Back to mobile

Big Beat

It sure seems like there was gun-walking going on in Texas, and yet U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder won’t answer any questions about it. The fourth member of a Dallas-area gunrunning ring that was observed for months by the Bureau of Alcohol Tobacco, Firearms & Explosives (ATF) while the men bought and sold the gun that ultimately killed Laredo ICE Agent Jaime Zapata in Mexico last year was sentenced to seven years in prison Monday. U.S. District Court Judge Sam Lindsay handed down the sentence in Dallas Monday after Otillio Osorio plead guilty to conspiracy and other charges relating to a gunrunning network.

Osorio was the last of the group to be sentenced after his brother, Ranferi Osorio, received a 10-year prison term in March for running the network. Their accomplices Kelvin Leon Morrison, 26, and Luis Carbajal, 23, received two and a half years in prison and two years of probation respectively for conspiring to buy guns from licensed dealers using false statements, which the dealer is lawfully required to record and store.

Though the firearms charges are not directly related, the Osorios supplied the gun that was ultimately used to shoot and kill Laredo ICE agent Jaime Zapata in Mexico in February of last year. ICE Agent Victor Avila, also from Texas, was shot and wounded in that attack, which occurred on a stretch of highway between Mexico City and San Luis Potossi.

There is alarming evidence to suggest that Agent Zapata was the victim of an unauthorized ATF gun-walking program gone awry, much like the one that was exposed in Arizona last year, Operation Fast & Furious. Federal records show agents were watching the Osorio brothers sell a 40-gun load to an informant at a store parking lot in Lancaster, Texas. They allowed the Osorios to drive away after the deal.

Agent Tom Crowley, spokesman for the ATF in North Texas, told Dallas affiliate CBS11 in February that arresting the brothers then would’ve risked blowing a larger investigation. A gun-walking operation, perhaps? Gun-walking is when law enforcement officials allow illegal guns to enter Mexico so they can allegedly follow them to the bad guys. In the case of Fast & Furious, however, more than 1,000 guns were lost and ended up at crime scenes, including that of U.S. Border Patrol agent Brian Terry, who was shot and killed while patrolling the Arizona desert last year, and, you guessed it, at the murder of ICE Agent Jaime Zapata.

“There was a stop, but it was also a part of another federal law enforcement operation,” Crowley said. “By taking them down and arresting them at that time would have possibly jeopardized that investigation.”

Attempts to find out from U.S. Attorney General Holder whether a Fast & Furious type program was occurring in Texas have gone largely unanswered, prompting congressional Republicans to consider holding Holder in contempt. The latest word, however, is that the Repubs are slowing down that effort because it’s too risky in an election year. And, that, America, is your tax money at work.

I recently attended a panel at The Daily Texan offices where some University of Texas educators and I had a conversation with the Texan staff of student reporters and editors about how to better handle issues of race in the stories they cover. The panel came about after a controversial cartoon appeared in the Texan last month regarding media coverage of the shooting murder of unarmed African-American teen Trayvon Martin in Florida. The cartoon offended a lot of people with its suggestion that the media has turned the case into a race issue when it’s not, and for its use of the word “colored” to describe Martin. The Texan editorial board issued a formal apology for publishing the cartoon and announced that its creator, Stephanie Eisner, would no longer work for the paper. It was then that they invited several professionals to come speak to The Daily Texan staff. Having covered the story twice on the Observer’s website, I decided to attend. Some things that stood out:

Stephanie Eisner was not necessarily fired. It’s not been revealed whether Eisner was fired or whether she quit. If Eisner was fired, one panelist opined, the editors who let the cartoon run should also be fired if The Daily Texan doesn’t want to appear to be making Eisner the scapegoat. No one on the staff responded.

College kids might not realize “colored” is an offensive word. One African-American professor on the panel explained to the room why the term “colored” is offensive to black Americans and wondered aloud if it was a generational thing for the young Texan staff not to know this. I followed up with an email to the editorial board to ask if this was the case. They declined to comment.

Some white people are afraid to approach subjects of color for fear of appearing condescending or exploitative. The student editors and others asked several times: Can we create more diverse coverage in the future without people accusing us of only doing it because of what happened with the Trayvon Martin cartoon? The answer we gave them was don’t worry about it. You’re always going to have critics no matter what you write. Better to write the truth, and the closest way to get to the truth is to cover all angles.

