One hundred miles south of the border, in a pueblo tucked in the valley of the Sierra Madre Oriental, Viola Barrios threw a party for her son. She baked a cake and strung up a piñata. She prepared sandwiches and set out games. She spread the word and dozens of peasant children came running.
In a neighbor’s yard fronted by a dirt road in Bustamante, Mexico, Louie Barrios marked his birthday with more than 50 boys and girls, every one of them a stranger. “I remember a sea of children,” said Louie, recalling what he thinks was his ninth or 10th birthday.
He also remembers disappointment. The kids who arrived in shorts and bare feet brought no presents. They came with dust on their legs and smiles on their faces. With dirt on their arms and hands in their air. Fiesta!
“I hated having my birthday in Mexico,” said Louie, CEO of Los Barrios Enterprises. “If I had had it in San Antonio, I would have gotten 20 to 30 gifts.”
Viola turned Louie’s disappointment into a teaching moment. She pointed out the clean clothes, the abundance of food, the new toys he had back at home in San Antonio. She compared his blessings with those of his party guests. “These children don’t have anything,” Viola told him in Spanish. “And you have so much.”
Eight days before he turns 59, Louie is throwing a birthday party for his late mother: Viola’s Huge Heart Festival. On Sunday at Viola’s Ventanas, the Barrios’ restaurant in Westover Hills, Louie and his sister Diana Barrios Trevino will serve a chicken fajita buffet from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. The celebration includes music from Chris Lopez and Canela Fina, a petting zoo, a silent auction and a play area for kids. The guests of honor: more than 300 orphans and foster youth from across the city.
Louie is building upon a legacy. By inviting hundreds of hurting children to Viola’s party – she would have turned 88 on July 6 – he is revealing her heart for the poor and most vulnerable. But that’s not all. Eleven years after Viola was slain by her next-door neighbor, Louie is using her memory and the nonprofit established in her name – Viola’s Huge Heart Foundation – to spotlight an unrecognized crisis. The foster care system is a pipeline to homelessness and a superhighway to sex trafficking.
According to a national study from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, more than 50 percent of those who age out of foster care become homeless. In some states the outcomes are worse. Seventy-three percent of foster youth in Maryland, 65 percent in California, and 63 percent in Texas exit the system without a home. More horrifying is what often happens next.
In 2017, nearly 25,000 runaways were reported to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children (NCMEC). According to the NCMEC, one in seven were likely victims of sex trafficking. Of those, 88 percent had been under foster care or another child welfare agency.
“This,” Louie said, “is our colossal fail.”
Foster children who age out of the system are especially vulnerable. “If they don’t have a support system or don’t have a stable living arrangement, they are prone to homelessness,” said Anais Biera Miracle, chief public relations officer for The Children’s Shelter. “And if they’re homeless, they could be prone to sex trafficking and substance abuse.”
One local agency, the THRU Project, provides support and adult mentoring to prepare youth for life after foster care. Trained volunteers show foster children how to apply for jobs and college, how to manage their finances.
The transitional crisis is too large for one agency to address. More than 1,000 teenagers age out of the system in Texas each year. What would Viola do? What action would she take? Louie knows. The woman who devoted herself to the poor would throw a party and invite every foster child in town. She would serve food, provide entertainment, and wow the crowd as the emcee. Then she’d tell her son to address the larger issues.
Which is why Louie has invited City Council members, state legislators, county commissioners, and judges to Viola’s party. He wants them to meet the foster children, to speak with their caretakers, to understand the challenges facing those who age out of the system.
In Texas, a fraction of foster youth take advantage of waivers for free tuition at public colleges and universities. According to the National Foster Youth Institute (NFYI), less than 3 percent of foster children will earn a college degree. NFYI data shows other trends for those who age out: 25 percent suffer from post traumatic stress disorder; only 50 percent find gainful employment by age 24; 70 percent of girls become pregnant before age 21.
Louie has designed the festival to raise awareness, to start a conversation, to perhaps set in motion a plan to help foster youth who age out.
Gladys Gonzalez understands the crisis. As executive director of Seton Home, she and her staff serve pregnant teens and adolescent mothers. Child Protective Services removed most from their homes due to abuse, neglect, or sexual assault.
“These children will become our adults, our neighbors,” she says. “We all have the responsibility to try to get them to a better place.”
Tragedy and Forgiveness
A fountain of layered rock rises beyond the arched ventanas of the restaurant that bears Viola’s name, a gentle stream flowing down its rugged slope. Four heart-shaped stones rest around the fountain base. Carved into the granite of the first three are the Spanish words for “love,” “faith” and “joy.” A bilingual inscription marks the fourth: “Amor, Fe y Alegria para Vivir! Love, Faith, Joy to Live!”
Viola lived with a joy some describe as supernatural, with a light that shone through hardship. In Mexico, she grew up with an alcoholic father who owned a cantina. She battled a childhood illness – tuberculosis, Louie believes – and lost her mother to a brain aneurysm.
