El Dia Que Se Apareció El Diablo
Listen to Gerónima's Podcast
On a warm December afternoon, Mother hung clothes on the line while I bickered with my siblings. Fed up, Mama turned and warned us. “Si no dejan de pelear se les va a aparecer el Diablo.” That evening, El Diablo did appear. Red forked tail and growling, he scared the hell out of us at Doña Benita Mancia’s house by Red Store #3. The fright-filled my memory with wonder. What was El Diablo doing on our side of the tracks?
What started as a quest to learn what a memory of a devil scaring the hell out of me when I was a kid, resulted in learning about an age-old play called La Pastorela, or Los Pastores, meeting delightful people in neighboring communities, restoring old friendships, and inspiration for further learning and writing.
I returned to Cotulla, Texas, the town of my birth, in 2008. I retired the year before from a career in bilingual education, with a goal of authorship. During my career, I and fellow educators found it difficult to find representation of Mexican-American culture in children’s books. The few books about Mexican American culture often depicted stereotypes.
I knew even as a child that the monte and arroyo called Mustang Creek in the barrio guarded invisible stories of our unique Mexican American culture mixed with Indigenous roots, flavored with a blend of paganism and Christianity. I couldn’t wait to write the stories that enriched my childhood.
Every winter, Tío León traveled to Cotulla from Wisconsin. His visits were great entertainment for the whole family. He kept us scared with stories of Lechuzas, an animal-changing sorcerer. A skilled storyteller, when we were most engaged, he would stop and ask, “Did you hear that? It’s a lechuza!” Which sent us scrambling indoors. Mom comforted us with, “Son puras mentiras, no le hagan caso.”
Scaring us wasn’t Tío Leon’s only talent. His tall tales of feeding the Japanese menudo during his World War II service made Paul Bunyan’s blue ox uninteresting in comparison. His secret nickname for a neighbor, “La Bruja,'' sent us into bursts of giggles. Tío Leon lived in Wisconsin, yet remained a product of our barrio community.
Researching Mexican American Culture
After retirement, I briefly went back to work at the Family Detention Center in Dilley, where I taught English as a Second Language. I loved my job. I marveled at the students' stories. Their superstitions and poverty were so similar to my own childhood. Who knew, La Llorona and lechuzas crossed international boundaries? After getting laid off, I returned to my writing goal. I realized my memories were fractured, incomplete, with many gaps. I attended writing workshops in San Antonio, Austin, and Houston and discovered the answer. Research – which can take years. Yes, years! I threw myself a major pity party, then put on my big girl chanclas. I confronted the research with classes on genealogy and non-fiction research strategies, and treated myself to several writer’s conferences. The hard work had just begun.
My first picture book, Glove for a Lady, published by Del Alma Publications LLC, launched at my childhood campus in November of 2021, at the old segregated Mexican School where the story takes place. Glove for a Lady is a historical fiction about the November 7, 1966 Presidential visit of Lyndon B. Johnson. This book is the first to tell the story of the Presidential visit to Cotulla. The illustrations depict two National Landmarks, Welhausen School and Plaza Florita. I love it when children gasp as I read, and blunter aloud, “I’ve been there!” or “That’s my abuelo’s school!”
In 2019, I contracted with the City of Cotulla as Project Coordinator on the Lyndon B. Johnson, the teacher, Statue Unveiling. The many questions I’d asked in researching Glove for a Lady paid off. During the interview, I provided research-based answers, correction of timelines, and details from local memory. The work allowed for yet another opportunity to learn. I set out to find the families of the students. I couldn’t see honoring the teacher and not the students. I found some families, resulting in thousands of miles traveled to witness their parents’ teacher statue unveiling. Families came from Florida, Colorado, Illinois, and several cities in Texas.
Now I knew their names, including those missing from the Presidential Library lists, plus a few families. I vowed to find their stories, an ongoing project that often leaves me shattered. I had no idea, my vow would challenge me to the depth of my emotional core. I now fully understand what is meant by years of research. One answer leads to twenty more questions, field trips, and ugly realities. I often have to step away, and let the ugliness settle in my mind. Taking a deep sigh, I resume, looking for where I left my big girl chanclas.
Dr. Julie Leininger Pycior, in her book, LBJ & Mexican Americans: The Paradox of Power, wrote two passages that tugged at my heart. “On Mexican holidays, colonia residents sold items from canvas booths ringing the plaza in front of the Mexican school.” And this one …“The colonia activities caught the attention of folklorist John Lomax, who came to Cotulla and recorded Los Pastores, a Christmas musical play performed by Franquilino Mirnada and company, which the Library of Congress issued on a 1934, record. Most local Anglos were oblivious to these events; the Cotulla Record only reporting on the Anglo side of town, except for the infrequent colonia crime.” These pages led to more questions. The Plaza Florita of my childhood buzzed with activity, but who was Mr. Miranda? What did the Cotulla Record newspaper report?
