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2020 Year in Review

By Jose De Leon III and Jamie Treviño

2020 has brought unexpected changes, as everyone has adjusted practices and put things on hold for the sake of public health and safety.

In the turn of the new decade, we at the Progress Times will continue to bring the latest news right to your doorstep, local establishment or mobile device. As we reflect on 2020, those we’ve lost and the love we have gained, let’s look back at some of the notable moments of this unprecedented year. 

Corona Chaos

Lindsie Schuster (right) becomes the first DHR Health staff member to receive a COVID-19 vaccine Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2020. Progress Times photo by Jose De Leon III,

Arguably the most obvious, biggest stories of 2020 have been those concerning the coronavirus pandemic. The global pandemic rocked the world, particularly the United States, as cases continue to increase every day.

The novel coronavirus, known as COVID-19, was first identified during an outbreak in Wuhan, China. It hit the United States in Late February 2020, with the first case in Texas sourced in San Antonio.

By March, the local, state and national government, along with businesses and school districts, had to react. Most university and college campuses did not return following their Spring Breaks in March, though they were originally only anticipating a week’s delay in in-person classes.

It became evident very quickly that the virus would not be slowing down by any stretch of the imagination. Major events were postponed, then eventually cancelled, as the spread continued.

A team of medical experts worked with the federal government to come up with a plan to combat the spread of COVID-19, but ultimately left the final decision-making up to state governors. In Texas, gatherings of more than ten people were not permitted, and masks were mandated. Essential establishments like grocery stores and hospitals were overrun with people, who filled all the beds available and bought every roll of toilet paper visible.

Restaurants and other “non-essential” businesses had to get creative, and offer delivery or curbside options they had not considered prior to the pandemic. Dine-in seating was not an option for several months, including the summer months of June and July.

Local municipalities in Hidalgo County continued to conduct business, but closed their main city halls and kept meetings limited. Most official meetings were held via Zoom or WebEx, online video call services that experienced an unexpected boom in 2020.

Curfews were put in place locally, at one point running from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. Essential workers like doctors, nurses, first responders, media and educators were given permission to be travelling outside the curfew hours if necessary, and police departments patrolled the streets to ensure non-essential workers were staying home.

Unemployment rates skyrocketed as businesses could not afford to keep their entire staff, and schools moved to distance learning options and used technology to continue classwork.

In an effort to revitalize the economy, one stimulus package was approved by the government, paying citizens who met the threshold with $1,200. After Christmas, a second stimulus check is still being debated by congress.

Establishments began opening up in stages, limiting how many patrons could be inside at one time and cutting down on the menu. Most everything is still kept socially-distant, and drive-thrus are more popular than ever.

Throughout this time, pharmacies, hospitals and general practitioners have offered COVID-19 testing to everyone. At one point, the National Guard set up in the Bert Ogden Arena, offering mass testing to the residents of the Rio Grande Valley.

A nasal swab that felt like it scratched one’s brain was an effective, commonly-used test, with other more rapid options producing results as well. Healthcare workers faced the virus head-on, often quarantining away from their families in an effort to keep their loved ones safe.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, as of press time 18,909,910 United States citizens have tested positive for the coronavirus, and over 330,000 people have died as a result.

In Hidalgo County – as of press time Monday – 50,032 people have tested positive for COVID-19, and 2,181 people have died as a result. The county has launched several public service announcements and advertisements in their honor, using the images of deceased patients as a means of warning residents to listen to CDC guidelines and slow the spread of one of the deadliest pandemics in modern history.

Changing of the guard

A screenshot of the fireworks display over the La Joya ISD Stadium last Friday in celebration of the new board of Trustees. Photo courtesy of La Joya ISD Facebook.

With 2020 came a new election year that resulted in races as tumultuous as the Presidential race on a local level.

The most noteworthy of them was the March 2020 Democratic Primary race for Hidalgo County Precinct 3 commissioner which pitted longtime incumbent Jose “Joe” Flores against businessman Everardo “Ever” Villarreal.

The race, which saw Villarreal beat Flores by 92 votes, became one of the most expensive ones in the county as Villarreal loaned himself $420,000.

As there was no Republican candidate in the primary or the November general election, Villarreal became the commissioner elect.

Despite making a statement accepting the results of the election, Flores filed a lawsuit in late March challenging the results of the primary election, citing nearly 1,000 illegal votes made in favor of Villarreal. The COVID-19 pandemic delayed the trial where a judge ultimately dismissed the lawsuit last July. An October ruling by the 13th Court of Appeals supported the judge’s ruling.

A major election was held in the La Joya Independent School District, with 12 candidates vying for four seats on the board. Three incumbents will remain, with a familiar new addition.

