The Girl from San Diego
Jilma Montemayor Vela: Sept. 29, 1905- Feb. 12, 1999
[Editor’s note: The following is a memoir penned by Jilma Montemayor Vela, months before her passing at the age of 93. She wrote down her life story to ensure that she would not be forgotten. She sat on her sofa for days with the spiral notebook and her pen, revisiting 93 years of days gone by. The memoir was written in Spanish and I translated it to English, as carefully as possible. The memoir includes photographs she eludes to and then supplementation by her children to her stories]
“In 1925, after I graduated, I told my parents I wanted to attend a teacher college so I could return to teach at the ranch schools. The San Diego school had teachers but the ranch schools always needed help. That was the first year a new Teacher College opened closer to San Diego in Kingsville. I was one of the first students to sign up for Texas A&I in Kingsville. I was the Valedictorian, so I got accepted. The tuition for the year was $300.00.” Jilma Montemayor Vela.
My Memories. Jilma M. Vela, wife of the late (Pedro) Baltazar Vela [from Mier, Mexico].
I was born in San Diego, Texas on September 29, 1905. The lady that delivered me was Lucia Garcia. My mother was Manuela Guerra Montemayor. My father was Juan Montemayor. My maternal grandmother was San Juana Hinojosa Guerra and my grandfather was Encarnacion Guerra. My paternal grandmother was Cesaria Gutierrez Montemayor and my grandfather was Atengones Montemayor [the paternal family emigrated from Spain to attain land grants]. My father had one brother, Octaviano Montemayor and I had one adopted sister, Carolina Montemayor. She married Pedro Flores and later married Santos Benavides.
When my Daddy was a little boy, he read a Second grade Spanish Reader about a French Princess named Jilma and her beloved was named Temalquin. The story is similar to Romeo and Juliet and my Daddy loved it. As a boy, he told his mother that when he grew up, he would name his children after these characters. He and my mother only had me and I grew up listening to the story of Jilma y Temalquin.
My first memory is of the Christmas when I was two. Carolina and I waited up for Santa. My Daddy came in and told us that Santa had already come. We went outside of the house and looked everywhere for presents. We found apples, oranges and nuts on the ground by a paca (bale of hay) and on the top of the paca we found two dolls, both the same, one for each of us. We also each got lipstick and bottle of perfume called toilet water. That was Christmas Eve and my family went to Misa de Gallo (Midnight Mass). Carolina and I did not want to leave any of our presents at home so my family went to Mass and to stand during the whole time, carrying us, our blankets, dolls and all our bag of presents. We were loved.
I did love that doll daddy chose for me, but I grew tired of it. It was a porcelain doll. One day I carried the doll by her feet. Her face hit a rock and broke and that is how I got a new one.
I went to a Spanish school. I had to take my own bench every day. The teacher lived in the school with her mother and a little girl. The name of the teacher was Aurelia Mendez. Her mother was named Felipita and the little girl was named Domitila. Three men lived there too and at lunch they would be called to come eat: Juan grande, Juan chico, y Juan de en medio.
During that time when I was in school at that young age, I got very sick with Typhoid Fever. I was sick for three months and my parents had to bring me to Alice, Texas for a doctor. My people suffered so much! My Daddy wanted to take me home but the doctor said I could die on the way. The doctor told my Daddy to give me to him and he and his wife would take care of me so that I might not die. They decided to stay with me. It took a long time, but I finally got better, but I could not move my jaw when they said I could eat again so the doctor gave me chewing gum first. It was very hard for me. Then the doctor ordered that I had to eat. He gave me one cracker, cut into four pieces. I got one piece in the morning, one at noon and one at night. The last piece was for the next day. My parents were told not to give more than the small piece of cracker, even if I cried. Thank God I got over that illness
There was another illness. My grandmother’s second cousin was thrown off of an (illegible) and I ran to see what happened and I got a large cut and more trouble for forty days. I did not break any bones; it was just a very bad cut. I have a big scar. There was nothing to mend with but just soaking in warm water for the forty days.
[My Daddy loved to play poker and he was away from us a lot. He was with his brother, Octaviano. They had land and money but he did not take very good care of things.] The lady that delivered me had a daughter named Maria. She would come over to our house to buy milk. She would tell my father, “look at your house with all the rendijas (cracks in the walls)” and he would tell her, “don’t worry. I can patch all those with one-dollar bills”. My Mom and Daddy lived in that house with no floor and one chimney. My mother had very few dishes. We each had a plate, a cup, a fork, a spoon. I hate to tell, but we didn’t even have a caserola (a pot) to cook in. We only had a one asero (a pan) for cooking and baking. [I grew up to have cabinets filled with so many dishes and so many pots and pans of all sizes, even if I didn’t do much cooking. My husband loved to cook. I love to keep my house clean and neat].
My Mama and I were very close. We were always working together to take care of the horses, cows, pigs, chickens and of the farm work. Yes, I would go to school, but I was raised on the farm that was about two blocks away from our house. My mother would plant corn, cotton, beans, and sugar cane. The way we would plant was by hard dropping the seeds after my Daddy would plow the soil.
