|"First appearances never tell the whole story.
'Tis the same with family history."
- Randall Davis
Francisco Contreras (1884-1958)
I learned more from him than from school about the universe.
-- Loida Contreras Sosa
Francisco Contreras was born April 5, 1884, in Harligen, Texas.1 He was the oldest son of Estevan and Librada Contreras, and therefore, carried a heavy burden in providing for the family.
During his early years as a boy, he labored as a sheepherder in the lower Rio Grande Valley.2 Handed down from father to son over generations, shepherding provided Mexican-Americans not only a way of making a living but also gave them an important role in the economy that made them much more than the apathetic personalities characterized by many American writers. However, Arnoldo De León (1982) asserts in his book, The Tejano Community 1836-1900, that "their excellence came from maintaining and perpetuating a practical and usable trade, and not from a racial suitability to range and manual work as contemporaries contended."3 We can imagine from the following description by De León what kind of life Francisco led during his youth as a sheepherder:
In most areas, duty required the pastors [sheepherders] to accompany their flocks to grazing land and camp with them by night, sometimes for extended stretches of time. Outdoor life necessarily compelled preparations . . . From the hide of the dead cow, perhaps he fashioned himself the necessary sling. In a canvas satchel, they might carry a snack, or the midday meal. . . . Sandals made from cowhide. . . . Piles of brush or other debris could be turned into makeshift domicile . . . wool blankets served as beds. To be a pastor meant days of solitude, broken only perhaps by periodic night visits to neighboring camp grounds. . . . It also meant low wages and status: pay was less than twenty dollars a month and they were ranked at the bottom of the work force hierarchy.4
Even though the work was largely routine, there were some moments of adventure and discovery that did interrupt his work. Estevan Contreras, son of Francisco Contreras, relates the following incident about his father:
When Francisco was about 10 or 12, he was staying with a friend of my grandfather [Estevan Contreras] herding sheep. On one occasion, he and his little friend were playing hide and seek, and he bumped his head into a sock full of twenty-dollar gold coins. Not knowing what they were, they went home and started playing with them in the patio. The mother of the other boy went outside to see what they were doing. Realizing what they were playing with, she cunningly traded the coins for marbles.5
Several years later while working in San Antonio, Texas, as a farmhand, Francisco met his future wife, Carolina Saldaña.6 They were married in Bee County, Texas, on September 10, 1905.7They were the parents of three children: Ruben, born in 1907, Otília, in 1909, and Abel, in 1912. They were all born in Claresville, Texas.
He spent much of his life working as a farmer in Bee County, Texas. Between the years of 1905 and 1925, most farming was still done without the use of machinery. Because of this time-consuming, labor-intensive work, Francisco found himself away from the family a great deal to provide for their needs the best way possible. Around 1913, Francisco moved the family to San Antonio, Texas, where he worked in a broom factory for a short while. When Carolina became seriously ill, Francisco decided to return to Beeville to seek a doctor there. On the journey back home, he cut a little window out of the side of the wagon for each of the children according to his or her height so they could entertain themselves and view the passing scenes. Carolina died before they made it out of the city in 1914.8
Francisco remarried on September 20, 1919, to Arcadia Perez, in Tynan, Texas.9 They were the parents of five children: twins Eloisa and Elodia, Rebeca, Esteban, and Raquel. Arcadia died in 1937, in Tynan.
