|"First appearances never tell the whole story.
'Tis the same with family history."
- Randall Davis
Abel Saldaña Contreras (1912-1993)
You could always tell he talked with God in his prayers.
-- Joe Contreras, son,1983
Abel Contreras was born on Monday, July 29, 1912, during the early hours of the morning to Francisco Contreras and Carolina Saldaña in a small town called Clareville, outside of Beeville, Texas.1 After his mother died around 1914, his grandparents, Esteban and Librada Contreras, took over raising him and his brother and sister in the same community because his father was busy providing for them on the farm.2
As Abel got older, he became a farmer. Because his father had done well working with his hands, he too felt he could earn a living in the fields. His father, Francisco, felt otherwise and encouraged Abel to go to school and get an education. He saw great potential in his son and wanted him to become a doctor. Francisco even purchased a large medical textbook so his son could study medicine. However, Abel did not enjoy school and would often hide in the chicken shed until it was time to come home. He attended a farmers' school up to the sixth grade and then told his father he was not going anymore.
Their home was a small, but modest home with a porch, living room, and a kitchen. They obtained water from a well on their property and used kerosene lamps to light the house in the evenings. Abel had many responsibilities at home and at work. He was put in charge of watching over his father's cattle. He also spent time milking cows and feeding chickens, and started cottoning when he was about six years old. Although he was kept busy, he enjoyed playing baseball in his free time.
Marriage was an important step for Abel Contreras. He realized that it had to be a secure and harmonious relationship because of its vital economic, spiritual, and social function. The family as a labor unit was essential for survival.
Abel met Ana Maria Cavazos for the first time around 1929. They both lived in Skidmore, Texas, on different farms in the area. Ana was living with her older sister, Porfiria and her family, and her mother, Juana.
Even though Abel liked Ana, he had several roadblocks to overcome. First of all, Ana already had a boyfriend who lived in Lyford, Texas, 150 miles south of Skidmore. They both were in love with each other, but when Ana wrote and asked him to come and visit the family, he would not come. She never heard from him again.3 In the meantime, Abel sent a letter to Ana desiring that she would be his girlfriend. Abel recounts the following:
I sent a letter to Ana. I was going to try to get her to like me. I knew that she was older, but I was going to try to win her. I sent her a picture postcard with a verse [declaration of love] on it, but she didn't answer the letter. I didn't think she would pay attention to me, but I thought I would try.4
After accepting his proposal of marriage not long after, Ana invited Abel and his step-mother, Arcadia Perez, to her sister's house in Skidmore to meet her mother. Ana said that her mother approved of the marriage because Abel was a hard worker and a Christian.
During this period, young people were able to decide who they wanted to marry, but it had to be acceptable to the parents. Courtship often would take place through the mail if they lived far apart. Personal visits could also be made to the woman's home if other family members were present. This is what Abel and Ana experienced during their engagement.
Abel Contreras and Ana Maria Cavazos were married on January 18, 1931, in Beeville, Texas, at the Mexican Presbyterian Church.5 Tomás Hinojosa, Ana's brother-in law, was the best man, and Otilia Contreras, Abel's older sister, was the maid of honor. The newlyweds lived with Abel's father for a year after they were married. Abel states that "there was no honeymoon. That was for rich people, and we were not rich. We got married and went to work."6
For most of his life, he labored in the fields in the lower Rio Grande Valley. Around 1946, he spent one year in California searching for a better job and greater financial security for his family. Later he found a job working in a dairy.
Probably the most important aspect in Abel's life was his enduring faith in God. Through hardship and trials, he exemplified this faith in God by his willingness to help others who stood in need. In a letter to family members describing her brother Gama's financial crisis during his fight against Lou Gehrig's disease in 1988, one sister, Ruth Balch, relates her father's willingness to give to his son:
I was at Mom and Dad's today, and Dad said they'd give $250. It almost broke my heart, and I said, "Dad you can't; not that much." And he said, "He's my son" and broke down crying. Mom said, "If he wants to give that, let him do it."7
Lea also said that her father's advice to her was "to always be of high character; always try to do the right thing; never give anyone any reason not to trust you; money isn't everything; if you have good credit, it's better than have money."8
Joe Contreras summed up his father's life this way at the funeral:
His was a very loyal and dedicated father. With his life, he demonstrated the love of God. He served as officer, deacon, and treasurer in the church since he was young, and participated enthusiastically in church Christmas programs. He was very dedicated in everything he did. He was a very responsible man toward God and his family. You could say with all sincerity that he was generous, considerate of others, and a Christian who loved peace.9
1. Delayed Registration of Birth-Texas Certificate of Birth, File Number 19542. Filed on November 10, 1934, and recorded on December 6, 1934. The certificate states that Abel was born on July 19th, not July 29th, Abel said. In a phone conversation with Abel Contreras on Oct. 4, 1989, he said that it must be an error on the part of the recorder . . . something that often occurs.
Social Security Death Index - 1994 Edition (CD Version 1.21) available at Church Family History Centers. Social Security Number: 454-01-9273; State of Issuance of Social Security Number: Texas; date issued: January 9, 1937. A copy of the original application in the possession of Randall Davis.
2. Interviews with Abel Contreras, August 24, 1983, and September 4, 1983. All the information in this chapter was obtained during these interviews unless otherwise indicated.
3. Interview with Ana Maria Cavazos Contreras, July 21, 1988.
4. Interview with Abel Contreras, August 24, 1983.
5. Interview with Ana Maria Cavazos, July 21, 1988; Wedding Certificate from Beeville County Courthouse.
6. Interview with Abel Contreras, August 24, 1983.
7. Form letter sent to Randy and Shirley Davis from Ruth Balch, 1988.
8. Interview with Lea Contreras, July 22, 1996.
9. Eulogy of Abel Contreras given by his son, Joe Contreras, February 9, 1993.