After moving to San Antonio and starting a family, Viola lost her husband in a car accident. She opened a restaurant that failed to generate sufficient income. She sold it and started a second restaurant, Los Barrios, that struggled for years.
After Los Barrios became profitable and earned national acclaim, employees embezzled more than $200,000 from the restaurant. Associates of Viola stole approximately $100,000 from prior business arrangements with her late husband. And then, arriving home from work one evening, Viola was robbed at gunpoint.
Through it all, Louie remembers this: Viola smiling through the pain and singing in the darkness; loaning employees money and forgiving debts; taking food to Bustamante and giving clothes to the poor; celebrating his birthday and inviting peasant children to the party.
“Nothing,” Louie says, “could ever steal my mother’s joy.”
Two daughters filled Viola’s heart with gladness. Teresa, the oldest, became a successful podiatrist. Diana became an award-winning chef. Both embraced their mother’s devotion to the Catholic church. The middle child rebelled.
After becoming fatherless at the age of 15, Louie spiraled into alcohol and drug abuse. Fourteen years later, he found freedom from addiction during a charismatic church service. Louie became a born-again Christian soon after. He married, started a family, and emerged as a leading restaurateur. Louie, Viola, and Diana wound up on The Today Show. Diana won a Puffy Taco Throwdown with Bobby Flay on The Food Network. As business boomed and accolades poured in, tragedy struck.
On April 24, 2008, first responders pulled Viola from her home. An 18-year-old neighbor had broken in and shot her in the head with an arrow. After dousing her body and bedroom with gasoline, he lit a match and fled with Viola’s Mercedes and credit cards. Her killer, Joey Estrada, is serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.
Louie forgave and started a nonprofit, turning a murder into a miracle of philanthropy. Viola’s Huge Heart Foundation has awarded scholarships to girls from low-income families. Inspired by his mother, Louie has created additional events – approximately 100 – that have funded nonprofits and people in distress. An estimated $1 million has been donated to the foundation and fundraisers.
Foster children represent Louie’s latest passion. He wants Viola’s Huge Heart Festival to become for foster youth what the Raul Jimenez Thanksgiving Dinner is for the hungry: a massive, must-attend event.
Raul Jimenez volunteers feed approximately 25,000 at the Henry B. González Convention Center. Louie fed eight foster youth the first year and 200 in 2018.
“My dream,” Louie says, “is to have thousands of foster children, orphans, and the agencies that support them at Viola’s Huge Heart Festival. And to see these children take advantage of free tuition and go to college.”
Helping the most vulnerable
Bustamante, population 3,773, evokes warm memories. Louie remembers swimming in the river that flows through the canyon. Gathering eggs from chickens for breakfast. Watching relatives kill goats and eating the cabrito meat for dinner. Splashing in the acequia that runs beside Viola’s childhood home.
The sound of the stream flowing through the acequia, Louie says, inspired the fountain that was built at Viola’s Ventanas.
Not everything was pleasant, though. Geckos crawled on bedroom walls at night. Using the restroom required a visit outside. A creaky outhouse door opened to a swarm of flies and a deep hole in the ground. The stench was so foul Louie and his sisters gagged and held their noses.
As the children got older, Viola paid for an outdoor bathroom and shower. But if someone left the door open a crack, the next person to shower received a shock. “All of a sudden,” Teresa said, “you would hear screaming and yelling. ‘There’s a frog in here!’”
On summer visits, Louie played with cousins and kids in the pueblo. They treated him well and he enjoyed their company. But their parents were poor and Louie wanted more than cake and a piñata for his birthday. He did not protest when Viola brought the obvious to his attention. Yes, he enjoyed more privilege in the U.S. But he still wanted gifts. Was that so bad?
Viola did not lecture. She set an example. Three or four times a year, she packed the family station wagon with food, clothes, shoes, appliances, and toys and drove to Bustamante, her children in tow.
“Not one inch in her car was wasted,” Diana said. “She took stuff for the poorest of the poor. When she drove in, people would come running. And there she was, handing out gifts and groceries. They loved my mother. Some of these people didn’t have a roof over their head and mom would pay for a roof. They didn’t have plumbing and she would pay for plumbing. That’s the heart of my mother. I’ve never seen another one like it.”
Viola’s heart ached for the most vulnerable. It took years before Louie understood. Looking back, he sees all those peasant children running to his party as a gift. As a prophetic picture of his future.
On Sunday afternoon, kids will arrive from Seton Home and St. PJ’s Children’s Home, from THRU Project and the Respite Care Center, from The Children’s Shelter, Boysville, and Roy Maas Youth Alternatives. Louie quotes book, chapter, and verse. James 1:27 says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Eleven years after she was slain, Viola’s heart beats on. It beats through Louie, Diana, and Teresa. It offers comfort for a community of foster youth, boys and girls who look a lot like those at Louie’s party.