Big Beat

Texas Representative Aaron Peña (R, but formerly D–Edinburg) is in the hot seat this week after testimony in San Antonio federal court last week proved inconsistent with Peña’s description of his role in the recent redrawing of Texas voter district maps.

The proposed new map for state House districts includes a specially created conservative district for Peña. That district surfaced mere months after he switched political parties, helping give the GOP a supermajority in the Texas House.

Peña stated on the House floor during session in April that he told the redistricting committee, “I will not draw this map because one, I did not want to be involved. And two, that I didn’t want to be involved in pairing or being involved in affecting my neighbors districts.”

But that doesn’t square with what House redistricting committee counsel Ryan Downton testified in a San Antonio federal court last week. Downton said he worked directly with Peña on the district lines after the first draft of the map was released. Specifically, Downton said that Peña told him which neighborhoods were favorable to the lawmaker so that Downton could include them in Peña’s proposed district. This is according to Texas Democratic Party deputy executive director Anthony Gutierrez, who posted the report of court proceedings on Monday on that party’s blog  The Party Insider.

Apparently, it proved awfully difficult to carve a conservative district for Peña out of Democratic-leaning Hidalgo County. Compared with surrounding districts—all Democratic— Peña’s HD 41 is   under populated by about 7,000 people. Downton testified that including more voters would have made the district too Democratic as Hidalgo County is largely populated by Latinos who have never before elected a Republican. This process of putting more voters in neighboring districts is a method of gerrymandering known as “packing” where minorities are packed into surrounding districts to create a non-minority district for interested parties.

A call to Rep. Peña’s office got me this quote from Peña:

“I did not physically draw the map, did I make suggestions to the map drawers, sure just like 149 other members did. I have always been forthright that I communicated with staff and legislators as is my duty as a member of the committee.  These sort of petty personal attacks by hyper-partisans are not constructive.”

The same day Gutierrez released his report, the Department of Justice filed legal briefs announcing that the Texas House and congressional redistricting maps violate the Voting Rights Act of 1965 because they don’t protect the electoral power of the state’s minority populations. This means the case will go to federal court in Washington D.C.

The Voting Rights Act is a landmark piece of legislation that outlawed discriminatory voting practices especially prevalent in the American South. Texas is required by federal law to get pre-clearance on any changes to voting procedures because of its history of disenfranchising minority voters. (More on this and the various court proceedings in my print column in the upcoming October issue of the Observer.)

As of this writing, the San Antonio federal court proceedings have wrapped, but the panel has not issued a report. It’s waiting for the decision to come down from D.C. courts that are allowed to make the final decision on this case. That could take as long as November. Meanwhile, Peña has a very tough reelection fight on his hands, even if his friendly district is upheld.

This year, we’re kicking off Hispanic Heritage Month with the disheartening news that Latinos, for the first time in American history, comprise the majority of inmates in federal prison. One reason for this, according to the  Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University, is the unprecedented amount of undocumented immigrants being arrested and charged rather than deported. The trend is a tactic on the part of the Obama administration, (and the Bush administration before them), says Walter Ewing, senior researcher at the Immigration Policy Center, to butter up conservative litigators for immigration reform.

“It’s a losing strategy because it’s never going to be enough for them,” Ewing told political watchdog site Colorlines, referring to members of Congress who demand “a secure border” before they can consider immigration reform.

Meanwhile, those sneaking into the United States to willingly perform labor for minuscule wages are finding themselves involved in a far more diabolic system than they bargained for. Namely, privatized prisons motivated by profit.

Corrections Corp. of America, (it sounds like something out of a  Monty Python skit, but it’s sadly very real), runs more than 60 prisons and immigrant-detention centers across the country. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks the effect of money on U.S. politics, CCA has spent more than any other corrections company–$17.6 million– lobbying politicians, contributing to their campaigns and hiring their former staff. They also lobby the Department of Homeland Security and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement division which just so happens to contract with CCA and other private companies for immigration-detention centers.

Though CCA says they only lobby to educate policy makers, one can’t help but notice that what they lobby for is tougher prison sentences. After all, it’s how they make their money.   

