The trail-blazing life of U.S. District Judge Hipolito Frank Garcia, who died in 2002, could have been a book.
“Hippo,” as he was affectionately known, was the son of Mexican immigrants who fled the Mexican Revolution and came to San Antonio in search of a new start. Hippo grew up in Lavaca, San Antonio’s oldest residential neighborhood, and rose to become the first Mexican-American to serve as a federal judge in the Western District of Texas. San Antonio in 1925, the year of his birth, was a city with a growing Mexican immigrant population that spiked during the Mexican Revolution (1910-17), but it wasn’t a city of opportunity for immigrants or their offspring.
Now the life of Hippo Garcia is a book. One-of-a-Kind Judge, by retired San Antonio teacher and longtime resident Joan Carabin, tells the Hippo Garcia story for new generations, from his early accomplishments to his lifelong devotion to civil rights and the fight for equality.
“The story of Hippo was slipping away,” Carabin said in an interview. “Yes, they had named a building in his honor, but what was there that was keeping his image alive?”
It’s a story that begins in Mexico.
Hippo’s grandfather, the first Hipolito Garcia, was born on a ranch near the town of Villa Acuña, Coahuila, Mexico. For three generations, Hipolito’s family raised and sold animals for milk, wool, leather and meat. In 1877, Hipolito married Gregoria Rodriguez Garcia and within a few years had three sons, Hipolito II, Jose, and Arturo. Along with the marriage of Hipolito and Gregoria, the year of 1877 also served as the year General Porfirio Díaz won the presidential election in Mexico. When Hipolito II was a teenager, Díaz’s soldiers went to his father’s ranch, demanding the family leave and seizing their property.
Soon after the family’s escape north toward the border, the elder Hipolito suddenly died. Fearful of the looming civil war, the widowed Gregoria and her sons fled to a relative’s house in Piedras Negras, across the Rio Grande from Eagle Pass.
Eventually, the family of four left Piedras Negras for San Antonio. After becoming a permanent U.S. resident, Gregoria rented a home at 126 Wyoming Street, a short distance from downtown San Antonio, while the three boys attended the Catholic St. Louis School in Castroville. As students, all three boys worked. Jose was a store clerk, Arturo went to night school to become a certified baker, and Hipolito apprenticed as a butcher at the Menger Hotel, and was promoted to chef at both the Menger Hotel and St. Anthony Hotel.
In 1925, Hipolito II married Francisca Sanchez, a housemaid on Martinez Street, and soon had their first son, Hipolito III, commonly known as Hippo, who grew up in a home on Lavaca Street.
Hippo excelled in school, graduating from Brackenridge High School and then enlisting in the U.S. Army during World War II, serving in Europe as a tank driver. After the war, he returned home to attend St. Mary’s University, first as an undergraduate and then gaining admission to the law school. He used the GI Bill to pay for tuition and books. The quiet, studious veteran also worked part-time cleaning at an automobile dealership and sold shoes to make ends meet while in school.
As a young lawyer, Hippo served as deputy district clerk and then assistant district attorney in Bexar County before moving to the bench as a state district court judge. In 1980, President Jimmy Carter appointed him to the federal bench in a newly-created seat in the Western District, a seat he held until his death in 2002. Two years later, the Hipolito F. Garcia Federal Building on Alamo Plaza was named in his honor.
San Antonio attorney Roy Barrera Sr., a close friend and law school classmate of Hippo, described him as quiet and unassuming, yet committed to Mexican-American advances and the civil rights movement. As a federal judge, Barrera noted, Hippo maintained a low political profile, but let his actions speak louder than words.
Carabin will be joined by U.S. Magistrate Judge John W. Primomo at a book signing event Wednesday, June 25, 5:30 p.m. – 7:30 p.m. at the Liberty Bar’s Benedict Dining Room.
Carabin said she decided to write the book after asking God in prayer why Garcia’s life had not attracted an author to write his life story.
“God had put it in my heart to do,” Carabin said. “I would have felt that I let down the community in a very major way if I hadn’t done it.”
Carabin holds a strong emotional attachment to Judge Garcia and his family, and believes his life should be celebrated as an example of what one individual can accomplish in the world, a lesson she believes is lost on many today.
“I told Roy Barrera, Sr. the other day that there wouldn’t have been a Judge Garcia if he hadn’t brought him forward,” Carabin said. “He was the one who was given the insight to see what Hippo could become.”
Barrera said Hippo was liked and respected by both Republicans and Democrats.
“People always had a natural liking for him,” Barrera Sr. said.
Though Carabin did not know Judge Hippo well, she felt compelled to write the thin volume chronicling his life. She and her husband Bob lived next door to the Garcia family house in Lavaca for many years.
“Judge Hippo didn’t see bringing ideas to the community as work, but as life,” Carabin said.
The two neighbors saw each quite often, and both would invite the other to dinner and parties. Hippo would visit his mother at the family home every Sunday, but Carabin said Sundays were reserved for family. Visitors were never invited.
One instance which exemplified Hippo’s true sense of kindness came from Caraban’s brother-in-law, who only met Hippo once in court. Carabin’s brother-in-law had jury duty the same day of his wife’s uncle’s funeral.
“Hippo had real cordiality and told him to go with his family,” said Carabin.
Hippo’s best-known achievement came when he was appointed by President Carter to a seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Texas in 1980.
“Hippo didn’t glide things, but looked harder and listened longer,” said Carabin, “ He always brought the very best out of people.”
*Featured/top image: The cover of One-of-a-Kind Judge, a biography of Judge Hipolito Garcia. Courtesy of author Joan Carabin.