Mama and I would work like men. We would cut the corn, pick the cotton and beans, cut the sugar cane and make sure we took care of the people that would pick our cotton also. We had to work because Daddy didn’t work anywhere else. After all of the care for the animals and the farm work, my Mama would make meals and milk the cows because sometimes people would come to buy the milk. [My Mama made all my clothes. We would look through the Sear’s catalogue and she would buy the fabrics and make me the dresses that looked just the pictures. She sewed by hand and she was very talented. From the time I was born, she made my clothes. I still have one outfit she made me as a baby and a diaper she made me.
After the workers cleared the fields my Mama and I would go through the fields and collect what they had left behind. Mama had an agreement with my Daddy that we could collect what the workers missed and we would sell the cotton, sugarcane or beans we would gather. The money got from selling those things was ours. That is how my Mama got fabric and shoes and hats for me. She rarely bought things for herself, but she loved to dress me up.
When I was very little, my Daddy bought me a donkey for a pet. I would ride on it in the yard. My Daddy made a bridle for the donkey out of rags. She was very tame with me but she threw off everyone else. I was raised riding horses. My father would take me on the back of the saddle and we would go out to find a cow that had given birth to a small calf and we would bring them back to the farm. Then I grew in age and I had a female horse and another llegua (mare). She was a black beauty. I named her Leona. I tamed her since she was small. She grew to be a big black horse and I grew too. I would ride to go pick up meat and I would ride her to go to the other girls’ houses and we would all ride horse back. Sometimes we rode around town, especially by the Seagos.
I started riding my horse to school at the age of seven. Now I went to the town’s school and not to the Spanish school. My first teacher was Miss Ernie. There was a little boy in the class named Ismael. He was being raised by an aunt. He was a cry boy. He was always crying. One day Miss Ernie brought him a tetera (a baby’s bottle) with milk. She sat him in her lap and gave him the bottle. She made him stay in her lap and drink. He stopped crying. The aunt complained but she got over it when she heard there was no more crying.
In the first grade we saw our first thing with a magnifying glass. It was a fly. We were surprised to see the large fly with big eyes and ugly feet. That year I learned the song, “Muffin Man” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat”. I also learned “Dixie Land” but I never understood it. I had no idea what Dixie Land was.
I do not remember second grade, but my third grade teacher was Mrs. Childress. Her name was Nora. She did not want us to chew gum in class. She caught me with gum and she stuck it to my nose and pulled it in to a long strand so I would look like a gobbler turkey for the rest of the day.
From the third grade I was passed to the fourth. I was very smart, I guess. I was in the fourth grade for four days and I was sent to the fifth grade. There every day was hard work for me, but I did not mind.
Then there was more sickness called Influenza. The school was closed for quite a while. Many people in our town got very sick. When I went back to school there was another teacher. The first one was Mrs. Eva Gonzalez. The second one was Elena Tovar.
Finally, I promoted to the sixth grade. My teacher was Miss Emma Childress, the teacher who made me a turkey gobbler with my gum. I was very afraid of her. She was mean. None of us could talk in her class. One day she gave me a zero on an assignment. She wanted to put me back to the fifth grade and she said she thought I was a little slow. My trouble was that I was scared of her. It was because of her being so mean. She would slam her ruler on our desks and yell at us.
One day she told me to go home with her after school. The other students said she was going to show me a big snake to scare me even more, but I went anyway. She lived across the street with her sister, Mable. They had set the table and served chocolate cake for me and for them. I ate the cake and then she told me she was very proud of me. She had corrected my test and I had scored a 98 or 99. She had written “Very Good” on it. She had made a mistake and she apologized. She told me not to be afraid of her anymore.
She was still very strict and mean, but I was more relaxed. She would give us lessons to learn and she made sure none of us copied. She was a good teacher because she would explain and write the answers in note books so we could read and learn clearly.
Then in the seventh grade my teacher was from Missouri. I do not remember her name. She would leave the class to go talk to Mr. Moody, the principal. The boys would use the time to put on plays for us. They were very funny! They would wear our bonnets and use their shirts to make skirts. They would close the vents on the door so we could all laugh and have a good time. One day, the Elementary school classes complained that their children could not study because of the noisy plays the boys were carrying on. The teacher came back and caught us making all that noise. She made the boys perform the play again while she was giving fajasos (beltings). She used the belt on them. We never did that again. No more plays and no more noise! After that, we would do our work and if we had extra time, we would read the book, Pollyanna.
Then I passed to the eighth grade. That’s when the war was on. There was no paper, so we could not have any homework. During this grade, I had my final History test. I got a 100 and David Canales was exempt. In this grade we wrote imaginary stories. My teacher from Missouri, cried when she read my story. In the story, I was a nurse, helping in the war. I went to New York and then arrived in France. I met our soldiers and gave them medical help and cigarettes. I also met other ladies who were from France and we became friends. They had plants in boxes over the roofs of their houses.
