The Dispossessed

When HISD starts deciding whose homes to take, schoolkids are the only messengers. The Moríns learned that lesson too late.

Pedro and Mary Morín's near-northside home exudes a tranquil balance of warm creature comfort and close attention to domestic detail.

In the den and study, throw pillows sit primly on billowy sofas and chairs, which, despite their staid floral patterns, offer the promise of delicious slumber. Imitation Chinese porcelain stands meticulously arranged on one shelf; photos of the Moríns' children, now grown, beam from another.

Long fans dangle like tropical plants from the 11-foot-high ceilings. At the center of the cozy den is Pedro Morín himself, a 65-year-old retired railway worker, who is sunk so deep in his plush recliner he appears to be lying down.

Pedro is telling the story of the family's three decades in the house at 2219 Freeman Street, a tale so replete with frenetic children, yapping pets and endless toil as to be utterly belied by its teller's yawning repose.

The Moríns came in 1968, a period when an influx of Hispanic families ushered in a dramatic shift in the makeup of the historically Anglo area. Pedro wasted no time pounding life back into the old home, rebuilding the front porch, fixing the plumbing and replacing the roof.

A short, stalwart man in a white T-shirt and khaki shorts, he waxes poetic about the big-barreled grill he and a friend rigged up in the backyard.

"Oh, hell, when I had that pit Š every time there was a birthday, holiday or any special occasion, it was barbecue time," he says, in a voice that is equal parts Texas twang and the Spanish of his youth.

While Pedro is the handyman of the family, Mary is decidedly the green thumb. She is largely responsible for making the peach-colored home shimmer like an oasis amid the tired frame houses and the ungainly salvage yard nearby.

A gentle, matronly figure at 63, she sits out back surrounded by a small army of flowerpots. Mary points to the tree beside her and tells how her mischievous granddaughter unfailingly finds her way onto its limbs during visits.

"I tell her, 'Don't get in the tree! Don't get in the tree!' " she says, laughing. It's the same crape myrtle her mother used to swing in years and years ago.

"I had my daughter's graduation and wedding here. Birthday parties galore," she says. "We have been like little ants since we moved into the house."


The message did not come directly. Rather, a notice arrived in the mail one day in early August, indicating that Pedro Morín had a certified letter from HISD.

Strange, thought Pedro, cradling the usual jumble of bills and assorted junk. He hadn't had a child in the school system for 20 years.

He headed to the post office, signed for the correspondence and didn't wait to open it.

"This letter is to inform you that growth in Houston has created a serious shortage of permanent classroom space within the Houston Independent School District," it began elusively. "In a response to this need for classroom space necessary to provide the best education for our children in your area, HISD will build an elementary school in your area.

"After a diligent search, the Superintendent of Schools has recommended, and the HISD Board of Education has designated a tract of land for this expansion. This tract includes land you may ownŠ."

Pedro didn't have to read on. He got the point: HISD wanted to buy him out.

His mind raced back to the rumors whispered in the neighborhood that something like this might be afoot. But he'd dismissed them as tales spoken across fences by neighbors in passing. Surely HISD would have told residents of its intentions first, before deciding to take such dramatic action.

Pedro took the letter home to Mary, who was working in the kitchen, which still gleamed from the new Formica countertops.

She, too, took the news hard.

"We didn't know what to do," she says. "We wereŠ in shock.

"It's a very scary situation where a person can plan for his retirement -- it took a lifetime for us to do this for ourselves -- and then for the government to come in and say, 'Too bad. We have other plans.' That's scary. There's not much you can do."

The Moríns recalled with bitter irony how a year earlier they had voted for the bond program that earmarked a new school for their neighborhood. They thought they were just doing their civic duty, supporting better schools for Houston's young. "I never thought I'd cut my own throat," Mary says.

The initial shock quickly gave way to questions: Was the district's decision final, or was there still some chance of saving their home? If not, where would they go?

Over time, the Moríns and their neighbors have received what they consider to be unsatisfactory answers to their questions. Their struggle has spilled beyond the confines of their once secure neighborhood, attracting the interest of community activists and a Dallas lawyer.

But even with this high-powered help, residents lament that the twilight years of their lives have plummeted into uncertainty. They are bitter because they were among the last ones to learn of the district's plan, which left them unaware until the fateful decision on their homes had already been made.

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