García, Manuela Mendez Sanchez
Manuela Sanchez Mendez García (1903-1995)
Written by Catherine Babikian
Born in Brownsville, Texas, in 1903, Manuela Mendez García was raised by her extended family after her mother’s early death. Manuela was working as an aide at a Dallas hospital when she met Joseph “Joe” Mendez Garcia, who was from Santa Cruz El Grande in the state of Jalisco, Mexico. They married and moved north in search of employment opportunities in the Midwest.
Manuela and Joe were living in LaSalle, Illinois when their fifth child Aurora was born in 1923. Aurora was the first of Manuela's nineteen children to survive infancy. They moved briefly to New York before returning to the Quad City area when Joe secured work as a traquero. During the Depression, the family lived in a boxcar settlement next to the tracks of the Milwaukee Railroad in Buffalo, Iowa, a sparsely populated town about five miles from Davenport. Joe took whatever jobs he could to support the family, including work on the Works Progress Administration (WPA). They moved to Cook's Point after Joe finished building a house on stilts on the banks of the Mississippi River in Davenport.
As the oldest daughter, Aurora's parents expected her to stay home from school to take care of her younger siblings.
I didn’t have time to play. Being the oldest, I always had to help my mother. When the kids were little, I had to help give them baths. When my mother was having a baby, I had to stay home and wash diapers. I used to cry, because I didn’t want to stay home from school. (Aurora García Hernandez)
In 1940, Aurora married Bartolo Hernandez. When he was drafted into the army, she followed him to Fayetteville, North Carolina, where the first of her eleven children was born. When her daughter was just a month old, she returned to Iowa. “I had a heck of a time coming back,” she recalled. “Our clothes were pink when we left, [but when we arrived] they were black from all the smoke and soot coming in from the train.”
In 1952, the City of Davenport evicted the residents of Cook’s Point, dispersing the tight-knit community. The Mendez family decided to move back to Buffalo, Iowa, and Joe started building another house. “I can still remember the move,” wrote Aurora's sister Patricia, who was a child at the time. “All our worldly goods were piled up in the backseat of the car.” But there was no home in Buffalo, at least not yet. “There was no house to speak of,” Patricia remembers. “There was [just] a basement built and ready to move into.” Over the course of the next year, Patricia’s father built the rest of the house on his time off from work.
Their arrival in Buffalo was soon marked by tragedy, when one of the youngest Mendez children, Bobby, drowned in the Mississippi River. He was eight years old.
I went back to Cook’s Point when my little brother died in the river. They were playing cops and robbers. He was the last one in line. They followed a little path and when they got a little further away and they asked, “Where’s Bobby?” “Well, we don’t know. We thought he was over here.” They went and told my mom, “Bobby’s not around and we can’t see him.” They went over there, by the fence, and they [saw] the hole that went under the fence—he must have fallen through. I think for a whole week, they [the police] couldn’t find him, because he was already sucked underneath the current. When you get sucked under, they can’t find you. He just died. (Mercy Aguilera)
After Bobby’s death, many of Patricia’s siblings returned to the Quad Cities. “I met them [my siblings] for the first time when they came for the funeral,” she remembered. “After that, they would come down more often. I guess they could see how my mom and dad were sad.” For Patricia Garcia Tashiro, growing up in Buffalo was hard, but she wouldn’t have changed a thing. “My mom and dad made a better life for us after we left Cook’s Point,” she wrote. “It wasn’t the best or the easiest, but we survived.”
Read more of Patricia Tashiro's account of growing up in Cook's Point in her memoir, "Yesterdays Gone By: A Narrative," preserved in the Iowa Women's Archives.
(Oral history interview with Aurora Hernandez conducted for the Mujeres Latinas Project by Teresa García, May 9, 2007)