In January 22, a great commotion overtook Farmers Branch City Hall. It began with Brother Eddy Ketchersid, a tall, balding preacher in a tan suit, leading the packed City Council chamber through the Lord’s Prayer. Ketchersid, 70, is the community minister at the Farmers Branch Church of Christ and the city’s honorary chaplain. He thanked God for the leaders seated at the dais in front of him and asked the Lord to give them wisdom. Three of the five men with votes are members of his congregation.
Shortly after Ketchersid’s amen, beaming talk-radio host Mike Gallagher strode forward to hand Mayor Bob Phelps a giant poster-board check. His KSKY 660 AM listeners had bought $10,075 worth of t-shirts that said: “This is America: Please speak English.” The cash padded a kitty set up to cover a flurry of lawsuits filed against the city in response to an immigration ordinance the Council had passed three months earlier. Quickly derailed in court, the measure would have punished apartment owners who rented units without verifying that their tenants were U.S. citizens. The mood in the chamber grew tense when the mayor announced a retooled version of the same ordinance, up for the Council’s consideration that night.
Forty-three citizens took turns at the podium praising and scolding the Council for its stubborn claim to this police power. News photographers snapped away at two look-alike brothers brandishing coonskin caps. One invoked the memory of Alamo hero Davy Crockett and urged the Council to fend off a “Mexican invasion.” Mayor Phelps reminded everyone that President Bush had ignored his certified letter insisting the White House enforce immigration laws. Councilman Bill Moses noted that hundreds of cities were waiting to see what Farmers Branch would do. Mayor Pro Tem Ben Robinson warned that factions of “hyphenated Americans” could cause the United States to collapse into anarchy like Iraq. He sharply rebutted a dozen citizens who pointed out that immigration is technically the prerogative of Washington, D.C. “We are the federal government,” Robinson declared. “We fund their activities.”
At 37, personal injury attorney Tim O’Hare is by far the youngest councilman. O’Hare had proposed the original immigration ordinance, and he called the new apartment leasing standards the right thing for the city, for Texas, and for the nation. O’Hare said all the Council members were men of integrity and patriots. The little town had packaged its apartment ordinance as a response to a national security crisis and “the widespread concern of future terrorist attacks following the events of September 11, 2001.”
At 8:40 p.m., while part of the audience brooded in silence and the rest clapped loud and long, the five councilmen unanimously approved the ordinance. Forced by an earlier petition drive to put the measure to a public vote, they scheduled that referendum for May 12.
The vote will once again put the suburb—and, by extension, the city of Dallas—at the center of the anti-immigration debate, and national news media will accordingly cover it. But the camera lights and headlines will miss the real story in Farmers Branch. On the surface it appears to be a complicated argument over national security and human rights. Dig deeper, though, and it looks like a troubled community desperate to transform its image and reclaim its simpler past, a time when all neighbors looked like each other. The open question is whether the current racial tension and siege mentality are assets to a clique with a less than transparent agenda.
Staked out in 1841, Farmers Branch is the oldest settlement in Dallas County. According to the city’s website, the pioneers had to battle bears and “Indian raids on pumpkin patches.” Most settlers came from southern states, such as Tennessee and Kentucky. They established the county’s first church, school, watermill, and cotton gin. Wheat, grain, hogs, and sheep all thrived, and a single-comb Black Minorca hen owned by Mrs. R.B. Hicks once laid an egg that weighed half a pound.
