Yesterday, June 2, marked the 109th anniversary of the birth of my paternal grandmother, Francisca Riojas De La Garza. She died in February 2001 at the age of 97. She was the last of my grandparents. My mother’s mother had died in México City in 1940. My paternal grandfather died in Dallas in 1969, and my other grandfather passed away in a suburban Dallas nursing home in 1983. I have a smattering of distinct memories of my paternal father; unfortunately, I really didn’t get to know my mother’s father. But, as in most families, I know a lot about all of them. They each led interesting lives, equally filled with joy and tragedy. A friend of mine once said, if she knew how much fun her grandkids would be, she would have had them first. Grandparents hold a special place in the family unit. Really good grandparents shepherd their loved ones through life with their own tales of growing up way back when. They keep families together. They are the center of the clan; the matriarch or patriarch who seems to know and see everything. When they die, it’s still unexpected. When Francisca passed away, my father’s large family appeared to disintegrate. No one gathered for Thanksgiving or Christmas Eve. No more birthday or wedding celebrations. Everybody – especially us grandkids and great grandkids – went our separate ways; creating our own families and thereby, our own lives. I guess that happens sometimes – even in the closest of families.
Francisca was small, barely 4’11,” but she had a strong personality accompanied by an even stronger voice. Small women always seem to have the most indomitable of spirits. I should know – one gave birth to me. Francisca was born in Rosales, Coahuila, México in 1903, the 4th of 11 children; the oldest daughter. Her father, José Manuel Riojas, was a captain in the Mexican military; a tall blond, blue-eyed man who actually worked as a bounty hunter under the direction of Venustiano Carranza, a leading figure in México’s bloody revolution that began in 1910. Her mother Concepción died in 1918 of the “Spanish flu;” the pandemic that took millions of lives across the globe at the close of World War I. Francisca cared for her mother as any loving daughter then or now would; feeding and bathing her, changing her clothes, praying for her, holding her hand tightly as Concepción took her last breath – without concern for her own health or fear of the unknown. She then became a surrogate mother to her younger siblings. In 1920, as the revolution came to a close, José Manuel moved his family to Eagle Pass, Texas, a town just north of the Rio Grande.
That’s where Francisca met her future husband, Epigmenio De La Garza, a local carpenter ten years her senior. They married shortly before Christmas 1924 in another small South Texas town. Not in the Catholic Church, as Mexican tradition would have dictated, but in civil court. The church wouldn’t allow them to wed – they were first cousins. It was one of those classic long-held family secrets that no one really knew about and no one really cared to discuss; certainly not around the Christmas tree while the kids opened presents.
The De La Garza family had arrived in South Texas in the 1580’s. Texas and the rest of what is now the American Southwest were all part of Nuevo España, or New Spain. The De La Garzas came as explorers and ranchers, not conquerors. They considered the indigenous peoples friends and confidants, not vermin. They established large communities, including schools and churches.
Juan Ignacio de Castilla y Rioxa arrived in Veracruz, México in 1732 with an entourage of fellow military officials and clergymen. His goal was simple – he planned to marry a young woman with whom he’d been corresponding. The Castilla y Rioxa family was related to Spanish royalty, descendants of the “Kingdom of Castilla.” One of their ancestors was Queen Isabella, the monarch who funded Christopher Columbus’ voyage 240 years earlier. Some time towards the end of the 18th century, the name Rioxa metamorphosed into Riojas, and in the 1860’s a Riojas married a De La Garza.
But, my grandparents weren’t concerned about family – royalty or not. They wanted to build a life together. They had 11 children; 4 of them – 2 boys and 2 girls – died as infants. It’s difficult to understand how life was like a century ago, when couples had so many children and accepted the deaths of some as a cold, hard fact of their world. No one of my grandparents’ generation feared death the way people do now. Back then, it was the norm; another cycle of life to be respected and honored. It wasn’t so normal, however, for a person to live as long as Francisca did.
The best part of a long, healthy life is the ability to recount your history and share it with your loved ones. Every elderly person has some story, though, that seems almost too fantastic to be true. But, they’re the kind of real-life experiences that could have only happened way back when; in another time and another place.
When she was about 8 or 9, Francisca was visiting an uncle’s ranch and playing with her cousins beside a stream that ran behind the main house. The girls suddenly noticed a group of government men – federales – off in the distance. Francisca’s cousins dared her to shout “¡Viva Carranza!” at them. Apparently not one to back down from a challenge, my grandmother climbed atop a mound of dirt and shouted just that: “¡Viva Carranza!” It startled the men who turned in her direction. But, they immediately saw that it was just a small girl; a brat, they probably thought. After a moment, however, they turned a canon towards the girls – surely just intending to teach them a lesson – and fired a shot into the stream. Water drenched Francisca who hadn’t yet retreated. The blast caught the attention of others nearby and propelled Concepción out of the ranch house. Seeing that it was her own daughter soaking wet, she charged forward and grabbed my grandmother by one of her braids. As Concepción ushered all the girls back into the house, several local men arrived at the stream with their own weapons, and a brief skirmish erupted.
Like I said, small women have the grandest of egos and they always seem to cause all sorts of commotion.
The day after my grandmother died, my father sat in a chair in the den of her house; staring out the patio door at the expansive back yard. His father had built that large red brick house in 1957. It had always been there, as far as I was concerned. I knew no other home swelling with such memories of happiness and good food.
“What’s wrong?” I asked my dad, just trying to make conversation amidst all the gloom.
“Oh, just thinking about all the times we’ve spent in this house,” he replied quietly.
But, I already knew that. Whenever a loved one dies – even if they’re very old – we feel sad; mournful not just because of their death, but our loss. We can be selfish with those we love the most. But, we reserve that right.
That home is gone now. I mean, the large red brick house is physically where it’s always been on Midway Road in North Dallas. Yet, the home is gone.
The memories are still here though – with me and my father. Francisca’s body is gone as well – but she’s still around. It’s just a natural part of the life cycle my parents and I don’t fear.