A Death in the Hill Country
It is hard to stay calm after seeing the baby’s autopsy photograph. Entered into evidence in a Hill Country courtroom earlier this year, it shows the infant Ramiro Pérez looking like a victim of African famine or the atrocities at Buchenwald. His tiny ribs are starkly outlined through his skin – every one of them. His belly sinks into his spinal column. His buttocks are no thicker than his thighs, and the skin hangs on them like the wrinkled sleeves of an old sweatshirt.
On his face, the cheeks cave like a very old man’s. His shrunken corpse weighed barely five and one-half pounds. That is eight ounces less than at birth, seventy-five days before he was put on the coroner’s scales hours after his death in early 1998.
The person deemed most responsible for this horror is Ramiro Perez’ mother, Tina Rodríguez. She is a lifelong Hill Country resident, and this spring, the media from Kerrville to San Antonio buzzed about her trial for the capital murder of two-and-a-half-month-old Ramiro. “Starvation,” boomed the headlines, for that was what the state of Texas was saying: that Rodríguez had deliberately deprived her infant son of food in order to kill him. The plan was carried out, prosecutors noted, in a rickety tin shack with no running water. Pictures of the miserable dwelling popped up repeatedly in the papers and on nightly TV news.
In February of this year, Rodríguez had a trial in Boerne. The verdict was guilty, and she was sentenced to automatic life imprisonment. It was one of the harshest punishments ever meted out in a child starvation case. Rodríguez won’t be eligible for parole for forty years. Her husband, Noel Perez, was also originally charged with capital murder. But he was offered a plea to the less serious charge of child endangerment, which carries a maximum twenty-five years imprisonment and possible parole in half that time. He took the deal in May. It got little publicity; the Hill Country by then had moved on to other things. The case, it seemed, was closed.
But disturbing questions remain. People who knew and worked with Rodríguez before she was arrested believe she was a troubled woman, but they don’t think she deliberately murdered her infant. People who got acquainted with her at the trial – including members of the jury who convicted her – question why her lawyers didn’t effectively suggest other possibilities for little Ramiro’s death besides the prosecutor’s monstrous scenario of maternal sadism. Nutrition experts speculate that the culprit was health problems: in Ramiro, Rodríguez, or both. A sociologist notes that women accused of killing their children are being judged and punished far more harshly now than they used to be. She worries that the new vengeance, with its images of mothers as wicked threats to their children, is the flip side to the equally pernicious myth of mothers as perfect nurturers.
And the Rodríguez case was but one in a worrisome statewide trend: a 71 percent increase in child abuse homicides in Texas in 1998. There were 176 such cases during fiscal 1998, compared with about 100 per year through most of the nineties. The early 1999 numbers are also high, and officials are at a loss to explain the increase.
The details of Ramiro Perez’ death, and of his mother’s life up to that death, are complex, unruly, and mostly unknown to the public or to Rodríguez’ jury. The story takes place within the economic and social backwaters of places like Kerrville and Bandera, where the cheery antique stores and dude ranches hide an astonishing amount of poverty and trouble – perhaps especially for young mothers. Tina Rodríguez’ life exemplifies a darker side of the Hill Country, one that never appears in tourist ads or travel magazines. Entering this bleak territory, we may be able to see more deeply, even past the terrible last picture of her child.
“We called her Gordy,” Tina’s mother, Lionor Rodríguez, testified on the second day of her daughter’s trial, and she went on to explain that the nickname stuck because Tina is “big, like me, a little on the chubby side.” Although mother and daughter both are barely five feet tall, each weighs at least 165 pounds. In Tina the bulk shows up in her round face, thick neck, and in her belly, which strains her dresses and pants even when she’s not pregnant. But “Gordy” didn’t always fit her. At birth in 1973, Tina and her twin sister, Cristina, were two months premature and weighed little more than two pounds apiece. Back then, doctors were just managing to save such small, undeveloped babies. With her twinhood, prematurity, and tiny size, Tina’s infancy was remarkable.