When a panelist suggested that the Texan do a story about racial profiling by approaching men of color on The Drag near campus and asking them if they’ve ever been racially profiled, one Anglo reporter asked very sincerely how he could do that without offending the men of color. It had never occurred to me that such an inquiry could be taken as offensive. I told him that if his intentions are honorable and if he listens to his subjects, most people are eager to tell their story to a mainstream media that largely ignores them.

What struck me most about the conversation with these college staffers is that they are asking the same questions about diversity that professional media outlets ask. The issues with which The Daily Texan is grappling are issues that all professional institutions grapple with.

Why is everyone in our office white? How do we reach out to people of color? Where are they? Why don’t they feel comfortable here? Why aren’t they coming for interviews when we advertise job openings? The issue is bigger than The Daily Texan. This is a societal issue. People of color are still far more likely to grow up in relative poverty, where the idea of going to college or, if they do go to college, majoring in something as “frivolous” as journalism, is just not seen as viable. It behooves those of us in positions of power to reach out to those who may never have had anyone say to them: Have you ever thought about writing for the paper?

A diverse staff won’t ensure that offensive content never gets published, and that’s okay. As one African-American professor said, “It’s important those kinds of views get printed in the paper so we can know what those people are thinking.” Still, having a variety of life experiences represented on the masthead increases the likelihood that more viewpoints are expressed.

Cindy Casares
Willie Nelson checks out a bronze version of himself.

I just got back from the dedication of a statue of Willie Nelson from non-profit Capital Area Statues to the City of Austin. The Theme was “4/20.” For the uninitiated, the numbers four and 20 when put together are, for reasons known only to Cheech & Chong, a reference to marijuana smoking. When people say, “It’s 4:20,” they mean it’s time to smoke pot. April 20, or “4/20,” is unofficial Marijuana Appreciation Day. So, Willie Nelson being the cannabis aficionado that he is, the city of Austin chose to unveil his statue on April 20 at 4:20. We get it Austin. You’re so weird.

The crowd of about 100 people gathered to watch the unveiling, on Willie Nelson Boulevard, a patch of road on 2nd Street in downtown Austin, was jubilant. And they were probably mostly high.

Though I am not a pot person, I must confess that I have been known to call Willie Nelson my fantasy grandpa as well as my spiritual guru. I have several of Willie’s books on philosophy and dirty jokes on a shelf at home and have seen him perform at baseball fields and arenas alike across this great land. So I, though not high, was jubilant, too.

After all, there was a baldheaded baby in the crowd wearing red pigtails and a bandana.

Kris Kristofferson showed up, too, seeming a little out of it. We may have disturbed his nap.

Suddenly an odor came wafting through the air, where I was standing mere feet from the Austin Police Department. I looked at my phone. Exactly 4:20 on the dot. For potheads, these guys were pretty on the ball.

Of course, Austin Mayor Lee Leffingwell was on the stage at 4:20 and the statue was not, as had been promised, being unveiled. The crowd became restless. “Willie! Willie! Willie!” they chanted. I felt sorry for the mayor, but he didn’t seem to notice. He didn’t get off the stage until 4:21. Magic time be damned.

Several famous people I didn’t recognize got up on stage and pulled off the tarp. There it was. I managed to snap a photo of Willie first laying eyes on it. He went straight to Trigger. The guitar. What a musician’s musician.

The eight-foot-tall, one-ton bronze cast, created by sculptor Clete Shields of Philadelphia captured Willie’s depth of spirit. And the depth in Trigger’s trademark hole. I’m glad we’ll have it long after (bite my tongue) Willie is gone.

“Anybody know what time it is?” Willie playfully asked the crowd. Cheers from the potheads.

Sorry, Willie. At this point, it’s like 4:25. Not too late for you to play a song, though.

Which he did. “On the Road Again” with harmonica player Mickey Raphael and his son (I think) on back up. Then he dedicated one to the crowd, “Roll Me Up & Smoke Me When I Die.” I will leave that to the hardcores. I will more likely just visit the statue.

