The passing of Elvira Cisneros last week after a long illness is occasion for all San Antonians, even those who never knew her, to share an ecumenical moment of reflection. Elvira, 90, was the matriarch of a highly engaged and talented family with deep Westside roots that would help transform San Antonio and, indeed, achieve national reach.
Elvira, her six siblings and her parents, also were immigrants from Mexico.
One way of honoring her legacy is to recognize how a woman who immigrated here as a 2-year-old girl would come to see her family enrich this city over three generations. Immigrants long have been this country’s and this state’s lifeblood, and at a time when the country is so deeply divided on the subject, the story of the Cisneros family exemplifies this greater truth that transcends politics.
Elvira’s story began almost a century ago, rooted in the violence and political upheaval of the Mexican Revolution, which began in 1910 and lasted until 1920, although the aftershocks continued for another decade. No U.S. city had a deeper connection to the Revolution or the people fleeing it than San Antonio.
Elvira was born on July 11, 1924, in Puebla, Mexico, the fourth of seven children. Her father, Romulo Munguia, was a printer and political activist who fled the violence and made his way to San Antonio in 1926. He found work at the Spanish-language La Prensa and was followed here by his family.
One family story recalls how Elvira’s mother, Carolina Munguia, shaved all her children’s heads before they crossed the border at Laredo to spare them the indignity of U.S. border guards washing their scalps with gasoline as a standard delousing measure. A photograph of the reunited family in San Antonio shows Elvira and the other children with bald heads (see top photo).
The Munguia family settled in the Prospect Hill neighborhood in the nascent Westside barrio. Over the course of three generations the extended family always has lived within a few blocks of that first home.
Romulo, who built one of the city’s biggest printing businesses, presided over a family that quickly became engaged in every aspect of the community: politics, parish life, neighborhood programs, education, and intellectual and cultural life. His library formed the foundation of the library at the first foreign branch of the Autonomous University of Mexico, located today in Hemisfair Park.
Elvira’s three older brothers enlisted in the military when World War II broke out, and a fourth brother also served. As the war came to an end, Elvira met George Cisneros, an infantryman who survived three years of combat in the Pacific Theater and rose to the rank of colonel in the U.S. Army Reserves. Together they would have five children, Henry, Pauline, George Jr., Tim, and Christina, all of whom graduated from college.
Henry attended Texas A&M University and Harvard, returned to the neighborhood and was elected to City Council 50 years after his mother’s arrival in San Antonio as a toddler. He was elected mayor in 1981 and served until 1989, and went on to become Secretary of Housing & Urban Development in the Clinton administration. He remains one of the country’s most prominent and influential Latino leaders. George Jr. is a prominent artist and arts community leader in San Antonio. Tim is an award-winning architect in Houston and owner of Cisneros Design Studios.
Pauline Cisneros Polette, now retired, earned her research doctorate at the University of Houston and served as a physician at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, specializing in reproductive medicine . She also directed the in vitro fertilization clinic there. Christine Corser graduated from Texas A&M and lives in New Jersey where she directs the religious education program at a local parish. She is married to Tom Corser and they have two sons, Peter and Mark.
The high profile achieved by Henry and the other Cisneros siblings obscured the role Elvira played in the city in an era when women, especially Mexican-American women, had to make their own opportunities to advance. World War II interrupted her studies at the University of Texas at Austin. With her brothers serving in the Army and Army Air Corps, Elvira came home to work in her father’s printing business and attend business school to become a bookkeeper, which led to a job at Frost Bank.
She volunteered at church, in the PTA, with the Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts and in various neighborhood and community education programs, all while raising her family. Husband George, a World War II combat veteran, was called up for reserve military service in the Vietnam War. A stroke impaired him at age 59, but Elvira’s devotion to his care helped him survive for another 30 years until he died at age 89 in 2006.
Elvira Cisneros celebrated her 90th birthday on July 11 this year with family at the Chart House restaurant atop the Tower of Americas. One can imagine her gazing down on the city that had become her home 88 years earlier, surely taking quiet satisfaction in her own family’s many contributions to San Antonio’s growth and development.
*Featured/top image: Carolina Munguia with children, Ralph, Ruben and Elvira on the day they crossed the border into the United States. The hair on the children was shaved by their mother so the border guards would not pour gasoline on their heads to kill lice. Photo courtesy of the Cisneros Family.
Memorial Service Arrangements for Elvira Cisneros:
Viewing and Rosary:
Sacred Heart Church
2123 West Commerce
Tuesday Viewing: 5:00 p.m.
Rosary: 6:00 p.m.
Mass of Commemoration:
Basilica of the Little Flower
1715 N Zarzamora
Wednesday, 10:00 a.m.
Following the Mass
San Fernando Cemetery # 2
1735 Cupples Road
El Progresso Community Hall
1306 Guadalupe Street
Approx. 1:30 p.m., following graveside service