Later in life after moving to Harlingen, Texas around 1940, Francisco enjoyed spending time with his children and grandchildren even after working long hours. Loida Contreras recounts one of many experiences with her grandfather:
Francisco, our grandfather, used to let us feed the chickens. He also got us together with our younger aunts and uncle, and we would play games. For example, each one of us would pretend to play the instrument he used. When he would switch instruments, we would have to follow.10
Francisco seemed to have the ability to captivate the imagination of his grandchildren. He would sit under a tree next to his patio and talk to them about his life and the many lessons he learned during his youth. He also acquainted himself with the wonders of the world. Loida Contreras Sosa said that her grandfather would "tell stories for hours about the constellations and the dipper. I learned more from him than from school about the universe."11
Francisco was also very talented at creating things with his hands. One craft he especially enjoyed was building ships inside of bottles. He painted each individual piece first and then placed the pieces one at a time into the bottle. Juanita Contreras Davis, granddaughter of Francisco, often wondered how her grandfather had time to build such ships because he toiled all day long in the fields. She says that he told her that his best time to work was when everyone was asleep, during the most peaceful hours of the night. Fascinated by his handiwork, she once got up during the middle of the night and found Francisco constructing his ships just as he had said.12
Jay Contreras also recalls another craft Francisco enjoyed doing:
He used to carve wooden figurines. The one I remember was made of two long sticks joined by a smaller one at the top. He must of taken two small branches and removed the bark from them. Then he would carve a little figure with arms and hands and feet, and connect them with some wire. It was like a puppet. Every time you squeezed the bottom, it would do flips.13
Francisco was an attractive man both in appearance and personality. His son, Esteban Contreras, said that Francisco "got along with everybody, good or bad. He was neat in appearance and always wore a hat and short boots."14
Gama Contreras had fond memories of his grandfather:
My dad's father Francisco lived in a tailor in back of Aunt Tila's [Otilia] house. We used to go visit him on Sunday. I was about five or six [around 1956] when I knew him. I picture him as the ideal old person. He was gentle and seemed real smart. His face looked like he had worked hard. I looked forward to being with him because he was [a] comforting [man].15
Francisco enjoyed playing checkers, hunting, and fishing, and he also played semi-pro baseball as a catcher.16 He was also a member of the Second Presbyterian Church.17 He died on October 12, 1958, in Harlingen, Texas, and was buried in the Combes Cemetery on October 14, 1958.18
1The 1900 Texas census, Bee County, supervisor district 13, enumeration district 11, sheet 9, line 45, indicates Francisco's birth date (FHC 1241612). Also, his death certificate verifies the date in more detail (Texas Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, State File No. 54695). He might have been known by his friends and family as "Pancho," a common nickname for Francisco (as listed in the 1920 Texas census).
2 Details found in letter from Estevan Contreras, son of Francisco Contreras, dated August 14, 1989, and interview with Abel Contreras, August 24, 1983.
3 De LeÛn, Arnoldo. (1982). The Tejano Community, 1836-1900. University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque, p. 57.
4 Ibid., pp. 58-59.
5 Details found in letter from Estevan Contreras to Randy Davis, dated August 14, 1989.
6 Interview with Abel Contreras, September 4, 1983.
7 Bee County (Texas). County Clerk. Marriage records, 1860-1911, book 3, page 366 (FHC 1011876).
8 Interview with Abel Contreras, September 4, 1983, and a letter to Randy Davis from Ana Maria Contreras, wife of Abel Contreras, dated May 26, 1988. Also, in a telephone conversation with Otilia Monsebais, daughter of Francisco and Carolina, she mentioned that one of her mother's lungs was removed before she died.
9 Texas Marriage Records; Bee County; 1919; NOTE: A photocopy in the possession of Randall S. Davis. CONFLICT: Name listed as "Alcaria" instead of "Arcadia." CENSUS-RESIDENCE: Texas 1920 Census; Bee, Bee County, Texas (Precinct 6); Supervisor's District 14, Enumeration District 12, sheet 3- A, line 17; FHC Film 1821775; CONFLICT: Francisco listed as "Pancho". 10 Interview with Loida Contreras Sosa, September 11, 1983.
11 Personal history written by Juanita Contreras Davis in the possession of Randy Davis.
12 Interview with Jay Contreras, December 24, 1988.
13 Details found in a letter from Estevan Contreras to Randy Davis, dated August 14, 1989.
14 Interview with Gama Contreras, August 28, 1983.
15 Details found in a letter written to Randy Davis from Estevan Contreras, dated August 14, 1989.
16 Register of Communicants (membership), Second Presbyterian Church, 901 West Lincoln Ave., Harlingen, Texas 78550 (phone: 210-423-0098); Copy of original register in the possession of Randall Davis. Francisco became a member of the church on April 12, 1942, and was ordained an Elder on March 4, 1945, and was released on Oct. 28, 1945.
17 Texas Department of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics, State File No. 54695. Letter obtained from Combes Cemetery-Restlawn Memorial Park and Mausoleum (2 Mi E, La Feria, TX 78559, 210-797-2322, or Rt. 2, Box 70B) in response to an inquiry about the cemetery plot of Francisco. Buried in Section 3, Lot G-12, Space 4. Burial date of October 12 in the letter contradicts the date of October 14, on the death certificate. Also, picture of Francisco's headstone taken by Rebecca (Gutierrez) Tenney, 1995.