|ENGLISH ONLY: Mayor Pro Tem Ben Robinson wanted to remove al foreign-language material from the city library.|
Not until 1946 did a Dallas oilman help incorporate the town. If it took the farmers a century “to get a hustle on,” as one newsman noted, the first Chamber of Commerce made up for lost time. The population doubled in 1955, and farms disappeared under residential subdivisions and industrial spaces. Vets coming home from Korea meant more young couples with young kids in white wood-frame houses. Lawns and flowerbeds were meticulously maintained, and a 1958 newspaper story said there were “no slums, no shacks, no underprivileged wards of society.” Farmers Branch was vigorous, fresh, and irresistible to companies that set up outposts there, such as Food Tech, Glide-A-Way Door Corporation, and Westinghouse. Cheered on by preteen Bomberettes, the Farmers Branch Bombers were the peewee football champs of the United States in 1960, traveling to Florida and California for games. Despite the flush times, the townsfolk did not forget their humble roots. In 1963, the mayor’s wife and the wives of three former mayors gathered to welcome newcomers at a get-acquainted coffee in the Valwood Bowling Center.
Today, four decades later, Farmers Branch is 12 square miles of quintessential inner-ring suburb. Dueling populations of elderly natives and young immigrant families are squeezed together between LBJ Freeway to the south and Carrollton and Addison to the north. The east side dead-ends at the Tollway in a concentration of furniture stores and office buildings. New townhome developments near the Galleria have added needed variety to the housing stock around Brookhaven College. But the real action is over on the west side, where the Valwood Business Park gives way to 1,000 acres of undeveloped land that will take 20 years to build out. Most of the hammering is on hold till 2010, when the new DART station goes live beside I-35. After a two-year delay, great impatience has built up for this mass-transit stop, seen as the cornerstone of the city’s future.
One perceived obstacle to an upscale future is the retail crossroads in the core of Farmers Branch. The “Four Corners” at Josey and Valley View lanes sparkled in the golden ’60s, and long-term residents pine for their old Skaggs grocery, Skillern’s Drugs, Bonanza Steakhouse, Baskin Robbins, and Mott’s Five and Dime. They complain about empty storefronts and a replacement tenant base with names like Panaderia Guatamalteca, Salon Pulgarsita, and Iglesia Nueva Jerusalen.
The real economic baggage is the central neighborhoods built back when Farmers Branch was the Frisco of its day. The average new home size in the United States today exceeds 2,300 square feet. In Farmers Branch, the average is 1,668, and some properties in the core have just 900. Lacking garages, the structures are too small to justify renovation. This “bungalow bind” is aggravated by cultural friction. While many of the most carefully kept houses are owned by people with Hispanic surnames, some are jazzed up with bird baths, glass garden globes, plastic flower pinwheels, and cast figurines of frogs relaxing under mushroom umbrellas. There have been disputes over festive pink and purple trim paint.
On one street off of Dennis Lane, the street on which O’Hare grew up, a truck windshield decal shows the cartoon Road Runner proudly hoisting a Mexican flag. A bumper sticker a few houses down: “I support the O’Hare Proposal: Stop illegal immigration.”
|THE OTHER SIDE: Realtor Guillermo Ramos was the first citizen to sue the city.|
Religious revivals have historically been important social events in the town that launched Bob Tilton. Crowds enjoyed preachers who talked straight from the shoulder, and itinerant evangelist Van Bonneau was a favorite speaker at the Farmers Branch Church of Christ. As a young man, he won many a blue ribbon for the show chickens he raised up in the Panhandle town of Dodson. In 1930, his Partridge Wyandotte hen took second place at the State Fair in Dallas.
Bonneau had a son named Edwin who eventually settled in Farmers Branch, joining the local Church of Christ in 1955. Ten years later, after a stint in the restaurant business, Ed started selling sunglasses door to door. By the late ’70s, thanks to distribution agreements with big chain drug stores, sales at the Bonneau Company hit $12 million. In the mid-’80s, Ed got into reading glasses, too, and that opened the doors to K-Mart and Wal-Mart. In 1987, Sylvester Stallone was wearing the company’s military aviator shades in the arm-wrestling truck driver epic Over the Top. The idea was to leverage Rambo power and capitalize on America’s newfound patriotism. Ed was able to buy out the Foster Grant line of sunglasses and sell his company in 1993 for $21 million.
