The Maverick explains the events leading up to the disappearance of Ellen Ballí, an exceptional educator in the community of Beatrice, Texas. We learn the unusual and extremely suspicious background of superintendent Felix Castro, who has been signaled as Ellen's murderer by the Maverick's cousin, the Mustang.
“There's a mustang in the corral you can take. Leastways, I shan't know that it's gone until tomorrow afternoon.” From In the Carquinez Woods by Bret Harte.
Welcome, listeners, to A Mustang in the Corral.
Most of my y’all will be from this region, but for the odd handful who aren’t—I’m coming to y’all from the Rio Grande Valley, four counties in deep South Texas, along the border with Mexico, at the very tip of the state. The focus of this podcast is the mid-Valley, southern Hidalgo county. Specifically the town of Beatrice or Beatriz, as we call it in Spanish.
Now, full disclosure. I don’t live in Beatrice, but in the neighboring city of Llano Grande, which embraces Beatrice like a letter J tilted 90 degrees to the left, its little tail the narrow tract of land that gives us access to our International bridge. However, my family is originally from the Corral, as people call the town of Beatrice. Why “the Corral”? Well, the high school football stadium, home of the Beatrice Broncos, has been called “the Corral” for decades, ever since the team won the state championship in 1968. Most folks figure that by extension the town started being called the same name.
That’s not the truth, of course. The truth is much, much darker.
It is hard to escape the Corral. You’re born there, you die there. Me? I got out, though most don’t. My family in Beatrice hate me for it. In fact, they act like I don’t even exist, especially since I moved to Llano Grande. Beatricians HATE Llanograndeños. Most folks assume that this hatred is due to the long-standing rivalry between the two towns, epitomized by the intense friction between our football teams, the Llano Grande Ocelots and Beatrice Broncos.
But, of course, that’s only part of the story. The origins of the hatred are much, much darker.
Of all my family members, only one cousin has kept in contact. I won’t use their name here. And though I’m using they/them pronouns, my cousin isn’t non-binary. Not that there would be an issue if they were. I’m just doing my best to obscure their identity. To protect them.
You see, my cousin works at Beatrice Independent School district and is passing me information. Vital, dire, damning information that has galvanized me at last into action. I was content to let go of the crimes committed against me personally. But the darkness in Beatrice has now taken a victim whose fate I cannot ignore. So I’ve begun this podcast.
But you’ll note that I am disguising my voice. I will admit to being afraid for my life.
So I will use code names for my cousin and me, to make it harder for the enemy to find us.
I will call my informant “the Mustang.”
Y’all can refer to me as “the Maverick.”
Okay, let me set this up.
Two years ago, the FBI launched an investigation into the misuse of federal and state funds at BISD, which ended in a massive turnover at central office. Many administrators left the district (like assistant superintendent Daisy Cantú, who accepted the superintendency at Canton ISD). Some were moved to other positions (like Human Resources Executive Director Brenda Navarro, now executive director of libraries and technology). And of course, a few got arrested (mainly the Superintendent, Joseph “Joe” Carrizales and CFO Leonardo “Leo” Benavides). Misuse of federal and state funds, etc.
In the aftermath, Beatrice High school principal Felix Castro was appointed interim superintendent, a questionable move at best. Ten months ago, the school board began conducting a search for a permanent academic leader. Castro, unsurprisingly, has applied. As of this recording, only two other individuals have submitted applications.
Last year, over Castro’s objections, a new assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction was hired … Dr. Susana Wells (née Hinojosa), brought out of retirement for a three-year stint. She had been the most successful principal in Llano Grande, though her family is from Beatrice.
Yes. Another Beatrician who escaped the Corral. Roped back in.
Perhaps it was inevitable. For those of y’all who don’t know, Dr. Wells is a direct descendent of Juan José Ynojosa de Ballí, who was given the Llano Grande Land Grant in 1790 by the King of Spain. She is tied to this place by bloodshed, birthright, and blasphemy.
But more on that on a later episode. Right now, what y’all need to know is that Wells set out to reform C&I in BISD. She announced her intention to hire the best folks, mostly teachers with Master’s in their area, recruiting them straight out of the classroom. Unheard of.
For elementary ELA and Reading, she picked Ellen Ballí, who had won multiple recognitions at the district, regional, state and even national level. One of the best and brightest
Ellen is a distant relative of Dr. Wells … second cousin twice-removed, I believe. So the doubting chismosas of Beatrice have attributed her hiring to family connections. To be fair, it is indeed shockingly odd in Beatrice ISD for a person to leap over the regular ladder of advancement at just 31 years of age. There are rungs to follow. Teaching at least five years. Working as a counselor. Becoming an assistant principal or dean of instruction before moving on to principal. Then, during the last fifteen years of one’s career, if one has played the game correctly and has connections with the political faction in power, one can come to central office.