One of the boys in my class, Guillermo Jaime, wrote a story about the girls who came from the town across the bridge. I remember it because he said it was about the girls he had seen in that town, Eugenia, Beatrice and Jilma. He wrote that the girls were at the Post Office and that they were very beautiful.
That winter, my Daddy bought me a pair of boots. Beautiful gray leather boots with two-inch heels. He bought me a cap and a long scarf that had a tassel. The scarf was blue and white. He also bought me a coat. We had snow and sleet and we would go out to the side of the school house to play and throw snow balls at each other for a short time. We had fun until, of course, the teacher would call us in. We had to obey her quickly.
That year, our class was going to make an annual, but we had no paper because of the war. We did have our finals on paper.
My uncle, Pedro Guerra had gone to war and he sent me a post card from the place he went for training. It was in Missouri. On the postcard was a picture of park and a bench. My teacher had lived near that park and she it very well. Seeing that post card made her cry.
The war ended on November 11th: Armistice. San Diego made a large barbecue for all of the people and had a parade. The eighth graders were told to use apparel like soldiers, so I wore a navy-blue skirt, a soldier’s shirt, a soldier’s hat, and a black tie. In the parade, they had a truck with the Red Cross and nurses caring and feeding the injured soldiers. There was music playing. They had made a mummy and they had dressed it like a soldier. They tied a rope around the neck and a man on a horse was dragging this “soldier” in the parade. People would cry as this passed by. My grandmother cried. All the school children and teachers walked in the parade behind the trucks, cars and the horses.
One year, we passed through a terrible storm. My Daddy was not home. He had traveled to San Antonio. Mama, Grandmother, Carolina, my Daddy’s brother, Octaviano and I were home when the storm hit. The house was shaking and then it started to move. The rain was very strong too. We had to hold on to the chimney to keep from falling. I had been holding on to the legs of the table, but that started to slide across the room and it toppled over.
Corpus Christi after the 1919 storm. Library of Congress/Lc-Usz62-122844
My Daddy was on his way back from San Antonio and had made it to Corpus Christi when the storm hit. He stopped in Robstown on the way up to invite his uncle Pedro Guerra to travel with him. He and Pedro got stuck in Corpus Christi. The storm had been far worse for them than for us. My Daddy suffered a broken leg. The train could not travel back to San Diego because of all the damage. Even though he was hurt, he was desperate to get home to us.
No one could communicate. We thought Daddy had died and he had no idea what to think about all of us. He climbed on a horse and rode home. It took him many days, but he did get back to San Diego and we were all very happy to be together again. He told us about the terrible things he saw during the storm.
Houses that were very large would be thrown around by the high winds. Some houses were moved from the center of the yard and dropped in the middle of the street. He said many people died in Corpus Christi and many people were injured. He got his Uncle Pedro safely back to Robstown before traveling to San Diego.
A month later, when Daddy’s leg was better and the train was running again, we went to Corpus Christi to see the damage. I saw brick houses toppled over, smashed and yes, some were in the middle of the street. Sadly, there dead people still on the yards. There were National Guard soldiers posted all over the area.
My ninth grade teacher was Miss Hickey and she was okay. Nothing major happened. Life was back to normal.
Corpus Christi after the 1919 storm. Library of Congress/LC-USZ62-122844
My tenth grade teacher received her teacher training at the University of Texas and she was very proud of that. Her name was Miss Maria Garcia. She told us all about how wonderful it all was. She wanted us all to walk like the students from University of Texas, tall, straight and like we were marching. We must have looked like soldiers. She had done our seventh grade History testing, so we knew her a little.
Now she was our teacher so we learned much about her. She liked a man from Benavides and she talked about him all the time. As girls, she advised us to find a man to marry as soon as possible. It was uncommon for us to still be attending school. Most everyone was already married or working full time at the family ranches. There were only eight of us in the tenth grade, mostly boys who were children of well-off people who expected their sons to become professional workers.
Miss Garcia told the girls to find a man who looked like us. She told us, “If you look like your husband, you are going to be ok!” My mother was dark skinned from working the fields in the sun. Her mother was dark too. My Daddy was fair skinned and my uncle Octaviano was pale skinned. We all lived in San Diego, but I saw black, brown, red and blonde hair, short and tall people and nobody looked the same, even from the same families. I think Miss Garcia was talking about marrying someone from your own race. I am still not sure to this day what she meant.
Then came the eleventh grade. We had a math problem that took up a whole sheet and nobody could solve it. Eight days went by and we could not solve it. Finally, the teacher said we could ask around town for help. It was Geometry. I went to my former teacher, Mrs. Eva Gonzalez and she helped me solve it. The day I took it to class, the teacher was very surprised that we had solved it.
The twelve grade flew by and it time for me to graduate. I graduated on May 25, 1925 as Valedictorian of my class with a 99.3 overall grade average. Miss Maria Garcia was now the principal of the school. Our school colors were white and gold and the school flower was the Chester Daisy. I still have my diploma, the bulletin for the commencement and the flower I received that night. I graduated along with Reynaldo Luna, Jose Longoria, Guillermo Jaime, Rufino Lopez, Eugenia Garcia, and Beatrice Barrera.