He was instrumental in erecting the current Farmers Branch Church of Christ on Webb Chapel and Valley View, a congregation with an impressive roster of influential Farmers Branch citizens, including Ed Bonneau’s sons Hunt and Todd, longtime councilman Bill Moses, and Hunt’s best friend since seventh grade, Tim O’Hare, who joined in 1991 after getting his degree in finance from UT Austin.
These churchgoing friends have helped each other often in business and politics during the past decade or so.
Take Todd Bonneau, once a golf team star at Abilene Christian and now one of Brookhaven’s better linksmen. According to minutes of a City Council meeting from May 2000, councilman and fellow Church of Christ member Bill Moses recalls asking his friend Todd to build homes in the Branch Crossing neighborhood near City Hall in 1998. Branch Crossing was the city’s first “renaissance” project. The idea was to inject capital into several streets of older properties near a big park on Rawhide Creek, south of Valley View Lane, as a catalyst for new development. Todd Bonneau had started a home-renovation company after his father had sold the family sunglasses business, but Branch Crossing was his first crack at building custom homes. The city invested $2.5 million in improvements to the neighborhood, buying and demolishing old houses, and selling eight initial lots to developers at an average discount of $35,000. Todd Bonneau partnered with local builder “Bull” Thomas, bought four discounted lots from the city, and eventually completed 11 homes. He built a house for Mayor Bob Phelps, who liked the home that Thomas & Bonneau had built in the neighborhood for Tim O’Hare. The city spent $235,000 promoting Branch Crossing, and Todd Bonneau admits that advertising support was a critical edge he could not have afforded otherwise. Municipal funds dried up after 9/11 rocked the market, and the company focused its activities elsewhere.
In 1999, O’Hare began his political career. He thinks it may have been Bill Moses or Charlie Bird, the other Church of Christ councilmen, who invited him to join the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment. When he wanted to transfer to the busier Planning and Zoning Board, he says it was probably Moses he called to arrange that. After O’Hare joined the Rotary Club, Moses and Bird introduced him to their friends, the 50 or so senior citizens who help get folks elected in Farmers Branch. O’Hare credits his first successful Council race in 2005 to having his backers lined up ahead of time. Potential challengers were told, “You can’t beat Tim. He’s got too much support among the senior community.” He ran unopposed, a normal situation in Farmers Branch, and was elected without receiving one vote, a not-uncommon mandate. In May 2005, the mayor handed him a lapel pin after he swore to uphold the Constitution of the United States.
Prior to election, O’Hare’s message was revitalization. He said he wanted to bring new ideas to the table, new restaurants to town, and new life to the Four Corners. Nine months into his first term, in February 2006, he sat in session during an unusual burst of pro-growth agitation led by his aunt, Jan Cox Bynum. Bynum told the five councilmen they should keep redeveloping Branch Crossing, where she also owns a home. Todd Bonneau stood at the podium next and said he wanted to see more development in Branch Crossing and other areas of the city. David Koch, a real estate attorney who has purchased land from and done legal work for Todd Bonneau, agreed the time was right for the Council to expand its focus into other neighborhoods. So did mortgage broker and Church of Christ member Jason O’Quinn. Two months later, Koch was back at the podium, pleading for a new vision for Farmers Branch. He is now running for City Council. Todd Bonneau’s 10-year-old son, Troy, made a memorable appearance, complaining that he had nowhere to spend his money because the city lacked retail options. So in May 2006, O’Hare nominated his best friend’s dad, Ed Bonneau, to head up a group called the Branch Revitalization Task Force. Ed’s charge was wide-ranging and included prioritizing residential and commercial redevelopment projects, investigating financing options, and identifying barriers to development. O’Hare also recommended to the task force fellow Church of Christ member Tim Scott, now running for City Council. Ed Bonneau named his son Todd’s wife, Julie, a special consultant.
