My maternal great grandfather crossed the border into Texas around 1890. At that time, you didn’t need a green card or passport.
He travelled on horseback and a wagon with his family and settled in Carrizo Springs, Texas.
He later became a deputy sheriff in the town and was the first lawman killed in the line of duty in Dimmit County Texas in 1913.
I wrote about his story before and published it in a Texas newspaper. But I never wrote about the time I travelled 20 years ago to his hometown of San Buenaventura, Coahuila.
I was the first person in my extended family to go back to the town. I had to take a bus a few hours from the border near Nuevo Laredo and then hire a cab to the town of less than 20,000 people.
All I had with me as clues were his name, Candelario Ortiz, and a list of his siblings who presumably stayed behind. I hoped that maybe I could connect with a distant relative.
I decided to start at the city hall or what they call the municipio. At the entrance, I met a police officer. I told him my name and that my great grandfather had left the town more than 100 years earlier.
“I’m looking for any relatives with the last name Ortiz,” I told him.
He smiled at me and then laughed. Then I noticed his name tag. It said Ortiz.
“A lo mejor, somos primos,” he said. “We’re probably cousins.”
I asked him if he remembered the name of his great grandfather or their siblings.
I showed him a list of names I had researched.
“No lo sé,” he said he didn’t know.
I asked him who might know how to find my relatives and he sent me to the person known as the town historian. I took the cab to his house and he invited me in and offered me coffee. I told him my story and he told me that he had census records of local families. But they only went back to 1910.
Still, we had a very nice conversation. I asked about church records and he told me they wouldn’t have them that far back.
My next idea was to check the local phone book. I copied down the phone numbers of anybody with the last name Ortiz. There were only a handful.
My cab driver drove me around town. I wound up knocking on the door of a woman who looked exactly like one of my tías, like an Ortiz sister.
She invited me in and offered me cookies and coffee. I told her all about my family. I told her about my great grandfather Candelario Ortiz and his son, my grandfather, who was a cowboy who rode cattle from Texas to the Midwest. I told her how my mom was born in Carrizo Springs, Texas and grew up in a migrant worker family. They picked cotton in Texas and beets in the Midwest and then wound up on a tomato farm outside Chicago. My mom’s sisters convinced the family to move to the city where they could make more money working in factories.
My mom was the youngest, so she was allowed to go to high school if she got an after-school job. She found one in a department store. My mom and dad, also a migrant from Texas, met in the high school cafeteria. They married and had five children, all who went on to graduate from college.
I asked the señora her if she could remember her great grandfather’s name. She couldn’t.
But she invited me to come back and stay for a visit.
I had to get back to the bus station before nightfall. I never was able to conclusively prove that I was related to anybody in the town.
But I did find familia in Mexico. They are the people who went out of their way to help me, to feed me and invite me back any time.
As we celebrate Latino heritage from September 15 to October 15, CALÓ NEWS will be publishing Latino family or origin stories. If you would like to contribute an essay, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.