Will Fernandez Bust Throw Eastside Détente Into Turmoil?
El Concilio leader's drug-and-assault arrest comes just as Mexican-American political cooperation is on the rise.
The May 22 arrest of East Austin community activist Gavino Fernandez Jr. has produced shock among people citywide -- from Council Member Raul Alvarez, who drew Fernandez as a challenger during this year's election and was "stunned" by the news, to Fernandez's neighbors, who say they never noticed any evidence of wrongdoing at his weather-beaten white house on Caney Street. Strongly opinionated and occasionally erratic in his political activities, Fernandez has long promoted himself as a grassroots leader looking out for the people in the barrio -- not the kind of guy who would walk around with $22,000 in cash and wire transfers in his pockets. Now Fernandez faces a federal investigation into claims that he was involved in smuggling illegal immigrants, as well as state charges for aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (a second-degree felony) and possession of marijuana and cocaine (a state jail felony).
Fernandez's arrest comes at a time when some of his personal relationships with past political foes appeared to be on the mend. As coordinator of the El Concilio association of Mexican-American neighborhoods, he had been participating in preparations for the Feria de la Calle Cinco celebration planned for this Saturday, June 7 at Plaza Saltillo. Featuring music, food, artists, information booths, and a tribute to outgoing Mayor Gus Garcia, the Feria represents just one attempt by the city and Capital Metro to spur economic development and tourist traffic at Saltillo, the inviting but underutilized public square between East Fourth, East Fifth, Comal, and Onion streets.
Students of East Austin's politically divisive history might have been surprised to see Fernandez and his friend and former campaign treasurer, La Prensa publisher Cathy Vasquez-Revilla, sharing refreshments at the same table as Feria committee co-chairs Paul Saldaña, former aide to Garcia, and Capital Metro board member and former Council Member John Trevino. Relations between the activists and the public officials had suffered some strain over the years, with El Concilio complaining that Garcia wasn't doing enough for Hispanic East Austin.
"We were finally able to forge some detente," laments Trevino, who as the city's mayor pro tem in the Eighties was also picketed and boycotted by Fernandez and El Concilio leaders. Trevino anticipated friction when Feria planning began, but Fernandez turned out to be cooperative. "My relationship with Gavino really became very, very good," Trevino says. "We would sit at [Vasquez-Revilla's] and say, 'Look, we've got our stuff together. We can do it. If we can do this, we can do a whole lot more.' Everybody really believed it." In recent months Fernandez had participated in planning for another city/Cap Metro venture in East Austin, the Saltillo District redevelopment of the transit authority's rail-yard property to the west of Plaza Saltillo. He was dropped after missing a meeting -- a violation of the committee policy, a Cap Metro spokeswoman said.
Fernandez waits behind bars at the Travis County Jail, facing years in prison if convicted. According to police affidavits, Austin Police Department officers arrested him after a Houston man named Alfredo Alvarez flagged down EMS near the Santa Rita Courts housing complex at around 7pm on the evening of May 22. Alvarez told officers that he had traveled to Austin to pick up his brother, whom he had arranged to have illegally transported from Mexico. Alvarez said he had visited Fernandez's home to pick up his brother and to pay Fernandez for his smuggling services, but first Fernandez demanded $5,000. Alvarez said he didn't have the money, which prompted Fernandez to threaten to kill the two men. Fernandez allegedly hit Alvarez with a small, wooden baseball bat and kicked him in the lower left leg, causing abrasions. Alvarez also sustained a cut on his left index finger in an attempt to fend off Fernandez's attack, the affidavit notes. When officers arrived on the scene, they found the marijuana and a small bag of cocaine -- the latter resting on top of a dresser in Fernandez's dining room -- and evidence that as many as 10 immigrants had passed through Fernandez's home. Several immigrants were found at Fernandez's house at the time of his arrest.
Unsurprisingly, Fernandez's supporters maintain their friend's innocence. Fernandez was just trying to help other people out, including a wayward nephew, and got caught up with the wrong crowd. "He's a natural leader," says Vasquez-Revilla, asserting that Fernandez doesn't even smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol, let alone do drugs. "He was thinking of running in another political race. [His arrest] means he can never run for office again." Meanwhile, Fernandez's arrest places into question the future of El Concilio, whose leadership corps -- a group dating back to their 1970s activism with the Brown Berets -- has already been weakened with the ill health of original standard-bearer Paul Hernandez and the death last year of longtime ally Robert Donley. The group's poor success in recent elections may indicate its influence is, if not waning, at least not growing -- though some El Concilio allies deny such claims. "I think if they're a legitimate organization, somebody will surface," says one longtime East Austin community leader. "If not, I think it will just die on the vine."
During a planning meeting for the Feria celebration last Wednesday, committee members sidestepped talk of Fernandez's arrest, instead focusing on scheduling musicians' performances and other logistical matters. Though used for the city's Deiz y Seis and Cinco de Mayo celebrations, Saltillo often lies empty, its ornate traditional benches waiting for someone to sit on them. If this weekend's celebration proves successful, organizers hope to apply money raised through fees to produce similar events, possibly on a monthly basis. Trevino, for one, believes that if Austin can re-create the bustling atmosphere of an authentic Mexican plaza, Austinites citywide will come. And that, Trevino says, is something that Fernandez would want -- regardless of his other activities. "We have the same goal," says Trevino.