RIO GRANDE CITY — The yellow brick villa atop the hill unexpectedly rises from a landscape of smaller structures and empty ranchland as you drive Highway 83 toward Rio Grande City.
It looms, dissolute and ill-cared for, a dusty monument to what was obviously intended to be a man’s opulent castle.
Some local children call the spooky, imposing structure “Dracula’s Castle.”
At the base of the driveway, an incongruously cheerful poster has flapped in the breeze for months, shouting the name of a Realtor selling the property.
Four miles away, another hilltop — once owned by that same man — boasts a very different home.
Several small structures, ramshackle and built in stages from wood, old camping trailers, cinderblock and tin, dot the hillside across neighboring lots owned by a father and daughter. Behind a shed is an outhouse — connected to a hole in the ground, not a septic tank — and an outdoor shower. In a cleared space is a small gas-powered generator that lights one of the homes at night.
Still, there is obvious love and care put into the homes of Humberto Treviño and Maria Estrada and their daughter, who did not want her name to appear in The Monitor.
Treviño, like thousands of others, bought his property 20 years ago from one of the area’s most notorious colonia developers.
Former Starr County Judge Blas Chapa was the subject of a massive state lawsuit in 1993, alleging he violated state water, health and land laws by selling lots with no roads or utilities. Twelve years ago, he and his partners settled with the government and left his grand villa — and the county where he was a virtual king.
Today, his home still towers over the highway a few miles from Las Lomas and the other colonias he developed. Treviño and others are still working to install basic amenities in their homes.
Blas Chapa was and is, by all accounts, a friendly and charming man.
Attempts to contact Chapa through his Realtor, Abdiel Angulo, and his son-in-law, McAllen attorney Victor Vicinaiz, were unsuccessful. Angulo declined to pass on a message and Vicinaiz did not return messages left with his office. Chapa now lives in McAllen, but does not have a listed phone number.
He was a practitioner of old-school Rio Grande Valley politics, dealing in favors and jobs. He was popular with even those whom people say he was bilking.
He was selling them a patch of U.S. soil of their very own, for half the price that others charged.
Those who couldn’t otherwise afford land bought his subdivided lots without roads, power, sewer systems or running water.
Chapa and his business partner, Elias Lopez, were put out of the land development business in 1995. By then, they had developed about a fifth of the colonias in Starr County.
The two men settled a lawsuit by the Texas attorney general over their violations of state health laws and county subdivision rules, and turned over their county land holdings to a receivership. A nonprofit then started the slow and painful process of making sure each of the 2,000-odd families who bought land had a livable lot of their own, title in hand.
“If you had a claim on a property, you had to come forward,” explains Rio Grande City Planning Director Elisa Beas, who is also a Las Lomas resident. Many residents had no proof of ownership or payment for their land. “Some people had a brown paper bag, signed by Blas —‘Down payment, so much.’ ”
Many who claimed lands were surprised to discover a decade of back taxes on the properties, never paid by the developers. Others found that their land had been sold to several owners at once. And others had to be given new lots, free from flood zones.
Norma Rios has a title today, but it’s not to the lot Chapa sold her when she graduated from high school.
“I bought a lot in Las Lomas, located over there behind the bridge,” she says. “I didn’t know that the arroyo goes through it.”
She paid for her land with money her father gave her for graduation, hoping to build a home there.
Rios, who now works for Colonias Unidas in Las Lomas, was able to pay in full and avoided the “contract for deed” system Chapa and Lopez were running with others, in which they held onto the land titles while buyers paid in installments.
Some buyers never finished paying, and lost the money and the land.
Rios sneaked up to Chapa’s grand Starr County house soon after her high school graduation, but was chased off by dogs.
“It looked nice inside,” she says.
Still, “they should break it down. It’s just bad memories for people that didn’t get nothing out of it.”
The colonias that Chapa and Lopez created have changed over the past 12 years.
People who jumped at the chance to buy cheap land of their own have built their homes, raised their families and even established businesses in Las Lomas and the other subdivisions.
Like Treviño, some still do not have lights, although water is now universal — he proudly displays his water bill, tucked into his Bible.
His neighborhood, Valle Hermosa, got power within the last two years. He can’t afford it yet, though.
Not all of the residents who bought into the hope Chapa and Lopez offered them have quite forgiven the men, but most are moving forward.
Oziel Garza shakes his head as he recalls his dealings with Chapa.
“Did he go to jail? No,” he says in Spanish.
Twenty years ago, Garza bought six lots with his brothers, paying $5,000 to Chapa.
But when he asked for the title to the property, Chapa referred him to Lopez — then both men began to give him the runaround.
The receivership ultimately turned over the titles.
“Now, I have my house, like I wanted. I have my title,” Garza says.
Electricity, a septic tank and water have been connected to the home, in the Valle Hermosa subdivision, and now he is building a mechanic’s shop in Las Lomas.
Building in the colonia has its hazards — the high water table has leaked into his work pit — but he feels comfortable there.
“I know a lot of people, and they know me,” he says.
“Blasito, pobrecito,” he adds with a crooked smile.
“He’s paying for what he did. We don’t see him here in these parts.”