Stephanie Eisner—a cartoonist at The Daily Texan fired because of an incendiary cartoon she drew last week depicting the killing of unarmed Florida teen Trayvon Martin—has found some support in the form of a petition being circulated online on her behalf. The petition, spearheaded by University of Texas graduate student and former Daily Texan Columnist Samian Quazi, calls for the paper to reinstate Ms. Eisner as cartoonist, but at the time of this writing it had garnered only 181 out of the targeted 5000 signatures.

Personally, I never thought the editorial board would fire Eisner, and I don’t believe it was the correct course of action. Like one commenter on the Burnt Orange Report said in response to an opinion piece by Quazi about why Eisner should be reinstated:

In general [Eisner] was attacking the media portrayal of the incident. An exaggerated portrayal to be certain, to the point of it being a straw man. She’s attacking the media for making it so racially charged, not attempting to bring race into it herself. Just because she’s discounting the potential influence of race in this case doesn’t make her racist. It just makes her naive.

I also didn’t think journalist Juan Williams should have been fired from NPR in 2010 after he said on The O’Reilly Factor that Muslims at the airport make him nervous. Why? Because people need a chance to redeem themselves after learning from their mistakes. At this point, the public scorn is punishment enough. Let’s give them a chance to show they can take feedback and turn it around if they so choose.

What happens instead is that people like Williams and Eisner have the opportunity to go away feeling like they are the victims instead of the people they have ignorantly stereotyped. They get to say “those self-righteous liberals find fault with everyone, therefore their complaints against me can’t be legitimate.”

I think the correct course of action was for the editors at The Daily Texan to apologize for allowing a piece like that to be published in their paper. A course they did take after first stating that it was their policy to allow their contributors to publish their opinions.

The mistakes in the cartoon alone, (misspelling Martin’s name, unclear labeling, calling Martin a “colored boy” when no major media outlet has), should have sent it back for revision. If Eisner’s intent was to make liberals think about their prejudices, she failed in her communication and the majority of people could see that (hence the paltry 181 signatures in her defense). Why couldn’t The Daily Texan editorial board?

“[Daily Texan Managing Editor Audrey White] and I have discussed ways to address this problem that is inherent to The Texan where we’re not engaging with diverse communities,” Vivian Aldous, Daily Texan Editor-in-Chief told a crowd of more than 50 people gathered on the University’s Communication Plaza last week to discuss the effects of the cartoon and how to move forward. “I’ve worked at the Texan for four years. That’s a problem we’ve have always had and that’s something we want to address because it is our problem. And it’s not that people haven’t been coming to us, it’s that we haven’t been going out and reaching out to other people.”

White did reach out to me and other journalists this week with an invitation to visit the University on Friday to share with The Daily Texan staff our experiences covering topics related to race, racism and diversity.

“If you’re a journalist, that’s part of your job… to understand what the different sensitivities and perceptions are,” Donna de Cesare, Associate Professor at the UT School of Journalism said at the same meet-up last week. “There’s a history at The Daily Texan. This is not the first time that racist cartoons have appeared in the Texan and that the coverage has not been reflective of this campus as a whole. I feel that this is something that the editorial board should have paid attention to. It should not have happened. What I’m hearing today are positive steps, but they really have to own the mistake that they made.”

Photo by Cindy Casares
Attendees witness the unveiling of the Tejano Monument at the Texas State Capitol

I attended the unveiling of the Tejano Monument at the Texas State Capitol on Thursday. Seated in front of a crowd of hundreds on the South Lawn were dignitaries including the governor and the first Latina Texas Supreme Court Justice. It was a momentous occasion, and I felt lucky to be there. After 500 years, Texans of Hispanic ancestry are officially recognized by the state of Texas. Right there in the front yard for everyone to see.

My favorite part of the event wasn’t listening to the hour of speeches thanking the many individuals who spent a decade turning the idea of a Tejano Monument into a reality. My favorite part was when Austin Community College professor of history Dr. Andres Tijerina gave the crowd a lesson in Tejano contributions to Texas culture.

“In so many ways the Mexican Tejano culture is so ingrained in our daily lives that many Texans fail to see the Mexican in their own lives,” Tijerina said. I wonder what members of the GOP would say about that. You’ve got a Mexican in you!