As for the claim that private prison companies run a more efficient ship, one only has to do a cursory search online to find their records rife with incompetence that has cost many inmates their lives. The country’s second largest private prison company, GEO group, formerly called Wackenhut, which runs a facility at Guantanamo Bay, has been involved in numerous scandals across the country, including here in Texas. One of note resulted in a teenage inmate at a Coke County facility committing suicide after she was repeatedly raped by a guard. A court investigation found that some of the guards Wackenhut hired had criminal records themselves.

“There’s a lot of room for improvement in state-run prisons, but at least they’re not in it to make money,” says Alexia Rodriguez, VP Immigrant Children’s Services and Legal Counsel for Southwest Key, a non-profit that provides alternatives to incarceration for youth. “When money is your motive for providing this kind of service, the results are never good.”

What kind of heritage are we creating with a culture that’s willing to make money on the backs of poor immigrants? Let’s take this Hispanic Heritage Month to seriously consider the consequences of our actions.

Dallas’ Most Eligible

When last we spoke about the current state of Texas as portrayed through the pop culture lens, I warned you that the state’s image was about to get an update through the medium of reality television. Well, it turns out Bravo’s new series, Most Eligible: Dallas is not so much an update, as a reinforcement of everything embarrassing you’ve ever heard about big-haired, privileged, and, dare I say, white, Texas. (There are no eligible people of color in Dallas, apparently.)

I’m not saying any of the above qualifiers are in and of themselves bad. It’s just that when you combine them all together and simmer them in a culture of pseudo-religious piety, you often come up with some insufferable characters. Such is the case with Most Eligible: Dallas because such is the point of these shows. I must admit. I kind of love it.

My absolute favorite cast-member, (to hate) is 29 year-old Courtney Kerr who is secretly in love with fellow cast mate Matt Nordgren. The only one not in on the secret, of course, is Courtney. Courtney is a “fashionista” who wears a bumpit in her hair like The Jersey Shore’s Snooki, (and Sarah Palin). She’s fond of getting drunk and terrorizing the women that Matt brings to dinner. One such unfortunate guest is 23-year-old Neill Skylar, the new girl in town, who leaves her 1-year-old son at home to go out to dinner with the gang. Courtney entertains her with pointed jabs like, “Have you always been a single mother or is there a baby daddy in the picture?” Later Courtney cries in the bathroom saying she only said those things because she is so devoted to the sanctity of motherhood and family because she is “so Texan.”  Get this woman a presidential campaign, stat!

One character who might have given me hope of broadening Texas’ image is Drew Ginsberg, the only openly homosexual cast member. Drew sells sports cars for the Boardwalk Auto Group, a luxury dealership founded by his dad. He also just lost 200 pounds through various surgeries and is still learning to deal with his new body. That includes maintenance techniques like injecting himself with a female hormone that somehow helps him lose weight.

Like the show itself, Drew seems rather oblivious to anything outside of the vapid world of privileged, white Dallas. Take for example his blind date in episode two with a diminutive fellow named J.P. that he and Bravo like to call the “redheaded Mexican.”



“How long you been in Dallas for?” Drew asks as soon as he hears J.P.’s accent. (Veiled ethnic background check, party of one.)  “I have never seen a redheaded Mexican before in my life,” Drew tells the camera later in disbelief. “Holy…she set me up with an endangered species!”

At this point in history, it shouldn’t really surprise a native Texan—next-door neighbor to Mexico— that Mexicans can have red hair, or any other kind of hair under the sun, but that ignorance is unfortunately the case with many Americans. Drew’s reaction to J.P. is especially cringe-worthy, though, when he laughs out loud at the word Chihuahua. As in, J.P. is originally from there. I guess his only prior experience with the word is Taco Bell.

Of course, reality television shows achieve ratings by casting the worst humans available.  This may not be the best medium to update Texas’ image for the better. To that point, it’s probably better that the minority population is left the heck out. Let’s just hope we don’t become the first generation to elect these reality stars to any sort of real power the way we have with other entertainers. Let’s leave the “reality” of some parts of Texas on the tube.

The Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans recently petitioned the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles to issue a license plate featuring the Confederate flag. An April vote by the DMV board  wound up tied, and now, with a re-vote pending, Texas is perilously close to issuing a license plate featuring a symbol embraced by white supremacists across the American South. But Texas is not quite the bastion of white Southern rebelry it once was, and the national media would have you believe it remains. The latest census figures show that Latinos, African Americans and Asian Americans collectively make up 55 percent of the state’s population. In the event the Confederate plate is adopted, here’s a list of places you might want to avoid should you be inclined to don one of these things on your truck.

Dallas/Fort Worth & Houston Perhaps no places better reflect the changing face of Texas than these metro areas. Showing up today with a Confederate flag on your license plate in Texas’ two largest urban centers probably isn’t a good idea. In terms of African-American population growth in the past decade, Texas ranks No. 2 in America, behind only Georgia, earning both Dallas and Houston mentions on Black Enterprise magazine’s Top Cities For African Americans list. The black population grew by as much as 178 percent the past decade in the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs, according to the census.

Austin Unless you want to find a naked hippy flash mob picketing your car when you walk out of the local Walmart, you better not even think about cruising through this mecca of liberal weirdness with a Confederate flag license plate. The University of Texas at Austin hosts a student body of nearly 50 percent ethnic minorities.

San Antonio Approximately 63 percent of San Antonio’s population is of Hispanic origin, according to the 2010 census. One word for anyone foolish enough to drive through the home of Fiesta with a Confederate flag on their car: piñata.

El Paso El Paso, a city with an 80 percent Latino population, overwhelmingly voted for Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. Showing up there with an antiquated hate flag is not going to win you many friends.   

The Rio Grande Valley The Valley’s population spiked by roughly 63 percent in recent years, topping out at nearly 1.2 million inhabitants, according to the census, with anywhere from 83 to 86 percent of those folks being Latino. The median age is just under 30 years old, too, making the general vibe down there anything but “Old South.” You really want to ride through it in the General Lee?

The Sons of Confederate Veterans say their flag isn’t about race. They say they simply want to honor their ancestors who died in battle. But putting aside the race issue for a moment, is this history really something the state of Texas should officially sanction on a license plate? I don’t think so, and here’s why:

The Confederacy was a separatist government that waged war against the United States, lost, and was forced to disband. Can you imagine Texas honoring any other government that went to war with the United States by putting that government’s flag on a Texas license plate? Would we put the Mexican flag on a Texas license plate? The Mexican flag used to fly over Texas, too. Something tells me the very same people who are so concerned with preserving Southern heritage would be the first to take up arms against the idea of the state printing a Mexican flag on a license plate to honor Mexican heritage.

A member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans told me that, originally, the Confederate flag was not intended to be a racist symbol. And even though some local chapters have published statements on their websites disavowing any bigotry associated with the flag, they cannot change the fact that for decades the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups have used the Confederate flag as a symbol of white supremacy. “Which is why there’s no Confederate flag on any of my stuff,” the Sons of Confederate Veterans member I spoke to told me, leading me to believe that maybe he doesn’t support the proposed plate, either.

A DMV spokesperson said the re-vote on the license plate is not on any upcoming board agendas for now. The spokesperson did say, however, that the application is still on the table. Here’s hoping a little sensitivity for our current cultural climate prevails.

Rick Perry’s Guide to Abstinence

Perry says abstinence-only sex ed would work if only people were applying it correctly. Here's a how-to guide.

This week the Internet revived an October 2010 interview clip of Gov. Rick Perry talking teen sex with Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith. Asked why Texas persists with an abstinence-only sex education curriculum when the state has one of the highest teen pregnancy rates in the country, Perry responds glibly, “Abstinence works.”

“But we have the third highest teen pregnancy rate among all states in the country,” Smith replies. “It doesn’t seem to be working.”

“It works,” Perry insists. “Maybe it’s the way it’s being taught or the way that it’s being applied out there.”

You hear that, Texas teens and educators? The problem is that you’re just doing it wrong. Allow me, then, to break down the ins and outs (no pun) of how to maintain teen abstinence, Gov. Perry style.

