The Huertas are leaving Huerta street

Michael Huerta wasn’t the first Huerta to buy a house on Acorn Place, he wasn’t the second either. When Michael Huerta bought his first house, he was joining a long line of Huerta’s who made the street their home.

The Huerta who started the tradition of living on the block was Michael’s dad who owned two houses on the block when Michael and his siblings were growing up.  When Michael and his siblings were old enough to buy their own homes, they did the same.

At one point, nearly all the houses on the block were owned by Huerta’s. So, in 1993 Michael went down to Austin City Council with a request, to rename Acorn Place to Huerta street.

They said yes.

Today, houses on Huerta street are valued at several million dollars and many of Michael’s family members are struggling with property taxes, Michael himself is thinking of leaving Huerta street.

Austin Dogs Beat Record-High Heat

Video and story by Tinu Thomas, Liam Alteneder and Blaise Compton

This summer the National Weather Association reported Austin shattered several all-time high temperatures. The record high heat isn’t just a problem for human residents, dog owners need to be wary that the record high heat is especially dangerous for their four-pawed friends.

Dr. Jacquelyn Chow, a veterinarian at BEEVET Animal Hospital, said her animal hospital has experienced an influx of dogs being brought in due to heat stroke this summer.

“I have seen more this summer probably than last summer,” Dr. Chow said. “Owners that have told me that their dog has just died. I’ve actually had a couple of patients like that, where they were out in the heat and they collapsed and they died just like that.”

Dr. Chow said that many dog owners aren’t familiar with the toll that high heat takes on a dog and reminds dog owners that their pets are not going to be the ones to tell them until it’s probably too late.

“When they come in, oftentimes their body temperature is somewhere between 106-110 degrees and they’re having seizures and they’re in shock,” Dr. Chow said. “They’re just so hot. It’s just a race to try and get them stabilized.”

Dr. Chow said the most common presentations of heat stroke she has seen has been owners have their dog running around in the yard or at the park. She said owners can take several precautionary measures in order to prevent heatstroke in dogs.

“Bring them indoors, make sure there’s plenty of water to access,” Dr. Chow said. “It’s really important to stay hydrated.”

While it is more efficient to take precautions to ensure your dog doesn’t overheat during this summer, it is also important to know the signs of overheating and what to do if the situation escalates to being deadly.

Chris McElroy is a dog handler at the Yard Bar, an outdoor dog park and bar in Austin. McElroy said he and his coworkers have been warned and trained to deal with the signs of overheating in dogs.

“The first step is kind of get a visual of the dog, see how they’re moving,” McElroy said. “If they’re kind of just slow, lethargic, looking down, or if they seem dazed and confused. Another step that we take is we check the gums of the dog, and usually, if the gums are really red, usually that’s a clear sign of dehydration.”

According to Dr.Chow, taking the wrong actions during a situation where your dog is overheating can lead to even more dangerous situations.

“We don’t want to dunk them in ice, because when you do that,” Dr. Chow said. “The body temperature will plummet suddenly and then you end up with hypothermia and that can be equally as challenging.”

Dr. Chow said it’s important to your dog to a veterinarian as soon as signs or symptoms of overheating are present.

“If they’re having seizures or collapsed,” Dr. Chow said. “Time is really of the essence so you have to get them to the nearest veterinary clinic as soon as possible.”

Going Against the Rail 

Video and story by Tinu Thomas, Liam Alteneder and Blaise Compton

Even in a community that goes against the grain of society, female skateboarders struggle to find their place.

“It’s like being a fish in a shark tank,” said Halie Davis, a 26-year-old skateboarder. “It is intimidating coming out here by yourself.”

Female skateboarders are outnumbered by males in local skateparks. Similarly, on the professional level, female skateboarders struggle to reshape the industry and earn the same monetary incentives as their male counterparts.

“The biggest challenge for them to get into skateboarding is obviously that it’s a male-dominated sport,” said Rebecca Dreiling, a 34-year-old longboarder and skateboarder.

Dreiling teaches women who are interested in skating how to get comfortable on a board, breaking down the fear some women have of the inherently rugged sport.

“It’s challenging because women were taught to not get hurt or do dangerous things when we were a lot younger and that kind of goes against that grain [of] preserve your face preserve your skin,” Dreiling said.

Christina Hayes is 28 years old and just started skating a few months ago with Davis and six other girls who frequent the skate park together. Hayes said asking for help is the first step girls should take to succeed in skating.

