outfits that I did. I was particular. I preferred having fewer garments of higher value.

I still choose quality over quantity. I don’t have a closet full of shoes. I don’t wear many accessories. I keep it simple, classy. That’s what guides my ropa usada philosophy. Used clothing has long been a thriving industry in Hidalgo and all over the Rio Grande Valley. Like other ropa usada dealers, I buy my secondhand clothing by the pound from all over the country; I then sell the bales internationally, mostly in Mexico. But I also sell some of the clothes at my store. While most vendors traditionally focus on either selling wholesale, by the truckload, or retail, in a storefront, I was one of the first store owners in the city to do both.

Full story.

As published in the October 2011 issue

Photo by David Strohl

 

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