It was probably the last thing in childhood to make her feel special. After their discharge from the hospital, Tina and Cristina joined five other siblings in a home where it was hard for any of the seven kids to get much parental attention. One problem was poverty. Lionor’s husband, Mike Rodríguez, has always supported the family as a construction worker. The work is hard and low-paying. But Rodríguez’ education and earnings were constrained by the prejudice and segregation that reigned during his youth in the Kerrville area in the fifties. Lionor also grew up in the Hill Country, on a ranch where her parents worked as day laborers. For young Mexican Americans like them, the civil rights era still lay in the future. They were still relegated to segregated neighborhoods. In school they were punished for speaking Spanish, and their Anglo teachers told them not to bother with academic subjects or college. Amid the ensuing cultural isolation, traditional customs continued, including the old-country, Catholic practice of marrying early and having many babies. Lionor was fifteen when she had her first child. Six more followed over the next fifteen years. The family lived in a run-down, ghettoized part of Kerrville known variously as The Barrio and Nigger Town. They are still there today, in an old clapboard house with peeling paint, moldy floorboards, and cracks snaking down the walls.
The Rodríguezes’ insularity, large family size, and poverty were and still are common among Hill Country Hispanics. In addition, Tina’s family had its own problems when she was young. Due to marital difficulties – Lionor was jealous of Mike and convinced he was running around on her – the couple split up for nine years, beginning when Tina was only a few months old. As Tina’s kindergarten teacher, Jean Tally, remembers, Lionor had a rough time managing the household alone. Tina was a willful, mischievous child, recalls Tally. She and sister Cristina often came to school infested with lice. Lionor didn’t seem neglectful, says Tally – just “overwhelmed.” (When told of Tally’s recollections recently, Lionor said she didn’t remember anything about lice.) Despite the problems she perceived, Tally thought Tina “had what it takes” to make something of herself. She ran into her former pupil a couple of years ago in Kerrville. “She looked like she was doing so well; she said everything was great. I was so pleased.”
But Tally was mistaken. Long before her meeting with Tina, things had started to go wrong.
It’s not that she was a bad student. By the early nineties, Tina was at Kerrville’s Tivy High School, where she earned Cs, Bs, and an occasional A. Outwardly, she was a cheerful girl with full cheeks, a quick smile, and friends. She was also a devoted aunt to her big brother and sisters’ babies, who were being born one after another in quick succession, just as their parents’ had been. Tina changed her nieces and nephews’ diapers, prepared bottles, and babysat. But she also told her mother she didn’t want her own children until she finished school and got married. She talked of attending college, and as an upperclassman, applied to the Navy, thinking the government could help fund her higher education.
Yet Tina was also involved in a world her family was only dimly aware of. By high school, she was leaving home for daysat a time, with no word where she was going. Her mother figured she was at friends’ houses, and the assumption had a precedent. Earlier, Tina had begun hanging out at the Lopez Club, a tavern and dance hall just outside of Kerrville on the road to Bandera. Since the late eighties, the area has seen an influx of newcomers, mostly young men, from Mexico. They’ve come to work in ranching and in the construction industry, which has burgeoned during the last two decades as the Hill Country has attracted retirees and affluent refugees from cities such as San Antonio. Many of the immigrants who build infrastructure for these people are undocumented. But Lopez’ is known as a place that the Border Patrol leaves alone. The father of one of Tina’s girlfriends owned the club, and Tina started spending a lot of time with that family and away from hers. Saturday nights, she would go to the club and party. That is where she met Noel Perez, a Mexican who spoke little English and had no papers. With his football-player shoulders, longish black hair, high cheekbones, and cowboy shirts, Noel was as hard-looking as Tina is soft. The two started dancing together regularly. He was nineteen. She was twelve.