“It’s really intimidating when a lot of skater dudes are hanging around just watching you mess up all the time,” Hayes said, “but it turns out they really don’t care, they just want to help.”

A skateboarder of 14 years, Davis disagreed with Hayes about the limitations females face when skating in local parks.

“I think that’s because you’re still new,” Davis told Hayes, “and you came in at such a different time.”

While the climate for female skateboarders is less negative now, Davis said it is still clear girls are not entirely welcome, especially in the professional realm when money is involved.

“Growing up the only pro that I was even aware of was Elissa Steamer and that’s because she was pro in the ‘90s,” Davis said.

Davis said the rise of social media created an even larger platform for people to express criticism toward female skateboarders.

“On social media, it’s just so much shit-talking because guys just don’t want to see those girls being pro,” Davis said.“They feel like if these girls are going to be pro then there needs to be a men’s and women’s division.”

Davis is right. In a sport heavily reliant on timing, it was only in 2003, nearly a decade after the X Games began, that female skateboarders were allowed to compete. Despite the late start, EPSN reported Cara Beth Burnside as the winner of three of the first four gold medals awarded during first year of the X Games.

Although being included in the X Games was a huge triumph for female skateboarders, it was later revealed females were competing for a fraction of the prize purse that men were.

Alongside unequal pay, Dreiling has noticed a double bind for female skateboarders on the professional level.

“Females who are dressing sexy on skateboards are getting shamed, but also they’re the ones getting the sponsors and airtime,” Dreiling said. “The ones who are not dressing up are not getting the airtime but are being more respected in the street culture.”

Although female skateboarders still struggle to find footing, amateur skateboarder Taylor Stevens, said she has hope for the future.

“You see a lot of younger girls doing it [going pro] and they’re shredding,” Stevens said, “eventually they’ll be our age and even better.”

As she continually empowers other women to skateboard, Dreiling is cautiously optimistic for the future.

“For the future of female skateboarders– I would like to see any women getting on a board or stepping into a skatepark will feel comfortable no matter where they’re at in their life, or what they’re doing, or what they’re wearing.”

Green Burials: Working With the Dead

Story by Tinu Thomas

Photos by Andrés Garcia 

To the average passerby, Freeman Ranch looks like any other farm, a lush field scattered with cattle and two rustic houses overlooking their respective land. Just a few miles from this scenic view, however, is an open field of decomposing human bodies.

The Forensic Anthropology Research Facility (FARF) is located on Freeman Ranch, 30 miles south of Austin. The FARF is host to what is colloquially known as a “body farm,” a research project aimed at studying the decomposition of human bodies after death. Freeman Ranch in San Marcos is one of only ten other FARFs in the world and at its Texan-size of  26 acres, it is the largest known FARF in the world.

Dr. Daniel Wescott, FARF director, oversees Freeman Ranch and the studies conducted there. Wescott said learning about what physically happens to you after death is one way to alleviate the fear and mystery which surround dying.

“One of the most frightening things about death for people is the unknown,” Wescott said, sitting in front of a collection of large, brown boxes labeled with names. “These are boxes that contain the skeletal remains of donated individuals.”

Photo by Andrés Garcia

The stretch of farmland on which the bodies are openly observed is scattered with a plethora of stray vegetation. Amidst the brush, dry weeds and patches of grass, each body is methodically positioned for a specific research purpose.

In their varying stages of decomposition, some bodies are sitting up, others are lying down. Some bodies are clothed, others are undressed. Some are covered with tarps or encapsulated within wire cages, others are open to the elements.

The unencapsulated bodies are referred to as “vulture research projects,” because they are subject to all-natural decomposition including vulture-like animals who feed on the remains.  “We’re interested in a whole variety of things,” Wescott said. “The most common thing here is looking at methods associated with estimating how long a person has been dead.”

 

Photo by Andrés Garcia

The researchers, who are mostly doctoral and research students from Texas State University,  conduct case studies in which certain bodies are subject to very specific decomposition factors. In one case, a body was placed underneath a mattress to study the decomposition of a body if it were hidden under heavy, synthetic elements. These specific studies allow forensic scientists to understand how bodies decompose in various real-life scenarios.

