America, after more than 200 years of ups and downs, continues to be a place of intention for people all over the world.
It was to my ancestors, who in the late nineteenth century made life choices that led them to this great country. I don’t know much about them, but their journeys, undoubtedly with more daily challenges than mine, must have been as interesting as any young family making their way during the turn of the century.
I can only imagine the character of a man named Elias Villarreal. He was born in Mexico in 1886 and was my great-grandfather on my father’s side.
Elias must have been a brave man. Born in the city of Saltillo, Mexico, 566 miles south of his final resting place of Douglas, Arizona; Elias migrated at the age of 10 and made the 14-hour trip to find himself in American land in 1910.
In the only picture we know to have of him, Elias looks more like a character from the movie Tombstone, than that of a Mexican laborer. The image is blurry and shows its age, still we can see that Elias was thin, had dark eyes, bony cheeks, and a beard. No smile. No one smiled in pictures during those days.
Records I found on ancestry.com help me peel back the layers of his personality.
He had a mutilated finger on his right hand, so he must have been adventurous and a hard worker.
A 1924 border-crossing document shows his signature. It was legible and beautiful in structure. He was able to read and write.
In 1930, a census document reveals that he worked at a smelter. Douglas was a mining town. The census worker notes that he did not attend school but was able to speak English. Unlike his parents, he grew up bilingual, first step to assimilating to a new culture, new people and new ways of existing.
Elias’s life marks the beginning of an American story. His father and mother were born in Mexico. He married and raised a family in Arizona. In 1939, at the age of 53, he passed away, his final resting place north of the Mexican border.
The tombstone bearing his name is simple. A cement square, it includes his birth year and death year. No added script describing his influence or status in life. This makes me feel that he was modest and humble.
I may never know most of what made this man who he was as a father and member of his community. But a few glimpses into his life, through documents and a picture, let me imagine the kind of person that shaped his children and the following two generations.
Elias left a legacy that is being uncovered a century since he first stepped foot in the country. The country for which he chose to be the home for his family 130 years since his birth. I am a proud Mexican-American because of this and because of him.
Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on December 9, 2015.