By the time she was fifteen, Noel and Tina were “dating,” she says, but they weren’t having sex. Then, sometime in her junior year, according to her mother, Tina got pregnant by someone else who apparently abandoned her soon afterward. “She wouldn’t tell us who the father was,” Lionor Rodríguez remembers. Today Tina still won’t talk about him; she will say only that she had a Hispanic boyfriend who was native-born and cruel to her. Lionor remembers the miscarriage in Tina’s third or fourth month of pregnancy. The dead babies were twins. Tina was devastated. She still mourns eight years later, Lionor says, and sometimes muses about what the babies would be doing now had they lived. These are very private thoughts, though. To reporters, Tina will say only that a boy treated her very badly, and she vowed never again to get involved with someone raised in the United States.
Noel Perez was there for the rebound. “He was nicer to me than the one from here,” Tina says. “He used to tell me endearments, to invite me to Mexico and tell me he would show me his land. He made me happy.”
But Tina says her mother rejected Noel because he was Mexican. Lionor denies this: “Whether they’re from there or here doesn’t matter,” she insists. Tina, however, says her mother thinks Mexican men are invariably violent: “Once we were at my mom’s house and there was a Mexican movie showing. A woman was with some some guy and her husband came home and killed the woman and the man. And Mom said, ‘See? That’s why I don’t like Mexican men.'”
Accurate or not, Tina’s perception of her mother’s xenophobia echoes observations from other Kerrville-area Hispanics about relations between local Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals. Martha Toles, a Mexican American who works at the Kerr County Mental Health Center, notes that foreign-born men often are looked down on by the area’s Mexican Americans. Yet native-born Hispanic young men are moving out of the Hill Country. Thus, young women who want to “stay in the culture” increasingly are gravitating to Mexican-born partners, Toles says. That can provoke conflict between girls and their friends and families.
In Tina’s case, the conflict seems less about foreigners versus natives than mother versus daughter. By the time she hooked up with Noel, Tina was already doing “rebellious” things to worry Lionor, says her sister, Connie. Hanging out with Noel was just one more disturbing act. But as Lionor explains it, her antipathy towards Noel was justified: she thought her daughter’s partner was abusing her.
Lionor says she noticed something wrong shortly after Tina graduated from high school in May, 1993. She could have joined the Navy then; she’d been accepted, but she passed on the offer and instead married Noel in September, without telling anyone in her family about the wedding. Lionor knew only that Tina was pregnant, and that she and Noel were living in a trailer in Center Point. She was shocked when she visited and discovered the dwelling had no electricity or water. “Tina’s hair was filthy!” Lionor recalls. “I had to wash it for her.” Connie remembers Tina telling her during this time about what happened when she broached the idea of a separation with Noel. “She said he threatened her with a gun. He said if she left he would kill her, the child she was expecting, and whoever she was living with.” (Noel Perez’ lawyer would not allow interviews with his client.)
At the end of May, 1994, eight months after her secret wedding, Tina gave birth to her first child, a son she and Noel named Paublo. Daughter Kassandra followed twelve months later. Barely eighteen months afterwards, Noel, Jr. was born. It was now January, 1997, and Tina had three children in diapers – three children born in two and a half years.
Ask her today why she had so many kids so quickly, and she seems not to relate to the question. “I’ve always wanted children,” she said recently. “Noel and I planned to have six before we stopped.” But her family remembers that after Kassandra’s birth, Tina seemed overwhelmed. During her next pregnancy, with Noel, Jr., she denied for six months that she was expecting, even though people started noticing and asking her about it. By then, “she was quiet most of the time,” Connie Rodríguez remembers. “She looked sad and sleepy. She seemed depressed. She had too many kids and too much work.”
The work was not just motherhood. A few months after the birth of her oldest, Paublo, in 1994, Tina had taken a fulltime job at Kerrville’s Hilltop nursing home. Her supervisor, Tom Ventro, says she was a “terrific, hard worker” who made lots of friends. At first, she poured and served juice for the home’s elderly residents. Her pay was minimum wage – at the time $4.75 an hour. Full time, that works out to less than $10,000 a year. Ventro later promoted Tina to a more responsible position, preparing desserts and serving meals. Yet she was still making only $6.50 an hour.
