Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report
How do you capture the spirit of a woman who gave? How do you paint a widow who fed the hungry and loaned money to the poor? Who baked a cake and served it to her killer and his family next door?
One portrait artist had an idea. On a 50-by-62-inch canvas, Kathy Sosa gave the woman large hands. With moving color, she clothed the widow with compassion. Sosa placed her subject on a burgundy chair and framed her with Biblical imagery in a sea of blue. The name of the painting:Loaves and Fishes.
The portrait depicts a woman and the world she changed. As Jesus fed the multitude in his day, Viola Barrios fed a countless host in hers. As Jesus broke bread with the disciple who betrayed him, Viola served a lemon cake to the neighbor who murdered her. As Jesus forgave those who nailed him to a cross, Viola inspired her children to forgive the teen who took her life.
The oil painting hangs prominently in Los Barrios, the restaurant Viola founded in 1979. From high on a wall behind her favorite table, she gazes across the room, first-generation customers dining with the second and third generation below.
Ten years after she was slain, Viola’s spirit fills Los Barrios and spreads across the city. She is remembered for her kindness, revered for her heart. Viola forgave the drunken driver who killed her husband in 1975. She opened a bedroom in her home to struggling relatives. She delivered money and food to family in Mexico. Viola built a restaurant that was featured on The Today Show and in the New York Times. But she opened it late on Sunday to attend Mass.
Spanish rolled off her tongue and love poured from her lips. Her children, now grown, can still hear her voice. Sé amable. Sé generoso. Perdonar. Be kind. Be generous. Forgive.
Viola’s instruction became a mission, a demonstration of grace that astonished many in the city. Teresa Barrios-Ogden, Viola’s eldest daughter, embraces the mission. Louie Barrios, the middle child, and Diana Barrios-Treviño, the youngest, do, too. They forgave their mother’s killer and offered to pay for his legal defense. The children started a nonprofit, Viola’s Huge Heart Foundation, that awards scholarships to students from low-income families. They created dozens of fundraisers for other nonprofits and people in need. Donations to the foundation and fundraisers are an estimated $1 million.
The beneficiaries comprise a legacy: A father who received money for a liver transplant. A little girl who received a donation to fight lymphoma. A widow who received payment for her husband’s funeral. Orphans and foster children who got clothes and toys.
Another population extends the legacy: The many who let go of anger, followed the Barrios example, and forgave. They shared their stories in letters, emails, and phone calls to Teresa, Louie, and Diana.
“Look at all the good things that have happened as a result of my mom’s murder,” said Louie, 57, CEO and president of Los Barrios Enterprises. “Satan wanted it for evil. But God turned it around for good. I’m in awe.”
The Fire of Grace
Diana stood in front of her mother’s house, surrounded by chaos. Police cars and fire trucks parked in the street. First responders scurried across the front yard. Detectives searched for clues. Media set up TV cameras. A throng of onlookers behind yellow crime scene tape craned for a closer view.
On the morning of April 24, 2008, everyone in the 10700 block of Tioga Drive seemed to know except Diana. She had come after hearing something had happened at the house. It took a while before Diana understood: Her 76-year-old mother was dead. Someone had broken in, shot Viola in the head with an arrow, set the place on fire, taken her purse, and stolen her car.
As Diana attempted to process the tragedy, a nagging ache in her right ear grew into fierce, excruciating pain. She asked herself, “Why does my ear hurt so much?” And then, she heard her mother’s voice. Perdónalo porque no sabía lo que estaba haciendo. Forgive, for he did not know what he was doing.
Diana received more instruction in Spanish. The English translation: Don’t get mad. Don’t become enraged. Don’t hold a grudge. Vengeance belongs to the Lord. “Those were the five things I heard,” Diana said. “And the next second, my ear did not hurt anymore.”
Police soon arrested a suspect: Joe Estrada, an 18-year-old who lived next door to Viola. After he was handcuffed and placed in a patrol car, Estrada told an officer, “I’m sorry. I did it.” Police held a press conference. Authorities charged Estrada with capital murder. The district attorney told reporters, “I want to string him up myself.”
Louie did not feel the DA’s rage. He felt his mother’s spirit. A metro columnist for the San Antonio Express-News at the time, I reached Louie by phone the evening after Diana heard Viola’s voice. Louie had taken calls from the mayor, a U.S. senator, radio talk hosts, and others, and then he took mine. “I can’t stop praying for the guy,” Louie said. “I’m real concerned for him.”
He spoke freely, with astonishing but authentic candor. “I really feel for that kid,” Louie said. “Can you imagine what he’s going through?”
