The Streets of Laredo
(In the sense of despair and hopelessness that is often created by our democracy during what ought to be civil discourse, I got to thinking again about what difference each of us might make. Can our actions or even a single vote facilitate change? I still believe that is possible, and the story below is of a man who did precisely that. It is about a lonely drifter who took on city hall and would not accept historic corruption in a Texas border town. I hope you find it inspirational, and maybe even motivational. And, as always, please share, if you like this work, and subscribe, if you haven’t. - JM)
“No man in the wrong can stand up against a fellow that's in the right and keeps on a-comin'.” ― Captain Bill McDonald Texas Ranger
The first time I saw Lawrence Berry he was walking across a blacktop parking lot, waves of heat simmering around his ectomorphic frame with the temperature easily above triple digits. As he approached our camera, he smiled, several front teeth missing, his black hair slicked back and jeans barely clinging to his bony hips. A stack of papers was fluttering under his arm as if he hastily left the research stacks of the local library.
“Hey, I’m Lawrence,” he said. “I’m glad you all are getting interested.”
“Well,” I said. “This is the first I’ve heard about all this. Had I known, I’d have been interested from the moment I was told.”
“You want to do the interview out here?” Berry asked.
“No, let’s go to the station and get out of this heat. We can get some shots of your documents, too.”
People around town had told me Lawrence Berry was nothing more than a drifter, a hitchhiker who had been wandering the country from Florida to California and had somehow ended up in Laredo down at the bottom of America. The denigration of the man only made me more intrigued. I knew the lure of the highway and the search for things you could not name or identify, and my hitching days were barely behind me when I landed on the evening news in Laredo. Berry and I had arrived on the border at the southern end of I-35 at almost the same time.
In the studio, he spread his wrinkled papers across a folding table that had been set up by my colleague. The documents were receipts for purchases of vehicle batteries, which he said the Laredo Street Department had bought over the course of the previous 15 months.
“Go ahead and count them,” he said. “But I can save you some time. Those are receipts for 906 batteries and there are only 87 vehicles in our street department. And you’re pretty new here but you’ve seen enough of our streets to know that most of them are gravel.”
In fact, I learned later that city officials estimated there were 150 miles of unpaved roads with the city’s limits. Laredo did feel a bit like the Old West with those dusty, dirt roads and clapboard houses with broken fences are cars up on blocks out front of the porch. Much of the modern world seemed to have bypassed the border town with a near crippling economic and social effect. The entire stretch of Texas along the Rio Grande was easily identifiable as America’s Third World. The year before I had met Berry in 1976, Laredo’s per capita income was only $2300 dollars, and one out of every three residents was receiving federal food stamps. The TB rate was four times the national average and infant mortality was close to the highest in the nation.
I figured there might be a story or two worth telling in that brush country.
“So, either a lot of people got batteries from the city of Laredo,” Berry said as our camera started recording, “Or those are fake receipts and money was spread around. But it’s worse than that. There’s one gas pump in the street department’s lot and it put out 15,000 gallons every month. That will keep every vehicle in this little town running for free. How do they get away with this?”
He dropped some more documents on the table and the camera panned downward. Berry’s citizen research seemed to prove that the little street department also had $40,000 in radiator repairs and a bank vice president on the payroll as a street inspector. According to his investigation, Berry said he estimated 50-75 people were drawing paychecks and having them mailed to their homes and that the corruption he uncovered totaled around $1.5 million dollars.
I was astounded.
“This is just hard to believe,” I said. “I’m assuming these are all legitimate documents that you copied from city records?”
“That’s exactly what I did. I just went down there and demanded to see public records. Anyone could do it.”
But no one did. A stranger drifted into town, got work as a janitor, and noticed things were not what they ought to be in a community if the government functioned, and people were treated fairly. More than 80 percent of the population was Hispanic and spoke only Spanish, and Berry told me later it was obvious to him how poor people were being victimized. In 1976, records showed that $107 million dollars in federal money had been allocated to Laredo and yet the poverty and poor infrastructure and inadequate public services had left a skeletal corpus of what ought to have been expected with the investment of tax dollars in an American town.
I was a 26-year-old TV news correspondent that summer when I first met Lawrence Berry, and I was still trying to learn my craft. We lived in a single wide mobile home on a ranch that was separated from the Rio Grande by a half mile of rugged brush country. I sometimes thought my job was little more than letting the town know about the latest bodies of failed immigrants that had been found floating and bloated in the river and sometimes at night, the ones who had made the crossing, would gently toss stones against our windows wanting us to come out and provide water and snacks for their long trek northward. Children, crying and drenched, were clinging to their parents in the darkness. They then walked between the railroad tracks at night toward San Antonio and hid among the mesquite and scrub to sleep during the day while the Border Patrol drove the backroads.
Maybe he did not know when he started his crusade against political corruption, but Lawrence Berry, the wanderer once without purpose, was taking on probably the oldest group of power brokers and backroom bastards in America. Along the border, a system of control and delegation that became known as the patron system, ran the region. Historically, these had been white people asserting political and financial dominion over the overwhelmingly Hispanic population. If you wanted a job or needed a county check to feed your children, you had to pay fealty to the bosses. Keep your mouth shut, play the game, and nobody gets hurt, financially, politically, or legally. One of the probable reasons Mexican Americans have been slow to vote in the modern era is there has been an inter-generational lack of trust in the process. Elections have done little to change their lives but have made the patrons considerably richer and more powerful.
