Death and Texas
In Austin I had visited the newly opened Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum, dedicated to the late Democratic lieutenant governor who was vital in establishing the Bush "legacy." For the most part the museum's permanent exhibit presents the state's history as a provocative saga of colonial, racial and class conflict, but ticket-sellers were eager to steer tourists to a special installation called "It Ain't Braggin' if It's True," designed to cement the state in the caricature of Wild West individualism. "Texas is no place for the faint-hearted," reads one panel. In addition to drought, floods, hurricanes and boom and bust cycles, "it tests the individual with social structures that resist change." For this, "Texans have one tool that gets them out of most tight spots: perseverance."
Paul Robbins and Andrew Wheat of Texans for Public Justice have put together a list of things to which Texas can claim bragging rights. Among the fifty states, it ranks second in hunger; third in malnourishment; fifth in children living in poverty; forty-sixth in prenatal care; forty-seventh in child immunizations. It ranks first in almost every category of environmental hazard; first in people without health insurance; second in poor children without health insurance; forty-fourth in public health spending; and fiftieth in per capita state spending. If Texas were a person, someone would move to take away its kids.
As it is, the state's fitness is never on trial, and it decides who gets to be a parent. The day before Tina Rodriguez and Noel Perez buried Ramiro, Child Protective Services seized their three other children. In Kerrville, twenty-eight miles north of Bandera, Tina's mother, Lionora, remembers how the family was just returning home when a white van and a police car came into view. In a flash, a woman grabbed 4-year-old Paublo and 3-year-old Kassandra. Another woman was pulling at eighteen-month-old Noel Jr., trying to rip him from Tina's arms, while the older ones screamed, "Mommy, Mommy," and the little one clutched on in terror. That was February 13, 1998. No one in the family--not their parents or grandparents, not their five aunts and five uncles, not their twenty-six cousins--has seen them since.
The State of Texas terminated Tina and Noel's parental rights. Lionora Rodriguez says that when she asked Judy Brown of CPS if she and their grandfather could have the children, "she told me no because there were too many people living here, plus my house was too poor and we were too old." Lionora, 56, whose house is crowded and down at the heels but vibrant with well-loved, good-tempered grandchildren, says she was never allowed even to propose how she might make room for more. "They just went around us as if we were nothing." Now Paublo, Kassandra and Noel Jr. have been adopted out, severed permanently from their parents and familial roots, lost through a proceeding known as "the capital punishment of civil law."
Amid the Hill Country's ranchettes and antique shops, people don't know the half of it. The only serious press treatment of the Rodriguez case was an excellent story by Debbie Nathan in San Antonio's alternative paper, the Current. Otherwise, there's just rumor and shards of fact and fiction, half-remembered. Someone wandering in the Guadalupe Cemetery in Kerrville might pause at the coincidence of names and dates on two little graves there. Ramiro Perez 1997-1998. Roman y Fabian Perez, 1998-1998. Now, what was that about?
Tina Rodriguez was pregnant again when she was arrested, and at five-and-a-half months, while awaiting trial in the county jail--her family, tapped out from retaining lawyers, couldn't make bail--she gave birth to twins. They lived about an hour and a half. Their grandmother learned of this in a call from a funeral home; by then her daughter had been transported back to the cell. Lionora says Tina sleepwalked through the trial; "she wasn't with us." Grief is another country.
When she first got to the Marlin prison, about 175 miles from Kerrville, Rodriguez worked in the fields picking fruits and vegetables; sometimes she was part of a gang that would be driven out to clean local parks. Now she works in the print shop. She is allowed no personal phone calls, and can receive two visitors for two hours once a week. She has found Jesus. No longer the mother of six children, she is a Texas prisoner. Life as an endurance test.