My graduation dress was made by my Mama of white Georgette fabric, just a plain cut. The shirt was waist length and the skirt was to my knees. The dress was adorned with silver lace on the sleeves, the neck and around the skirt. My shoes were patent black. As graduation gifts I received handkerchiefs, a parasol, and a bouquet of daises.
I learned to sing our graduation song accompanied by a piano, I know somethings about reading music. The song was composed of three voices. During graduation, my classmates got confused and they stopped singing. I did not hear them stop, so I continued and finished the song by myself. When we were walking home after the ceremony, my Daddy said, “I did not know you sang so pretty!” What a surprise that was for me.
We lived one block from the Plaza Grounds across the street from the Catholic Church. I sometimes went to the plaza every single night. I had a different dress for every night that my Mama had made for me. For entertainment, we would go see baseball games. By me I mean my friends and I. I had a lot of girlfriends. We could go together but we could not have any boys join us. I used to live two blocks west from where they made the Plaza fair as the place where cars pass to the cemetery. There is a vacant land where they used to make the baseball games. I have pictures of the team that played there.
We also used to go to the Cine. The price was twenty-five cents for the ticket. The pictures had no voice. The music was a Pianola with rolls of music. The Pianola would run by moving the pedals of the Pianola with your feet. We would attend the church Mass and Rosaries. We would also go to dances. We had to go with our parents. My Daddy belonged to a club and I invited my friends to come with us. Young boys and seniors belonged to the club. There was no
smoking or no drinking at the dances. They just served Kool-Aid and cake. We would stay at the dances until 3:00 in the morning sometimes.
My girlfriends used to visit me at my house all the time. My Mama liked having them over. They would like to try on my powder and eat chocolate candies. We would go window shopping and I would carry my camera. I can still remember those days and I wish I had those pictures but I lost them as time went by. They were beautiful pictures of my friends.
About San Diego at that time: San Diego’s center is still where the park is now. Back then we had the Chones store, Dry Goods and Groceries, The Pena Store, Dry Goods and Food, The Octavio Garcia Store, Dry Goods and Food, the Luby Furniture Store and later one we added the Hobby Grocery Store.
Then San Diego changed to another center, by the State bank and a small store owned by the Kesslers, (they came from Germany)- a Dry Goods Store. I got to work for them there and they later moved to a larger building, the Rios Building. There was a Drug Store with living quarters upstairs. The theater was run by a man named Antonio Garcia. Mayo Sendejo was the one who took our tickets. There were two markets for meat. One was run by Amado Garza who was a good friend of my Daddy’s. The other market was run by Jose Ramirez. That market caught fire one day and we could all smell the meat cooking and then burning.
Candelaria (in the white dress- and I)
There was a store that would sell materials to build houses. There was also a Piggly Wiggly Food Store. There were three restaurants. There was a large motel and a Post Office. There was also a Dry Goods store owned by Rodrigo Gonzales. There were people who lived in the town and then people who came to San Diego from ranches as far away as Freer or Hebbronville. This is why we had so many Dry Goods Stores.
There was one Barber shop owned by Mr. Jaime. Later we got another meat market owned by Amando Garcia. There was a second Barber shop but I do not remember who owned it. There was a Fonda/Coffee shop owned by Lencha Gonzalez and Betoriano Gonzalez.
Our Plaza fiesta would go on for two weeks every year. Sometimes my Mama would make me a dress for every night of the week, especially when I was very young.
I had three very close and special friends who I knew almost all my life, Candelaria Garcia (Vela, she married my husband’s brother, Ramon), Maclovia Soliz (I do not recall who she married), and Francisca Soliz. She married (Smith). I had two cousins in San Diego, Nieves Rodriguez (Fortino) and Faustina (Moses). I had two uncles on my mother’s side, Pedro and Luciano Guerra and an adopted uncle, Severiano Guerra. My Daddy was often with his brother, my uncle, Octaviano Montemayor.
In 1925, after I graduated, I told my parents I wanted to attend a teacher college so I could return to teach at the ranch schools. The San Diego school had teachers but the ranch schools always needed help. That was the first year a new Teacher college opened closer to San Diego in Kingsville. I was one of the first students to sign up for Texas A&I in Kingsville. I was the valedictorian, so I got accepted. The tuition for the year was $300.00. They did not have dorms. I had to find a home to stay where a family would board me. The College was just one building with one teacher, a man who ran the whole thing. He did everything from teaching to cleaning the building. It was very hard for me to be away from home. I would only have to be gone for one year but I knew that my Mama would have to work the animals and the fields by herself while I was gone. I got told that my Mama had gotten sick and she was weak. I left the College and returned home.