Dr. Wells, however, is the golden child of both towns. Small statured, amazingly beautiful even at sixty-six, mind honed to precise sharpness. The only woman, in fact, who has ever reined in Felix Castro’s blustering machismo. She gets her way. Every time.
So Ellen Ballí started working right before the Christmas break. As Dr. Wells had suspected, she showed amazing leadership, effecting immediate change with ample buy-in from all teachers.
But five days ago, Ellen Ballí went missing. No one knows how, when, where. Beatrice police chief Javier Villa (who took over when previous law enforcement head Carlos Silva went to jail for colluding with a Satanic cult of drug dealers) keeps floating ridiculous theories: she has run off with a lover, has accepted a new job and feels too embarrassed to notify BISD, etc.
The town is shocked. Many people in power are upset. Like most mid-Valley towns, Beatrice is in the middle of local elections, as well as the search for a permanent superintendent. Nobody needs this drama, least of all the faction supporting Dr. Wells.
And that is why I’ve started this podcast.
Despite the uncertainties surrounding her disappearance, my cousin—the Mustang—is convinced that Ellen Ballí is dead.
What’s more, the Mustang insists that Felix Castro killed her.
The interim superintendent of Beatrice ISD? He’s a murderer.
And the Mustang says they can prove it.
WHAT I KNOW ABOUT FELIX CASTRO:
Felix Castro was born at 1 pm on June 6, 1966, just three months after his parents arrived in the Corral after crossing the Rio Grande from our sister town on the Mexican side, La Sauteña. Though his mother was undocumented, his father was not. The Castro family—US citizens with roots on the La Blanca ranch—had been illegally repatriated to Mexico by the American government in 1929. Felix Castro’s paternal grandparents had returned in 1951 to build a new home in the Ruthven Colonia of South Beatrice, but their eldest had stayed in La Sauteña to live with an aunt. Fifteen years later, their youngest son Carlos was the quarterback of the Beatrice Broncos … the Mexican American boy who would take the team to state for the first and only time in 1968.
By the time Felix was old enough to appreciate his uncle’s accomplishment, Carlos Castro had been drafted and had died in the final years of the Vietnam war. Though it isn’t clear how, the tragic death of Carlos—mourned by the entire town, which erected a statue in the city park in his honor—broke the Castro family spiritually and physically.
There are rumors, of course. Foolish, superstitious rumors. The chismosas whisper to this day that Adela Castro, mother of Felix, was a bruja who attempted to revive her brother-in-law with witchcraft, calling into their home instead an Indigenous spirit of chaos. A chaneque or chamuco or something like that, an ancient being full of mischief and destruction.
Nonsense, I know. But such stories helped the community try to understand what was happening in that little house in Ruthven.
One by one, the other family members of Felix Castro began to die. Grandmother. Grandfather. Father. Mother. By the age of 15, Felix was the only remaining caretaker of his younger siblings, both of whom had developed severe learning and emotional disabilities.
But Felix didn’t take care of only them. On the road between Beatrice High School and the colonia of Ruthven stood the sprawling home of Coach Robert “Bob” Hester, who had trained Carlos Castro and led the Broncos to state. Hester’s health was in decline. He was a well-to-do widower with no relatives living in the Rio Grande Valley, as the rest of his family had been part of the white flight brought about by school desegregation. So young Felix began to stop by on his way home to cook the old man dinner and clean the house before heading home to care for his brother and sister.
The aging Anglo coach developed quite a fondness for Felix, who reminded him of Carlos and who would indeed lead the Broncos to regional if not state championships in 1983 and 1984 as its latest quarterback. When he at last succumbed, Bob Hester left his house and money not to his distant children and grandchildren, but to Felix.
As he graduated, the newly wealthy teen institutionalized his siblings, went off to study at Texas A&M for seven years, and returned to Beatrice with a BA in history, an MA in educational leadership, and a plan, apparently.
To rise to the top of Beatrice Independent School District, rung by rung, clambering over the bodies of those above him if they happened to move too slowly for his taste. And thirty-one years later, he’s finally gotten his wish.
So why would he kill Ellen Ballí?
I lay out his motives next time, dear listeners.
Until then, keep bucking and rearing. Don’t let them put that saddle on your backs, friends.
Be a Mustang in the Corral.