Such poverty wages are common for women in and around Kerrville. Newcomer retirees, vacationers, and getaway homeowners need fast food outlets like Long John Silver’s and Little Caesar’s, where Tina’s sisters, Connie and Mary Anne, work to support Connie’s five children and Mary Anne’s three. They need WalMarts, where another sister, Eva – who has eight children – is employed. They need old age homes, and someone to empty the bedpans. Or feed the patients, as Tina did. Huge numbers of Hill Country women work hard at these low-paying jobs while their children are with babysitters or in day care. They do this in a region that – as Tina’s former teacher Jean Tally puts it – “has always been rich and poor and nothing in between.” Yet in the Hill Country’s carefully groomed tourist image, only the affluent have a public face. “Poverty seems invisible,” notes Sister Marge Novak. Novak, a Franciscan nun and nurse practitioner, teamed up with a doctor two years ago to open a free clinic in Kerrville for under- and uninsured women. When the two went out to drum up support from local socialites, Sister Marge remembers being told there was “absolutely no need for a clinic because there are no poor people around here.” They opened the facility anyway. They are still shocked at their numbers: in less than twenty-four months, they’ve served 5,000 woman patients – about evenly distributed between Anglos and Hispanics.
So, in addition to having too many children and too much work, Tina had too little money. But the problem wasn’t just her low-paid job, or the need to pay for a baby sitter for the three kids while she worked. After all, she had a husband who did construction work – which, in the Hill Country, can pay upwards of ten dollars an hour. That adds up to $20,000 a year. Put that with Tina’s $10,000 to $13,000, and the family might have been scrabbling. But it shouldn’t have been destitute. Yet Tina was keeping another secret: in addition to her and the three children in Kerrville, Noel had a wife and children in Mexico, and he was sending them his and Tina’s money.
Tina says she knew about the bigamy and the Mexican family when she married Noel. For years, he had been making visits to his hometown, and in the early nineties he already had four small children there by the same woman. She later announced that she was expecting a fifth child by Noel. One would think this would be a last straw for Tina. Yet today, she seems strangely impassive about the whole affair. “He was honest with me,” she says. “He never beat around the bush. It might have made us short of cash. But I accepted the other family and loved those children like they were my own.”
Tina’s parents and siblings knew nothing about this second family. Norma Medina did. A middle-aged Honduran immigrant who works in housekeeping at Hilltop, she was good friends with Tina there. “Once she told me her husband was married,” Medina recalls. “Once she said they were sending money to the kids.” Medina couldn’t understand why Tina would go along with this. She was working full time, and sometimes double shifts so she could earn time-and-a-half wages. Yet on pay days, she would ask Medina for small loans – five, ten, or fifteen dollars – to buy milk for her babies. Medina started wondering if her friend was a victim of spousal battering. “Tina had Noel on a pedestal; she said he was a good man.” But she also told Medina he was very jealous. When he picked her up from work, he never talked to her coworkers, and he acted as though Tina shouldn’t, either. “I think he didn’t want her to have friends,” Medina says. And there was evidence of violence. “Once, she told me she hit him with a frying pan after he started hitting her. I think she was scared of him.”
Tina’s family was also noticing mistreatment. Connie Rodríguez regularly heard Noel ordering Tina around in a raised voice. Lionor remembers a hot summer day when Tina showed up for a visit in long sleeves. She had no explanation for the clothing, but when Lionor tried to touch her, Tina pulled back her arm and said it was “sore.” Around the same time, Connie saw Noel hit his children. Connie urged Tina to break off with Noel, and suggested that she hide with relatives in Austin, or in the Mexican border city Juárez, where the Rodríguezes have family. “I don’t know,” Tina replied. “What if he finds me and goes through with his threats?” She made no move to leave. Connie became especially angry after Noel approached her one night and asked her to sleep with him. She told her parents, who told Tina. She said she didn’t believe them.