I took care of the ranch and of my Mama. Her mother lived with us. San Juana Hinojosa Guerra was the town’s herbalist, midwife and healer. She was a very strong character, where my Mama was quiet. She delivered so many babies in town. She would joke with us privately that you could always tell when a woman was faithful to her husband. The baby would be born and it looks like a little bit of everyone and no one cared.
If a woman had been unfaithful, the baby would look like the Sancho (the lover) right down to the toes and fingernails! She tried to make my Mama stronger but nothing worked.
For the next year, I worked tutoring children with reading in the town for 25 cents a week. The farm work was hard, but I was used to it. I spent my spare time reading and embroidered like my Mama did. We did not have bed spreads, but we embroidered the hems of our sheets. I got sick of being at home. My grandmother was primarily caring for my Mama, so I decided to look for work in the town. I had been the Valedictorian, I had attended the Teacher College for a while and I was smart, but it did not mean very much to those who needed helpers in the town.
Then I went to Mr. Rufus Kessler who owned one of the many Dry Goods stores in town. He was an immigrant from Germany. I told him I did not know anything about selling, but that I was a hard worker and a good learner. I spoke both Spanish and English and I came from a well-known family in town. Mr. Kessler hired me. The men in the town earned up to $3.00 a week in those days. Mr. Kessler hired me for $6.25/a week. I was earning $25.00/a month. I was so happy to go to that job. I worked hard and did everything they asked of me. I was very careful with their store and learned that I had to take care of my reputation all of the time.
Sometimes, Mr. Kessler would leave a coin—a dime or a quarter on the floor. I would pick it up and hand it to him or to his wife. I never took anything that was not mine. They learned to trust me. Mrs. Kessler watched me measure out fabric and I always made sure never to cut more than the customer was going to pay for. The same was for the food items that I weighed out to sell like flour, coffee, or sugar. These lessons would prove to be very important to me later in my life. The Kesslers taught me how to run a successful Dry Goods store.
My Mama stayed sick and got weaker. The local doctor said she had watered down blood. In 1930, she got worse and someone told my father there was a doctor in Laredo who could heal her. That doctor had seen other patients who were as sick as my Mama and he had saved them. My Daddy, my uncle Octaviano and I drove the long trip from San Diego to Laredo with my poor Mama. When we got to the doctor’s office it was late and he lived over the office so My Daddy carried my Mama up the stairs to his home. The doctor took a look at my Mama and examined her quickly. He started to yell at my Daddy telling him he had killed my Mama with long road trip. There was nothing he could do to save her because it was too late for her. He turned us away. My Daddy picked up my limp Mama and carried her back down the stairs.
I rode the long trip back from Laredo to San Diego with my Mama on my lap. She died in my arms sometime during that ride. I was in shock. I never cried. I thought about how much she meant to me. She was my best friend. I would draw dresses and she would sew them. One time I drew a dress that the person from the Sears and Roebucks catalogue wanted to buy from us so they could make it to sell. He took a picture of the dress and never paid us. I would talk to her every night about everything I did during every day. She did everything for me and I did everything for her. My Daddy had spent so many years at his club with his friends while Mama and I stayed home together. She was so much of my world and now she was gone. Even as I write this, I can still remember what she felt like as she lay in my arms for that ride.
When I finally did cry, I could not stop. I cried for three months. My father would scold me to stop but I could not. That is what I was told. I tried every day to set aside my grief but it was very hard. My Mama died of a failed liver. My Daddy tried to force me to go to the dances at his club with my friends, Maclovia and Francisca Solis, but I was not happy. I did not like the dances anymore. Soon after that my Mama died, the Kesslers decided to leave San Diego to move to Corpus Christi because they wanted to open a bigger store. They asked me to go with them, but I was not able to. My Daddy and grandmother needed me. When they left, I had worked for them for four years and I was still earning the same $25.00/month.
The Kesslers introduced me to another German family who hired me for their store, The Gishweirs. They were very illiterate but they had a lot of money. They had made their money selling chickens to the hospitals during the war. I grew close to the Gishweirs and was grateful for the job, their patience and kindness and their trust. I worked hard and very honestly for them too.
Around 1930, Father Pedro from our parish had come from Mexico with a group of families that left because of war and because they had no food. Those families came with very little. One night I was at the Plaza with my girlfriends when I saw a man, one from the group that had come from Mexico. I saw him and he saw me from across the Plaza. He did not walk to me or talk to me. I fell in love with him. Love at first sight. Later he told me he had the same feeling. I wish the story was all nice, but my uncle Octaviano went home before I did and told my Daddy that I had been chiflada (inappropriate) with a dark man at the Plaza. My uncle was very unfair and I stayed mad at him for a long time.
I was getting older and most of my friends were married and had children. I had been asked to marry several times but I always said no for many reasons. The young men were nice and would have taken good care of me but I always said no. My Daddy was worried about my age and still being single so he made me a promise before God. He said, “The next man who asks for your hand, you WILL marry”. My grandmother heard his vow. Soon, the dark man from the Plaza came to our house to ask for my hand. He had nothing. No money, no job. His father, Pedro Vela had left them and gone in another direction, leaving his mother and two brothers to follow the priest to San Diego.