As the task force went to work, resident Liz Biss got an invitation from the mayor to join a focus group with about 60 other citizens. She thinks she got the nod because she graduated from the Citizens Police Academy. The citizens sat down together for three hours in the Farmers Branch Community Recreation Center and had a giant brain dump—everything they liked about Farmers Branch, everything they thought needed fixing. City staffers monitored each table, and the top three topics, pro and con, went up on flip charts for all to see. Biss recalls everybody loving the schools, the friendly neighborhoods, and the parks. People wanted better shopping, a new fire station, and more restaurants. Immigration was never mentioned, and she never heard the words “Latino,” “Hispanic,” or “Mexican.” Nor does she recall a single brown face in the room. So in August, it came as quite a surprise to Biss when O’Hare proposed that the city undertake a crackdown on illegal immigration. She wondered what could possibly be driving “this monster juggernaut thing.”
Before the Council’s November vote on the O’Hare proposal, an organization called the Farmers Branch Citizens Group emerged on the Internet to coordinate rallies. On October 27, Robin Bernier, a citizen who runs an apartment locator service, identified herself as the group’s secretary in e-mails sent to at least 90 people. Names on the distribution list included Ed Bonneau and his son Todd, O’Hare, Koch, and Scott. Addressing “the whole Gang,” Bernier encouraged maximal attendance for the City Council session in November. The text of her message said: “Ok this is it and this is FINAL per Tim O’Hare! Let’s send it out and make this a GRAND SUCCESS!!!” Her attachment alerted mail recipients that media would be present, and she encouraged the purchase of t-shirts that identified illegal immigrants as a barrier to economic development. The front of the shirts said:
IN FARMERS BRANCH, TX
The back of the shirts announced new candidates for the Council:
I SUPPORT THE O’HARE PROPOSALS
David Koch and Tim Scott, MAY ’07
IS A VOTE FOR REVITALIZED
NEIGHBORHOODS AND RETAIL
On November 13, the Council unanimously approved the legal residency ordinance for apartments as a safeguard for the public in an age of terror. At least 11 of the citizens who spoke in favor of the ordinance were on the Farmers Branch Citizens Group e-mail list, including Branch Revitalization Task Force chief Ed Bonneau.
When Linda Haddock was a kid, she bought her Archie comics at the old Mott’s Five and Dime in the Four Corners. Her first job was at the Skaggs, slicing meat in the deli. Today she runs Spa at the Marlin, an artsy day spa and hair salon on Webb Chapel. Business is off since she stood up in front of the Council that November night and said she thought the O’Hare proposals made Farmers Branch look bad. She was the first up to the podium and totally confused because the Council had voted before it had heard what any of the citizens had to say. Former clients have told Haddock she’s un-American, but the ex-teacher is not ashamed of what she calls her “bleeding-heart side.” Having taught the history of discrimination in America for seven years, she finds her hometown evincing eerie textbook symptoms. She senses fear on both sides, and also in the middle where she and many friends feel torn. What’s right is right, but she’s a business owner with bills to pay and the hate mail she received was a shock. It’s not like she was advocating illegal immigration; she simply feels it’s a federal issue.
Snacking on cranberries and almonds, she visits with a client in a white robe fresh from a massage. She considers this woman representative of the voice unheard in the community, a professional person with strong ethics, embarrassed by a small, entrenched faction using prejudice to drive an economic agenda. An introvert and apolitical by nature, Haddock knows the prudent course is to shut up and let the whole thing slide. But her experience with exclusion from what she considers a very tightly constricted circle of power has begun to awaken a certain sense of solidarity. “If you think it’s hard being Hispanic in Farmers Branch,” she says, “try being one of only two women in the Rotary Club.”
Tom Bohmier, the most publicly active member of the O’Hare camp, is toe-to-toe with Guillermo Ramos, the first citizen to fight the city in court. Ramos has just returned to his realty business on Valley View Lane and stands on the lawn in front of his building. While he was away, Bohmier and a half dozen other members of Support Farmers Branch walked inside and crashed a voter registration meeting in the conference room. The cops have come and gone, and now the leader of the intruders is looking over Ramos’ shoulder at a young Hispanic volunteer with Let the Voters Decide.
