Lavaca was still a quiet neighborhood in the mid-1990s when Julia Medina first hosted me for caldo at her home at 226 Sadie Street. Arthur Jr., my optometrist and friend, wanted me to meet the mother he was so proud of, by then a widow and living alone in her 80s.
Arthur also wanted me to see the home where he grew up in the days before Hemisfair Park displaced the Coca-Cola plant where Arthur Sr. and his hunting buddies worked, and before St. Mary’s School by the Riverwalk, attended by Arthur and his two sisters, was closed and razed. It was the first parochial school in Texas.
The handsome wood-frame home is painted a soft yellow, with a shaded front porch and gingerbread trim in green and maroon, set on a well-kept yard. Mrs. Medina’s caldo was delicious, and in the ensuing years I would return more than once to the Medina home that sits within site of the Tower of the Americas.
In those days Arthur Jr. and I rode Harleys deep into the mountains of Mexico and on cross-country adventures with Los Compadres, a small group of San Antonio friends who liked to ride, camp, fish, hunt, smoke cigars, and tell stories and jokes.
Once a year, to honor a tradition started by “The Wagon Master,” Arthur Sr., and his Coca-Cola compadres, we Harley riders rode to a South Texas ranch where we had dug a deep clay pit, fired by years of use. Atop a bed of burning mesquite coals, we would bury a cow head, seasoned and wrapped in soaked burlap. We sealed off the clay pit and overnight the heat and moisture steamed the head meat clean off the cow skull, perfect for Sunday morning tacos de barbacoa with sipping tequila. Long after Arthur Sr.’s death, his fellow Coca-Cola workers joined us in the annual ritual.
But this is a story about Mrs. Medina, not her son and his friends, their idled Harleys or long-forgotten clay cabeza pit.
I had the pleasure of sharing Mrs. Medina’s dining room table with family again late this summer. Claudia Medina, Arthur’s wife, supervised the caldo production, but otherwise nothing had changed. Julia Medina was as gracious, engaging and seemingly as healthy as when we last met a few years earlier.
Only this time she was getting ready to celebrate her 100th birthday, which is Wednesday, Sept. 10. Julia Medina is the oldest resident living independently in San Antonio’s oldest neighborhood, as far as we know. If there is anyone older we would love to meet them.
“I can’t believe it, I am astonished that I am this old and I can still communicate,” Mrs. Medina said as we gathered in the Medina family room before lunch. “I’m hard of hearing, but that’s all. I can’t complain, and even if I did, God would say, ‘Lady, what do you want?’”
A family member retrieves Mrs. Medina’s copy of “La Retama,” the 1933 yearbook from Brackenridge High School. It’s a window in to pre-World War II-segregated San Antonio. The majority of students are Anglos, and students who came from the oldest and wealthiest families belonged to the German Club. There were many school clubs, but only one club, Los Hidalgo, was open to Mexican-Americans. No Anglos belonged.
Yet few if any of those families could trace their roots as far back in Texas as young Julia Garcia. Her ancestors lived on a Spanish land grant ranch in Roma, later lost in the title swindles that were commonly used to dispossess Mexicans of their South Texas land holdings. As a young man, Julia’s father, Jesse Garcia, traveled by covered wagon from San Diego near the border to San Antonio to attend school. When he turned 13 he decided to stay.
Julia Garcia was cultured. She played the piano and made good grades. She was the first Mexican-American to be voted a “purple jacket” and membership on the high school pep squad at Brackenridge.
“I was the first Hispanic voted in by the Anglos,” she recalled. “I still have the jacket somewhere. And I was the only girl who had a car and knew how to drive it at Brackenridge.”
Jesse’s success at the Coca-Cola plant where he rose to become supervisor of the truck fleet afforded the Garcia family a middle-class life.
“I started driving when I was 13, my Daddy got me a little Chrysler with a rumble seat,” Mrs. Medina said. “I drove until I was 98 years old, even on the expressways. Then I cut it back to trips to the Dollar Store and to go to exercises. I don’t mind saying I have a clean slate, never got a ticket.”
Brackenridge is where she met Arthur Medina, her future husband, who graduated one year later. He followed Jesse, his father-in-law, into work at Coca-Cola and rose to middle management.
