For reasons I can’t explain, I picture my maternal Great-Great-Grandfather Preciliano Chavez as being larger than life. A man of respect in the villages where he ran sheep and cattle, engaged in high-stakes gambling, made coffins for his neighbors and raised a grand family of Chavez boys and girls in the late 1800s.
Preciliano was one of a long line of Chavez men, dating back to 1600 in New Mexico. He was born Jan. 3, 1862 in La Jolla, near Socorro. He was the third of six children by Diego Antonio Chaves and Maria Juana Sisneros. His grandparents, Jose Chavez and Maria Paula Gallego, were neighbors in La Jolla.
Soon after his birth, Preciliano moved north with his family, near his father’s birthplace of Cebolleta. They eventually settled in the village of Cubero, and his father, Diego Antonio, was a Union soldier based at Fort Wingate during the Civil War. One soldier who fought alongside Diego Antonio said in a deposition 26 years after the war that he remembered visiting the Chavez family in Cubero. Preciliano would have been about three years old at the time.
Sometime before the 1880 Census, Preciliano, who was a young man of 18, migrated west with his family from Cubero to San Juan, Arizona. Many others from Cubero and surrounding villages also migrated to San Juan, which was later renamed St. John’s when several Mormons, led by the patriarch of the famous Udall family, settled in the same area.
In 1882, Preciliano found himself back in New Mexico. On June 10 of that year, he married Telesfora Duran at San Felipe de Neri church in Albuquerque. Telesfora was the daughter of Onofre Duran and Maria Placida Sanchez, all from Ranchos de Atrisco, west of Albuquerque.
Preciliano and his bride went straight to St. John’s, and immediately started a family in nearby Las Tusas. Their first daughter, Liberata, was born in May 1883. A year after that, on Oct. 6, 1884, my Great Grandfather Juan Diego Antonio Chavez was born. He was named after his own grandfather. Preciliano and Telesfora, who was known as Lesfora, had a total of 10 children (Liberata, Diego Antonio, Juana Bruno, Ysidro, Yrinea, Onofre, Ygnacio Leopaldo, Federico, Aniceto and Victorino) during their 20 years in St. John’s, before moving back to Cubero, where they had two more (Trinidad and Nicanora). Both of Preciliano’s parents, Diego Antonio and Juana Maria, died and were buried in St. John’s. Preciliano also lost a son during a tragic accident while in St. John’s. His son, Ysidro, entered a horse race and was thrown from the horse and trampled to death, according to an account told later by his younger brother, Onofre.
Because my Great-Grandfather Diego Antonio Chavez died at the relatively young age of 55, my own Grandfather, Louis Chavez, and his younger brother, Lalo Chavez, learned a lot of the family history from their Uncle Onofre, who lived 99 years before dying in Mesa, AZ. Before his death, he was interviewed by a family member, Pauline Chavez Bent, who later published Onofre’s memories of St. John’s and Cubero.
“My father Preciliano had sheep at first, then ran cattle,” Onofre said. “During a hard winter, he lost all his stock and sold his land to Juan Iriarte. When my father was in his heyday he liked to gamble. Once, he lost one thousand lambs in a card game. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Back to my father. He was the coffin maker in the village, but he didn’t charge people, he did it as a courtesy. My father was a kind man, muy buen hombre. Our family home was around the Cubero area. It was a large house made of stone and mud. It had about five rooms, one big room had a divider that was removed to expand the room. It was often removed to make room for dances. Dances were held to celebrate feast days.”
Onofre said when the family lived in St. John’s, the Catholic priest celebrated Holy Mass in the Chavez home. A Catholic Church was eventually built in St. John’s. Onofre also remembered that he and his siblings were taught by Monico Garcia who only used English in class.
In Cubero, the Chavez men worked for Juan Iriarte, a Basque from Spain who bought a lot of land in the area. Onofre worked for Iriarte for 20 years, earning $60 a month, in addition to food and a place to live. “I always had a talent for working sheep and for the sheep business,” Onofre said. “I guess it was because I was a young boy of six when I started working for my father.”
Onofre’s father, Preciliano, died in 1928 and was buried at the cemetery in Cubero. His headstone reads: “Life’s work well one, he rests in peace.”