Thursday, November 10, 2011

Grandpa Louie

I always admired my Grandpa Louie. Born Louis Telesfor Chavez in 1918 in Cubero, N.M., my Grandpa, like many from his generation, led a tough life. But he always seemed happy and appreciative for the opportunities he had. He was a proud ironworker. He provided for his family. And in retirement, he watched a lot of baseball. But he preferred the comfort, quiet and privacy of his den in his Farmington home, as opposed to being part of a big crowd at any baseball stadium, including Ricketts Park. If anyone spoke too loud in the kitchen, or wandered into the den while the Dodgers were playing, he simply turned the volume on the TV louder. It was an unmistakable message that everyone understood instantly. Since the home he shared with my Grandma Lola was the gathering place for the rest of the family when we visited Farmington, Grandpa also had a few rules: No discussing politics or religion. Of course when everyone cleared out, my Grandpa always liked to talk to me about politics. He was a proud Democrat and always loyal to the ironworkers union. He preferred private discussions – especially story-telling -- about politics, not loud arguments. I’d like to think I inherited a few of those traits from him.

Since he passed away in 2006, at the age of 88, I’ve thought a lot about him and wished I would have taken notes during our many discussions. Or better yet, I should have just recorded his long conversations he loved to have with his younger brother, my great-Uncle Lalo. My interest in discovering my family roots started with my Grandpa in 2000, as we sat in my mom’s bedroom the day before my Grandma’s funeral in Albuquerque. That’s the only time I took notes, and I recently discovered those notes. I regret that it took me 10 years before I followed through and started my research. I would give anything to talk to my Grandpa again about everything I have discovered. I know he, more than anyone, would have appreciated it. And he could have taught me so much more.

During my research, I have turned several times to Uncle Lalo to fill in historical gaps and tell me his own stories about the Chavez and Otero families. He was the youngest of five children and he was very young when he lost his father and two brothers. He has told me how his remaining brother, my Grandpa, instantly became the father of the family after those tragic deaths. I vaguely remember my Grandpa talking about the loss of his father and his brothers. And I’ve always wondered about it.

Melquaides “Mike” Chavez was the oldest of the five children born to Diego Antonio Chavez and Eliza Otero. I knew that he died in an accident, but didn’t know the details until I tracked down his death certificate and a few brief notes in the Albuquerque newspapers. Shortly after graduating from Grants High School, Mike worked for a road contractor, and was seriously injured by a falling girder at a project near Grants. He was taken to an Albuquerque hospital to be treated for stomach injuries. While his condition improved, he apparently took a turn for the worse after 10 days and died on Dec. 6, 1936. He was buried at the young age of 21 in Cubero.

Just three years after the death of his first-born son, Juan Diego Antonio Chavez suffered from a long illness, mostly likely Tuberculosis.  Uncle Lalo said he remembers his father dying a very painful death with no assistance from a doctor. Diego Antonio was buried next to his son, Mike, at the Cubero cemetery. Many years later, my Grandpa and Uncle Ralph welded two copper headstones for Diego Antonio and Mike.

Jose Benito “Benny” Chavez was seven years younger than my Grandpa, and he moved with the family to Los Angeles during the tail end of the depression and the lead-up to World War II. Benny worked as a pipefitter with Western Pipe and Steel at the San Pedro shipyards in Wilmington, CA. In the 1940s, tens of thousands of Americans, along with many immigrants, were building thousands of ships as part of the war effort. Benny was just 19 years old when he died in a tragic accident at the shipyard on April 25, 1943. He apparently fell into a basin and drowned. Uncle Lalo said he understood that Benny somehow fell asleep, possibly after being out playing cards all night, and fell into the water. Benny was buried in Calvary Cemetery in Wilmington.

Within eight short years, three of the Chavez men had died, including the patriarch, Diego Antonio, who was known as “El Chavez.” At the time, my Grandpa Louie was 25 years old, married to my Grandma Lola who was pregnant with her first daughter on the way. Yet, he also had the burden of burying the third member of his family and taking care of his mother, Eliza, sister, Perla and brother, Lalo. But he persevered, lived a great life and left quite a legacy.

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