Talk of Arthur Sr. turns to the photograph on the wall of the bright yellow 1953 Chevy pickup truck that I had first seen at the South Texas cabeza cook-offs. The story told in the family is about the truck’s original owner, Hillis Gooding, a Depression-era fellow worker at the Coca-Cola plant. One day Gooding told Arthur Sr. that he was broke and unable to feed his family. He asked to borrow grocery money if Medina could spare a few dollars.
“Arthur told him, ‘I have two $10 bills in my wallet, one for your family and one for my family,’ ” Mrs. Medina recalled.
After that, the two young men became fast friends. Decades later, when Gooding passed away, Arthur Sr. was told the ’53 Chevy had been left to him as a token of his friend’s appreciation for a long-ago act of kindness never forgotten.
The last time I saw that truck, John Peveto, the founder of Brake Check and one of the Harley Compadres, had fixed it up and painted the truck with his company’s logo. He also added the words, “Wagon Master” to honor Arthur Sr. and the cabeza tradition.
Lavaca has changed greatly since 1946 when the Medinas bought 226 Sadie for $8,000 from its owner, who accepted $200 cash as the down payment and wrote out the mortgage terms, including the 6% interest rate, on a piece of paper both sides signed.
“That was a lot of money back then, but we wanted Arthur to attend St. Mary’s and have a chance to get the kind of education where he could go to college,” Mrs. Medina said. “We had been living out near Lake Medina, but we wanted to be close to that school.”
Arthur Sr., she said, made the money, but she managed it.
“To the day he passed away, he didn’t know if we had money for groceries, the house payment, taxes, nothing,” Mrs. Medina said. “That was my job. We had a happy life.”
Dates included evenings out to the Manhattan Restaurant next to the Majestic Theatre, and movies at the Palace Theatre on Alamo Plaza, where Arthur used what little money he had to purchase her a single ticket so Julia could attend the premier of “Gone With the Wind.”
The area that became Hemisfair Park was still the Polish Quarter, established after the Civil War by Polish immigrants who built the city’s third oldest Catholic parish, St. Michael’s. The 1922 church, built on the site of the first church, was renowned for its stained glass windows, which were preserved when the church and Polish Quarter were razed to make way for Hemisfair Park.
The Victoria Courts public housing project, built in 1941, was still relatively new, and only years later became rundown and crime-ridden, Mrs. Medina recalled. The family shopped at a downtown grocery store that also had a pharmacy located at the corner of St. Mary’s and Market Streets.
“The San Antonio River wasn’t really seen as a river, it wasn’t a place you would go to,” Mrs. Medina said. “A lot of people used it as a garbage ditch. A neighbor back then told me Lavaca was once all cornfields before World War I and there was one small lane to get to Joske’s. She told me the only entertainment back then was running out to the front porch to watch the train go by.”
Most of the neighbors the Medinas came to know over the years have died and their children have moved on.
“All my neighbors are gone. I have one neighbor who comes over every morning and has coffee with me,” Mrs. Medina said. “Then she comes back to check on me in the afternoon. She never married, so I’m good for her and she’s good for me.”
Julia Medina does not lament the fact that San Antonio’s oldest residential neighborhood has become one of the urban core’s most desirable communities, attracting waves of young newcomers, new restaurants, bars, cafes, shops, and home buyers.
“We were newcomers once too, and now others are coming here just like we once did,” Mrs. Medina said. “You can’t stop things from changing.”
Iris Dimmick, the Rivard Report managing editor and one of those young newcomers, is sampling her first bowl of caldo in between shooting photos. Talk turns to the approaching 100th birthday celebration.
“Last year I blew out the 99 candles with two puffs,” Mrs. Medina said.
It will be a joyous Medina family affair with five generations on hand to surround the family matriarch. Julia Medina pauses to recall Arthur Jr.’s older sister, Diana Marvel Medina, her 73-year-old daughter who died three years ago.
Arthur Jr.’s other sister, Anita Medina Moke, the oldest of three siblings, is in great health and will be at the birthday party with her family.
“I lost that daughter and that’s been the most heartbreaking thing,” Mrs. Medina said. “But let’s see: I have eight grandchildren, 11 great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren. They all call me Grandma.”
Happy 100th birthday, Grandma Medina. Thanks for the wonderful caldo and so much more.
*Featured/top image: Julia Medina poses for a photo in her Lavaca home with her Honorary Humanitarian Doctorate Degree from the University of the Incarnate Word. Photo by Iris Dimmick.
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