Juan Vargas, 1795 to 1910, Ancestor, and me “La India”, sixth generation descendant, 19xx-Present.
But before I begin, I offer this. I am a life-long genealogist who sat at my grandfather’s knee and listened to all his stories, heard him play his guitar and sing, and later would read his stories and accounts of his family and their journeys. That amazing grandpa was Santos Salome Lopez, and his son, my father, the awesome Roel Lopez, were my first history teachers by proximity, meaning we lived with my paternal grandparents for the first five years of my life, and after that, always somewhere near, until I went off to high school.
Then there were our visits to my mom’s mother, and her sisters. Actually lots of cousins on both sides and plenty of occasions for fun, games, dancing, singing, seeking, asking, learning, bantering, joking, cooking, making tamales, sewing, dominoes, rollerskating, eating, and even hiding. But one thing came up in those odd moments when someone on my dad’s side would call me “La India“. I always thought it was because my mom braided my hair in pick-tails. Then again, I knew I had that darn cow lick and “widow’s peak” like dad’s mom.
What got me thinking about all this? I am submitting my mother’s ancestor Juan Vargas to the “Handbook of Tejano History Project” under the Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), and when I pulled all the notes I have gathered these many years, it got me thinking about those long-ago jabs, almost taunting me by calling me “La India“...the Indian.
It now seems an honor to be recognized for this part of my ancestry. For I am a composite of many DNA strands, and who knows where all the seeds came from to migrate to Texas.
“Here I am Lord”.
Now for Juan Vargas, son of Simon and Maria Jacinta Vargas. He was born January 1, 1795, Oaxaca Mexico, an Aztec Indian, and I am his sixth generation.
Comparing myself to Juan Vargas: In my freshman year I was 14-15 years old. Guess what he was doing? At 14-15 years of age, he joined in service as a soldier under Father Miguel Hidalgo to fight in the Mexican War of Independence (1810)! Later when Father Hidalgo was captured, Juan was also captured. The end result was that he ended up fighting under the person crowned Emperor of Mexico in 1821 – Augustin de Iturbinde. Wow!
During Juan’s military expeditions, he apparently acquired some wealth so that when he came to Texas, he was blessed to purchase a large tract of land in San Antonio. That was in 1830 — six years before the fall of the Alamo.
They have called him Soldier and Alamo Eye Witness, and many call him Defender of the Faith. Being a soldier was part of his military service in Mexico, and then his presence outside the Alamo was later recorded in his interviews in 1910 shortly before his death.
Juan Vargas explained that he volunteered to fight at the Alamo, but they thought he was too old and would not allow him inside. Imagine that – in 1836, he was only 41 years old, and he lived to 115 years old. Wow!
What happened next must have been another one for the records. Juan stood up and faced his new captors. Santa Ana’s troops had taken him and put him into forced servitude to them to clean and to bury the dead. Bless my ancestor, what a man. He must have been a humble man, for all that he did in his life, his death certificate listed his occupation as a grave digger, and in truth, he had done that.
From the newspaper articles and books I have collected, I have read how he gave tips on how to live a long life. He was funny, intelligent, strong, and clear thinking even in his 115th year. Truly amazing.
Part of what was evident was that he saw a need and he took action. Much resentment of Mexicans was caused by the battle at the Alamo. I can only imagine. Still, there was a great need for a place for the Mexicans to gather for worship and prayer. Juan saw this and built a chapel on his property. He named it “Our Lady of Guadalupe”. So many people began coming there that it was soon overflowing. The Claritian priests of San Fernando Cathedral started to come to say mass there. Then when Juan reached 110 years old, he transferred ownership of his little chapel and the property it sat on to the Diocese of San Antonio, for $1.00. That was 14 January 1905. He lived another 5 years to see progress in bringing ministry for his people. Juan passed on to Eternal Life on 19 August 1910.
In 1913 the Bishop of San Antonio (Shaw) gave the chapel and the property to the Redemptorists at nearby St Gerard’s and asked them to minister to the Mexicans on the east side.
In 1914 the Redemptorists moved the chapel a few blocks from the original property and changed its name to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church.
Of interest, one of Juan and Perfecta Vargas’ children – their daughter Geronima Vargas, lived nearly as long as Juan. She was 113 years (1822-1935) and was later featured in one of the local news articles celebrating Juan Vargas’ legacy.
In January 2005, Monsignor Gilbert Enderle was pastor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, San Antonio Texas, and I had attended mass with a cousin. Afterwards we spoke with him and let him know we were visiting and there for my cousin’s mother’s mass, and that we were Juan Vargas descendants. He asked us to go to the rectory and there he gave us copies of the Redemptorist’s book “Working for Plentiful Redemption: A History of the New Orleans Vice-Province” by Gerald Bass. There is so much history recorded on the works of the Redemptorists and those who worked for the Faith, along side them. What struck me was how they recorded the struggles to establish places of worship for the Mexicans. Chapter 13 goes into great detail on the parish that began well before its establishment because of what Juan Vargas accomplished before his death in 1910.
Here is a beautiful quote from this book, a treasure indeed:
“Thus, the Aztec Indian, Juan Vargas, born in 1796 , laid the foundation for the establishment of a Redemptorist mission to the Spanish-speaking on the east side of San Antonio.” (“Working for Plentiful Redemption: A History of the New Orleans Vice-Province”, page 268, by Gerald Bass)
I leave you now with some references that may help your search. For me, they are my legacy to my sons and their children, and to whom they may wish to share. Blessings and Gratitude, “La India”.
1. “The Alamo Remembered–Tejano Accounts and Perspectives” by Timothy M. Matovina, pages 99-101 “Juan Vargas, San Antonio Light, 3 April 1910”, and a copy of new article from San Antonio Light and Gazette, dated 3 April 1910, “This Man was old when Santa Ana Spilled Blood in Alamo and built Texans’ funeral pyre”.
2. “Working for Plentiful Redemption: A History of the New Orleans Vice-Province” by Gerald Bass, Chapter 13, pages 267-329. “San Antonio II – Our Lady of Perpetual Help Parish”.
3. San Antonio Light and Gazette, interview of Juan Vargas, 3 April 1910.
4. San Antonio Express, Story of Juan Vargas, 14 September 1930.
5. “The Alamo Reader-A Study in History” by Todd Handsen, Editor, page 536-538, “3.7.6. Juan Vargas, interview, 1910. San Antonio Light, April 3, 1910, 34, by Louis De Nette.”
6. Juan Vargas, Death Certificate, 19 August 1910, San Antonio, Bexar County, Texas.
7. St Mary’s Cemetery, Juan Vargas memorial, 1795-1910. http://historichouston1836.com/san-antonio-historic-cemeteries/
8. US Census 1900. Juan Vargas.
9. San Antonio Express News, Juan Vargas, September 1980.
10. Mayor Lila Cockrell’s Proclamation of Juan Vargas day, 14 September 1980.
11. Daughters of the Republic of Texas, see Ancestors Index for Juan Vargas and wife Perfecta DeLa Cruz, at www.drtinfo.org/ancestor-v.
12. Ancestry.com, Juan Vargas, 1795-1910, et al.