A Texas dad and his daughter were minutes late to stay the execution, but the death knell already sounded. Their family piñata store, Jumpolin, was reduced to a pile of crinkled metal scraps, its handmade wares confetti.
Down with the razed heap went the Lejarazus family’s version of the American Dream. With every bat swing for a candy-filled piñata prize and helium birthday balloon fill-up, it all came toppling down with one bulldozer pass. Photo albums and letter keepsakes along with handmade merch were strewn about the rubble.
And all of it was done to convert the small, hip Austin shop to a parking lot in time for a SXSW festival shindig.
It was the morning of February 12th and Sergio Lejarazu gave his only daughter, Emily, a 17-year-old high school senior, a lift.
En route everyday they’d drive past their Jumpolin storefront. This day was no different. “When we drive to school we always check up on the shop,” Emily Lejarazu told The Daily Beast.
But on this particular ride, they screeched to a halt after seeing something unconscionable.
A crew of hardhats and their monstrous machines milling about after pulverizing the family’s longstanding Jumpolin piñata store that had stood at the 1401 E. Cesar Chavez plot for eight years in its East Austin neighborhood.
“That day, we came to it and it was completely destroyed with all of our stuff,” said Emily Lejarazu, who, like her father, says she was welling up before she fell into a state of shock. “It didn’t set in but then I looked at the pile and there was our photo albums and letters—all our memories we had.”
The demo is steeped in tragedy. The real estate owners, who also run a neighboring AirBnB on the block, quickly found they were cast as deep-pocketed villains trying to gentrify an up-and-coming neighborhood after the demolition.
On December 8th of last year—not two months after they took control of the property—the owners of F&F Realty applied for a SXSW party to be held on March 14, 2015. They were granted a “conditional approval” on Jan. 13, 2015, according to a city spokeswoman.
That party involved online education institution General Assembly, who host coding tutorials as well as a branding company called Splash Inc. Once word of the bulldozing reached Splash Inc.’s CEO Ben Hindman he said they pulled out.
“Indeed, we had no idea that this was the plan and would certainly never have gotten involved in this venue at all if we had,” he said.
The party looks like it still went off without a hitch elsewhere. But The Daily Beast has learned that the owners’ plans went beyond a single South by Southwest party. When legal attempts to demolish the building were turned down, they started to plan to convert the back space that once served as the Phillips 66 car garage into office space. Those plans—and the future of the site—are in limbo now.
Meanwhile Emily Lejarazu is dealing with the trauma of the event. She can only faintly tug at fleeting images from that morning. Like the mess before her, the memory from that day is shattered into bits and pieces.
“What I vaguely remember was the popcorn machine just crushed and sitting there,” she said.
And there was the sight of workers giving away their handmade creations piecemeal, like souvenirs.
“The construction workers took our stuff and decided that they (would) start giving away our piñatas to people who passed by,” Emily Lejarazu said. “They were really incredibly rude and disrespectful to us.”
One woman came back to return a gratis piñata after she learned about the circumstances behind the giveaway.
“She felt bad for taking the piñata,” Emily Lejarazu said.
Calls and emails to the Texas-based company ACI Design Build who were tasked with the demolition were not returned.
Nextdoor neighbor Diane Ontiveros, 55, told The Daily Beast she barely heard the racket from the demo that had begun around 7 a.m.
In fact, it wasn’t until her daughter shouted at her mom that the crew of about seven or eight workers were just about to smash the Lejarazus piñata store.
“My daughter came to drop off my granddaughter and she is yelling at me, ‘Mom there’s a bulldozer!’ And I was so scared, I yelled back ‘A bulldozer?’”
Ontiveros says she hopelessly plead with the workers to hold off. “I asked them to hold off for a minute and give us a chance to get things out,” she said.
The construction workers, led by the alpha of the group who acted as foreman, curtly told them to carry on. “He was telling the workers in Spanish ‘No, no, don’t listen to her. Knock it down.’”
The gears switched, the plough raised and the bulldozer revved up, together they turned the store into a pile of rubbish.
“I said ‘Oh my god’ and then Sergio and Emily came I told them I tried to stop them,” says Ontiveros.
Sergio Lejarazu says he was demoralized when he saw the lowly state of his family shop. “I started grieving right then,” the 49-year-old told The Daily Beast. “I had to go to church afterward and pray because I have no ideas the things that was going through my mind.”
The totality of that day still stings for the father who says he has nothing left. “We lost everything,” he says.
The video was a sort of hedge. “We had suspicions something was going on so we recorded everything we do,” Sergio Lejarazu said.
The videotaping was one measure the family took to protect themselves since the Lejarazus started receiving terse legal letters from their new landlords.
“We’d hang some piñatas as a display for people to see they said we couldn’t do that anymore,” Emily Lejarazu said. “They also said Cleo was a threat and there were no dogs allowed on the property.”
Despite the stern requests, the family says they complied.
“They told us if you don’t do this we’re going to kick you out,” Emily Lejarazu said. “We abided by the contract.”
For years the party store was a hub for kids’ parties and all kinds of social events around town. And Sergio Lejarazu and his wife Monica take pride in their works of art. They taught their kids the piñata craft.
Both Emily and her 36-year-old brother Victor Lejarazu helped their parents with the family business. Emily fondly recalls learning from her mom the trade of turning tissue into quirky cartoon characters.
