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Kika de la Garza leaves a ‘can do’ legacy

In Rotary Park in downtown Mission stands the eight-foot tall bronze statue of five-foot, six-inch Congressman Eligio “Kika” de la Garza.  


With his passing on Monday, March 13, the statue is now surrounded by flowers left by the people who loved him and the people he loved – the constituents he served. The statue is a symbolic testament to the enormous mark Eligio “Kika” de la Garza’s legacy has made on South Texas.


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The Funeral Mass for Eligio “Kika” de la Garza will be held at 2 p.m. on Friday, March 17, at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Mission, Texas. Interment will follow at Valley Memorial Gardens.

The man people knew, respected and re-elected time and again during his 44 years of public service was the same man his family knew also as husband, father and grandfather.  


His endearing qualities and values garnered support in passing impactful legislation, brought attentive awe from school children and left an example for all to follow.


Museums and archives from Mission to Washington hold volumes of photos and documents that tell the story of his political and professional career.  Google his name on a computer, and it comes up with the strokes of the keys.


Kika blazed new trails through sheer determination.  Many already know the story of Kika, the shoeshine boy.  The determination of a young boy manifested the destiny of the man.


As a shoeshine boy in Mission, Judge D. F. Strickland was a regular customer of Kika. Strickland always gave Kika a quarter for his work, not the usual five cent payment by others.  


One day Strickland asked, “What do you want to do when you grow up?”


Kika asked Strickland what he did, and Strickland responded that he was a lawyer.  


Kika said, “Then, that’s what I want to be.”


And, that’s what he did.


The story that remains to be told is the one by his beloved wife, Lucille, and his children and grandchildren.  They knew and understood Kika best – what motivated him and the values he taught by example.


Lucille and I sat together with other family members in their home this week.  I wanted to know who Kika was at home, what his life represented to them and how they saw his legacy.  Present were Lucille, their daughter, Angela de la Garza Cisneros, and Angela’s daughter, Jennifer Farias Ybarra.


Eligio “Kika” de la Garza met Lucille Alamia in the early 1950s in Edinburg through mutual friends and involvement in a fundraiser for Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Edinburg.  


He had finished service in the United States Navy and was currently serving in the U.S. Army, stationed at Camp Polk in Louisiana when he decided to run for a seat in the Texas House of Representatives.


In a 10-day leave, prefaced by penny postcards mailed to various political leaders requesting their support, the young soldier managed to pull off the impossible.  He won the election in his first run as a candidate in 1952 and was released from his military duty to go serve his new constituency.


Kika was not one to waste time.  His courtship with Lucille was about as fast as his track to political office.  Lucille said it didn’t take him long after dating to recognize that she “had done such a good job of campaigning, he had to marry her.”  He proposed to her in 1953 and they were married on May 29 that year – all while he was fresh in his law and political careers.


From then on, it was teamwork all the way and a grassroots effort for Kika to remain in office.  



The next year after they were married, Kika and Lucille made their own campaign signs, painting each white and with one word of the three-word message on every board:  Vote for Kika.  Starting down Shary Road, they nailed one board to each palm tree creating the message to remind drivers how to cast their vote.


This was Kika’s approach throughout all the years he was in public service: grassroots, knocking on doors, wearing out the shoe leather, and a few tires along the way, to shake hands and talk with the people he served.


When he moved on to run for Congress in 1964 and represented a district that covered all the way to Del Rio and Eagle Pass, not only the size changed, but the scope of his influence.  But, he never lost sight of his own roots and reaching out in the same grassroots efforts to ask for support.


“He loved to go up and down the street to all the stores in the different towns to meet the people and tell them (he was running for office),” Lucille said.  


About Kika, the man, she said, “He was kind, humble and very witty.”    


While he was busy moving mountains, she had to keep the home front on track, but he was always supportive.


“He would go along with things. He wouldn’t try to be the boss, and say ‘You gotta’ do this and you gotta’ do that.’  …He was never one to argue or insist on things.  He always wanted to accommodate whatever the occasion.”


But, as accommodating as he was, she also appreciated the things he taught her and the family.


On one occasion, Lucille said they had been invited to an event at the White House.  She didn’t want to go, and he asked, “Why?”