I launched a goal of reading every Cotulla Record for the time period 1920-1930s. I found the Cotulla Record stored on microfilm at the Alexander Memorial Library. Reading on the bulky old machine stirred emotions of anger, disappointment, and the realization of what my ancestors experienced. Curiosity overcame exhaustion, as I set out to learn about Mr. Miranda.
I used the same strategy Dr. Pychior revealed in her book, visiting the LaSalle Elderly Nutrition Center. My questions made me many new friends. Many spoke of their experiences freely and eagerly. I realized the human need to tell our stories transcends age. I contacted Dr. Pychior, who offered research tips and professional contacts in the world of academia. The academia world intimidated me since I’m neither a history nor creative writing major. However, Dr. Pychior’s friends made me feel included and fueled my many questions and directed me to more answers.
Jesusita Tellez, my elderly friend, gave me her only copy of the book, Los Pastores, by Rev. Carmelo Tranchese, S.J., and Musical Notation by Carmela Montalvo, O.S.B. When I whined to Jesusita about the Spanish reading level being too high for me, she ignored me and my tears. “Que sea la voluntad de Dios',” was her way of saying, time to return to your big girl chanclas. I rehearsed my new knowledge by reporting to her almost daily. Her encouragement and confidence gave me great motivation to continue, until her death during the COVID-19 lockdown. Her death sent me to a very dark place of despair. However, Jesusita introduced me to a priest from Nigeria, Rev. Ifeany Ibeth. When I called to tell him of her passing, he helped me get through the mourning with regular phone calls and texts. Although I often accused him of sounding “just like Jesusita, '' he took it as a compliment, laughed with great joy, and encouraged me to continue researching. “Trust in God's will, '' he concluded with each call.
When I came across the information about the Texas Folklife Stories Deep in the Heart. I called Father Ibeth, as if I didn’t know what he was going to say. “Apply, I too want to learn the story of the shepherd's journey from the perspective of your culture, '' he said. I applied thinking I wouldn’t be accepted. I knew so little about the play, although I grew up in the Catholic faith. Imagine my surprise when I received an award letter.
Thus my quest for “What the hell was the devil doing in my barrio?” resumed with newfound enthusiasm. After all, these are not the stories of my American history classes. I contacted the Library of Congress and luckily found a listening ear in the Reference Librarian at the American Folklife Center, Todd Harvey. He located the recordings, and after several attempts, my “not-so-smart” computer saved them.
The first song I heard was from Richy Dobie. Seriously, why is he in our barrio history? I found the article that matched the event report from the Cotulla Record. The article claimed Richy Dobie was “helping” John Lomax…. Well, of course. The white-washed perspective, a consistent emotional challenge. Harvey shared a document written by Lomax. His goal in driving to Cotulla was to record the play, but had technical difficulties. Dobie’s songs were audio tests. However, due to a limited time, only part of Don Tranquilino Miranda’s pastorela was recorded.
The recording of February 8, 1934, included corridos. But the singer's identity was unknown, instead using nicknames like “Guero Sanchez.” A person with very fair or very dark skin, might get tagged “Guero,” Nicknames are often a source of humor or sarcasm in the barrio. How in the world will I figure out “Guero’s” identity? The Pastorela actors and singers are referred to as “pastores” (shepherds). Leaving out the names of about twenty-five community volunteers that Don Tranquilino Miranda directed.
Don Tranquilino is referred to as the man with the manuscript. Although Lomax writes positive comments about “the man with the manuscript.” These are the challenges of uncovering underrepresented history. Filling in gaps requires matching written and oral history timelines.
Two guiding questions were the focus of my fellowship quest. First, what was the story behind the day the devil scared the hell out of me. The answer I discovered is the traditional play called Las Pastorelas, which in short is the journey of the shepherds in encountering the Christ child. Don Tranquilino’s pastorela makes accurate biblical teachings, mixed with humor, and cultural references. We can assume the shepherds didn't eat tamales, for example. Or that there is an “Indian” in the Biblical story. Leading me to conclude the tradition passed on to him, included the impoverished indigenous of our community’s history.
Second, what community members are behind this story? This quest was more challenging. I’ve relied on interviews and ordinary conversations that have helped me piece the stories together, like working on a quilt. In barrio quilting get-togethers, Las Comadres came together to sew, tell stories, gossip, laugh and share sewing expertise.
Here’s an example from Juan Miranda, Don Tranquilino’s son. Miranda recalled Domingo Sanchez. “He played one of the main characters who had one of the longest dialogues.” I discovered that Domingo Sanchez is buried at the Cristo Rey cemetery. Now here’s another story intertwined with Don Tranquilino Miranda’s Pastorelas.