1. Don’t get aroused.

The best way to avoid having sex is to never get aroused. Thousands of years of evolution–which you can’t prove exists anyway!—are no excuse for having sex. Instead, focus on avoiding anything sexual in nature, especially pornography. What’s that you say? Back in 1995, Perry personally invested in and profited from America’s largest porn distributor, Movie Gallery, Inc, distributors of such porn classics as Teens Never Say No? Listen, kids, I’d like to familiarize you with a little concept adults like to call, “Do as I say and not as I do while I’m alone in my hotel room on a business trip.” Soon enough, you’ll be allowed to give hypocritical lectures on not doing what elected officials do on Twitter all the time. For now, keep it in your pants.

2. Be ashamed. Be very ashamed.

When the thought of having sex enters your mind, it’s helpful to picture a non-virgin as a disease-ridden Peppermint Patty that’s been passed around the classroom by all of her friends. That’s an exercise I picked up from Texas’ abstinence education program. Even though a 2005, state-sponsored study by Texas A&M University showed that kids are having more sex after they take such courses, Rick Perry’s administration spent over $18 million in federal funds on such curricula in 2007 alone where kids also learned that “entire families” have died of AIDS because the parents had sex before they were married and that, if they, too, were already having sex, they’d basically disappointed God forever.

3. Look, just don’t have sex, okay?

The best way to remain abstinent from sex, teens, is to not have sex. Sure, you’re 14 years-old, your hormones are raging out of control, and you belong to the first generation that has no idea what it’s like to have to wait for anything ever, but I’m confident you’ll have a sudden, uncharacteristic desire to delay gratification during a hot and heavy make-out sesh with your boo. “I’m just going to tell you from my own personal life,” Perry wants you to know, “abstinence works.” Really, how much easier can he make it for you? Just stop getting pregnant already, kids. You’re making the governor look bad. Don’t you know he’s running for president now?

Rick Perry is using religion to court Spanish-speaking voters, too.

In addition to his affiliation with the  New Apostolic Reformation group and The Response prayer rally in Houston, Perry also rallied this summer, largely unnoticed, with the pro-life nonprofit Manto de Guadalupe (or Mantle of Guadalupe), created by Mexican model and actor Eduardo Verastegui. Verastegui, a 37 year-old telenovela star and former Mexican boy bander who bills himself as the “Brad Pitt of Latin America,” has appeared in at least one Hollywood movie, several U.S. television series, and a Jennifer Lopez video. More importantly, he is hell-bent, pardon the expression, on using his celebrity status with Latinos in the United States to spread his strict Catholic ideals.

At a public speaking event last spring, Verastegui famously touted his own alleged eight-year chastity, telling a group of women that he was influenced by a vocal coach on the film Chasing Papi—that movie might make me reconsider my life’s direction, too—where he reconnected with his Catholic upbringing. He made a commitment from that point on, he says, to work on only projects that align with his religious beliefs. He created a production company called Metanoia Films—Metanoia is Greek for repentance—and the company’s first project, a pro-life film called Bella, won the Toronto Film Festival’s People’s Choice Award in 2006.

Verastegui, a Mexican citizen who cannot vote in this country, is no stranger to American politics. He campaigned heavily for John McCain to Latino voters during the 2008 presidential election and led a campaign to get Latinos in California to vote yes on Proposition 8, helping ensure that gay marriage stayed illegal in that state.

But Verastegui’s biggest feat in the United States so far was the day he hosted a Spanish-language pro-life rally at the Los Angeles Sports Arena to fund “the largest pro-life women’s clinic in the United States,” which he had vowed to build in that city, just a few miles from ten abortion clinics.” About 5,000 Spanish-speakers showed up and the clinic was dedicated in July.

Along with several religious leaders, the fundraising event, called Unidos por la Vida, (United for Life), was attended by iconic Mexican actress and television show host Veronica Castro and none other than the Governor of Texas. Perry was the only English speaker at the event and his attendance there was widely seen, by those who noticed, as his first attempt to court the national Latino vote for his impending bid for the White House. 