During the time Tina’s friends and family were becoming aware of her troubles, she and Noel and their three children were living in Kerrville, in a rented mobile home in a trailer park. In the tight Hill Country housing market, such places go for $500 a month, often excluding utilities. They are crowded with nearby neighbors, and in Tina and Noel’s case, the neighbors apparently were watching them. In 1997, someone called Child Protective Services and anonymously reported suspicions that daughter Kassandra, about two at the time, had been sexually abused. An inquiry ensued, but the accusation was declared unfounded.
Meanwhile, Tina was expecting again. As with her other pregnancies, she did not see a doctor. So she did her own math, which set her due date for late December or early January. Life went on: she went to work, sometimes volunteered for extra shifts, and occasionally brought the children to work after picking them up from the babysitter. Given her hard circumstances, things seemed as normal as could be expected.
Then things took a turn for the worse. Late in 1997, the family moved – to Bandera Pass, a rural slum on the outskirts of Bandera (see “Hill Country Colonias,” page 14). There, they rented the shack that would later become notorious in the media. Actually, “shack” may be too generous: according to people who live near the ten-by-fourteen-foot tin structure, it was really intended to house goats. It had one room, one bed, and no running water. It was surrounded by mud, burnt trash, old toilet paper, and the smell of urine. Its location, in a colonia rivaling the worst such neighborhoods on the Texas-Mexico border, was a shocking world away from even the poorest homes in Kerrville. And it was yet another secret – both a public secret in the Hill Country, and one that Tina kept from her friends and family.
“She told us she and Noel had found land and a trailer they were making payments on. She told us it was white and had a fence around it,” remembers Tina’s mother, Lionor. “She was so excited telling me about this new piece of land,” adds Tom Ventro. “She said it had a trailer.”
Tina says she and Noel ended up in the shack after they heard about a very cheap piece of land and a trailer in Bandera Pass, owned by relatives of a friend of Noel’s. She says that by the time they arrived, someone else had taken the property. But she and Noel opted to stay in the area while they waited for another plot and trailer to open up. While waiting, they rented the shack for $200 a month. As miserable as it was, Tina says she preferred it to being “smothered” in Kerrville by her family’s criticism of her husband. She didn’t tell her parents her exact address. Once, they went to see her. Lionor recalls, “We looked and looked and never could find the trailer or the white fence. We were about to go to the police when we saw Tina and Noel’s station wagon. My husband went up and knocked and knocked. Noel wouldn’t let Tina open the door.” Lionor now thinks Noel tricked Tina into moving to the shack.
Tina now was living in virtual isolation. Her only respite was her job, and not long after the move, her coworkers noticed she was going downhill. “The last few months of her pregnancy, she was coming into work dressed really ragged,” recalls supervisor Ventro. “Like her shoes didn’t match what she was wearing. She said it was because they were still unpacking.” Norma Medina remembers that Tina seemed tired and depressed, and her skin looked yellow, as though she were anemic or sick. And Connie Rodríguez recalls a disturbing incident when Tina and the children visited her mother’s house in Kerrville. “We had bought a whole box of chicken from Church’s. Tina ate a lot, and her oldest kids” – who were only two and three years old – “ate two or three pieces each, and lots of rolls, and mashed potatoes. My kids said, ‘Mom, look!’ It was weird. We had to go buy more food.”
That was in October of 1997. A few weeks later, just after Thanksgiving, Tina went into labor, even though she hadn’t expected to for at least another month. While giving birth at Kerrville’s Sid Peterson Hospital, she says she heard a nurse comment that the baby was premature. He emerged weighing five pounds thirteen ounces – small for a newborn, but not dangerously so. A doctor who later reviewed the infant’s medical records said he seemed to have a gestational age of thirty-seven weeks instead of the average forty. That is early, but still considered normal, and the records say nothing about prematurity. The records also indicate that at first the infant’s glucose levels were a bit low. But a later test was normal, so Ramiro was promptly discharged with his mother. She took him to the shack, and she and Noel named him Ramiro.