Marc Robertson, editor of the Frio-Nueces Current newspaper, writes in an article “A Plan for Cristo Rey.” Robertson writes, “Cotulla is filing an application to have Cristo Rey designated a Texas historic landmark in acknowledgment of its value to the cultural history of the community.” In addition, Roberson informs us that research dating to the 1930s indicates Cristo Rey is designated “for the Mexican colony of Cotulla.”
Even death required segregation in the 1930s. The quest has led to the discovery of a community member with a leading role. Twenty-plus names to go. Uncovering history in a segregated community presented more challenges than I realized. This was my first lesson of the Community Folklife Fellowship. The second was that the project is not over at the end of the fellowship period.
The third major lesson was using software I didn’t know existed. Yes, it’s been a while since I attended school. I learned how to use Google Classroom and podcast technologies. My favorite part of this journey was “meeting” others through Zoom. Although the Zoom software in the barrio crackles and freezes, it’s brought me an awareness of what students went through during the COVID-19 lockdown. I have a newfound appreciation for today’s educators. These are lessons one cannot plan for, but you have to trust the process – trust not being one of my strong suits.
Lesson Four came with the Community Workshop. I had anticipated a large crowd but had about 12 to 15 attendees. Another part of learning is allowing the process to work. When I saw the intermingling of community members who had not seen each other in decades brought me a new understanding of what community really means. The joy of recalling stories, sharing a meal, and endless hugs is priceless.
After the workshop, while attending an event in Dilley, I discovered Don Tranquilino’s Pastorela was bigger than the barrio and Plaza Florita performances. I met people who had read the calendar announcement, from Dilley and Pearsall, who wanted to share their experiences. I felt a sense of community extending to my neighboring counties. What a great discovery!
Learning that John Lomax may have recorded the Pastorela performers at the Plaza Florita, is intriguing. The question as to whether this was possible involved electricity. When did the Plaza Florita get electricity? Another gap. Todd Harvey provided a new perspective. He explained that John Lomax carried his equipment in the trunk of the car, powered by the car battery. Mr. Harvey even sent me photos of John Lomax’s work using the trunk equipment with a 30-foot cord outdoors. Voilà! Another national connection to our community’s story.
So why did I even have this question about electricity? While listening to the John Lomax recordings of Feb. 8, 1934, I heard a horse neigh. That sound immediately piqued my curiosity. The recordings obviously took place outside. Plaza Florita buzzed with activity during this time. Around the plaza was a blacksmith whose last name was Maldonado, yet another story buried deep in memory. Mr. Maldonado, I’m told, fixed wagons and attended to horseshoeing. He was a farrier, un herrador, explained the Comadres at the Nutrition Center between Loteria games. On days like these, I loved research.
The fellowship gave me large and small learning experiences. Further, it has motivated me to draft a book for children based on Don Tranquilino’s Pastorela, which offers some unique differences in comparison to others. Founder of El Dia de Los Niños y Libros, Pat Mora once told me I’d never run out of material in writing about Mexican American culture. This fellowship experience has proved her right.
The workshop component led to an invitation to a symposium at Trinity University in San Antonio on Pastorela History. I can’t wait to share the legacy of Don Tranquilino who, without much, accomplished greatness. I’m proud of being part of his contribution to the community, even if his actor scared the hell out of this unruly chicanita.
I encourage everyone to apply for the Texas Folklife Community Folklife Fellowship. I’m glad I did, and I look forward to sharing my new knowledge with communities everywhere.
Listen to Gerónima's Podcast
About The Author
Gerónima Garza is a children's book author and retired Bilingual/ESL Teacher from Cotulla, Texas. Her first illustrated historical fiction book, Glove for a Lady, was published in November 2021 and commemorated the fifty-fifth anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s visit to Welhausen School on November 7, 1966. Garza served as Project Coordinator of the LBJ - The Teacher Statue Unveiling. Garza is the recipient of the “New Voices” Nonfiction Workshop Scholarship hosted by the Smithsonian Institute, and a member of the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators. Garza is a graduate of Cotulla High School, and holds a B.S. in Education and M.E. in Multicultural Studies from Pan Am University at Edinburg.
About Texas Folklife's Community Folklife Fellowship
The Texas Folklife Community Folklife Fellowship program is a statewide, NEA-supported pilot program that provides training in oral history, interviewing, audio storytelling, archives, and podcast production for adults. Participants learn to document community traditions in their own cities and towns throughout the state, through workshops and community partnerships. The program supports applicants from diverse regions and communities of the state of Texas.
Learn More About Community Folklife Fellowship