A quote from Perry’s speech at the event did make international news, but not many in the English-speaking world realized the weight of those celebrities who flanked the governor as he called America an “exporter of abortion,” referencing the Mexico City policy signed by President Obama that allowed NGO’s performing abortions abroad to receive aid from the U.S.

“I’m especially proud that within the last few weeks, I signed a bill that will not allow any child to be aborted in Texas without the mother first having a sonogram,” Perry said, referencing the controversial Texas legislation or Forced Sonogram Bill.

Perry’s Christian values mesh well with Verastegui’s, “I will not use my talents except to elevate my Christian, pro-life and Hispanic values,” he promised a group of celebrity guests gathered at a smaller fundraiser for that same pro-life clinic. That meshing could be the sweet spot Perry needs to gain favor with conservative Latino voters. The combination of the governor’s historically lenient immigration record and his pro-life stance, and affiliation with the very Catholic and somewhat beloved Verastegui could be a winning combination not tapped by the Mormon Mitt Romney.

Video of Rick Perry’s speech at Unidos por Vida:

State Sen. Chris Harris of Arlington recently made national headlines when he lambasted a witness during the legislative special session for testifying in Spanish (with an English-language interpreter) at a committee hearing on SB 9, the so-called sanctuary cities bill. “It’s insulting to us!” he shouted to the surprise of some colleagues, who hadn’t been consulted on the affront. “It’s very insulting.”

That’s an interesting choice of word: insulting. How can a language be insulting? A word, sure. A word can be insulting. A sentence, too. But a language? I’m really insulted by Japanese. No, that’s just not rational. 

Obviously, what Harris was really feeling was fear. Fear of becoming extinct. As if Spanish is some new language that’s come to wipe English-speaking Texas off the map. As if Spanish-speaking people did not help create the very Texas culture that Sen. Harris holds dear.

Harris isn’t the only lawmaker who mistakenly believes that Spanish is a threat to Texas. At the opening of the 82nd Legislature, Rep. Leo Berman of Tyler told Austin’s YNN news that the most important and cost-effective bill he filed this session was HB 301, which would have established English as the state’s official language. By ceasing to print official state documents in other languages, Berman reasoned, the state would save a bundle. With economic visionaries like Berman, no wonder this session opened with a $27 billion deficit.

Let us not forget that during the last session, Berman authored HB 253, along with Rep. Debbie “Terror Babies” Riddle of Tomball. That bill would have prohibited second-language proficiency requirements, meaning the state could not require applicants to know another language in order to get a job or a promotion. Berman and Riddle wanted to officially sanction ignorance among state employees. Which, had the bill passed, would have dovetailed nicely with the $4 billion they cut from education this session.

It’s easy to make jokes about the questionable intelligence of bureaucrats, but the truth is, it’s ordinary Texans who stand to lose IQ points if the lawmakers have their way. Banning state documents from being translated to other languages boils down to censorship. Don’t be fooled by words like “preservation of culture.” What English-only legislation aims to preserve is power in the hands of a select group of people.

How is a person who does not speak English, or perhaps does not read it, to defend himself in court when the charges brought against him are, by law, not printed in his native tongue? In many pockets of the country, like the Rio Grande Valley, generations of people were born and raised in the United States but never learned English. They don’t need to. Is that insolent? Maybe. But is it any more insolent than the millions of Americans who refuse to learn any language but English and then defend their ignorance as a matter of patriotism?

Recently I had breakfast with my 88-year-old grandmother, who was born and raised in Donna, Texas, when the official policy was to punish kids for speaking Spanish at school. “But that was what they had to do to make sure we learned English,” she reminded me. “We had the tradition of speaking Spanish in the home even though my parents were born in Texas, so how else were we going to practice?”

Now my Spanish is terrible because my generation was the first to be encouraged to speak English in the home. My native tongue became a legacy of shame passed down from my grandparents to my parents. But not to me. My generation now knows that children are capable of learning multiple languages at once, far more easily than adults. If we want our children to succeed in this increasingly globalized world, the more languages they know, the better shot they’ve got.

Yes, Sen. Harris, perhaps it is insulting to realize the world isn’t as small as you would wish.

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