Val Verde County Historical Commission
(830) 734-2124; firstname.lastname@example.org
Santos Garza, “Don Santos” as he is fondly remembered, was a leader of the San Felipe portion of the Del Rio, Texas. He was an entrepreneur, community leader, family man, and he was the man who created the most beloved institution in East Del Rio, the San Felipe Independent School District.
Don Santos was born November 2, 1881 in Piedras Negras (across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass) or in Eagle Pass itself. There are conflicting stories; however, Garza was naturalized a US citizen in 1912, suggesting the former. He came to Del Rio in 1898 and lived with sister Francisca Salas Paniagua. Their father is said to have worked for Paula (Losoya Taylor) Rivers, the surviving half of Del Rio’s founding family. He worked as a mason’s helper and on a section gang for the Southern Pacific (Galveston, Harrisburg & San Antonio) Railroad. He is described as having taught himself to read in English and Spanish.1
In those years he was helping build Del Rio, building homes and building the social community, participating in drama company called Little Company. He was also building his own family, meeting his wife, Jesusita Menchaca Galindo (born December 25, 1882, in Brackettville), another member of the drama company.2
Garza and wife married in Del Rio on January 3, 1901. The just married couple worked at Frank’s Hotel as waiter and chambermaid. The couple had five children beginning in 1903, though the first died that same year. An adoption in 1920 made a total of six children to the couple. Before that decade ended, Garza was starting and operating his own businesses. He opened the first theater in the San Felipe neighborhood of Del Rio. He bought property on Brown Plaza from John Taini and hired Taini daughter Lucy for the ticket booth. Garza operated the theater, Teatro Juarez, from 1909 to 1911, but even during that time, he was operating other business. Luis Garza, a son, played piano for the silent movies shown and the live performances there.3
His general store, La Ciudad de Mexico (shown below), “was a typical early American general store with everything from a pair of socks to crackers and horseshoes.” Opened in 1910, the store closed in 1912. Other businesses owned or operated by Garza included horse and carriage races in the Blum Addition, (1910-1912, in the far east side of Del Rio), the Honolulu Café or El Poblano (1918-1921, in the Guzman Cleaners Building on Brown Plaza), El International, a Spanish language newspaper (during or about 1925), the Casino, another theater on Brown Plaza (from 1923 to 1936 and his wife ran it until 1938), the City Drugstore, with a pharmacy and soda fountain, on the northeast corner of Main Street and Greenwood (from 1926 to 1933), and a bar across the Rio Grande in Villa Acuña.4
As early as 1925, Garza also owned and operated a large dairy southwest of town on and near the vega of the Rio Grande (roughly, the area near the international bridge northward to the railroad tracks). “The busy road running parallel to this area and facing the exact location of the dairy farm has been given the name of Garza Lane, in honor of Don Santos.” Some five families lived at the dairy. The business and the land were sold by Garza’s widow in 1946.5 He also had some sort of freight-hauling business, and (while the details are unclear) he had a liquor license and paid a “Cock Pit occupation tax.” Garza also owned ranchland in neighboring Kinney County along Mud Creek.6
Garza continued to be a social and civic leader of the neighborhood. He played a leading role in the performances of “Flor de un Dia” and “Espina de una flor.” He bought a building in 1917 using it “as a community center as well as a meeting place for the W.O.W. Camp Robles and Camp Magnolia 1044.” He was the first president of Camara de Comercio Mejicana, a chamber of commerce founded in 1926. This organization “was responsible for the improvements made to Brown Plaza” including the bandstand at the center of the square. He was appointed City Health Inspector for East Del Rio (as the City administration called San Felipe) in 1913. He also served on the County School Board and was recognized for his interest in community education.7
Don Santos is best remembered for his leadership during the school crisis of 1928 and the 1929 creation of the San Felipe Independent School District.
