The Dallas Morning News

Ex-con turns his life around

He leases store where he once sold drugs, helps Latino youths

- By HAEVEN GIBBONS Staff Writer

Outside of the convenienc­e store on the corner of Murray and Greenville streets in East McKinney, 15-year-old Jason Hernandez cuffs his Girbaud jeans and stuffs joints and dime bags of marijuana into the fold. He talks on a red pay phone to his girlfriend while he waits.

A car pulls up. Across the street other boys around the same age watch. Hernandez hobbles to the car, holding the folds of his jeans. He’s shaky.

“What do you want?” Hernandez asks when he reaches the car.

He sells his first dime bag.

“After I do it, I feel like I just won the Super Bowl,” he said. “This is my rite of passage.” But he sees the guys across the street laughing at him. They tell him to look at the ground. Hernandez realizes he left a trail of dime bags behind him as he was making his way to the car. Taunted by the laughs, the embarrasse­d teen remarks, “You know what, one of these days all y’all going to be buying weed from me.”

He knew if he could make enough money selling drugs he could move his family to the west side. His mom wouldn’t have to clean houses. His dad wouldn’t have to mow lawns. His parents wouldn’t have to work double shifts.

“We’ll live on the west side and have our own maids,” Hernandez said. “That’s what I was dreaming about.”

That was 1992.

Six years later, Hernandez was arrested on nonviolent drug charges. Chasing the dream came at a cost. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison without parole, plus 320 years for conspiracy to distribute drugs and for violating other federal drug statutes. A mandatory sentence received during the U.S. government’s war on drugs. But on Dec. 19, 2013, Hernandez became one of eight people to receive a commuted sentence from

President Barack Obama.

Now, 46-year-old Hernandez is turning that very convenienc­e store where he made his first sale into a grocery store and resource center, hoping to preserve the community and culture on the east side as developmen­t changes the fabric of the neighborho­od and threatens to push out those who have lived there for decades.

“La Tiendita,” or The Little Store, he calls it.

More than a store

“I’m restoring it. I’m beautifyin­g it,” Hernandez said. “We’re gonna keep the same shape and everything outside as it was when it was built.”

He’s going to paint the tan exterior white and line the roof in a bright turquoise. He’s looking for a phone to put in the red pay phone stall that’s still attached to the corner of the building. The inside will look different. The lottery tickets, cigarettes, slot machines and drug parapherna­lia are all gone. In their place: beans, tortillas, rice and fresh vegetables, fruits, dairy products, homemade jams and pickles.

He’ll source products from the community when he can. McKinney Roots, a local nonprofit, is going to help with supplying the vegetables.

“We’re bringing a Whole Foods to the hood,” Hernandez said.

But the store will be more than a place to buy basic groceries.

In 2020, Hernandez started the nonprofit AT LAST, or Aspiring Texas Latinos Achieving Success Together. The local program teaches Latino youth how to be leaders in their schools and communitie­s.

Hernandez plans to hire high school students to work and learn at the store, using the AT LAST curriculum to teach them social skills, etiquette, financial management and how to operate and manage a small business.

He said 15 to 20 students will be chosen to participat­e in the ninemonth program. He is working with students at the University of Texas at Dallas to create the business curriculum.

La Tiendita is across the street from Webb Elementary where the majority of students are economical­ly disadvanta­ged and on free or reduced lunch programs.

The store will give out fruit, health bars and drinks to these kids after school. Grass will be planted and gazebos will stand on the lawn for kids to have an area to gather and work on homework with Wi-Fi.

Hernandez said this store is an opportunit­y to teach kids about healthy food options and provide them with a safe space.

“There are resources in the neighborho­od, but it’s about improving them and making them accessible to more people,” said District 1 City Council member Justin Beller, who is also a board member for AT LAST. “[Hernandez] deals with Webb Elementary right there, and there’s so many kids at that place that, you know, if he can reach a portion of those, he makes such a difference in that community.”

The proceeds from the store will go back into funding the program. Hernandez also leased the small house next door, where financial management and other classes will take place. He plans to partner with the fire department, area nonprofits and banks to bring resources such as blood testing, eye screening and cholestero­l tests to the community.

“Sometimes we don’t have the right resources to make the right decisions,” Hernandez said. He wants to make sure that’s not the case in East McKinney.