The most notorious patrons in Texas history are the father and son duo of Archer and George Parr, who ruled Jim Wells, Duval, and four other South Texas counties for decades. In the days of poll taxes, they required county employees to show tax receipts of family members and friends and guarantee those votes to keep their jobs, or secure work from the county. When poll taxes were ruled unconstitutional, there were other methods of less obvious intimidation and motivation to get family and friends out to vote for the reigning patron.
George Parr may have become the most profoundly important political fixer to ever rig an American election during the Texas Democratic Primary of 1948. When Congressman Lyndon Baines Johnson was losing the statewide vote to a popular former Governor Coke Stevenson, Parr had his pistoleros get the voter lists and add 221 names as votes for LBJ, which gave him the victory by a margin of 187. (See also: Landslide Lyndon). Several of the people identified on Parr’s final tally testified in a court hearing they were out of town on Election Day and did not cast a ballot, and a few dozen others simply were unavailable speak to the judge because they were dead. Parr’s corruption changed the course of American history because LBJ, ultimately, became president and led the U.S. into the devastating quagmire that was Vietnam even as he passed Civil Rights legislation and the Great Society laws to provide higher education, health care, and food for low-income Americans.
High school civics class never teaches the realities of U.S. democracy, of course. I am doubtful Lawrence Berry was as naïve’ as I during those two years he was trying to cure a poisoned body politic in Laredo. There were no national Freedom of Information laws, but he knew the expenditures of tax money were a public record, and with every new demand for information he was putting himself at increasing risk. Berry told me of numerous threats against his life during his investigations. Regardless, he kept bringing documents to me and other reporters. I put his stories on the six o’clock and ten o’clock news. The patrons of Laredo had never been confronted and they grew restless with his aggressiveness.
The man who ran Laredo was J.C. “Pepe” Martin, and he was unaccustomed to anyone questioning his actions. Lawrence Berry was an outsider and, exactly who in the hell did he think he was? Martin had been mayor for a quarter century, claimed to be worth $10 million dollars in 1978 from ranch and oil and gas holdings, and could hardly be expected tolerate a rumpled vagabond blowing into town and demanding accountability for the mayor and council. Unfortunately, for Pepe and his docile city council, Berry did not pay any attention to their rules of order.
Berry had opened a small printing shop and had begun to make a living. Every time I interviewed him, I found myself wondering how anyone might be fearful of his endeavors as a citizen or researcher. He always looked like a displaced soul, a wanderer on the face of the earth, who had no intention to do anything other than scratch out a meager living wherever he had been tossed by the winds of destiny. Every time he called me with new information or asked me to come examine another set of documents he had just acquired, I was skeptical and too young to know I was witnessing the power of disclosure and democracy and the importance of a solitary determined citizen.
Berry assaulted the city council and the mayor with incontrovertible data, words and numbers on documents signed and verified by city officials. Frequently, he confronted Mayor Pepe and aldermen at their regular meetings. They listened and offered no response other than threats, but another outlander, Aldo Tatangelo, a businessman from Rhode Island who had fallen in love with the border, realized Berry’s work was laying a foundation for cultural and political change. The Italian from the East Coast ran for mayor, promising to create a different kind of Laredo, and Martin began to feel the heat of Berry’s relentlessness. Pepe and six of his eight enabling aldermen decided not to run for reelection.
Tatangelo came by our studio for a live interview the night of the vote and his victory and I was struck by his love and interest in the border, though I thought the movement for a transformation of the city’s leadership was likely to be the end of Lawrence Berry’s impact. Instead, two different state and federal grand juries went after former mayor Pepe Martin, and he was indicted along with 24 employees of the street department. After stealing and diverting millions of dollars in local, state, and federal tax money across the decades, Martin’s criminal charge amounted to a punishment of three dozen weekends in the Webb County jail with a color TV and a lounge chair.
The patron system with its rank corruption, though, was brought down. I was pleased that myself and other reporters were able to play a modest role in the efforts of Lawrence Berry, though I am confident he would not have stopped until his perseverance had won the day. The new council was overwhelmingly Mexican American, and they were citizen servants interested in living in a more equitable and prosperous community. Laredo, no longer a distant outcast on the Mexican frontier with a feeling of the Old West, is now one of the busiest land ports in the world and is thriving with jobs and economic growth.
Lawrence Berry ought to get some credit for the prosperity. I had thought about him often through the years, but only recently began reconsidering his fearlessness and intellect in the context of our presently faltering democracy. I do not know what became of him and have searched widely on the web and with people in Laredo. Berry may have lived out his life on the border and enjoyed a community he had helped to transition to a modern democratic and economic form, or he could have left and taken back to the road. That image gives me some comfort, to think there are people like Lawrence Berry wandering the American Outback, determined to make democracy keep its founding promises, even in their smallest forms. It’s what citizenship demands.
And too many of us do not take that obligation seriously enough.