Former LJISD Superintendent of Schools Dr. Alda T. Benavides unseated the incumbent for Place 4 on the board after just one year of retirement from the district. Incumbent candidate Claudia Ochoa, a nurse, and Leonora Garcia, a retired educator for the district, lost to Benavides.

Armin Garza, who worked for Precinct 3 as a Chief of Staff, narrowly retained his Place 5 seat on the board by just 127 votes. His opponents were Hidalgo County Division Manager Anthony Uresti and dietician Dr. Andie Lee Gonzalez.

Oscar “Coach” Salinas, who is self-employed, will stay in the Place 6 seat for the LJISD board after beating his opponents, speech pathologist Irma Villarreal-Veloz and teacher Pamela Flores.

Incumbent candidate Alex Cantu, a self-employed business owner, will also stay in the Place 7 seat on the board. His opponents were Jerry “Chief” Alaniz, the Palmview Fire Chief and administrator Norma Chapa.

Possibly fueled by social media allegations against the Sharyland school district, voters shut down two proposed bonds that would’ve created $40 million in renovations to buildings in the district and elected a new school board trustee.

Criminal investigator Alejandro Rodriguez was sworn into the board after beating incumbent Julio Cerda with 56% of the votes during the Nov. 3 election. 

Certified Public Accountant Ricardo “Ricky” Longoria, who has served on the Sharyland school board since 2008, kept his seat after the election where he won the majority 45% of the votes against three other challengers.

The Mission Consolidated Independent School District held an election in November, with nine candidates running for four seats on the Board of Trustees.

Retired educator and former coach Nelda Iris Igelsias won the Place 2 seat after beating her opponent Beto Garza, a Planning Inspector for Hidalgo County. 

Place 3 incumbent Jerry Zamora, a Texas state trooper, kept his seat on the MCISD board over his opponent, retired teacher Sylvia Caratachea.

Roy Vela, a representative for Provider Relations, returned to the MCISD Board of Trustees in Place 4 after his victory against his opponent, representative for Spinal Sales Oscar Martinez.

Director of Development at World Radio Network, Inc. Juan M. Gonzalez unseated the incumbent for Place 5 on the Mission CISD board Charlie Garcia III, an architect. Romeo C. González II, the third candidate for Place 5, also fell short of the victory.

The city of Palmview also welcomes a new face to the city council after businesswoman Linda Sarabia lost her Place 3 seat to La Joya ISD counselor Alexandra Flores during the November election. Sarabia’s running mates retained their seats during the election.

Sullivan City held a special election last November to fill in two vacancies in the city council that went to former volunteer Fire Chief Rene “Cuate” Peña and his running mate, La Joya ISD asset management Supervisor Jaime Villarreal.

Their victory kicked off a series of changes in the city which included the hiring of former  Peñitas City Secretary Ana Mercado to serve as the new city manager, a position that had been filled in by City Secretary Veronica Gutierrez who left the city after Mercado’s hiring.

In several meetings held last month, commissioners would also fire City Attorney Marco De Luna and four of their six municipal judges.

The city of Mission was anticipated to hold an election this year as well, prior to the pandemic. Following the passing of candidate John A. Lopez, Ruben Plata and Alberto “Beto” Vela will remain in their seats on the Mission city council.

Originally set for May 2020, the elections were postponed to November. Place 2 (held by Plata) and Place 4 (currently held by Vela) were up for grabs.

Lopez passed away in August, leading several citizens to call council members and Mayor Armando O’caña about how the ballot would look in November. When the election was postponed, the original May filing deadline for candidate applications was still valid, meaning no one else could run for the seats, and an election would have cost Mission approximately $74,000.

If a candidate had filed to run for office, regardless if it was in May, if their death or ineligibility occurred before Aug. 14, they would need to be removed from the ballot. After questioning the Texas Secretary of State, it was confirmed that Lopez would be removed from the ballot, and Mission could move forward with the cancellation of the election legally.

Condolences were given by all council members and city leaders to Lopez’s family.

Council passed ordinance #4928, declaring the unopposed candidates as certified victories and cancelling the election. Vela and Plata will continue on the city council moving forward.

At the Agua Special Utility district, voters elected business owners Maribel Diaz and Esmeralda H. Solis as the directors of Agua SUD Districts 1 and 3 during the first election for the district since board members voted in 2019 to switch from city- and county-based seats to single-member districts.

Diaz and Solis beat out incumbents Esequiel “Zeke” Ortiz Jr. and Franco Lopez during the Nov. 3 general election. Board Director Homer Tijerina was also re-elected and was appointed as the new president of the utility board of directors.

President Donald Trump, who was elected in 2016, lost his campaign for a second term to President-Elect Joe Biden, formerly the Vice President over two-term President Barack Obama. After nearly a week of counting mail-in votes and recounting those cast in-person, Biden won 306 electoral votes, with Trump earning 232.