In his shock and grief, Louie revealed two hearts at once: his mother’s compassion, his own devastation. Louie’s voice cracked, recalling how he’d taken his mother to the coast and baptized her in the Gulf of Mexico. He choked up recalling how he and his sisters helped build Viola an estate home. How she was 12 days away from moving in.
And yet he seemed preoccupied with the neighbor under arrest. “This child just turned 18,” Louie said. “He weighs 100 pounds sopping wet. He’s in for the most horrifying life you could imagine."
Talking to Louie was like talking to a person in a supernatural state. He seemed more connected to his mother’s new world than his own. I ended my column with this: “On a canvas of tears, he painted a portrait of forgiveness.”
At the funeral, mourners entered St. Gregory the Great Catholic Church expecting music, warm remembrances, a touching service. Louie dropped a bombshell. The Barrios family would pay for the legal defense of the accused. Applause filled the sanctuary.
Later, as Viola’s coffin was lowered into the ground, Louie, Diana, and Teresa embraced Estrada’s parents and wept with them. “These were my mother’s neighbors,” Louie told reporters at the graveside service. “My mother’s friends.”
Lawyers soon informed Louie of the conflict of interest. His family could not pay for Estrada’s defense. So the siblings retracted the offer but the gesture left a mark. Forgiveness.
One decade later, that’s what San Antonio remembers. The particulars of the case have faded. Who recalls, for example, that Estrada told police he stole money to pay for his girlfriend’s abortion? That he used Viola’s credit cards to buy a laptop computer and a cell phone? That the trial was moved to Victoria? That the jury found him guilty in two hours?
The darkness is mostly forgotten. But people remember the light. Viola’s smile. Her family’s heart. Compassion and grace.
The Making of a Matriarch
Labor Day, Sept. 1, 1975: A niece is chatting on the phone in Viola’s bedroom when an operator interrupts. Someone from Wilford Hall Hospital needs to speak with Viola but the caller does not speak Spanish. Teresa takes the phone and offers to translate.
The message stuns. Teresa in disbelief: “What? What? He’s dead?”
Louie overhears his sister and races from the kitchen to the bedroom. His mother seems to understand as well. “Está muerto?” she says. And then Viola faints, falling into the arms of her 15-year-old son.
A drunk driver killed José C. Barrios on U.S. Highway 90. His death cut many ways. Viola lost her husband of 19 years. Three teenagers lost their father. A family lost almost its entire income. The Spanish-language community lost a prominent voice and familiar face. José hosted two radio shows, worked as a sports writer and editor for La Prensa, covered the San Antonio Missions baseball team, and sold advertising for radio and television. He interviewed everyone from heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali to Major League batting champion Bobby Avila.
Now he was gone and his children were crushed.
“After the funeral, we all slept in the master bed,” Louie said. “Mother on the left, Diana in the center, me on the right. Teresa slept on a pallet on the floor. We were all cocooned together. Scared. I remember thinking, ‘What are we gonna do now?’ Papa was big. Radio. TV. Newspaper. Bigger than life.”
On the other side of death, Viola found life. The second oldest of five sisters, Viola Botello grew up in Bustamante, Nuevo León. After a heart attack claimed her mother, Viola moved to San Antonio with her father and siblings and became a secretary at La Prensa. A striking brunette, she caught the eye of the sports editor and director of sales. In 1956, José and Viola married and settled into a modest home on the South Side.
They sent their children to Catholic school. They welcomed down-on-their-luck relatives into their two-bedroom house. With José’s blessing, Viola opened a small restaurant, La Cazadora, in 1972. She baked and sold wedding cakes and Quinceañera cakes on the side. But for all her hard work, Viola turned a small profit. How would she support three children without José?
Viola sold La Cazadora. She pursued two other ventures but was cheated out of several thousand dollars. In 1979, Viola found promise in an old boat garage downtown. She opened Los Barrios with $3,000 and tables and chairs that did not match. When her rent tripled, she relocated to a vacated Dairy Queen on Blanco Road near Edison High School. In time, Diana joined Viola as a hostess, server, and cook; Louie became the general manager.
Louie thought business would improve if Viola would stop lending money, interest-free, to employees, customers, relatives. So he led Viola outside and pointed to the large sign out front.
“Mom, what does that say?”
“Los Barrios Restaurant.”
“Yes. It does not say ‘Los Barrios Bank.’ We’re a restaurant, mom. Not a bank. You loan money and most of it doesn’t get paid back.”
What happened next? Viola kept giving and Los Barrios kept growing. Food critics fell in love. Esquire magazine called the burrito the restaurant’s finest dish.
Acclaim spread. Diana won a puffy taco throwdown with Bobby Flay on the Food Network. Viola, Louie, and Diana appeared on Good Morning America. The family opened a second restaurant, La Hacienda de los Barrios, on the far North Side. Business boomed. And then came this: Viola learned she would be inducted into the Texas Restaurant Association Hall of Honor in June 2008.