Through a grant from the Marguerite Casey Foundation, he was able to sign a 10-year lease for the store and the small house next door on May 31, 2022.

“Almost 30 years to the day of when I sold my first dime bag in front of that grocery store, I was 45 ... and I’m signing the contract to sell not weed, but cabbage and broccoli and lettuce,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez has received a $10,000 donation from H-E-B and a $20,000 grant from the Seed Project Foundation. He has been speaking at churches, Rotary clubs, local businesses and using social media to share news about the store. He plans to have a soft opening May 1.

A gathering ground

For good or bad, the store has long been a place to gather.

Built in 1953, the store was originally called Rodriguez Grocery. To get to areas on the east side — Lewisville, Sugar Hill, the Flat Tops, La Loma — you had to pass by. It was the only place in the neighborho­od to buy bread, tortillas and eggs.

Hernandez’s parents, who have lived in East McKinney since the 1950s, raised Hernandez and his brothers two blocks from the store.

When Hernandez and his brothers were young, they’d walk to the store barefoot and shirtless to buy ice cream or candy.

The store’s front lot was a breakdanci­ng battlegrou­nd where kids from the neighborho­od would lay out tiles, turn on the boom box and show off their moves.

But by the late ’80s, the store morphed into a place where youth gathered to sell drugs, and gangs met to fight. Hernandez’s brother, JJ, who was eight years older, started selling marijuana there.

“To see JJ pull up right here was like watching the president pull up,” Hernandez said.

JJ was cool. Girls loved him. Guys wanted to be like him. He could dance, and he drove a ‘64 Impala.

“I wanted to be like JJ,” said Hernandez, who was an A/B-honor roll kid who never got into trouble.

Turning point

By 1993, only a year after Hernandez sold his first dime bag, the 16-yearold came home to his parents sitting at the kitchen table with a 6-pound bag of weed in front of them.

“I wanted the dirt to open up because I was so ashamed,” said Mary Esther Hernandez, Jason’s mom, about how she felt when she found out her son was selling drugs. “We’re not rich, but we’re not poor. We still got food on the table, pay our bills and work, and we taught you better value than that.”

His parents’ gave him an ultimatum:

“By the time we come back, let us know if you want to keep selling. If you do, you have to leave.”

He packed his bags within 30 minutes and moved into his cousin’s house next to the convenienc­e store. When JJ went to prison in 1994, Hernandez took over the drug game in McKinney.

“I felt that it was a family business and almost like I had to step in, like it was predestine­d,” he said. He hustled at the store from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. on school days and 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. on Saturdays.

Sometimes he would skip school to sell and didn’t graduate with his class in 1995 because he had too many hours to make up.

Hernandez’s high school counselor, Juli Ferraro, remembers.

“He came to school, but also as some students do, had some attendance issues,” said Ferraro. “But he wasn’t somebody that you would single out as, ‘Wow this guy is not taking care of business because he’s always in trouble.’ It did not appear that way at all.”

It wasn’t long before he landed in prison, too. He kept hustling.

“I’m in there, I’m just living,” Hernandez said. “I’m selling drugs in there, too.”

Another turning point

Four years into his sentence, everything changed.

On March 28, 2002, Hernandez called home. His dad told him the news: JJ, who was in a different prison, had been murdered.

Hernandez said he “hit rock bottom.”

“I was going to kill myself, but I made the decision to honor JJ’s life by getting my life back,” Hernandez said. “To live every day like I’m going home tomorrow. I wanted to change for the better.”

He started reading books to familiariz­e himself with the criminal appeals process and became known as a jailhouse attorney. He was one of three prisoners picked from 2,000 to mentor youth, which inspired him to start writing the curriculum for the AT LAST program.

On Sept. 21, 2011, he wrote a letter to Obama petitionin­g for a commuted sentence, promising that if he were given a second chance, he would return to the community he once “corrupted” and make up for the wrong.

“What I can say for certain Mr. President is that I am a changed man from that boy who ran those streets 1520 years ago,” Hernandez wrote. “And if I were given a second chance at life I would not let you, my family or society down. I would do everything I could to right what I have wronged and try to prevent kids from making the same mistakes I did when I was young.”