Striving to Serve

The Progress Times spotlighted several local businesses who adapted to the pandemic in 2020. As they struggled to figuratively keep their doors open, they felt the calling to still provide clean service to the community however they could, and all spoke about the importance of supporting local business.

El Patio, run by the Garza family, introduced delivery as an option, and began to offer family bundles and deals for those wishing to have the restaurant experience from the safety of their homes. Marco and Ninfa Garza, the couple who started El Patio, were familiar faces who always greeted patrons at the door.

Due to their being of a certain age, that practice had to pause at the height of the pandemic. They missed seeing their customers regularly, but knew they had to keep themselves, and everyone, as safe as possible.

Ranch House Burgers II, owned by Michael and Christy Barrera, kept the community fed. Using delivery services and keeping unorthodox hours to sanitize the space, the establishment continued crafting their specialty burgers and fajita plates.

They offered discounted bundles and also held special hours for first responders and police officers, who often worked irregular schedules through the pandemic.

Brick Fire Pizza kept the ovens burning and the drinks flowing, selling to-go alcoholic beverages with the purchase of food. They also held special hours for police officers, and continued to raise money for local school districts and those struggling to make ends meet because of the coronavirus.

Diaz Diner, a popular restaurant in Mission, opened their first drive-thru in response to the pandemic. They missed their regular patrons, made up of Missionites and Winter Texans alike.

Balli’s Social Event Center also opened a drive-thru, offering their fresh plates of food from their catering business during lunch hours almost every day of the week. Though they were used to holding major events like weddings, quinceñeras and government functions, Balli’s kept themselves going with a unique menu that changes every week.

Texas Regional Bank was one of the many banking establishments that had to shift gears because of COVID-19. They continued to offer loans to local businesses at notable rates, and processed thousands of Personal Protective Equipment loans with funding in excess of $100 million.

La Joya Police chief fired

Among the most read stories on the Progress Times’ website was the breaking news story of La Joya city commissioners voting to fire their police chief.

Adolfo Arriaga was let go of his position last June after a city council meeting where  city Attorney Roberto Jackson Jr. cited “a plethora of incidents” as the cause for Arriaga’s dismissal.

Jackson Jr. never identified those incidents. Documents provided to the Progress Times would later show that Arriaga was reprimanded for not practicing social distancing during a public event last April and for allowing his employees to work overtime for three consecutive payroll periods.

Arriaga was hired by the city in January 2018 after serving as a policeman for less than five years.  In October 2018, city commissioners quietly approved a two-year contract to continue employing Arriaga at an annual $60,000 salary.

At the time, Arriaga’s wife – Dalia – was running for city commission along with then – Mayor Jose A. “Fito” Salinas. Both lost the election the following month.

The city declined to pay Arriaga a severance package due to his cited incidents.

City emergency management Coordinator Ramon Gonzalez was appointed as the interim police chief shortly after the June meeting.

Deadly domestic disturbances

A memorial for slain McAllen police officers Edelmiro Garza Jr. and Ismael Chavez Jr. outside of the McAllen Police Department Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Progress Times photo by Joe De Leon III

Last month the Progress Times published a piece looking at how the COVID-19 pandemic was fueling more cases of domestic disturbance.

Three deadly incidents of this occured in July and August that resulted in five deaths and countless others traumatized by these events.

On July 11, McAllen police officers Edelmiro Garza Jr., 45, and Ismael Chavez Jr., 39, died from a fatal shooting when a suspect opened fire on them.

The duo were responding to reports of a domestic disturbance in a home on the 3500 block of Queta Street when the suspect, 23-year-old Audon Ignacio Camarillo, opened fire on them. Camarillo died from suicide when more officers arrived at the scene.

At a press conference following the shooting, McAllen police Chief Victor Rodriguez said this was the first time the McAllen Police Department had officers down.

Public officials such as state Gov. Greg Abbott paid their respects to the officers and a public memorial was held at the McAllen Convention Center.

About two weeks later, police in Mission responded to a domestic disturbance call that turned into a nearly seven hour long police standoff that left a Sullivan City commissioner dead.

Gabriel Salinas, 39, was found dead after exchanging gunfire with Mission police and deputies with the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies on July 31.

The night before, officers responded to the scene where they found Salinas’ girlfriend, an unidentified 39-year-old woman, bleeding profusely at a neighbor’s house. The neighbor called 911 after the victim arrived with lacerations across her face.

After police arrived, a four-year-old boy covered in blood ran toward police from the garage of Salinas’ home. Once the child was secured, gunfire was exchanged.

Backup came in the form of multiple agencies from the local, state and federal level as the SWAT teams from the Mission and Pharr police departments as well as the FBI, Texas Department of Public Safety, the Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Department and others who eventually surrounded the home and evacuated nearby houses.