My father kept his vow, mostly because my grandmother told him not to disrespect God. She did not like my dark novio (fiancé). When he would come visit my grandmother would call for me, “Here comes your negrito (little black man). He had worked the fields at the family ranch in Mier, Mexico and he was brown. So was my grandmother! Promise or not, I loved this man and I wanted to marry him.
I never went out with the man I would marry, not even once. I was always working at the store. We wrote letters to one another. After three months of letter writing, he asked for permission from my Daddy to come to our house. My Daddy gave him permission to court me with very instructions that we could not visit for more than 30-45 minutes and there would be no despedidas (goodbyes) outside, unchaperoned.
Baltazar left San Diego to go work on the laying down of the railroad line in San Angelo. He wanted to make money to prepare for our marriage. He was gone for 3 years. Another gentleman, the banker, asked me to marry him. I was not going to, but I was tired of waiting for my boyfriend. I wrote to him and asked him to make his intentions clear because if he was not serious, I knew of other gentlemen who would be. That month he came home and we set a date to marry.
On November 27, 1932, I married Pedro Baltazar Vela from Cuidad Mier, Mexico. We were married in San Diego and we honeymooned in Edna, Texas. My grandmother gave me a coffee pot and she sang a song for me, “Las Golondrinas” so that I would never forget her. It is a song about how the swallows migrate away for a season and how we never know if they will all return or not. I kept a list of the witnesses, guests and gifts in my Bride’s book, which I still have.
I got married in a November morning that was very chilly. We had no radio and weather was known by a calendar, the Farmer’s Almanac. One year before, that was our forecast. My wedding was at Saint Paul de Francis Catholic Church. My husband and I were both 27. He was born September 17, 1905 and I was born September 29, 1905. We lived together for 38 years. He never hit me, not one time. He used to drink. I did not know he drank before we married.
To celebrate my wedding, my grandmother was too old to cook for a large crowd so my Daddy sent everything to be done at a café owned by Mr. Gonzales. He was the father of the owner of the Dry Goods Store. They cooked Cabrito Asado (Grilled goat) for us. We had ½ a cabrito, large fried potatoes, carne guisada (stewed beef in gravy), rice and beans. The table had a white table cloth on it with pink and blue crepe paper nailed from the corner of the table to the ceiling with tassels on top. The windows had paper also.
Leonardo Sendejo and Eusebio Gutierrez were our 1st Padrinos (sponsors) and Guadalupe Garcia and Ester Trevino were our 2nd Padrinos. Mr. Sendejo was a cab driver, so they drove us to a ranch in Edna, Texas that belonged to my mother’s brother, Pedro Guerra and his wife, Maria. We arrived there at 3:00 in the evening. The ranch was named, “La Inez” where they raised turkeys. We found that they
had sold a lot of their turkeys so that they could have another wedding and celebration for us. They served cake and hot chocolate. My husband and Mr. Sendejo did not like to drink hot chocolate but they were too embarrassed to say so. I told my aunt about that she served them coffee.
They had cakes and more cakes and pan fino (Mexican Wedding cookies). They had planned a dance with a band, but I started to cry. I was not over the loss of my mother. They cancelled the dance but still had music with an accordion and a guitar. It was extremely cold. The men were outside, but they were drinking beer and they had jugs of wine. My husband did not drink that night. We were not going to stay because we had planned to stay in town in Edna, but it got late. At about 3 in the morning, my aunt said we needed to stay. They arranged a private room for us that had a key to it. We stayed at the ranch for three days. We came back to San Diego by bus. We were very poor, but we loved each other very much.
My husband started working part-time when we returned. Mrs. Gishweir fired me from working at their store because I got married. She said that she made it a policy not to hire married women because “their attentions were too divided”. She was married. I had worked the farm, the ranch and their store for years and never let them down, but I did not argue with her.
My husband was working for an oil company in Freer, Texas when my Daddy got sick and asked us to help him on the farm. He had fields of cotton that needed to be harvested. The farm was 4 miles away from where we lived in San Diego, so we moved to the farm. I was back at the ranch, but instead of my mother, I had a new best friend, my husband. It was a very hard life. We lived in a 2-room small house with a garage on the side. There were a lot of rats from the fields. They wanted to come inside. I could hear the scratching. We patched up all the holes in the walls. I took some of my mother’s furniture from the old house and made a home for us. We had a kerosene stove and later we bought a used wood stove.
Since we were living at the ranch, I started to raise turkeys. They took up all my time. I could not go into town much. I had 59 turkeys. I had been pale and white skinned when I was working in the store, but I got dark from chasing the turkeys in the sun. One time, my Daddy and husband and some other people had gone into town. When they got home, they did not find me. They knew I was after the turkeys but my husband was afraid I might have gotten lost. He climbed on the house to yell for me. He was right to be worried. I was expecting our first child. I was seven months pregnant when I lost that baby.