During the first part of the twentieth century, Val Verde County had seven school districts: Del Rio Independent School District; Common School District (CSD) #2 (San Felipe); CSD #3 (Pandale); CSD #4 (Juno); CSD #5 (Star Route); CSD #6 (Langtry); and CSD #7 (Dolan). The San Felipe district was bounded by San Felipe Creek on the west, the Rio Grande on the south, Sycamore Creek on the east and the San Antonio-EI Paso Road on the north.8
The 1890 creation of the Del Rio district was important to the Del Rio community, but its creators did not consider the Hispanic/Mexican population residing on the east side of San Felipe Creek as part of their community--and drew the district's boundaries accordingly. The Del Rio Independent School District included the downtown business area, those areas immediately north and west of town, and the area south to the Rio Grande. The district’s boundaries excluded the east side of town—the San Felipe neighborhood.9 (The same east side did become part of the City of Del Rio when it was incorporated in 1905.) Still, “Despite being discouraged from education pursuits by the Del Rio community, the Mexican-Americans ‘across the Creek’...had pursued primary education for their children since the early 1880s. In 1883 San Felipe residents built a small, wooden frame schoolhouse with a gabled roof for the growing population of between forty and sixty students. Although primitive by today's standards, this first building served as a source of both civic pride.”10
During the 1920s the San Felipe district operated two schools: San Felipe School #1 and San Felipe School #2. Number 1 had been an old wooden shack until 1908 when it was replaced with an improved structure. A second story was added later. The school was later known as Central School, then the Yellow School, or Escuela Amarilla. School #2, popularly known as Escuela Calaveras (because it was on the road toward the San Felipe Cemetery), was a two-room structure built in 1909, though two more rooms were added later. Increased enrollment in the district came from immigrants and refugees from the Mexican Revolution during the second decade of the twentieth-century and from migrant families unable to return to Mexico as a result of that same Revolution. About five-hundred students attended, most in first or second grade; the seventh grade was the highest level of instruction. For higher grade instruction, students attended Del Rio I.S.D. schools, though their numbers were few.11 In short, the primarily Hispanic San Felipe neighborhood had been excluded from the Del Rio school district at its 1890 creation and remained outside the only school system with a full range of grades and the ability to fund its schools with taxing authority.
In 1928, Del Rio I.S.D. annexed a large part of the San Felipe/Common School District #2 territory including all of the San Felipe part of town and both school-houses. The officials of Del Rio I.S.D. had applied to the County School Board, and the Board had announced on June 16 its intent to approve the annexation at the next meeting, June 29. The Board did allow speakers--in favor and in opposition--from the community to speak at that meeting, but, as it were, the fix was in, and the annexation was adopted. The Del Rio I.S.D. grew by 23.5 square miles, leaving only the less populated and less valuable property in the southeast comer of the county to CSD #2.12 The principal reason for the annexation was the Del Rio school district's “considerable indebtedness.” The annexation would allow Del Rio I.S.D., the county's smallest district, to gain more tax revenue to payoff that indebtedness and pay for more Del Rio facilities.13
When the Del Rio school district wanted to annex the San Felipe area to increase its tax rolls, the County Judge, who supervised the county schools and common school districts announced that the annexation would proceed without the consent of the residents.
"Displeased with the County Judge’s proceedings, these three men [Santos Garza, Hernan Cadena, and Andres Cortinas] immediately consulted the firm of Jones and Lyle so that the attorneys could study the legal aspects of the annexation.
Mr. Walter Jones, of this firm, reported several days later that the law allowed a limited amount of time in which the affected citizens could make a protest of this nature, and that if they wanted him to represent them, his fee would be one thousand dollars, and an additional five hundred dollars in the event the case was appealed.
The was brought up as to who was going to pay these fees. ‘San Felipe’, answered Mr. Santos S. Garza.
‘But who is San Felipe’, demanded the lawyer.
‘I am’, replied Mr. Garza.
‘Very well’, he replied, ‘I need $500.00 as a retaining fee and a note for the remaining $500.00’. [footnote number.]