“My dad did the inner frame and my mom would do the outer part with tissue, paper and colorful ways with scissors and paint,” Emily Lejarazu said. “It was special for me making them with my mom. I’ve been a part of the store since I was 4 years old.”
Her brother Victor admits that, despite the bulldozing, he expects the family business to carry on.
“We want to pass it on to our kids,” he told the Daily Beast.
And making extravagant customized piñatas—some fetch $75 to $200—became the store’s signature item.
The father’s favorite is the oversized Homer Simpson piñata. “It’s just something that looks different,” he said, laughing.
That and the traditional seven-pointed star which symbolizes the seven deadly sins. “I love making the seven sins,” Sergio Lejarazu said. “When you break the piñata you make a promise to the seven sins.”
Beyond the handmade piñatas the Lejarazus also outfitted events by renting out chairs, canopies, bouncy houses as well as snow cone and popcorn machines. They had been moored in the neighborhood for eight years, taking over the location which had once been a Phillips 66 gas station.
On Oct. 17, 2014, the Lejarazu family began paying their $1,250 monthly rent to their new twenty-something landlords—F&F Real Estate Ventures.
Then F&F pushed the nuclear button and warned the family to evacuate their Jumpolin premises.
“We received a letter the day before on paper saying: ‘You have 24 hours to vacate the building because you are in violation of a lease contract for February,’” Sergio Lejarazu said. “It had never said [anything] to do with demolition.”
F&F Real Estate Ventures is made up of a pair of young entrepreneurs who also launched a highly-publicized dotcom before they launched their Austin-based company Status Labs, promising “online reputation management.” They were the braintrust behind Wiki-PR, which had garnered some harsh press after it was pegged as a so-called “sockpuppeting” shop. The duo would essentially farm out cyber mercenaries to scrub away bad press (or bury it way down in the Google ether) and give the client a glowing Wikipedia rep for a handsome fee. The company has since been banished from contributing to Wikipedia in the last year.
(Full disclosure: Four years ago I was offered but declined to contribute stories to a financial website that was founded by the same owners.)
Jordan French, 29, downplayed the company’s secret sauce and claimed they were being subjected to a Wikipedia witch-hunt.
“Wikipedia is historically very anti-commercial, and we’re the biggest company being paid for consulting, so we became the target,” he said.
Since the razing of the piñata store, F&F have received immense blowback. One inspired Texas congressman drafted legislation to shield vulnerable tenants from getting broadsided by big buck property owners. Rep. Eddie Rodriguez has dubbed it the “Jumpolin Bill.”
In it, owners who plow through tenants’ homes or any other “wrongful evictions” will ultimately take a hit where it hurts: their wallet.
Sen. Rodriguez included in his bill, which is currently awaiting a hearing before it can be voted on, a “painful” clause where owners attempting to boot tenants would be forced to pay damages to the tune of “25 percent of the fair market value of the property.”
“If that’s the motivation, the value of the land, then you’re going to pay for that,” Sen. Rodriguez said. “What these owners are seeing in their eyes are dollars signs, so then they will see dollar signs in the pocketbook if this happens again.”
French’s Jumpolin fallout has him fanning the flames against the family his company bulldozed.
He started last month with comments that attacked Sergio Lejarazu for being a bicycle thief.
“Probably their livelihood was selling helium and stolen bicycles,” French told the publication CultureMap Austin in February. “They weren’t making a living selling piñatas; they were selling something else.”
In fact, on May 14, 2014, Sergio Lejarazu was nabbed in a bicycle sting, plunking down cash for a pair of hot bicycles.
But Lejarazu who plead down to misdemeanor says his name is being sullied to deflect from the wrongdoing of the real estate firm.
“They sent policemen to my store and they give me a good offer for two bicycles and then I bought them and the rest of the story is I was recorded. I buy too fast.” he told The Daily Beast. “It’s something I’m going to have to live with and I already repaid society for it.”
The slip-up, Lejarazu says, has nothing to do with his bulldozed family business.
“I already paid for it I naturally I’m not a criminal,” he said. “I have never ever had a record not here or in my country [Mexico]. I never had a spot on my record.”
Then French compared his tenants to roaches.
“Say you have a house that was infested by roaches,” French told the publication Culturemap Austin last month. “You have to clean that up.”
The words were taken by many as racially insensitive and the owners have since received death threats, The Daily Beast has learned.
In statement sent to The Daily Beast, Jordan French says the roach comment was misinterpreted and extended another olive branch to the Lejarazu family.
“I can't speak about the specifics of the case as it’s pending litigation. But I will say that my comment about roaches was unfortunately taken out of context. This issue was never about race. Looking back, the word was a terrible choice given its history. And I'd like to personally apologize to the Lejarazus', the Latino community, and anyone else affected by my words.”
French’s effort to apologize is lost on Victor Lejarazu.
“I’m not a cockroach,” he said. “I’m not a shrimp either. I’m a human being. I feel that was really hateful—to say you’re going to scare us out into the streets.”
The family’s business has relocated temporarily, and they filed a civil lawsuit against F&F this week seeking damages. But they say they aren’t motivated by a windfall.
“We don’t want money,” Victor Lejarazu said. “We want to survive and we want respect.”
With his shop in ruins, father Sergio Lejarazu is maintaining optimism that his business will persevere.
“When we first came to this country we had only $10 and I make all of this for my family and then we lose everything in five minutes,” he said. “But I still have my my wife, my daughter, and I have more than $10 now.