Lala was born June 19, 1934. My mother’s name was Manuela but we called her Nela. So, we named our first Manuela but we called her Lala. Juan Johnny Vela was born January of 1938. My husband wished Lala was a boy. One day, he came home with her hair cut short and she was dressed in boy’s clothes. We both laughed. He had sons soon enough. When Lala was one, she was very ill. We couldn’t celebrate her birthday. We were at the ranch ad we took her into town to the doctors. He wanted to sign her Death papers, but thought he might be able to save her. Just like me, my daughter had to stay with the doctor. 14 days of careful treatment saved her life. I no longer wanted to take care of the turkeys. I sold them and took care of my family.
When Johnny was a baby, he got a lot of ear infections in one ear. I used to nurse him until the doctor (Dr. Dunlap) said to stop nursing him until his ear healed. We tried a bottle with cow’s milk but Johnny hated it. He stayed drinking pure orange juice, creamed beans and tomato juice. He started liking meat but Dr. Dunlap said he was too young and that he had to drink milk. He told us to try to buy milk from one cow only. My husband found a rancher and we bought a glass bottle of milk every day for Johnny. Nina had the same problem. This time we bought the cow and milked her to feed Nina. We kept the cow in the back yard. One day the cow ate some weed that made her sick and she was wild and running everywhere. We went outside and the cow ran straight after us. She pushed over the outhouse and left the yard. We sold her.
We lived with my Daddy until 1939. My Daddy bought us a house and we moved into it and opened up a small grocery store in small building on the property. I named it J.M. Vela’s. In 1940, Maria Vela (Charles) was born. We called her Maya. June 11, 1942, Joel Vela was born. In 1944, Adelina Vela (Cruse) was born. We called her Nina. In 1948, Baltazar Vela, Jr was born. We called him Balde. In 1951, Joe Vela was born. Lala and Johnny were small. Joel, Maya, and Nina were babies who were raised in that store. We did not know about the Depression during that time. We did have stamps to buy food and shoes. One pound of sugar had to last a month. Three dollars would buy a week’s worth of groceries for a family, but a lot of families did not have the three dollars. When people came to me for groceries, I could not turn them away. I traded for what we needed with them.
Having the children in the store was hard work. I would put the boxes and the cans on the shelf and turn around to see that my 2-year-old Johnny had been walking behind me throwing them on the floor. Lala could not seem to stop eating candy. One day I filled her little mouth with candy. She got a tummy ache and that broke her habit. Maya loved to poke her little fingers into the small cakes I had in the show case glass shelf.
[Many families suffered during the Depression and could no longer afford the children they had. Families were big because every man, woman and child worked in the fields but now the share croppers stopped paying because they did not have money either. Every morning, I walked to the Plaza in front of the church before opening the store. Some mornings I would find children that had been left behind by their parents. I fed them and let other families know the children needed a new home. San Diego took in the Plaza children].
My husband met Mr. Brumfield and he worked with him as a surveyor. My Uncle Guillermo closed his grocery store and I bought his supplies for mine and made it a little bigger. Sadly, during this time, many of people who lived in San Diego moved to Corpus Christi because our town was out of jobs and money. My husband wanted to move too. He was tired of having to travel for his work as a surveyor and he wanted to live in a town where his children could grow up and stay in for the rest of their lives. That was the custom back then. My grandmother had died but my Daddy was living. I told my husband I would follow him anywhere, but not so long as my Daddy was living.
Lala and Johnny were in school when President Roosevelt passed through San Diego by train. There was a soldier on the cross tracks with his gun on his shoulder. Lala asked him (Roosevelt) if he wanted food. He said no. Johnny and Lala were sorry not to have spent more time with him.
When Balde was a small boy he got very nervous from a fright. A man was our next-door neighbor and a good friend to Balde. He was always kind and spoke to Balde. That man had a very serious accident and he lost his leg below the knee. He got an artificial leg but one day Balde saw him with the artificial limb and he ran home and stayed under the bed shaking with fear. He stayed inside the house for three months after that. He finally did get over that fear.
[My husband had two brothers, Severo and Ramon who married my cousins. Severo married Maria and Ramon married Candelaria, who was a very close friend as well as family].
My Daddy was sick and we knew he was not going to get well. We stayed by him until after 1 or 2 in the morning. Some friends would come by and stay at night. I used to give them coffee and bread. Joel was a small boy, but he used to stay up with us. He would us imaginary stories about how he had a new pair of boots and overalls. He was a rancher and he had a beautiful cow. He had an airplane with a lot of gasoline so he could take us on airplane rides to different towns.
Pictured: Jilma and Maria
My husband and I kept our word. We moved to Alice with the house my Daddy had bought for us. He also paid for the Beugeler addition on the south side of Alice. My husband planted pecan trees across all of the property. Alice had a train running through it and it was growing where San Diego was going down. Felipe and Francisca Sifuentes were the first to buy in this addition. We were the second. Soon the Agustin Leal family, the Davila’s, the Cuellar’s, the Rodriguez, the Trevino’s, the Trejo’s, The Flores, the Gonzalez, the Tamez. Only the Cuellar’s have left the original neighborhood and the Tamez.