Tina was on maternity leave from work, but about two weeks after the birth, she visited Hilltop to show Ramiro off. “She had a baby carrier, filled with diapers and bottles,” Ventro remembers. “She looked really happy – happier than a pig in fresh mud. But she still looked really ragged. And she wasn’t her usual cheery self. It took us a little while to get her going.” As for Ramiro, he “just looked tiny” to Ventro. Tina’s explanation was that “he was premature.” A few weeks later, she brought Ramiro to work again. Norma Medina remembers that the baby looked weak and skinny. But she didn’t say anything to Tina. She didn’t want to offend her.
Tina never came to Hilltop again. Almost daily, though, Noel drove her to her mother’s house in Kerrville so she and the kids could take baths. Lionor had twenty-eight grandchildren at the time; she was caring for seven or eight of them every day while their mothers worked, and was also shopping and running errands. She was like the Old Woman in the Shoe, overwhelmed, as usual, and she and Tina didn’t get along anyway. She noticed Tina breastfeeding Ramiro or giving him bottles. But the newborn was just one more child among many in the house. Lionor seldom took a good look at him.
Just before New Year’s, Noel, Jr., who was by then eleven months old, came down with pneumonia. Tina took him to the hospital, and records show that besides treating him for his illness, medical workers also instructed his mother to stop feeding him watered down milk. That was a practice the women in Tina’s family had handed down for generations: making “formula” by mixing canned, evaporated milk with water and a little Karo syrup. The custom used to be universal and respectable in the United States: recipes appeared in baby-care books at the turn of the century, and were still showing up as late as 1994 in best-selling texts. Today, the mixture is considered risky, since cow’s milk has been found to be hard for small babies to digest. More affluent, educated, literate parents have known this for a generation. Others haven’t gotten the message. When they are short of funds for commercial baby formula, they frequently resort to cheaper cow’s milk and the old recipe. And when they are really hard up for milk money, poor mothers are tempted to compensate by adding more water than usual.
Tina was definitely hard up. Often, when she visited her family in Kerrville, sister Connie would give her formula for Ramiro that Connie had bought for her own baby. Tina also sometimes breastfed Ramiro – an unusual practice among working-class and poor women. Dedicated breastfeeding demands that a mother be with her baby almost constantly, which is impossible for women who have to work. Even to breastfeed part time, working women need several long breaks during the day to pump and save their milk. That perk is not available to most blue-collar and service workers. Today, breastfeeding in the United States is mostly confined to affluent women. Tina was exceptional: she says she tried it with all her children. She wanted to bond with them, and thought “breast milk is the best thing for babies.”
Yet there were no models among her friends or family to guide her. Her mother had bottle fed all her children. So had her sisters. Tina got some instruction from the hospital after one of her children was born. After that, she was on her own. Apparently, Tina did not understand that for a lactating woman to produce enough milk, breastfeeding should be done regularly, if not exclusively. Instead, she seems to have randomly fed Ramiro commercial formula, cow’s milk, and breast milk, with no fixed schedule for these different foods. It’s thus impossible to know whether Ramiro was getting enough nutrition, or – when his mother nursed him – if he got any nutrition at all. It was also impossible for a medical specialist to evaluate Ramiro’s health. Tina never took him in for checkups.
Everything crashed on Wednesday, February 11, 1998. That evening, Bandera’s Emergency Medical Services and Sheriff’s Department got a call from Bandera Pass. An infant there was reported in serious distress after his mother discovered he was not breathing. When the ambulance and sheriffs arrived, they found Ramiro dead. According to affidavits produced later by emergency medical technicians Cindy Martin and Lynda Cook, Tina was at the scene, crying and distraught. When she remembered that Ramiro had not been baptized, she got so beside herself that Cook tried to calm her by faking the rite. Tina’s grief over her son’s death seemed wrenching and genuine.
