'Lagordiloca,' The Texas Reporter

Jul 1, 2018
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Time now for Weekend Long Listen, where we head to Laredo, Texas, to meet citizen reporter Priscilla Villarreal. She calls herself Lagordiloca, Spanish for the big, crazy lady. Lagordiloca has become a local news source for many people, chasing crime scenes and car accidents. But she's also become one of the most controversial figures in town. Andres Caballero with Latino USA reports from Laredo.

ANDRES CABALLERO, BYLINE: It's past 3 a.m.. The streets of Laredo are mostly empty. I'm driving in a blue Dodge truck with the window down. The truck's owner is a 33-year-old woman with tattoos on both arms. She's wearing hoop earrings.

PRISCILLA VILLARREAL: My truck is called The Blue Demon. It's my ride-or-die truck. I'm not going to say it's the perfect truck. It's all ripped from the roof. And the dashboard is all broken. And there's this annoying beep that never shuts up, and I don't know what it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR BEEPING)

CABALLERO: The yellow streetlights cast an amber spotlight on her face as she drives down one of the main avenues of Laredo, Texas.

(SOUNDBITE OF MEXICAN CORRIDO SONG)

VILLARREAL: (Singing).

CABALLERO: Every day, when the sun goes down, Lagordiloca cruises through these streets looking for action. Her followers often message her with tips. And when something actually happens she gets as close to the scene as she can and livestreams video to her 100,000-plus Facebook followers.

(SOUNDBITE OF REPORTING MONTAGE)

VILLARREAL: At this time, there is an accident.

A young man driving under the influence of alcohol.

Lady was basically hit by a vehicle.

(Speaking Spanish).

CABALLERO: She's been doing this for more than two years without any professional experience working as a journalist. And by now, she's almost as popular on social media as Laredo's daily newspaper, partly because of her direct - some might say crass - approach to delivering information.

VILLARREAL: I don't sugarcoat anything. My stories are unedited, raw news.

CABALLERO: And her fans love her rawness above all. She's even been the source of inspiration for a song by a local Chicano hip-hop artist.

(SOUNDBITE OF WYZE MTZ SONG)

ALEX MARTINEZ: (Rapping) The first on the scene - Lagordiloca. La reportera de Laredo - Lagordiloca.

CABALLERO: Alex Martinez, aka Wyze Mtz, is the guy who wrote that song. He says that Lagordiloca has become more than a well-known figure around town. Her name comes up at people's dinner conversations. Sometimes it even causes arguments.

MARTINEZ: In the same family, you have somebody who loves her and somebody who hates her. Lagordiloca is that much of a tricky situation or conversation that your own family will be against you.

CABALLERO: A Facebook group even sprung up online. It's called, Say No To Lagordiloca. One of the posts reads...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Reading) Lagordiloca has to be stopped. There is nothing professional or credible about what she does. Does someone who is a professional reporter yell profanities?

VILLARREAL: My haters are my motivators, and they're the ones that keep me going. I mean, they want to shut me down, and it's not going to happen.

CABALLERO: But before she was Lagordiloca, she was just Priscilla Villarreal. When she was in her teens, she was arrested for possession of marijuana, cocaine and a firearm. Years later, after losing her baby daughter who was born prematurely, she hit bottom.

VILLARREAL: I tried to commit suicide three times by slitting my wrist, by putting a bag over my head and duct taping my hand.

CABALLERO: It took several years for her to recover from the death of her baby. Her life had become aimless, and she was looking for a purpose, something to help her move beyond the trauma. And then, in 2015, something tragic happened in her neighborhood.

(SOUNDBITE OF POLICE SIRENS)

CABALLERO: Detective Joe Baeza is the spokesman for the Laredo Police Department. He was also at the scene that day.

JOE BAEZA: The entire subsection of the neighborhood was completely surrounded by SWAT team and emergency response from various different agencies, including ours.

VILLARREAL: I started recording, and all of a sudden you could hear gunshots ring. Everybody dropped to the floor, and I still kept on recording.

(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: He shot the baby.

VILLARREAL: He shot the baby.

I saw a female police officer carrying a 6-year-old little girl with her limp body.

CABALLERO: She went home and uploaded the video to her personal Facebook page. She didn't edit anything. Whatever she saw, her Facebook followers also saw.

VILLARREAL: It basically got almost a million views in less than four hours.

CABALLERO: As tragic and traumatic as this event was for her, Lagordiloca had found a purpose informing the community, becoming their eyes. So she kept chasing stories.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: We are tracking Hurricane Harvey, a Category 1 storm that is growing quickly.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: And double-digit rainfall totals and some nearly apocalyptic.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Headed directly for the Texas coast.

CABALLERO: Last summer, as Hurricane Harvey approached the coast of Texas, she got word from a source that there would be a major gas shortage, and that by the end of the week there would be no more gas at all in Laredo.

(SOUNDBITE OF NEWS MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: Basically all the pumps here are full of cars. We believe this all stems from a social media post.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: City and state officials are reassuring the community that rumors about gas shortages are simply not true.

CABALLERO: Ricardo Barrera, a Lyft driver, was not happy that day.

RICARDO BARRERA: So everybody was in a panic. It was taking an hour to two hours to go fill up your gas tank. She wasted everybody's time, and it was a lie. And, you know, that's what pissed people off. It's like, get your sources straight.

VILLARREAL: I'll admit I probably did [expletive] it up (laughing). I'm being honest. I did mess it up and there was a gas shortage.

CABALLERO: To help minimize all of the mistakes, Lagordiloca asked a reporter friend at Univision to mentor her. But by that time, her efforts wouldn't help Lagordiloca very much. Last December, the police charged Lagordiloca with two counts of misuse of official information, which is a third-degree felony, for revealing the name of a Border Patrol employee who had committed suicide by jumping off an overpass, and for another incident in which she released the last name of a family involved in a fatal car crash. A day after finding out she had two warrants for her arrest, Lagordiloca decided to turn herself in. She was later let out on bond. I caught up with Joey Tellez, one of her attorneys.

JOEY TELLEZ: The statute that they're using to prosecute Ms. Villarreal is vague as well as overbroad, and it violates her First Amendment rights to free speech and freedom of the press.

VILLARREAL: I think that maybe they find that I am maybe a threat to them because I'm there recording live and people are watching.

CABALLERO: The Laredo police obviously see this differently. Here's Detective Baeza.

BAEZA: There is no validity to a claim that we have tried to silence anybody ever here at this police department. She, and anyone else who's out there with a platform as loud a bullhorn as social media is, is free to lend her opinions, her criticisms, her distastes, if you will, of law enforcement.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARADE)

CABALLERO: Earlier this year, Laredo held one of its biggest events, the George Washington Parade, in which this almost entirely Latino city pulls out all the stops to celebrate George and Martha Washington. To non-Laredoans, the celebration might seem random. Lagordiloca is rolling down Laredo's main avenue on a float she built with a giant copy of the Bill of Rights on it.

Do you want to describe your float real quick?

VILLARREAL: My float is basically having to do with the 10 amendments - freedom of speech, freedom of press. So my point is about the freedom that was taken away from me when I got arrested.

CABALLERO: Just a month after the parade, a District Court judge dismissed the charges against Lagordiloca, saying that the state law that was being used to prosecute her was unconstitutionally vague. It was a victory for Lagordiloca. Now she's looking to serve the city beyond just reporting. She's announced plans to run for mayor of Laredo sometime in the next four years. For NPR News, Andres Caballero with Latino USA. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.