Tejanos brought the cattle industry and culture to North America, pioneered the wool and mohair industry that exists in Texas today, exposed Anglo Texans to mounted law enforcement—which they copied to form the Texas Rangers—and even served as an example to the United States legal system, which copied Spanish Tejano homestead and community property laws. “I could go on and on about all the American laws that are (based on) Spanish Tejano laws,” Tijerina said.

“In fact, everything that Texans brag about is Tejano,” he boldly proclaimed. “The Texas Longhorns, the Texas Mustangs, chili, everything they brag about today is Tejano. Come to think of it, if it wasn’t for the Tejano heritage, Texas would probably be Ohio.”

Of course, there are many people to thank for their hard work toward this incredibly important acknowledgment of Hispanic Texans. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D-Laredo), who authored the Senate bill that made the monument possible, wanted everyone to know that Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst was at the top of the list of supporters in the Senate.

“If he had not sponsored it, if he had not stepped up and said, ‘I want this bill to pass,’ it wouldn’t have happened,” she told a crowd at a Wednesday night reception for the monument’s sculptor from Laredo, Armando Hinojosa.

“All of a sudden when Gov. Dewhurst gave his support, all the barriers simply melted away,” she reiterated at the unveiling on Thursday morning. “It was because of his simple statement of support that we passed this bill in the Senate unanimously.”

Gov. Rick Perry also made an appearance at the beginning of the event, addressing Hinojosa by saying, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like.” I had to laugh at his cowboy persona, but I also reminded myself that it was the governor who defended the DREAM Act during his presidential run under immense pressure from his party to do otherwise.

“As I’ve said before the future of Texas is tied directly to the future of the Hispanic population,” Perry said. And, as I wrote in a previous story on the Tejano Monument, Texas’ past is also directly tied to the Tejano past. Now, visitors to the Capitol will have a chance to know that. It’s a start.

Stephanie Eisner
The cartoon originally printed in The Daily Texan.

On Tuesday, University of Texas student newspaper, The Daily Texan, published a political cartoon on the topic of Trayvon Martin and yellow journalism.

The image seems to say that all the fuss made over the gunning down of unarmed African-American Florida teen Trayvon Martin by self-appointed neighborhood watch captain George Zimmerman is just a story cooked up by the liberal media.

It features a woman reading a story to a child. The title of the book she’s reading is, “Treyvon [sic] Martin and The Case of Yellow Journalism,” except that Daily Texan cartoonist Stephanie Eisner drew the title starting on the back cover and continuing horizontally to the front cover. If you read it the way it would read on a real book, it says, “Treyvon And The Yellow,” and “Martin Case of Journalism”.

Then there’s the fact that she misspelled Trayvon’s first name. And that it’s actually the rocking chair that’s labeled “The Media” and not the woman. Oh, and I know this is UT, but do we have to bring football into it? Or, what the heck is that on the child’s chest? It looks like she’s so shocked that the media made up this horrible story that she dropped her NCAA championship trophy.

I bring all this up to point out that the cartoon is so haphazardly drawn that it seems Ms. Eisner didn’t put much thought into what she was saying about this 17 year-old child who was gunned down for no reason at all, and the laughable justice system that still hasn’t charged his killer. And all this offensiveness is before we even consider the words being read by “The Media” to the child:

And THEN, the BIG BAD WHITE man killed the HANDSOME, sweet, innocent, COLORED Boy.

If Eisner’s beef here is really the liberal media bias and not African Americans, what on earth would possess her to call Martin a “colored boy”? Her statement to the press apologizing for what she calls an “ambiguous cartoon,” gives us no further explanation:

I apologize for what was in hindsight an ambiguous cartoon related to the Trayvon Martin shooting. I intended to contribute thoughtful commentary on the media coverage of the incident, however this goal fell flat. I would like to make it explicitly clear that I am not a racist, and that I am personally appalled by the killing of Trayvon Martin. I regret any pain the wording or message of my cartoon may have caused.

What Eisner seems to have missed in the creation of her cartoon is that the media is covering the story because Trayvon Martin was black precisely because he got shot because he was black, and George Zimmerman hasn’t been charged because Trayvon Martin was black. That Trayvon Martin was black is the story here.