In addition to studying decomposition, the FARF program trains local law enforcement for tasks such as finding and excavating bodies without losing or compromising evidence from the body that could be useful during an autopsy. “We do training courses on a couple different things,” Wescott said. Especially with a buried body, how do you properly excavate a body to retrieve as much information as possible?”

Captain Carol L. Twiss, who serves as Chief Criminal Investigator in Kerr County, said the law enforcement training at FARF has helped solve several murders, including the high-profile murder case of millionaire Allan Kowalski in 2008. “I think anybody who doesn’t work with these folks is stupid,” Twiss said. “We actually solved the murder and arrested ten or 15 people associated with the theft of his property.”

“We brought out a cadaver dog to do a search,” Twiss said. “It was buried under black-stone rock and when we lifted the rock, you could see the remains. We left it alone and had the Texas State University folks come out and they helped us excavate it.”

FARF accepts two kinds of donations: living and next-of-kin. Living donors must pre-register to donate their bodies to the research center prior to death and next-of-kin donors are those donated by family members who make the decision to donate their loved ones after they have died.

The term “body farm” is widely used to describe anthropological research facilities like FARF, but Courtney Siegert, a doctoral student at Texas State University and FARF researcher said the term is colloquial and never used by those who understand the gravity of their work. “I think that the term body farm is not appropriate,” Siegert said. “It makes light of what it is. We don’t farm people. We don’t grow people here.”

Student researchers from Texas State University like Siegert are involved in every aspect of the FARF.

They retrieve the bodies, transport the bodies to the center, physically place them in the field for research until conduct decomposition studies until the bodies are completely skeletal and ready to be scrubbed down and studied further. The process leaves little room for the faint of heart.

Siegert said she learned there was no room for hesitance as soon as her first day at the FARF. During an initial facility tour, she was thrown into a “sink or swim” situation.

“There were a bunch of bodies that had been placed in tarps and there wasn’t a cage on top,” Siegert said. “The person that was teaching us said, ‘Oh no! We have to gather them up so the vultures don’t keep scavenging and taking everything. So we had to gather up bodies on my first day.”

Many students who come to work at the FARF have never encountered a dead body before. Kari Helgeson, a veteran student researcher at the FARF, said despite five years of experience, certain aspects of the job still remain difficult. “Picking up a foot that’s decomposing while maggots are crawling under your hand, that is an experience,” Helgeson said.

Helgeson and Siegert both said there are certain tasks that never get easier, but must be done as part of the daily research procedures. An example Helgeson specifically noted is a technique called maceration. If you search for the definition of maceration without context to FARF, you will likely run into fruit-based recipes. In fact, much of what is done at FARF, from the processes conducted to the tools used, resemble those of a professional kitchen.

“The thing that freaks me out is when I have to take them apart and put them in the Crock-Pot,” Helgeson said. “I mean physical Crock-Pots, like what you use in everyday life. That breaks apart the tissue and we have to pull them apart farther to get the bones out.”

For Siegert, intake, the initial process of picking up and analyzing a body at the lab, is more difficult than actual decomposition research. “People often think that it’s the decomposition aspect that freaks us out more,” Siegert said. “But honestly it’s doing the initial intake that bothers me more because they look like a person still. It looks like somebody you knew.”

Like Helgeson, Siegert said despite her years of experience, she still feels uncomfortable doing certain simple tasks. One mundane process which makes her uncomfortable is taking nail samples from newly donated bodies. “It’s like holding hands with somebody that you love or care about,” Siegert said.

When the researchers are off the field, the bodies are observed through field cameras which are placed over each body. In one particular situation, the cameras captured never before seen footage. “We captured the first-ever footage of a deer eating human remains,” Westcott said.

Deer, well-known herbivores, never displayed carnivorous tendencies prior to the unprecedented footage recorded at the FARF in January 2015. The footage was subject to scientific marvel and inquiry, garnering attention from National Geographic and other renowned scientific journals.

The footage was later explained by a paper published by FARF researchers, Lauren Meckel, Chloe McDaneld and Wescott. The paper proved that deer may gnaw on human bones “possibly to obtain minerals absent in their diet.”

According to FARF researchers, the popularity of the paper peaked public interest in unique burials and since, more people have chosen to donate their bodies to FARF. The increase in donors is also partly due to the facility’s proximity to Austin, where environmental-friendliness is prominent.

Austin residents are now equally obsessed with “green deaths” as they are with green living. “Austin is obsessed with eco-friendly, green burials,” Wescott said. “Also, it’s just a nice peaceful place.”