Mr. Santos Garza then proceeded to give a personal check for that amount."14
Garza (through the attorney) went to the local state District Court and on July 20 won a temporary injunction blocking the annexation. Del Rio I.S.D. responded August 14 with a motion to dissolve it, and on September 6 Judge Joseph Jones heard presentations from both sides. That same day, Judge Jones ruled in favor of San Felipe and reversed the annexation. Del Rio I.S.D. announced its intent to appeal and followed through in the Fourth Court of Appeals on November 7, 1928. San Felipe won the appeal as well.15
Having funded a successful defense against the forced annexation, Garza then led the movement to create the San Felipe Independent School District. Such an action would prevent future attempts at annexation and give the San Felipe community greater control over its schools. Garza presented a petition to the County School Trustees with two hundred signatures, which constituted a majority of the “qualified property tax paying voters residing in Common School District #2.” The Trustees accepted the petition, and a motion was approved July 27, 1929 creating the San Felipe Independent School District. The Trustees also ordered an election to be held August 31 to choose the seven board members who would oversee the new I.S.D.16
August 31, 1929 is the official date for the creation of the San Felipe I.S.D. On that date votes were canvassed and made official. The seven new trustees were Santos Garza, Rudolfo H. Gutierrez, Andres Cortinas, Castulo Gutierrez, Adolfo Maldonado, Victor Vasquez Jr. and Pablo G. Flores. Lots were drawn. The first three men won two year terms, while the remainder won one year apiece.17
"Don Santos was elected to serve as the first president of the Board of Education, a most deserving and merited position for the man who had been at the head of the community in its struggle for better schools.
Don Santos, who has been recognized as the Father of the San Felipe Schools since the creation of the district, is most deserving of such a great honor."18
The establishment of the independent school district immediately led to the establishment of the neighborhood’s first high school (shown below), giving the students access to secondary education. As a result of his work, Don Santos is remembered as the “Father of San Felipe Schools.”19
“Don Santos Salas Garza passed away in Del Rio, Texas on July 25th of the year 1936, but his memory still lingers in the minds of the young and the old. His life in the community was like a legend…. His world meant justified authority; his word was a promise fulfilled.”20
In 1978, the City of Del Rio honored Don Santos with the naming of a community amphitheater at Brown Plaza. The property was the location of Garza’s old Teatro Casino. The Amphitheater was used for public events, holidays, pep rallies, and parade preparation. Parades in San Felipe ran between this spot and the old high school, effecting beginning and ending at Santos Garza historic sites.21
In 1978 the San Felipe Ex-Students Association of California held its fifteenth reunion in Del Rio. Events and fundraisers brought in ten-thousand dollars, the seed money to buy the abandoned Garza property on Garza Street. The house was in “ruins,” the inside in “shambles.” The property was purchased, and the building was restored and rehabilitated. An annex was constructed behind the house, leaving the original John Taini stonework prominently visible. In 1985 the house became home to the newly created San Felipe Ex-Student Memorial Center, Inc., a museum and meetinghouse for “the Exes” who keep alive San Felipe school spirit and the memory of Don Santos.22
Dolly Calderon, granddaughter of Santos Garza, personal interview, February 3, 2006.
City of Del Rio, City Council Minutes.
Charles A. Garabedian, "The Wildcats vs. The Mustangs: The Consolidation of the San Felipe and Del Rio Independent School Districts," Sul Ross State University Master's Thesis, July 1994.
A.E. (Tony) Gutierrez, “Don Santos S. Garza—The father of the San Felipe School (part 1),” Del Rio News-Herald, June 11, 2000, page 14A.
A.E. Gutierrez, “Don Santos S. Garza: The father of San Felipe (part 3),” Del Rio News-Herald, July 16, 2000, page 6A.
A.E. Gutierrez, A History of San Felipe, Del Rio: Whitehead Memorial Museum, 1978, pages 19, 20, 23-24, 26.
[A.E. Gutierrez], “More on Don Santos, Del Rio,” Del Rio News-Herald, July 9, 2000, page 5B.
A.E. Gutierrez, “An oasis in the desert: A new high school in the barrio,” Del Rio News-Herald, August 8, 1997, page 5.
Mauro Paz, personal interview February 26, 2003.
J.B. Pena, “A History of the San Felipe Independent School District and Its Influence on the Community: 1929-1951,” Master’s Thesis, Sul Ross State College, 1951.
Robert Lee Trevino, “San Felipe Exes Memorial Center,” 1997.
Val Verde County, County Commissioners’ Court Minutes.
1 A.E. (Tony) Gutierrez, “Don Santos S. Garza—The father of the San Felipe School (part 1),” Del Rio News-Herald, June 11, 2000, page 14A.
2 Gutierrez, “Don Santos S. Garza—The father of the San Felipe School (part 1),” page 14A.
3 A.E. Gutierrez, A History of San Felipe, Del Rio: Whitehead Memorial Museum, 1978, pages 19, 20, 23-24, 26. Dolly Calderon, February 3, 2006. See “John Taini: Italian Stonemason of Del Rio” in Journal of South Texas, Spring 2004, pages 60-78.