Techa Gonzalez, her adopted mother Bruna
and her children Linda, Omar and Fidel, Jr
My family and I loved Alice. It had 4 picture theaters when we moved here- the Rialto, the Rio, the Rex and there used to be a tent at the plaza that would show the latest movies by Mexican stars. We shopped at a grocery store called Lozano’s on Front Street. Alice was all kept. It still is. [Alice is divided by the railroad tracks into North and South sides of town. The South was designated for minorities. Baltazar noted that it seemed so wasteful that the South side did not have paved roads or sidewalks, while the North side of town had their streets washed by the large trucks that carried water and had circled brooms underneath. To this day, most of the South side of Alice still does not have sidewalks].
The Plaza was the most popular place in town and everyone went there. There was live music and vendors that sold food and flowers. There was never any alcohol. It was very peaceful. My husband had been right. Alice was the perfect place for us to come to. He got a job working for Houston Natural Gas (now Entex) in 1945. He worked digging the ditches to lay the gas pipes into houses. He worked for them for 25 years. Balde and Joe were born in Alice. We raised our seven children here very happily.
My husband loved to play games with the boys. He would play marbles with them and include the neighborhood kids also. He used to play baseball too. He also used to build kites for them. I used to fly kites too, in Alice and in San Diego.
My husband and I loved our children. I would tell them, “say your prayers” before they went to sleep. We did not believe in the belt. I did use a belt one time on Lala because she had gone to play at a neighbor’s house and was carrying her brother, Johnny on one hip. She had gone with the other kids down a ladder to play in a cave they had built, but there was a snake in the cave. I had told her not to go down there and she did with Johnny so that is why she got it. First and last time!
My husband slapped Lala one time here in Alice when his brother, Severo came with a new car. They said Joel and Nina had gotten into the car and broken his glasses and then hit the car with little rock so my husband wanted to punish Joel and Nina. They were both just small kids. They ran under the house. My husband could not get Joel or Nina to come out from under the house so he threw small rocks at them to try to force him out. He even tried to use the garden rake to poke at them, but they were too scared to come out.
Nina and Joel yelled that there was a snake near them under the house but not even the snake made them come out. Lala got near my husband and yelled at him that Joel and Nina was not animals. She told him that it was her uncle’s son, Arnoldo who had broken the glasses. She saw him jumping from the backseat to the front over and over. He had thrown the rock that hit the car. It was the yelling that offended my husband. He reacted by turning and slapping her face. She ran into the kitchen to cry. That was the last time he slapped her. She had told the truth. He realized he should have waited.
Maya was different. That is all is I can say. She would promise she would change over and over.
Raising children is hard work. We tried to help each other as much as possible. I had the job of being home with them during the day while my husband worked. I would always say to them, “Just wait until your Daddy gets home and I tell him what you did!” That would calm them down quick enough. I did not always tell my husband what the children did.
One time my husband had saved up money for a long time to buy Johnny and Joel new bikes. They got into an argument about who had the better bike and before they knew it, they were hitting their bikes with hammers. My husband got home to see the two boys fighting and with destroyed bikes. He asked them to tell him what happened and they did. They each got two spankings with a belt. They cried for a little while, but my husband suffered for much longer. For a month he would cry large tears over his supper because he had belted the boys. Again, that was the first and last!
Those stories about my family seem like yesterday, but a lot of time has passed. I am 93 years old as I write my story. Nina’s first husband died in Vietnam and she built us a new house on the property the old house had been on. We finally had indoor plumbing. My husband’s brother, Ramon and his children came to build the new house. My beloved husband died in the living room, in his favorite chair in 1971. I had not been able to cry since the last tear fell from my eyes after my mother died. Losing my husband was very hard for me. Even harder was losing my son. Joel died in February of 1981. Those are sad dates for me.
Still, my life has been blessed. Of my children only Nina lived far away and she moved back to Alice from Pennsylvania. I did get to go visit with her with Johnny and his wife, Emy and their family. I saw so many wonderful things. It was like traveling with my Mama and Daddy when I was a little girl. I saw the Statue of Liberty. I flew on a plane and rode in a train again. It was all like a dream for me. I have 35 grandchildren and 45 great grandchildren and even one great-great grandson. From my husband and me –so many people have come to be. I miss my husband very much. His song for me was “Amor Eterno”- it says that nothing will ever separate us—not a deep ocean and not even death. I believe in that because I have kept him close to me all this time. My song to him was “Dos Arbolitos” about two trees who grew next to each other and gave each other comfort. I sit at the piano sometimes and play these songs to remind me that I have true, eternal love and that my husband is waiting for me with all
my family that has gone before me and Joel. I do not think about that too much.
I live every day and accept and thank God for the day he has given me. I never drank and never smoked and I never got a Driver’s License. I drank a cup of coffee every day at 5AM, 10AM, and at 3PM. That may have helped me grow so old. My hobby and longtime love has been growing plants. I have a yard full of them. They still keep me young.