Despite the emotional aspects of identification research and the unease of physically dismantling a human’s skeleton from the flesh they once inhabited, researchers who work at the FARF are resilient in the work they do.

As Wescott paced gingerly around the field of bodies to avoid stepping on displaced bones, he spoke about his personal burial plans. “Actually, I plan on donating my body to the University of Tennessee and everybody always asks why,” Wescott said. “I’d rather be buried here than Tennessee, but right now, if I were to die on the way home, it’s my students that would have to pick up my body and my students that would have to place me. While that doesn’t bother me, I know it would bother my students.”

 

From the RGV to UT, A Struggle to Succeed

By Tinu Thomas

Eri Longoria is a finance student at the University of Texas from Mission, Texas. His hometown was recently ranked the third least educated in the U.S. Longoria said he felt the effects of coming from a poor and uneducated city when he started college at UT.

“I sit down in a classroom and everyone looks different from me – the way they dress, the way they act,” Longoria said. “I came from a single mother who had to take care of four sons. She had to do all that by herself so there wasn’t really a lot of space for me to go to a camp where I just studied math all day every day or practiced my ACT’s.”

But according to an annual report from RGV Focus, an education-focused collective impact initiative in the Rio Grande Valley, education in the Valley has been improving rapidly since Longoria left for college in 2015. Within the last 10 years, test scores of students in grades K-12 in Valley cities have gone up drastically. Students from elementary to high school are now on par with students in larger metro cities like Dallas and more high school students are graduating at higher levels of college readiness.

Students aren’t taking jobs in their hometowns after they graduate from college, however. That may be why the percent of adults with college degrees has remained low in these areas.

 

Where The Jobs Are

The data that listed Longoria’s hometown as one of the least educated in the nation was determined by looking at where the most educated people in America were putting their degrees to work. It made sense that in Texas, the Austin-Round Rock area – a hub for technology, business and entrepreneurship – was where most educated people looked for work. But cities in the Valley actually have more job openings.

According to an article by Ray Perryman of the Perryman Group, an economic and financial analysis group, the metropolitan areas of McAllen-Edinburg and Mission are expected to lead job growth in Texas over the next 20 years. This growth is primarily due to maquiladoras or larger companies across the U.S. that come to South Texas to do business and manufacture in Mexico.

These factories rely on cheap labor from Mexico, but many of their higher-ups are located in South Texas, where they can keep a close eye on the companies from the U.S.

 

New Faces Around Town

Bitty Turan taught high school in Brownsville, Texas, for two decades and is now a retired insurance agent. She says she’s watched students get more opportunities to pursue higher education over the years.

“A lot of my students went to college and did very well,” she said. “I think they had a good support system and financial aid; I think most of them were on financial aid.”

Turan is also a witness to the fact that students leave the Valley for college and don’t come back.

“A lot of them that leave, I haven’t seen many come back,” Turan said. “Once in a while there’s a few that they’re retiring already and they come back, or a spouse died and they come back, or their parent has failing health and they come back.”

For Turan, students not returning means outsiders taking jobs there.

“Brownsville’s getting kind of big,” she said. “It used to be you’d go anywhere and you’d know everybody or at least somebody. And now I can go to H-E-B and not know anybody.”

Turan said because students from the Valley are pursuing careers in places like Austin rather than putting their degrees to work in their hometowns, the culture in Brownsville and other cities is becoming more Tex-Mex than Mex.

“Most of the time it’s a culture shock for them,” Turan said about the businessmen who take supervisor positions in border cities. “They might have some Hispanic workers in Detroit or wherever they’re from, but then here, everyone’s Hispanic.”

The population of the Rio Grande Valley is predominantly Hispanic or Latino, at 88-99 percent across all four counties that make up the region. Most of the business people don’t make an effort to learn Spanish or about the culture of the Valley, Turan said, and many of them don’t stay for long before being replaced.

“We used to say the maquiladora wives – when they came with their families, that the wives didn’t like it and they never unpacked,” Turan said.

 

‘A Brain Drain’

Longoria, who had a difficult time assimilating into Austin, said he understands why many students go away to college and don’t come back.

“[The Valley] has one of the lowest rates of education in the country for a reason,” Longoria said. “It’s kind of a brain drain. Once you go back, you kind of get stuck there.

Longoria plans to stay in Austin after her graduates and promises to visit his mom on holidays.