“I’m sorry if I pissed off your junkyard dog,” Bohmier says.
His colleagues on the sidewalk insist they can do whatever the hell they want on public concrete. In a Gatorade cap, mirror shades, and scuffed ropers, ticket broker Rick Johnson cites a favorite website, claiming 23 people are killed every day by illegal aliens, and California needs to break ground on a new school every day. A buddy in a cap with an American eagle bemoans the coddled “Latino subculture.” Eventually, the squad disperses.
In Ramos’ office, the mix of volunteers reflects the city’s populaion: of 27,500 residents, about 40 percent are Anglo and 37 percent are Hispanic or Latino. Only 1,300 of 14,000 registered voters in Farmers Branch are Hispanic, so the May 12 referendum on the apartment-leasing ordinance will largely be an Anglo one. No one can recall a minority Council member in its 61-year history, and Ramos is wondering if he should run. His mother freshens up the bagel and coffee spread for a team of registrars who come back beat after hours of ringing doorbells and signing up just a single voter. Mrs. Ramos, a very carefully put-together woman, admits her English needs work, but she points to the seal on the business card of her daughter, an FBI counter-terrorism trainer on assignment in South America.
Mary Immaculate, the lone Catholic church in Farmers Branch, was designed to serve every neighborhood in town. Recently built in a mod mission style, it has a fine white façade. After Sunday Mass—four in English, three in Spanish—the sounds of laughing children echo off heroic statues of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in front of the church. The metal sculpture of the Virgin of Guadalupe in the plaza garden is much revered at these hours. The church stands not far from a hollow where the city’s poorest citizens live in 54 barrack-like apartments. By one resident’s estimate, the first apartment ordinance ran half the tenants out of town, many of them parishioners at Mary Immaculate.
Cooks Creek Place is the bigger of the two apartment complexes in the hollow. In late afternoon, workers return from construction jobs, kids come home from school. Fathers in paint-daubed jeans offload toolboxes from their pickups. Their sons’ backpacks are marked with soccer club logos like Puma and Chivas. Balconies of the occupied units are full of mops, grills, basketballs, footballs, and toys—rocking horse, fire truck, baby doll in a purple buggy. In a grassless inner courtyard, a white rabbit with black spots sits in the corner of its cage. Music and the smell of dinner pour out of a lower-story window, while a little boy pushes his sister on a tricycle, and wind chimes tinkle. On a balcony, an old woman watches dark clouds blow in.
“We’re the ghetto,” laughs a 12-year tenant as he loosens a nut on a Nissan Sentra engine with a pair of vice grips. He has dark skin, blazing white teeth, a goatee, and no grudge against City Hall. “There’s so many of us. That’s why they’re scared.”
Over in Branch Crossing, Craig Knope unloads work tools from his vehicle. The journeyman electrician has tufts of reddish blond hair and a pencil sticking out from under his hat. He paid $53,000 for his house 15 years ago. Today the lot alone is worth double that, thanks to all the new, larger houses in his neighborhood. He’s thinking of selling, too, but not just yet. He likes the park nearby and doesn’t want to abandon the lady down the street who has Alzheimer’s. The other old people have died off, but she still knocks on his door every day to let him know she’s taking care of his dog, a dog that has never existed. The gal from Code Enforcement keeps dropping by, too, telling him to put more gravel on his driveway and paint the garage he has decorated with a cow skull. He knows his collection of little wooden bird houses on the front porch makes him look more and more like Sanford and Son in what he calls a Stepford society.
