Tulia Blues

How the Lingering Effects of a Massive Drug Bust Devastated One Family in a Small Texas Town

Each of Mattie's three children is in a different prison, so seeing them requires gas money and plenty of stamina. Kizzie is the farthest away, at a prison in Gatesville. Visiting her means driving eight hours for a four-hour visit, then turning around and driving another eight hours home. She cannot afford a motel, or she would spend the night and visit Kizzie for two days in a row. Donnie and Creamy are closer. If Mattie leaves around 3 a.m., she can squeeze in visits with both sons in one day.

Sometimes Mattie takes her grandchildren along on these car trips, but the ride home is never fun. "I try to hold myself up for them," she says. "I try not to cry because it makes them cry."

Mattie has noticed a change in the children since their parents went to prison. Cashawn, especially, has not coped well. He cries in school and is sometimes mean to other children. "He's not a bad little boy," Mattie says. "He likes to play. But when they make him mad, he'll kick one of them. You can't tell him nothing."

Mattie White: “My whole world seems like it fell down on me.”
photo: Joe Don Buckner
Mattie White: “My whole world seems like it fell down on me.”

She rarely talks to the children about their mother because the subject makes everyone too sad. Instead, she just says, "I'll be glad when your mama comes home."

Mattie is hardly the only grandparent in Tulia buckling under the burden of raising young children. Her ex-husband, Rickey, a 50-year-old machinist, lives nearby in a three-bedroom trailer. Rickey's girlfriend was locked up in the same drug bust. Now he and a daughter-in-law are raising six grandchildren.

Mattie tries to stay strong by reading the Bible and going to church. Across the computer monitor in her dining room, a screen saver flashes, announcing "Jesus Will Fix It, He Is Always on Time." "I don't drink. I don't smoke. I don't do none of that stuff," Mattie says. "I work, I go home, and I go to church. Jesus is the only drug I take."

Over the last two years, a small group has started in Tulia on behalf of the people who were arrested. Mattie joined the organization, Friends of Justice, which is run by a white minister's family. On the night of July 22, Mattie, Rickey, their grandchildren, and 200 other people gathered at Conner Park across from Mattie's house for a rally put together by the organization. The event coincided with the second anniversary of the drug bust.

Preachers, farmers, and lawyers joined prisoners' families to eat hamburgers and listen to speakers. Two busloads of activists arrived from Austin. Five mothers of drug prisoners flew in from New York City. Parked along the edge of the park, a police officer in a patrol car monitored the action, a video camera mounted on his rearview mirror.

The six-hour event featured several rounds of "This Land Is Your Land," led by a minister strumming a guitar. Many people wore T-shirts listing the names of all the defendants. A yellow banner hanging behind the makeshift wooden stage proclaimed "Never Again. Not in Tulia. Not Anywhere." The event ended with a midnight march to the courthouse.

The rally temporarily boosted Mattie's spirits, but now she is back where she was in the days leading up the event, her feet resting atop pillows, wondering when she will be able to return to work. "Sometimes I be so tired that I just be wanting to give up," Mattie says. "But I say, 'No, I just got to go on a little bit farther. I'll be OK.' "

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