She responded, “Because everyone has all these designer clothes….  I don’t dress like that.  They are always in style.”


He responded, “Don’t think about that.  You make your own style.”


She always made her own clothes, and it evidently worked.  At one White House dinner, she was seated at a table with President Lyndon Johnson, various dignitaries and Hollywood stars.


President Johnson said to Lucille, “That’s a mighty pretty dress you have young lady.”  


She responded with a “thank you” and thought, “If he only knew that I made this dress.”


Lucille emphasized, “He (Kika) taught me to just be yourself – not to try to be like others.”


This philosophy was reflected in the official painting of Kika as a chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture.  That painting stands out from other former chairmen of the committee. It represented the true Kika de la Garza.


While the other past chairman paintings are oil productions and upper body poses of the men in suits, Kika’s is a watercolor of him in a full-length pose, leaning on a fence between farm and ranch land.  He’s dressed in a khaki shirt and jeans with western buckle.  They had to get special permission from the capitol curator to hang the painting, and the powers that be eventually conformed to Kika’s desires, not the tradition.


While today’s legislators travel with large entourages, Kika always kept it simple – in Austin and Washington.  


Many times he and Lucille would take off in their own car for an event in the far reaches of his district as a State Representative and return home at 2 and 3 a.m. – only to have to get up for work the next morning – she at the courthouse and he at his law practice when the legislature was out of session.  


When they went to Washington, their simple focus remained the same, although she quit working to focus her energies on the family – Jorge, Michael and Angela – in the faster-paced Washington, D.C. environment.


To his daughter, Angela, he was “Daddy.”


“He was the same to us as he was as a congressman,” she said.  “He was kind, generous, supportive.  His presence was enough.  He taught me how to play chess.  We used to garden.  That was my father.  That other world was something that I just heard about.


“He was just a gentle person, calm.  But, even if he would get mad at you, he wouldn’t lecture.  He wouldn’t do anything.  He would just look at you.  Or, he would say, ‘That was not a good idea.’ And, that was enough.  That was it.”


The values he lived by and carried into the political world are being passed down generationally.


She said, “The one thing he taught us he showed us with actions, to appreciate life, appreciate people, no matter who they were, what they did, no matter where they came from.  He treated everybody with respect.”


Granddaughter Jennifer said she wanted people to know that he was “a man of faith…faith in God, faith in people and he had faith that he could go out and give out the blessings that God had given him.” Jennifer noted that in doing so, he lived by the Golden Rule.  He loved the people.


She once asked him where he wanted to be buried.  As a State Representative and a U.S. Congressman, he could choose either the State Cemetery in Austin or Arlington Cemetery.  He desired neither.


His response was, “Porque la gente esta aqui conmigo.” (Because my people are here with me.)


Children were always near and dear to Kika’s heart.


Lucille said, “He loved kids.  Everywhere he went he would stop to talk to them.”


Angela observed, “He loved animals and loved children.  He always wanted to help the most vulnerable, to be there for the most vulnerable, the ones that couldn’t speak for themselves.”


This belief motivated a good part of his professional life in the legislation he chose to pursue, including the creation of what became the Head Start program at the state and national levels. He was a key figure in that program coming to fruition.  He felt children needed a “head start” to learn English and prepare them for school long before bilingual education was incorporated into the curriculums.


According to his family, one of the most important honors he ever received was the naming of an elementary school after him in the La Joya I.S.D.


For several years, he would join the children from Kika de la Garza Elementary School to walk down Conway in the Texas Citrus Fiesta parade. Kika and Lucille would go often and he would read to the children in the library.  It was the highlight of his day, according to Angela.  


Angela said, “He instills in you, in children especially, to have confidence in themselves.”


Third generation Jennifer, encapsulated Kika’s legacy and his philosophy of life:


“No matter where you’re from, no matter who you are, education is the key to getting through this life.  You can dream whatever you want to dream.  If you put your mind and heart and soul into it, you can accomplish anything.  Kids would listen, too.


“They would look up at him, and he would say, ‘You can do anything.’


“‘Police officer? Astronaut?’ they asked.


“‘Anything. If you put your mind to what you can do, the sky is the limit,’” he confirmed.


From shoeshine boy to revered congressman, Kika lived it:  You CAN do anything.

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