Across the street, Thomas & Bonneau is drilling piers for the company’s first custom home in the neighborhood in five years. At the recommendation of the Branch Revitalization Task Force, the Council rolled out a citywide incentive package in February for new home construction and renovations. That month, Bonneau’s company had three projects going in Branch Crossing and another on a bordering street where he and his father own homes. With fresh publicity and $8,000 cash grants on a new $400,000 house, it makes sense to get back in the game. A million dollars worth of redevelopment funds will be awarded at the sole discretion of the Council on a first-come, first-serve basis. That assumes the Council will not need to cannibalize the fund and $1.5 million of DART station money to cover attorney fees on the immigration lawsuits. By late February, the city had burned through about $200,000, the legal budget for the entire year.
Citizens have been worried about the oversight of this new redevelopment fund since last fall. On September 18, homeowner John Wells told the Council he was concerned to hear them talking about buying an apartment complex during a public review of the 2007 budget. Alarmed by the Council’s maneuvers, real estate agent Guillermo Ramos decided to sit in on the same meeting. He remembers how casually O’Hare wondered out loud if any restrictions might keep the Council from borrowing an extra $1 million from the city’s water fund to purchase, for example, an apartment complex. In response to Wells, Council minutes show that City Manager Linda Groomer stated for clarification that this discussion was “strictly a hypothetical example, and assured the public that there have been no conversations among Council regarding purchasing apartments.” Groomer, it turns out, was not being honest.
On August 10, Mayor Pro Tem Ben Robinson sent an e-mail to the mayor, his fellow councilmen, and Groomer. In it he suggested all foreign-language books, CDs, and periodicals should be removed from the Farmers Branch Manske Library because the city should “encourage use of the English language not discourage it with foreign language material.” In that same e-mail, Robinson asked his colleagues to consider this concern:
“Community Services—Cookscreek Apts [sic]—Daily inspections? Realtor contact in the blind to determine asking sales price for the apartments.”
This means that two weeks before news of their patriotic security initiative began to drive tenants out of Cooks Creek, the Council was trying to find out how much it would cost to buy the complex. It was also considering what appears to be a harassment strategy. According to Michael Spicer, director of Community Services, semiannual inspections are the rule for apartments.
Handed a hard copy of the e-mail and asked why the apartments were on the Council’s radar, O’Hare thinks a bit and says: “Is it a secret there are some apartment complexes that a lot of people think are slums and want to see out of the city? … We don’t want slummy apartments in our city.”
More than 25 percent of Farmers Branch residents are foreign born, according to the 2000 Census. About 27 percent of the homes are owned by people older than 65. O’Hare describes the latter group, overwhelmingly Anglo, as his biggest support base. Retired insurance exec Greg Knapp, 76, has lived near the fairways of the Brookhaven Country Club for 40 years. His house looks better now than when he bought it, but young homebuyers avoid the neighborhood unless their kids are in private schools. Gone are the Friday nights when everybody took a blanket to the high school football stadium and paid two bucks to cheer on the Lions as they breezed their way into the state playoffs against Corpus Christi, Houston, and Amarillo. The high school teams often lose now because the strapping boys leave early in the afternoon to work and to help take care of their families. Knapp is no disrespecter of this cultural difference. When he and his friends unwind at the McDonald’s after a tennis game, they like to greet the young cashiers with a friendly “Buenos dias.” It didn’t bother him a bit when the grocery store where he filled his prescriptions started stocking tortillas. It did bother him, though, that he couldn’t find a heart doctor at RHD Memorial Medical Center because they’d left for northern suburbs, and administrators blamed overwork and the swamped emergency room, which is obliged to take a lot of cases from Dallas.
Knapp says he didn’t know Farmers Branch had an immigration problem until he started reading about it in the papers. It really rankled him afterward when activists implied that the whole town was racist. So much so, he alerted the little old ladies on his block that he was picking them up on election day and driving them all to the polls. He predicts the apartment ordinance will win easily because every “old-timer” he knows is very worried about America.
At the Senior Center, classes in bunka embroidery, fused glass bracelets, and drumming offer a distraction. Foursomes of men slap white dominos down on brown card tables while wives play Rummikub and Super Scrabble. The social room is getting set up for a night of country dancing with the Southern Pride Band. Questions about local politics from an outsider prompt quick, frosty smiles.