Freed from prison

On Aug. 11, 2015, Hernandez was released from prison after serving 17 years and 10 months. While he was granted clemency in 2013, his sentence was commuted to 20 years, so he had to finish serving time.

He moved back to McKinney and got a job at Cafe Momentum in Dallas, a social enterprise that helps juveniles coming out of the system.

He made up the high school credits he never finished and received his diploma from McKinney High School in 2016. After a couple of years, he focused on working with the school, engaging with the youth in the community and on his criminal justice reform work.

In 2020, he was offered a dream job opportunit­y with the American Civil Liberties Union, a nonprofit that works in the courts, legislatur­es and communitie­s to defend individual­s’ rights.

The offer meant he’d have to leave McKinney.

“If I move out of McKinney, I’m not ever coming back,” Hernandez said. He turned down the job and put his criminal justice reform work on hold to focus on starting the nonprofit he dreamt of in prison. Eighteen months after he started AT LAST, he signed the lease for the store.

Beth Bentley serves on various community organizati­ons with Hernandez, including Legacy Keepers of Old East McKinney, which works to preserve the Black and Mexican heritage of the neighborho­od. She said it’s in Hernandez’s heart to give and to make sure that young people have a path to follow.

“It’s not just him trying to make up for things that he didn’t do well or right,” said Bentley, who grew up on the east side. “I think he has now come to a place where this is his passion. This is his heart. This is who he really is.”

Preserving the neighborho­od

Hernandez said he hopes the store will become a hub for the community again and help preserve the culture and identity of the neighborho­od as developmen­t creeps in.

“I think it’s a bright light,” said Ferraro, the high school counselor. “I think it’s going to be giving people hope. There are people in the community that grew up going to that store, not just for drugs, but they remember it as going down to the store to get a loaf of bread or whatever else they needed. Many people have very fond memories, and they’re super excited about seeing it come back in such a positive way.”

While McKinney is growing overall, until recently, there has been little developmen­t pressure east of State Highway 5 in East McKinney, according to the Existing Conditions Report of the East McKinney Neighborho­od Preservati­on Study. But upcoming projects include the city’s new municipal center, a master plan for Old Settler’s Park and Tupps Brewery relocation.

New developmen­t is drawn to East McKinney because of land availabili­ty and lower costs, according to findings from the preservati­on study, which was presented during a City Council work session on Jan. 17. It also found that “residents of East McKinney are vulnerable to displaceme­nt in a number of ways.”

Hernandez says he has seen prices “shoot up” on the east side as a result of the developmen­t.

“I had seen what was going on in Dallas where these neighborho­ods had these houses demolished, and then right next to an old 1950s house, there’s a three-story condo, a Starbucks and a dog parlor,” Hernandez said.

“And I was like, man, I don’t want to see that on the east side. I want to see the east side stay a community.”

Access to more education and outreach for existing programs helping with things such as clearing a title, tax abatement and home rehab was a key recommenda­tion from the preservati­on study. La Tiendita is going to help spread awareness about such programs, he said.

According to the community outreach portion of the study, there is a “desire for more resources and services such as grocery stores and restaurant­s.”

“But they’re not going to eat kale nachos or cauliflowe­r tortillas even if they could afford it,” Hernandez said of his community.

Hernandez said he “has no doubt” La Tiendita will help keep the community together.

“This has always been the heart of the east side, and we’re about to give it a bypass,” he said.

 ?? ?? JASON HERNANDEZ started the Aspiring Texas Latinos Achieving Success Together program.
JASON HERNANDEZ started the Aspiring Texas Latinos Achieving Success Together program.
 ?? Lawrence Jenkins/Special Contributo­r ?? Jason Hernandez plans to open a store that will sell healthy foods and teach financial literacy to youths. He was released from prison in 2015 after he wrote a letter to President Barack Obama petitionin­g for a commuted sentence, promising that if he were given a second chance, he would return to the community he once “corrupted” and make up for the wrong.
Lawrence Jenkins/Special Contributo­r Jason Hernandez plans to open a store that will sell healthy foods and teach financial literacy to youths. He was released from prison in 2015 after he wrote a letter to President Barack Obama petitionin­g for a commuted sentence, promising that if he were given a second chance, he would return to the community he once “corrupted” and make up for the wrong.

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