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One family's legacy of powerful women

By: Joe Barrera
May 13, 2018 Updated: May 13, 2018 at 4:10 am
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On Mother's Day, I remember the two strongest women I have known. Mothers by definition are gentle and kind, and my mother and grandmother were certainly like that. But they had strength. That strength was different from that of strong women now. I understood that it was a type of frontier individualism, little seen nowadays. Women had to be tough in those conditions, but they didn't want to be like men. Theirs was a Mexican women's kind of toughness, necessary to counter Mexican male domination, by necessity much stronger than any male quality but never crude or rude like male toughness.

The female power of my mother and grandmother was bonded with the history of our people. I remember the stories I used to hear when I was growing up in Mercedes, Texas. Mercedes, whose name derives from the Spanish "merced," the land grants given by the "mercy" of the Spanish king, is a dusty little town that styles itself as "the Queen City of the Valley," My mother and grandmother would talk about the time before that southernmost protrusion of Texas, now called the Rio Grande Valley, became the agricultural mecca it is now. In those days the land was covered with trees, a thick forest of live oak, Texas ebony, mesquite, anacua, cedar elm, and Rio Grande ash. Longhorn cattle roamed the woods, corralled by the Spanish-Mexican ranchers who created the cattle industry of Texas.

My mother and her mother lived on my great-grandfather's ranch, el Rancho Santa Maria, which lay just to the south of the town of Mercedes, on the banks of el Rio Bravo, as the people called the Rio Grande. It was a big ranch, founded by my great-great-grandfather, Emmanuelle Vento, the northern Italian immigrant who had come to northern Mexico in the 1840s. His son, Bartolo Vento, born in 1864, inherited the ranch, which included land in Tamaulipas, the Mexican state across the river. Bartolo lived to be more than 100 years old. I remember him coming to visit in the 1950s, a tall, fair-skinned, blue-eyed man. But he lost the ranch, much to the disgust of his daughter and granddaughter, due to his drinking, gambling, womanizing and failure to pay the new American taxes, which he never understood.

Change came, even it was slow. In 1848 the U.S. acquired the territory, but life remained pretty much the same as it had been since the 1740s when the first settlers from Mexico arrived. The big change came in the 1920s. Real estate speculators bought huge tracts of land and convinced the descendants of German and Scandinavian immigrants in the Midwest to move to the valley and start growing winter crops. The people whose land this was, the original settlers of what had been the province of Nuevo Santander, now displaced and impoverished, supplied the labor to clear the forests for crops.

Rafaela Vento, my grandmother, would tell stories of the Mexican Revolution, when Pancho Villa's army descended on Matamoros, the city across the river from Brownsville. She and her sisters, staying on her father's land in Tamaulipas, hid under large wicker baskets when the Villistas came looking for loot and women. She would tell that story many times. She could hold her own against any man. One day, a vaquero told her, "mi patrona no eres tu," you are not my boss. She took the machete she wore on her belt and laid open the man's arm from elbow to wrist. The cowboy had crossed the line, disrespected her because she wore skirts and was not part of the male fraternity, and he paid the price. She took her revenge against the whole gang of men on the ranch. She climbed into the corral one night and tied burning torches to the horns of the steers, opened the gates and drove the herd into the men's camp. Sixty-years later, she still laughed about the terror she caused.

My mother, Virginia Zuniga, had her challenges. My father was a career U.S. Army soldier, and she followed him from post to post for 30 years. Those who haven't lived that kind of life don't know the hardships it poses for Army wives. In 1953, she took me and my siblings to Germany. She could barely speak English, had never been away from her ancient roots, was unschooled in American ways, and she was terrified to leave. But she conquered her fear, got on the train with us and away we went to New York and our first airplane ride. We joined my father, stationed at McGraw Caserne in Munich. What a shock that was.

They are gone now, my mother and grandmother, but I will never cease to tell the difference they made for me.

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Joe Barrera, Ph.D., is the former director of the ethnic studies program at UCCS and a combat veteran of the Vietnam War.

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