After the Council thrust the town into national headlines, protestors with bullhorns started turning up in offbeat places like the driveway of the Farmers Branch Church of Christ. By early 2007, activists were working the neighborhoods to help register voters. One of the first outsiders to make the scene was Bill Brewer, founding partner of Dallas-based Bickel & Brewer. The attorney helped real estate agent Guillermo Ramos put together the challenge that spiked the first version of the ordinance.
Bickel & Brewer Storefront, the community service arm of the firm, filed suit against Mayor Phelps and all the Council members for violating the Texas Open Meetings Act. The TOMA suit alleges a backroom attempt to put the ordinance together while keeping as much of that deliberation as possible out of sight and off the record. Brewer also led the petition drive effort that forced the Council to order the general election. On different occasions, he brought his wife, five kids, and a niece and nephew out to help gather signatures and see firsthand how grassroots advocacy can change minds.
“We rang about 200 doorbells and I had people handing me phone numbers and business cards offering to get involved,” he says. “The ordinance will be voted down in a landslide, and there’s going to be a turnout like this City Council has never seen.”
After the ACLU and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed their lawsuits, too, outsiders became a bitter focus of the O’Hare camp. Restaurateur Elizabeth Villafranca found herself the target of e-mail “news” summaries circulated by Tom Bohmier. An excerpt from December 12:
|Elizabeth Villafrance [sic] is both the President of the FB Chapter for LULAC, and is the owner of three CUQUITA’s restaurants, one of which is in Farmers Branch, next to Walgreens. Residents are frustrated about Ms. Villafranca’s involvement in OUR City affairs when she is not even a FB resident and when her restaurant is not impacted by the current ordinances. Maybe she enjoys being the LULAC poster child or maybe she has some unknown benefit to stirring OUR pot. Feel free to call her restaurant at [redacted] or her cell phone at [redacted] and let her know how you feel. … Many FB residents are upset that outsiders continue to come in to our City, stir up controversy, confuse our Latino residents, and then retreat to their non-Farmers Branch homes at night.|
While the Council targeted immigrants, the Branch Revitalization Task Force was noting major factors that “impact the sustainability” of the Four Corners. One was its following the national and local trend of “shopping centers devoted exclusively to ethnic populations, especially Hispanic, African-American, and Asian populations.”
With all her old customers now avoiding the city for fear of being pulled over and deported, Reina Figueroa sits in her empty restaurant and store in the Four Corners munching a sugar cookie and going broke. For 23 years, the Izalco has served up plates of fried yucca and pork and savory ground meat pies called pasteles. Grocery shelves next to the booth tables offer Central American staples like coconut juice and yellow cherries. Except now there’s no need for the Honduran businesswoman to order new merchandise.
Otto Barrera has run businesses in the Four Corners for 20 years. Revenues are down 40 percent at the travel and documentation agency where he used to spend a lot of time helping clients file income taxes. A survivor of the war in El Salvador, he’s saddened to see the peace shattered in a city he loves.
Ramon Pacheco, too, shakes his head. His Luxor Furniture has been a thriving family concern in the center for 18 years. Now sales are off 40 percent at his store, too. In January, Pacheco and other merchants scrambling to protect their livelihoods organized the city’s first Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
At Messina Shoe Repair, in business for 43 years, Kenneth Burks wears a long cobbler’s apron and does not believe Farmers Branch is a hate-filled place. He regularly sends customers to jewelry store owner Jose Murguia. When the jeweler was scouting for a storefront back in 2003, he recalls the Four Corners as stone dead. The town was full of retired people whose children had all moved away because they didn’t want to live in 40-year-old houses like the one he lives in today. As the Hispanic population grew, ethnic merchants moved in and prospered. Murguia sees cultural fusion as an opportunity for learning and new friendships, and he can’t get used to the strange new anger in many Anglo eyes when he takes his son to school.