How could she possibly thank everyone who made the honor possible?
“Just tell them about your journey,” Louie said.
“Great idea,” Viola said. “Go ahead and write it.”
Louie finished in five minutes. The speech, poignant and to the point, warmed Viola’s heart. But she never gave it.
After the funeral, Teresa came across thick spiral notebooks that belonged to Viola. A list of names with money owed was written inside. Only a few names were scratched out, their debts paid in full. The ledgers spanned years.
“There were people she had loaned money to right before she passed,” said Teresa, a 59-year-old podiatrist. “We forgave their debt in honor of our mother’s generosity.”
Paying It Forward With A 'Huge Heart'
It’s 4 a.m. the day after the slaying and Louie is on his feet, head bowed, hands raised. He’s pouring out his heart, asking for guidance. Viola made so many friends, touched so many lives. The funeral will be big. There won’t be room to contain all the flowers. So Louie needs to pick a charity. But which one?
In the morning darkness, a gleam. “At that moment the Lord put on my heart to start a foundation,” Louie said. “He even gave me the name: Viola’s Huge Heart Foundation.”
Two hours later, Louie was on KTSA, informing radio host Trey Ware that he intended to start a charity in his mother’s name. That afternoon, Roger Williams, the future Congressman and former Texas Secretary of State, called to express his condolences. Louie mentioned the foundation. Williams asked for the name of Louie’s attorney. Before the day ended, a 501(c)3 had been created. Soon after, WOAI-TV held a telethon for the nonprofit.
Since its inception, Viola’s Huge Heart Foundation has awarded $185,000 in scholarships to six female students. The first recipient, Abigail Issarraras, is pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology at Louisiana State University.
“That scholarship,” she said, “completely changed my life.”
Issarraras grew up in a low-income neighborhood on the West Side. Her mother, Genevieve Martinez, worked hard to put a son and daughter through Little Flower Catholic School. A straight-A student in eighth grade, Issarraras – Abby to her friends – had been accepted to Incarnate Word High School, but her mother could not afford the tuition.
Incarnate Word intervened. Diana took a call from the director of development, who shared Abby’s story. Diana’s dark eyes widened. Abby was raised by a single mom. So was Diana and her siblings. Abby was valedictorian of her eighth-grade class. Diana’s sister, Teresa, was valedictorian of her eighth-grade Catholic school class. “Our mother would have loved to help this young girl,” Diana told the director.
The foundation awarded Abby its first four-year, all-tuition-paid scholarship. As a freshman, Abby took three Advanced Placement classes, joined the speech and debate team, and volunteered at Children’s Association for Maximum Potential, or CAMP, an outreach for those with special needs. There, Abby discovered her passion: working with autistic children.
“I wanted to figure it out,” Abby said, “and not just do treatment.”
Abby made a seamless transition to Northwestern University, finishing her bachelor’s degree in communication sciences and learning disorders in three years. Abby returns home every summer to work at CAMP. She continues to draw inspiration from Viola and her children.
"The most remarkable thing is they didn’t know me at all,” Abby said. “There was kindness in their heart to give the scholarship to a person who needed it. And that’s what drives me. The kids I work with are neglected by society. They are the people that need my love. And that’s what Viola stood for. To bring love to the faces of those that need it the most.”
The Killer Next Door
The Estradas – Joe, Dorothy, and their three children – moved into the Summit Colonies North neighborhood in 2004. Viola greeted them with a plate of hot tamales. That’s what she did. Almost everyone on the block knew her. She was a one-woman welcoming committee, a warm smile who served up Tex-Mex and tortillas.
Viola loved to bake. At home, she worked magic in the kitchen, blending cake mix, eggs, water, oil, and lemon zest into a batter, spooning the mixture into a pan, sliding it into the oven. One hour later, she topped it with homemade frosting and delivered her specialty, a lemon bundt cake, to the Estradas.
“She took it over not just on one occasion,” said Diana, 54, vice president of Los Barrios Enterprises. “But on several.”
Four years later, fire and smoke billowed from Viola’s house. San Antonio Police Chief William McManus called Louie to say a suspect had been arrested. When Louie and his sisters learned the suspect's name, they were incredulous.
“Oh my gosh, oh my gosh,” Diana said. “That kid’s life is over. Mom wouldn’t want that.”
Through the flames of one tragedy, another came into focus – José. His 1973 Datsun 1200 spun on a slick, oily highway, then was struck by a car going 80 miles per hour. Viola told her children to forgive, but Louie raged. He raged at the drunken driver for hitting his father, at the State of Texas for not repaving the road, at God for allowing the accident to happen. Louie felt suffocating anguish, intolerable grief, a pain he anesthetized with alcohol, and later, cocaine.