4 A.E. Gutierrez, A History of San Felipe, Del Rio: Whitehead Memorial Museum, 1978, pages 19, 20, 23-24, 26; [A.E. Gutierrez], “More on Don Santos, Del Rio,” Del Rio News-Herald, July 9, 2000, page 5B; Dolly Calderon, February 3, 2006.
5 [A.E. Gutierrez], “More on Don Santos, Del Rio,” Del Rio News-Herald, July 9, 2000, page 5B; City of Del Rio, Minutes Book 3, page 2. About five years ago (2001 or 2002), the county commissioners’ court renamed the road Frontera Lane, in part to eliminate duplicate names in order to better maintain the 911 address system. Garza is also the name of the main street in the San Felipe neighborhood and was also named for Don Santos.
6 City of Del Rio, Minutes Book 3, page 21; County Commissioners Court, Minutes Volume 2, page 501, Order #5998, August 12, 1907; Dolly Calderon, February 3, 2006.
7 A.E. Gutierrez, A History of San Felipe, Del Rio: Whitehead Memorial Museum, 1978, pages 20, 21, and 27; [A.E. Gutierrez], “More on Don Santos, Del Rio,” Del Rio, July 9, 2000, page 5B; City of Del Rio, Minutes Book 1, page 114.
8 Jaime Pena, "A History of the San Felipe Independent School District and Its Influence on the Community, 1929-1951," SuI Ross State University Masters Thesis, August 1951, page 11. Districts three through seven covered the rural areas of the county north and west of Del Rio.
9 Val Verde County Clerk's Office, Map Book 1, page 11.
10 Charles A. Garabedian, "The Wildcats vs. The Mustangs: The Consolidation of the San Felipe and Del Rio Independent School Districts," SuI Ross State University Master's Thesis, July 1994, page 19.
11 Pena, "A History of the San Felipe Independent School District," pages 11-13, 27; Garabedian, "The Wildcats vs. The Mustangs," pages 19-20. This second source (page 21) quotes Gilbert Cerda, who attended San Felipe schools and later became the district superintendent, as saying that eight Mexican-Americans graduated in his class of fifty- four at the Del Rio High School.
12 Pena, "A History of the San Felipe Independent School District," pages 13-14.
13 Garabedian, "The Wildcats vs. The Mustangs," page 28.
14 Pena, “A History of the San Felipe Independent School District,” pages 16-17. The footnote citation reads “Personal interview with Mr. Rudolfo H. Gutierrez, June 18, 1951.
15 Pena. "A History of the San Felipe Independent School District," pages 17-25.
16 Pena, "A History of the San Felipe Independent School District," pages 26-27.
17 Pena, "A History of the San Felipe Independent School District," pages 29-30.
18 [A.E. Gutierrez], “More on Don Santos, Del Rio,” Del Rio, July 9, 2000, page 5B.
19 [A.E. Gutierrez], “More on Don Santos, Del Rio,” Del Rio, July 9, 2000, page 5B. See also the THC and VVCHC “San Felipe High School” historical marker application, on file with the THC.
20 A.E. Gutierrez, A History of San Felipe, Del Rio: Whitehead Memorial Museum, 1978, page 20. As part of the civil rights movement, a federal judge ordered the San Felipe and Del Rio school districts to consolidate, which was done in1971, ending the four decade administration of the school district. For more on that story, see “Desegregation in Del Rio” in Journal of South Texas, Fall 2000, pages 240-265.
21 City of Del Rio, Minutes Volume 10, page 382, January 10, 1978; Dolly Calderon to DLB. I am unable to find any sign of the amphitheater even though I have photographs of Garza’s name welded into a gate through a property at Brown Plaza. The Whitehead Memorial Museum has photographs of the site, but the amphitheater and sign have been allowed to disappear. An unconfirmed story says that the 1998 flood carried away the sign.
22 A.E. Gutierrez, “An oasis in the desert: A new high school in the barrio,” Del Rio News-Herald, August 8, 1997, page 5; Mauro Paz to Doug Braudaway, personal interview February 26, 2003; Robert Lee Trevino, “San Felipe Exes Memorial Center,” 1997.