Customer Theresa Short leans on his countertop, searching a catalog for a pendant with Egyptian hieroglyphics. The former social worker moved to Carrollton from California in 1986 and remembers Farmers Branch as decidedly white. The streets rolled up at sundown and the only reason anybody drove Josey Lane was to get out of highway traffic. She’s pretty sure none of her fellow African-Americans lived free north of 635 until 1971, when she says Charley Pride had to sign for a house his sister wanted to buy. Blacks were supposed to stay down south, and Mexicans were supposed to stay on their own reservation in West Dallas.
“Study your history,” she says, finding the pendant. “Look at this, Jose. Isn’t it pretty?”
Every Saturday morning at the Farmers Branch Church of Christ, a group of men gathers for breakfast and fellowship. Usually it’s an old-fashioned country spread, but it can also be fish, fried crispy and brown, that were caught by Councilman Charlie Bird. Brother Eddy Ketchersid’s son Tim became the church’s executive minister at the end of last year. Before that, he worked as an attorney at O’Hare’s firm.
On a recent Sunday morning at the 11 a.m. service, Ketchersid stands under a wood cross and banners around the sanctuary printed with the words “Kindness,” “Goodness,” “Patience,” “Peace,” and “Love.” O’Hare and other leaders pass around communion bread baskets and collect prayer requests. O’Hare’s prayer request on February 11:
“Please pray that the sale of one townhome will close this month and please pray for a buyer to come forward on the other one soon.”
O’Hare has always felt called by God, and before he went public with his immigration proposal, he prayed over the issue and discussed it with an elder and two ministers at the church. Like others in Farmers Branch, he has his favorite childhood memories of the Four Corners—how convenient it was to walk to the RadioShack to buy a simple thing like an adapter. After three years on the scout team at UT, the 5-foot-7, 150-pound wide receiver transferred to Abilene Christian to play ball with his buddy and former R.L. Turner teammate Hunt Bonneau. When Abilene played Angelo State, O’Hare told a reporter that he saw a rainbow over the stadium after he caught a 69-yard pass in the first official play of his college career. He dedicated that touchdown to the memory of his recently deceased stepfather. There’s a football in his law office, a poster of Greg Norman, and a plaque engraved with the Prayer of Jabez. His heroes include Ronald Reagan and Billy Graham, and it frustrates him that so many people think he’s a bigot.
“If you watch TV, you’d think we have a divided city, but 80 percent of the city is behind what we’re doing,” he says. “Most of the backlash is from outside groups.”
Almost 80 percent of the taxes in Farmers Branch are shouldered by companies such as IBM, JP Morgan, and GEICO. O’Hare is proud of national fast-food chain Taco Bueno, which moved its headquarters to Farmers Branch after the fuss erupted.
“That argument that Fortune 500 companies or any company doesn’t want to come here when there’s controversy—that’s a neat thing to say, but it just has no merit,” he says. “There’s a lot of people in the country that are upset with the Iraq war. Does that mean they move their company to Canada? People don’t move their businesses to a place where they find a non-controversial government.”
O’Hare describes his main objective as maximizing the potential of his hometown by making Farmers Branch a buzz destination and a beautiful, happening place with a positive image like Southlake or Uptown. A place that people are dying to move into. He sees his proposal to declare English the city’s official language as symbolic and very pro-American. As for the genesis of his proposals, he remembers somebody showing him a copy of another city’s immigration measures, possibly Hazelton, Pennsylvania. He liked what he saw.
Before he suddenly found himself in demand as a guest on Lou Dobbs Tonight and FOX Report with Shepard Smith, O’Hare had lunch one day with fellow councilman Jim Smith. The two asked a waitress if she knew where Farmers Branch was. She did not.
“That’s the problem,” O’Hare told Smith, “I’m going to put the city on the map.”
Craig Hanley’s Holocaust narrative, William & Rosalie, will be published in July by University of North Texas Press.