He managed to hide his addiction from Viola. After college, Louie went to work at Los Barrios; he often showed up with a hangover.
“I could work better hung over than sober,” he said. “The con was on.”
A friend invited him to a church service in a converted discount store. Louie declined. The friend persisted. Louie relented and found sobriety at the age of 29.
Hate the kid who killed his mother? Louie could not go down that path again. And when Diana heard the voice of her late mother? The siblings knew what they had to do.
The expression of forgiveness reached the kid behind bars. So did the offer to pay for his legal defense. “I was shocked,” the killer said.
Joe Thomas Estrada, now 28, is serving a life sentence without parole at the John B. Connally Unit, a maximum security prison near Kenedy. He sits behind a pane of glass in a white jumpsuit, talking with me on the phone. He sports a buzzcut, wears glasses, and speaks softly with an economy of words. Despite the terms of his sentence, he clings to the hope of freedom. He believes errors were made in his case and intends to file a writ of habeas corpus, a maneuver designed to set him free. This is why Estrada only admits to part of his crime.
“I’m guilty of robbery,” he said.
What about murder?
Estrada found trouble before breaking into Viola's house. He admits he stole a car. He was accused of multiple burglaries and making a death threat.
His next step? Estrada says he has no lawyer and does not reveal when he will file the writ. He refuses to explain his actions the night Viola was slain. But he acknowledges the kindness of the Barrios children. “They were good Catholic people,” he said.
The slaying turned stomachs. The details were gruesome. The shock understandable. How could Viola’s children respond so graciously? How could they offer to pay for a legal defense that could reach $100,000? Not everyone in the family supported the gesture. Some relatives were, in Louie’s words, “beyond livid." He explained: “They wanted revenge, not mercy.”
Said Diana: “We had to react the way we reacted – even if a lot of people didn’t agree with it. Holding a grudge is like a cancer. It grows. We could not hold a grudge. That would be poison we would be giving our children and my mom’s legacy of love would be for nothing.”
'She Came Through The Painting'
To heal, Kathy Sosa decided to paint, to bring the deceased to life in strokes of vibrant color. Viola had been family, not by blood but by marriage. José Barrios was a cousin of her husband, Lionel Sosa, the Hispanic advertising pioneer. A portrait seemed like a fitting tribute, a possible form of therapy.
Kathy asked for photographs of Viola in her favorite clothing, images that would reflect her cultural identity. She set them up in her studio and drew inspiration from Viola’s faith. What ordinarily takes several months took Kathy six weeks.
“It was like she was there,” Kathy said. “I felt her spirit with me the whole time. It painted itself to a large degree. I felt I was holding the brush and she came through the painting.”
The loaves and fish that frame Viola stirs a memory. For the funeral service of a family friend, Viola once made an enormous pot of cortadillo zuazua, a stew-like dish made with tenderloin beef and Mexican-style vegetables. No one recalls how many Viola fed. But Louie estimates Viola stood for more than one hour, serving from the same pot, never running out.
“Mom said, ‘I know I didn’t make that much cortadillo, but I never got to the bottom of the bowl,’” Louie said. “It was like when Jesus fed the 5,000 men, plus women and children, with five barley loaves and two fishes.”
A replica of the portrait hangs in Viola’s Ventanas, an 8,300-square-foot restaurant that sits on five acres in Westover Hills. Every July, the siblings celebrate their mother’s birthday at Ventanas with an event called Viola’s Huge Heart Festival, a four-hour dinner party and fundraiser for the foundation.
This year’s festival, to be held Sunday from 4-8 p.m., will feature a chicken fajita buffet, a silent auction, live music, animals from the San Antonio Zoo, and appearances from previous scholarship winners.
Viola did not live to see the restaurant that bears her name. But many have lived to see how mercy came out of murder, how charity came out of anguish. Out of the first scholarship award came a heart that beats like Viola’s — a doctoral student serving the autistic.
What would Viola have said if she had lived to deliver that speech? What would she have told those at her induction into the Texas Restaurant Association Hall of Honor?
In a small spiral notebook, beneath the initials “VB,” here is what's written:
“This journey began on Sept. 2, 1975. The day after my husband died in a traffic accident. My children were young. Much younger than their ages represented (today). I didn’t know what I would do. I just knew I had to do something. So I put one foot in front of another. And today I’m here before this distinguished audience of my peers. And if I am to be judged by anyone besides God, let it be of you. People who know the sacrifices, the challenges, the life. And to you I give the thanks. And to God I give all the glory. Gracias.”