When U.S. Congressman ‘Kika’ de la Garza retired from politics in 1997 I was hired to produce a video of his life.
The video was to be shown at an upcoming retirement dinner in his honor at the McAllen Civic Center.
I remember being overwhelmed with the project because my research revealed an extremely long and successful career. How could I possibly condense so much fascinating information into a short video that still had impact?
I decided to land the basics of his life, then let ‘Kika’ tell his own story. Fortunately, the video was a success, we got a standing ovation from the hundreds of fans that attended the dinner.
Kika was born in Mercedes in 1927 and as a youngster moved with his parents to Mission where he shinned shoes for a nickel on Main St. In high school, he played football with Tom Landry for the Mission Eagles. He attended law school at St. Marys and became an attorney in 1951, one of the first Hispanics in the Valley to do so.
At the age of 24 he was elected to the Texas House of Representatives, but after six terms of Austin, he was approached by several Valley businessmen urging him to run for U.S. Congress. He protested, he told me, but the group of rich guys persisted, insisting that Kika owed it to his community to run and that they would help him overcome any obstacle when getting elected. Kika eventually gave in and went on to serve for 32 years as the Valley representative in Washington D.C., sponsoring lots of the legislation that helped the Valley grow and prosper.
The produced video I eventually called “Shoeshine boy to US Congressman: The Story of Kika de la Garza.” I interviewed him on camera for several two-hour sessions over several days. Kika was as engaging on camera as he was in person: kind, gentle, humble, funny, and a heck-of-a storyteller. The longer I interviewed him the longer I became impressed with Kika. It was no wonder he was such a hero, an icon, to so many generations of Valley families. In fact, I was so impressed I started practicing my imitation of ‘Kika’, which I will respectfully display here.
In his story of meeting Lucille, his wife of 63 years, he said he met her when she volunteered to help in one of his earliest campaigns. She was the hardest working and best looking lady of the group. So, he said he decided “I’m gonna marry her” when I asked about his longevity in Congress he said “Yes, in fact, I really recall the inauguration of Johnson.” I said “Lyndon Johnson, after the assassination of Kennedy?” He said, “No Andrew Johnson, after the assassination of Lincoln.”
On a more serious note when I asked how he wanted to be remembered. He looked down then back up at me with those twinkling eyes and he said: “As a good husband, a good father, a good grandfather, and a good neighbor.” Nothing about his huge contributions to the Valley, of the thousands of constituents who called his office for help and got it. And nothing about all the buildings, roads, and schools named in his honor.
For excelling in a job he never wanted and becoming a Valley legend, “Bien hecho, ‘Kika'” (Well done, ‘Kika’), que descanse en paz (may you rest in peace).
Editor’s Note: The above guest column is a transcript of an audio tribute Rod Santa Ana told about Kika de la Garza that aired on RGV Public Radio 88 FM on Friday, March 17, 2017. RGV Public Radio 88 FM and the Rio Grande Guardian are media partners.