Editor’s Note: Elvira Munguia Cisneros, July 11, 1924 – November 22, 2014, was memorialized Wednesday in a Catholic funeral Mass at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Little Flower on the near-Westside, the same church where she was married 69 years and one day ago to Col. J. George Cisneros, who preceded her in death in 2006. She was eulogized by two of her three sons, Houston architect Tim Cisneros and former San Antonio Mayor and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Henry Cisneros. Henry’s eulogy appears below. The Rivard Report has requested a copy of Tim’s eulogy and will post it here when we receive it.
My brother Tim has just presented a moving portrait of my mother’s profound influence on her family and friends. She most certainly has left her indelible imprint on our personalities, our memories and our souls.
I would like to extend Tim’s narrative to the way our mother touched the lives of many more people, including many of you here, through her work in the public sphere. We can all learn from the burning spirit which motivated Elvira Cisneros’ commitments to a better life for our community.
First, I think we have to recognize that just as she shaped the next generation of her family, the previous generation shaped her. Just imagine the colorful, active, rowdy, striving, passionate household of proud immigrants―Romulo and Carolina Munguia and their seven children―on Saunders Street just west of Zarzamora on the city’s Westside. Romulo was on fire with the revolutionary zeal of social change in Mexico, simultaneously trying to learn the American way. Carolina, dignified and firm, formerly headmistress of a Methodist girl’s school in Mexico, determined that her family would not be subordinated and that their spirits would not be broken in their new country. And seven children―five headstrong, assimilating, rambunctious boys and two girls, living the balance between the old Mexican ways and the teenage bobby sox culture of the 1930s and 1940’s.
Romulo and Carolina were leaders in Mexico and they became leaders in the Colonia Mexicana of San Antonio. My grandmother led an organization of working class Mexican mothers into the PTA at Crockett Elementary. She hosted a Spanish radio program on KCOR and read the classics of Mexican literature to her audience. Don Romulo founded his business―Munguia Printers―and helped form San Antonio’s Mexican Chamber of Commerce and the Patronato to promote the dignity of San Antonio’s Mexican residents.
They sent Elvira to Jefferson High School, then the flagship of San Antonio’s high schools, where she was one of only a handful of Mexican students. She was on of the archery team. Beyond school, she performed in traditional Mexican dresses in a folkloric ensemble and was active in a young woman’s cultural club named the Seleni. And highly unusual in that time for a young Mexican-American woman, she enrolled at the University of Texas and lived with a family relative in Austin until World War II broke out, her brothers enlisted in the armed services, and she came home to help her father in the print shop. My point is that our mother grew up in a classic, even epic, setting: proud, traditional, striving, evolving, learning, mixing the old and the new, balancing her heritage with her awe of life in America. Here she would learn the values which would impel her to be a force in her community for the rest of her life.
What were those values? Well certainly one of them was a lifelong commitment to fairness. She would always defend the underdog. I will always remember the anger and hurt on her face when we got off a city transit bus on Alamo Plaza―I must have been about 8 years old in 1955―and she pointed to the separate water fountains labeled “white” and “colored.” She showed me the sign on the restroom door at Woolworth’s that said “whites only.” She saw it through the eyes of a mother and told me she was heartbroken imagining how an African-American mother would explain those signs to her child. I am certain it was that instinct of fairness which drove her involvement in AACOG as an advocate for abused elderly. I know it is what drove her devotion to AVANCE and to the single mothers struggling to raise their children. And I am sure it is what kept she and my Dad in the old neighborhood, living in the home on Monterey Street they bought in 1946 for 68 years, among working class families and advocating for them to secure an expanded H-E-B, to establish a health center at Lutheran General Hospital, to push literacy through Project Learn to Read.
Jose Alfredo Jimenez, the legendary Mexican mariachi troubadour, wrote a song entitled “El Hijo de Pueblo:
Es por eso que es mi orgullo
Ser del barrio mas humilde
Alejado del bullicio
Y de la falsa sociedad
That is why I am proud
To be from the most humble neighborhood
Away from the hubbub
And away from false society
Mi destino es muy parejo
Yo lo quiero como venga
Soportando una tristeza
O detrás de la ilusión
My destiny is straight
I accept it as it is
Bearing a sadness
Or pursuing a dream.
Elvira Cisneros: a genuine and true “Hijita del Pueblo.”
Another set of values are what I would call the “old school virtues.” She was, like her mother, firm and strict with high standards. She insisted the right way as the only way. She applied those standards in our school years to her leadership of the PTA, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, and class activities. Just as she baked cakes from scratch and criticized cake mix in a box and just as she made every stitch of my sister’s dresses from materials at Solo Serve and declared they were better than dresses from Frost Brothers, she would cut no corners in her public standards or tolerate those who did. She scolded public officials who she perceived were not acting in the public interest. She reported code violators who she thought were hurting the neighborhood. She respected the piety of the Catholic Church and was a kindred soul with the Sisters of the Holy Spirit for more than 50 years. Those of us around her tried to meet her standards and as a result were moved closer to our own potential.
Another value she learned from her family was a love of engagement with people. She loved to be around people. She was a conversationalist, a counselor, a shoulder to cry on, a life-long friend to women of her generation, a surrogate mother to women of younger generations, a picnic organizer, a convener of neighborhood parties, a telephone addict, a note writer, a nurse to the sick, a comforter to the grieving, a holiday organizer, a preparer of family banquets, a sentimentalist on special days. Shopping at HEB took hours because she befriended every clerk. She shared a kind word, a consejo with fellow shoppers. She was the matriarch not of a blood family, but of an extended family, who were recipients of her queenly grace.
Finally, it must be said, that from the hardships of the crossing from Mexico and from the indignities of the early years on the Westside came the value of an unshakable determination and an iron will. Her determination showed as a young bookkeeper at the Frost Bank in 1943 where she learned the financial discipline that would put she and my Dad in position to send five sons and daughters to college and to professional schools. It showed in her helping my father after the stroke that doctors said would claim his life within a few years. Instead he lived for 30 years and she helped him create San Antonio’s first Stroke Club and tour the nation as the Easter Seals spokesperson for stroke victims. It showed in her loyalty to the Westside by being a fighter for the Avenida Guadalupe and the redevelopment of the Guadalupe’s street corridor. She was absolutely certain of the rightness of her causes and unforgiving and unforgetting of those she thought did wrong by the community.
Dr. Abdu Kadri a gerontologist who kindly helped look after my mother in her last months, told our family in trying to explain my mother’s frame of mind that humankind’s most underappreciated and underutilized assets are the great women who live among us. Society he said has traditionally restricted their roles and channeled their ambitions, so that humanity does not tap the vast reservoirs of human power that reside in the hearts and minds of our mothers and daughters and sisters. Dr. Kadri told us that all that God-given talent, all that spiritual energy, all that super-human determination, has to go somewhere. So it is poured into our families. It creates the role of the matriarchs. It comes forth as love, as nurturing, as ambition for our families and for our community.
My mother was one of the most driven, strongest, smartest, most relentless human beings any of us will ever know. And she was not underutilized. She would never have allowed that. She did not hold positions of traditional power but she poured her spirit into countless lives. And she was not under-appreciated. Your presence here today testifies to that. Elvira Cisneros was one of a kind. She was shaped by her family, she was shaped by her times, she was shaped by her standards, she was shaped by her great devotions. In turn, she shaped us. Her strong hands and her mother’s heart in one way or another touched us all. In those moments each of us will face when we need strength, her memory will be a blessing in our lives.