Next day, however, Ramiro’s body was sent to Austin for an autopsy. There, Travis County Coroner Roberto Bayardo took the gruesome photograph of the baby’s wizened corpse. He cut it open, drained an eyeball, and sent the fluid for testing to measure biochemicals such as glucose, whose levels are used to diagnose many diseases. Even before the tests came back, Bayardo pronounced Ramiro’s death due to starvation. Bandera-area child protective services investigators entered the case. They noted disturbing details, such as that baby bottles found in the shack the night Ramiro died contained milk that was sour. By the end of February, Tina and Noel had been arrested.
From that point, the story might have taken the usual turn. As horrific as it is to find a dead, emaciated infant in its parents’ care, law enforcement authorities traditionally have blamed such tragedies on ignorance or carelessness. According to U.T.-El Paso sociologist Martha Smithey, an expert on infant homicide, women such as Tina used to be put on probation or referred to parenting or nutrition classes. Since the late eighties, however, a national move to protect children has led to dramatically increased punishments for abusive and neglectful mothers. Even so, punishment for the accused in starvation cases has been relatively lenient. In Washington, D.C. in 1993, in the Chicago area in 1997, and in Kansas City in 1998, mothers of babies who died after wasting to skin and bones were charged with involuntary or other types of manslaughter. Such charges usually carry penalties ranging from probation to a handful of years in prison.
Bruce Curry, District Attorney for the Hill Country judicial region that includes Bandera County, yanked out all the stops as he charged Tina and Noel under a draconian statute, Texas Penal Code 19.03(a)(8). Enacted in the early nineties, the code upgraded to a capital crime the first degree murder of a child under the age of six. When the statute was being debated in the Legislature, proponents painted culprits as homicidal male sex offenders, and divorcing dads who kill their ex-wives and children. In fact, simply because children’s caretakers are much more often female than male, most killers of small children are mothers and other women. The capital charges leveled against Tina implied that she had cold-bloodedly planned her baby’s death. Or if she hadn’t planned it, she had at least known that what she did to Ramiro would make him die. Noel Perez was charged under the same statute.
Tina’s family and coworkers didn’t know what to make of Noel. But they were shocked that Tina was labeled a murderer. Her mother and sisters were angry with her for not noticing something wrong with Ramiro and taking him to a doctor. Yet they did not think she deliberately killed her son. They wondered whether he had succumbed to some undiagnosed illness. Or perhaps Tina herself had been sick in a way that interfered with her milk supply. Or maybe she had been been so worn out by the demands of four very small children in a claustrophobic, rural shack with no running water or telephone – and so demoralized by an abusive husband – that, as Lionor Rodríguez puts it now, “Something went off and she wasn’t there, like she was in outer space.”
Because he was indigent, Noel was assigned two court-appointed attorneys. Tina’s family wanted better for her than charity. They scraped together their savings and came up with $10,000 – a huge sum for them, but laughable compared to the hundreds of thousands of dollars private lawyers typically charge to represent a capital murder defendant. The Rodríguezes took their money to Bruce Perkins, a Corpus Christi lawyer the family had used once before when one of Tina’s brothers-in-law was in legal trouble. Perkins recruited Michael Collins, of San Antonio, as co-counsel.
The family got what it paid for. By early 1999, Tina’s case had been downgraded: the district attorney had decided a jury might balk at the idea of executing her, and besides, Bandera County couldn’t afford the money it would take to prosecute a death penalty case. But the state was still asking for a capital murder conviction, which would carry a heavier penalty than first-degree murder.