Salinas was eventually found dead in his bedroom where authorities believe he bled out quickly from gunfire. Salinas had a previous run-in with Mission police after he was arrested in 2019 and charged with assaulting his wife at the same residence.

His death created a vacancy in the city of Sullivan City commission that led to a special election.

The following month, an unidentified 25-year old Peñitas man died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound following an eight-hour standoff with law enforcement.

The incident occurred Friday, Aug, 14 when the suspect’s wife arrived at the Peñitas Police Department to report a “minor assault” that just occurred at her husband’s house near the police department. By the time police arrived, the suspect had barricaded himself at his home and refused to leave the home.

The Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office took over the investigation.

Attempted terrorism attack hits close to home

A Canadian woman was arrested last September and accused of mailing envelopes containing a deadly poison to President Donald J. Trump and six local law enforcement agencies.

Pascale Cecile Veronique Ferrier aka Jane Ferrier, 53, is currently in custody in Washington, D.C. where she is formally accused of sending envelopes containing letters and a powdery substance to multiple local agencies between Sept. 14-21.

These included the El Valle Detention Facility, the Hidalgo County Adult Detention Center, Brooks County Detention Center, Hidalgo County Sheriff’s Office, Brooks County Sheriff’s Office and Mission Police Department, according to the charges.

For an update into her case, see the related story on our issue. 

Hurricane Hanna

Hurricane Hanna hit the Rio Grande Valley and South Texas on Saturday, June 25. A Category One hurricane, it managed to devastate the region with its strong winds and downpour of water.

Hanna was the first of a record-tying six hurricanes to hit the United States from the Atlantic Ocean in 2020. Locally, over 84,000 residents were left without power, over 10,000 for more than a week as power companies rallied to repair downed lines even through the flooding.

Families faced one of the most difficult struggles they could have during the pandemic, as they were displaced from their homes and taken to shelters. After the flooding of 2018, the county has worked to repair and renovate drainage infrastructure, but it was not completed soon enough. For a Category One hurricane to cause as much damage as it did, meant the area had not fully recovered since the summer of 2018.

Local Mourning

Sergio Muñoz Sr., courtesy image

Mission lost several people this year, including two leaders who excelled in the realms of politics and athletics.

Leaving behind a legacy of loyalty, love, faith and trust, former State Representative Muñoz, Sr. passed away on Thurs. July 30, 2020. Muñoz, Sr., who was 68 years old, had been ill with the coronavirus for about a month prior to his passing.

Muñoz, Sr. served as a representative for Texas’ 36th District from 1993 to 1997. Among several issues, he worked toward advancing the early voting by mail system and oversaw the 1995 Judicial Campaign Fairness Act. Even in retirement, Muñoz, Sr. was often an engaging presence in community and civic events throughout Hidalgo County, particularly in Western Hidalgo County.

Muñoz leaves behind much more than a political legacy. His love and dedication to his family still reverberates in their hearts and minds, and likely will for decades to come.

The Muñoz family has remained a strong unit despite the circumstances. Because funeral homes in the Valley were overrun due to COVID-19-related deaths, they had to wait for the delayed burial of their patriarch.

Muñoz’s son and namesake, Sergio Muñoz, Jr., found a lifelong role model in his father. An attorney, Muñoz, Jr. decided to represent the same area as Muñoz, Sr. with the goal of continuing his political and ethical values. Muñoz, Jr. began his first term as a state representative for District 36 in 2010.

Muñoz, Jr. recalled his father’s faith in God, loyalty, love and humility. The Muñoz family  held an outdoor procession in Muñoz, Sr.’s honor at the Mission Event Center, a blessing at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church and a funeral service at Valley Memorial Gardens.

Sonny Detmer, the coach who won the most in the history of Mission High School football, passed away after a brief illness in September 2020 in Somerset, Texas. He was 76 years old. Detmer was serving as the head football coach at Somerset High School. 

Detmer came to Mission High School prior to the 1989 season, and continued the pass-first philosophy of offense started a few years earlier by David Lee and his successor, Rusty Dowling. From 1989 to 1997 Detmer compiled a 68-31 record along with six playoff appearances. 

Detmer’s nine years tied him with Lum Wright as the two longest-tenured head football coaches in the history of Mission High. He amassed over 200 victories in his 35 year career and his son, Koy, is the current head football coach for the Eagles.

Our sports writer John Hamann coached with Detmer for four years, and said Detmer coached with a style that didn’t fit the mold of what most people expect. He was soft spoken, coached games from the press box and didn’t have a playbook.

Several coaches and school board leaders remember Detmer as the kind of coach that comes once in a lifetime, and found he was as good a person off the field as he was on.

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