Sergio Lejarazu had received several eviction notices to leave his piñata store, but he says he knew his lease on the east Austin, Texas, location wasn’t set to expire until 2017. So he hired a lawyer and kept sending in money orders to pay the rent. A migrant from the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, Lejarazu ran the store selling handmade piñatas and other party supplies with his wife Monica and his son Victor.
He arrived on the morning of Feb. 12 to find his Jumpolín store demolished, along with all the inventory inside. He says he received no warning of the demolition.
“We’re just a family business, trying to grow something,” Victor Lejarazu told The Huffington Post. “For somebody to come here and tear us down like that, it’s ridiculous. ... We’re not being greedy, we don’t want millions of dollars, we just want a chance to survive. We want our kids to know what working means. We want something to give our kids.”
Jordan French and Darius Fisher, through their company F&F Real Estate Ventures, had bought the building this past October and immediately applied for permission to demolish it. They have since claimed that the Lejarazus failed to pay the rent. Now they're facing a lawsuit from the Lejarazu family, and some civic groups are urging local authorities to file charges over the demolition.
The destruction of Jumpolín has cast a spotlight on east Austin’s breakneck pace of gentrification at the very moment when out-of-towners have flooded in to attend the annual music, film and tech conference South by Southwest (SXSW).
For decades a predominantly Mexican-American and Mexican migrant neighborhood, the area of east Austin where the Lejarazu family ran their business has been swallowed up in recent years by bars, restaurants and new homes catering to mainly white college students and young professionals. Some 110 people were moving to Austin daily as of last year, according to Austin Business Journal, making it one of the fastest-growing large cities in the country.
These changes have led to ongoing tensions between newcomers and longtime residents in Austin’s east side. Gonzalo Barrientos, a former Democratic state lawmaker who represented the city, said that F&F Real Estate should have been more aware that its actions would upset the community.
“It was a pretty stupid thing to do in the middle of a Chicano neighborhood,” Barrientos told HuffPost. “It’s like coming in, throwing sand in your face and saying, ‘Hey, I’m the big guy, get out of my way.’”
French and Fisher, who did not respond to an interview request from HuffPost, further angered critics with their remarks to CultureMap Austin, published three days after the demolition.
“Probably their livelihood was selling helium and stolen bicycles,” French told the digital magazine. “They weren’t making a living selling piñatas; they were selling something else. I don’t want to speculate what that is.” He also added, “Say you have a house that was infested by roaches, you have to clean that up.”
The Lejarazu family denies the implicit allegation that they were engaged in some illegal business. French later backtracked, telling The Austin Chronicle that he regretted the “unfortunate outcome” and that he wanted “to apologize to Sergio and Monica Lejarazu, their family and the Austin community for this undue grief.”
The post-demolition contrition hasn’t assuaged enraged leaders in east Austin. Community organizations including PODER, the Raza Roundtable and local chapters of the League of United Latin American Citizens and the NAACP have excoriated F&F Real Estate in public statements, organized picket lines in front of the property, and called for Austin residents and SXSW visitors to boycott F&F's rental properties.
“The piñata episode is the most egregious example of a culture of institutionalized racism in Austin, Texas,” Daniel Llanes of PODER told HuffPost. “They had designs on SXSW, which is happening right this minute. And they had a tenant that didn’t fit their purposes, so they tried to get them out.”
F&F Real Estate reportedly hoped to use the site where Jumpolín once stood as a parking lot for a party hosted by the event planning company Splash during SXSW. But after the controversy broke, Splash found itself a new location.
"Once we became aware of the demolishing of this local business, we immediately withdrew and cancelled our contract," Splash CEO Ben Hindman told HuffPost. "We hosted the event at another location and the city was very helpful in making the move. Our heart goes out to the family and we are looking into ways we can help them get back on their feet."
F&F also offered to let a 350-member food truck association use the lot rent-free for several months, including during SXSW, according to The Austin Chronicle. But Tony Yamanaka, who heads Food Trailers Austin, passed on F&F’s deal as well.
“After mulling over the offer -- for about five minutes -- I called and told them it’s not a good idea for us to get involved,” Yamanaka told the Chronicle. “It was a conflict, morally, for me to get involved.”
In response to the uproar, Texas state Rep. Eddie Rodriguez (D-Austin) filed a bill to increase the penalties that landlords would face for wrongful evictions. The bill would allow those who were evicted to seek damages up to 25 percent of the market value of the property when the purpose of the eviction was to put the property to a more profitable use.
“Instead of money being the motivator like with what happened at the piñata store, there is going to be a penalty,” Rodriguez told HuffPost.
Meanwhile, the Lejarazu family has found a location not too far from the old one to begin selling piñatas again.
“Our main priority is to get Jumpolín going," Victor Lejarazu said. "Our name is going to stay the same.”