What’s even more appalling is that this cartoon made it through a board of editors who defended themselves in yesterday’s Daily Texan by saying it’s their policy to let contributors say their piece.

The views expressed in the cartoon are not those of the editorial board. They are those of the artist. It is the policy of the editorial board to publish the views of our columnists and cartoonists, even if we disagree with them.

What’s upsetting about the cartoon is that it smacks of an entitled young, white person from The Woodlands, (and yes, there can be white Hispanics and George Zimmerman is one and, guess what, so is Stephanie Eisner), belittling the plight of dark-skinned children who are not allowed to walk down the street in a hoodie lest they be gunned down for the way they are perceived.

When I was growing up, I’d imagine life in the 21st century and wonder what kind of amazing advances we’d be living with by then. If Hollywood was to be believed, everyone was going to have a flying car and a moving sidewalk outside their home. We were well past the civil rights and women’s movements, so surely in another 20 years racism and sexism would be almost non-existent, if not eradicated. A woman had already been nominated for vice-president, so the political future looked bright for women.

Surprise: there are no moving sidewalks outside the average home and my car is still not only stuck to the ground, but runs on gas, for which people and wildlife die each year. But the biggest surprise is how far we’ve regressed in the areas of civil and reproductive rights. Between anti-Latino sentiment and the assault on women’s reproductive health, Texas has done more damage to goodwill between itself and Latina voters than I’ve seen at any other time in my life.

Let’s start with Planned Parenthood, which was forced out of the state’s Medicaid-funded Women’s Health Program (WHP) in March. Texas law prohibits any clinic that provides abortion services from getting funds from the Women’s Health Program. The Texas Legislature also cut the state’s family planning program from $111 million to $37 million, and then put Planned Parenthood and other traditional family planning clinics without comprehensive coverage at the bottom of a three-tiered list of recipients. The result is that many thousands of low-income women who use Planned Parenthood for basic health care, birth control and cancer screenings will be without coverage.

Then there’s the Voter ID law the state passed last year requiring voters to present a state or federally issued photo ID at the polls. Voters without the required identification may receive a provisional ballot, but it will be counted only if they return and present an approved ID within six days of the election. The problem, as opponents have repeatedly noted, is that the people least likely to have an ID are Latinos. Hispanics make up only 21.8 percent of all registered Texas voters, but account for more than 38 percent of registered voters who lack proper identification, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

For that reason, the Justice Department moved on March 12 to block the law from going into effect before the upcoming May presidential primaries. The department refused to “pre-clear” the new law, saying the statute disenfranchises some of the state’s minority voters.

The day after the DOJ’s decision, Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott filed suit, challenging a key provision of the historic Voting Rights Act of 1965, which singles out Texas and several other states with histories of minority discrimination. The Voting Rights Act mandates that these states get pre-clearance from the federal government on any changes to election laws. Which is why Texas had to get pre-clearance from the DOJ in the first place. Abbott asked a federal panel that is currently reviewing the Voter ID law to allow Texas’ lawyers to take the DOJ to court. Texas’ challenge to the Voting Rights Act could end up before the Supreme Court.

While Gov. Rick Perry has described enforcement of the Voting Rights Act as “continuing and pervasive federal overreach,” he sees nothing overreaching about his party’s gangly new voter districts, which reach all the way from Austin to San Antonio, and nothing overreaching about the sonogram probe he and his right-wing cronies are forcing into the uteri of Texas women who seek an abortion.

Old white men grasping frantically at their last vestige of power is what’s happening in this state today. They know the decisions they make now will affect whether they remain a relevant political force 20 years from now, and they aren’t messing around. They’re hanging on for dear life.

The rest of us can overreach, too, by standing up for our voting and health care rights. Texas can become a state that represents the majority of its citizens, or it can continue to discriminate. It’s up to us to decide. I, for one, will use the platforms available to me to overreach my way to a place at the table.

Last Sunday ABC premiered a new show set in Dallas called GCB, about a group of archetypal white, Protestant, new-money Texans and their backstabbing ways. The show, originally titled Good Christian Bitches, then Good Christian Belles, and finally GCB, is based on a book with the same, original naughty title and did not impress me out of the gate. That’s not because it disparages Texans. I’m no Rick Perry who denies tax incentives to producers who make Texas look bad. No, my issue with GCB is that it centers on the same tiny fraction of the state that most media does, while ignoring the multitudes of other interesting stories to be told.