Despite the gravity of the charge, the trial, which took place in February, was a bargain-basement fiasco. Perkins and Collins failed to present any testimony about their client’s confusion over how to feed babies. They offered virtually no evidence of possible abuse by her husband. They made only the most cursory attempt to suggest that Ramiro might have had a disease that caused him to waste away. (The one illness they hypothesized was quickly discounted by a prosecution witness who pointed out that electrolytes in the baby’s eyeball fluid contradicted the diagnosis.) Perhaps worst of all, the lawyers never interviewed Tina’s co-workers to hear their recollections of her joy over Ramiro’s birth. Nor did they talk to the emergency medical technicians, who could have testified about a mother’s grief the night of her son’s death.Absent these witnesses, Tina came across as aHill Country Colonias Questions remain about the reasons f for the death of Ramiro Perez. But as for where it happened, there’s no dispute. In the heart of the Hill Country, the infant took his last breaths in a colonia.
The Spanish word is not just a figure of speech. Bandera Pass, where the Rodríguez-Perez family lived, is filled with jerryrigged houses without a public water or sewer system. These are characteristics typical of colonias, which abound on the Texas side of the Rio Grande. They got their start more than a generation ago, when unscrupulous developers bought farmlands and cut them into micro-plots. They marketed the lots to poor people desperate to own land and a house – any house, even a beat-up trailer. Buyers often were told utilities would come later. They didn’t. Community groups in El Paso and the Rio Grande Valley have been organizing since the eighties to bring government aid to these areas. Their efforts have garnered wide publicity. As a result, people generally associate colonias with scuzzy living near Mexico. What they don’t know – or don’t want to know – is that the same or worse conditions exist in the high-rent country southwest of Austin.
Bandera Pass is invisible to outsiders. It lies on a side road off Highway 173, about four miles north of Bandera, twenty miles south of Kerrville, and just a few hundred yards from an exotic animal farm that charms tourists with herds of baby antelope. Once, Bandera Pass was a ranch. Today it is dusty, unpaved roads that turn to mud when it rains. It is oddly-shaped houses built without contractors, mobile homes in various ramshackled states, and corrals that teem with junk. It is where Tina Rodríguez and her family lived in a goat shed.
According to Don White, an investigator with the Texas Natural Resource Conservation Commission, the basis for these conditions was laid in the fifties. A Bandera real-estate developer bought the ranch then and asked Bandera County Commissioners Court for permission to divide it into hundreds of miniscule, thirty-by-ninety-foot lots. The Court was dominated by realtors who quickly certified the subdivision. They did the same for land near Medina Lake, now known as Bandera Falls. Later, the Hill Country started burgeoning with upper-middle-class newcomers, and with blue-collar workers who came to provide services for the affluent. The influx has pushed housing costs sky high – in Kerrville these days, one-bedroom apartments often go for $500 a month. Decent low-income housing is scarce. So people are moving to places like Bandera Pass. There, says an Anglo resident, “You can pay as little as $150 per lot at a delinquent tax sale, and pick up a used trailer for $1,200. This is Poor People’s Alley.” White calls the area “a time bomb … doomed to become the colonia capital of the Hill Country.”
White says places like Bandera Pass will improve if residents organize for non-profit water systems and public monies for treatment plants. But organizing takes time. And it can be especially difficult in colonias, where many people see themselves as rugged individualists.
“We moved here because I was sick of my family in Kerrville minding my business,” says one Bandera Pass resident who did not want her name published. She is a young Mexican immigrant whose husband does construction work in the Hill Country. Her neighbor, also an immigrant, nods approvingly as she explains in Spanish that “the people around here, we don’t have anything to do with each other.”
Between them, these women have several young sons and daughters. They didn’t move to Bandera Pass until after Ramiro Perez died. Had they been there before, chances are they wouldn’t have known Tina Rodríguez, nor about what was happening in the goat shed. Colonias are like that in the Hill Country; disorganized, hidden, and the last place to be when it takes a village to keep you – and your child – from falling off the edge.