In December 2010, I wrote a story for the Observer about this very topic. When you think of Texas, you think of millionaire oil barons and ranchers and the big-haired blondes who accompany them, yet almost no one who lives here fits that mold. This is because films like Giant and John Wayne’s Alamo helped cement in the world’s mind a Texas that hasn’t existed for ages.

The truth is, there’s a whole diverse, modern state out there that’s getting missed. Dallas has a Latina sheriff and Houston has a Lesbian mayor. The county judge in Bastrop is a black Democrat who fancies bowties. The majority of Texans are non-Anglos and have little resemblance to the Good Christian Bitches of well-to-do Dallas. Yet, at a time when the top 1 percent has been vilified across the country, ABC chooses to focus on J.R. Ewing’s Texas.

This is bugging me because I’m being forced to live it in a far more serious arena: politics. Texas earned four new congressional seats this year due to minority growth and, yet, somehow, no new political power was given to those minority groups. That was thanks to redistricting maps that look curvier than the surgically enhanced patrons of GCB’s Hillside Park Memorial Church.

Perhaps it’s because the show is from the creators of Sex and the City and Steel Magnolias, that it’s so out of touch with contemporary reality. What was fun about Sex and the City in the late ’90s is excessive in today’s economy and the old world South of Steel Magnolias is not something Texas has ever particularly cottoned to. After all, who ever heard of a Texas Belle?

Comcast announced Wednesday it’s making good on its deal with the Federal Communication Commission to “launch 10 new independently owned cable channels, with most backed by African Americans and Latinos, by 2018.” One of those, called El Rey, is to be helmed by famed Tejano director Robert Rodriguez, or as I am fond of calling him, Ro-Ro.

Rodriguez, now in his 20th year since the release of El Mariachi, is teaming up with “hybrid entertainment, media business development and consulting firm” FactoryMade Ventures for the project, though more partners could be added as they begin to raise funds for this venture. FactoryMade Executives John Fogelman and Cristina Patwa told Fox News Latino they “spent a lot of time looking at the Census” before they approached Rodriguez with the 200-page proposal for El Rey.

“By the second slide, he was in,” Fogelman says.

According to Wednesday’s press release, the idea chosen by Comcast from more than 100 different proposals is a channel “designed to be an action-packed, general entertainment network in English for Latino and general audiences that includes a mix of reality, scripted and animated series, movies, documentaries, news, music, comedy, and sports programming.”

English because Rodriguez is a multi-generational Mexican-American, not a recent immigrant, and his programming will be aimed at just those types of Hispanics that he says are underserved by the media. (They are.) Well, half of them anyway. El Rey is skewed towards men. I guess it wouldn’t be authentically Latino if it weren’t patriarchal.

“Looking at the marketplace you see that the male (Hispanic) audience is really underserved,” Rodriguez said. “This is the sort of thing I’m versed in and we know that kind of programming will attract a younger audience as well.”

Translation: Look forward to more of Ro-Ro’s signature blowing stuff up and the like.

Even the name, El Rey, sounds to be a nod to Jose Alfredo Jimenez’s ranchera standard, “El Rey,” which is Mexico’s “My Way,” but with more chest hair.

A new production company called Tres Pistoleros Productions, created by Rodriguez and FactoryMade, plans to supply a range of programming to Comcast from scripted and unscripted series to documentaries and sports. They’re already tapping in to old ideas of Rodriguez’s to develop both a live-action and an animated series, according to Variety.

No word yet on whether Rodriguez plans to do any filming at Troublemaker studios in Austin, but after the Texas Film Commission denied him tax incentives because his film Machete hurt the state’s feelings, it’s possible he’ll take his ball and play somewhere else.

Reaction to the news from Latinos online has ranged from major excitement to “morbid curiosity” and inevitable fear of yet another low-budget, English-language Latino cable network aimed at the younger generation.

El Rey is aiming to launch in January of 2014. Look for the blowing up of stuff around that time on a TV near you.