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Wagon Tongues to the North
Wednesday, August 20, 2014 • Posted August 20, 2014 3:48 PM

Back in the days of the covered wagon, travelers would often orient their wagon tongues toward the North Star before retiring for the night. In the morning, when the stars were no longer visible, they simply had to look at the wagon tongue to calculate their direction of travel.

As we travel through this veil of tears called life, I think it is imperative to keep our orientation, to keep our eyes on the things of most importance.

I was first introduced to the Solis family back in 1981 when I became principal at Van Horn High School. Elias Solis was the counselor at the school. He quickly became my mentor as I took over a school for the first time as principal in the great state of Texas. I was fresh out of Mexico and didn’t know an Aggie from a Longhorn. I had to ask Elias what the UIL was. He informed me that it was the governing body for just about all competitive high school activities including music and sports.

I commuted a lot in those days between Van Horn and El Paso which was 120 miles to the west. Elias introduced me to his parents who lived in Fort Hancock located on the US/Mexico border about half way between. I quickly discovered that his mother, Josefa, made the absolute best Chile Colorado stew and fresh homemade flour tortillas in two countries. She would be insulted if I dropped by without eating—and eat I did.

I learned that Elias and his brother, Ben, were born in Cedillos, Mexico, across the border from Fort Hancock. Cedillos was little more than a small cluster of adobe huts surrounded by cotton fields hugging the muddy river. Growing up they would work at whatever jobs were available on either side of the Rio Grande which most often amounted to “choppin’ cotton.”

When times got really tough in Mexico, Jose Solis, the patriarch of the family, waded his little brood across the river and they camped out on a nearby ranch protecting themselves from the snow by covering up with cardboard from discarded boxes.

Freddy, David, Nacho, Fita and Nancy were all born in Texas. Each summer, Jose would take his family to California as migrant farm workers. Each family member of working age labored in the fields and at the end of the day they would pool their income and set it aside. Because they had to travel around from place to place, school for the children was often sporadic and difficult but Jose and Josefa insisted that each of their children attend whenever possible. They realized that education was the key to a better future.

They lived in Pecos for a while and after gathering to Fort Hancock, Jose used the money they had saved to buy a two-room house. The family settled in for the long-term. They continued to work together as a family and, in a myriad of ways, they helped each other succeed. Jose worked as a ranch hand and eventually got a job with Hudspeth County maintaining roads and bridges.

The family never took handouts nor did they go on the public dole. Each of the boys earned a masters degree and went to work in the Texas public schools. Each started out as a teacher, and each one eventually became a counselor, a principal and/or a superintendent. The girls, too, went to school, initiated careers, married well and raised strong families.

My wife and I visited with Jose and his sweetheart on their 65th wedding anniversary. Jose was struggling to overcome the effects of chemotherapy but maintained a great sense of humor and indomitable spirit. He was proud of his family and the fact that they still worked together and got together whenever possible celebrating holidays, birthdays, baptisms, graduations, quinceaneras, weddings and funerals.

“I am just happy,” said Jose, “that we have been able to provide for ourselves. We have not had to burden our children with our care in our old age. We do not live lavishly but we have a good roof over our heads and we own everything we have. We don’t owe any money to anyone. Our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren come often and they are close to one another and continue to help each other. Life has been hard but God has been good to us.”

So, while many Cedillo descendants continue life’s struggle “choppin’ cotton” down by the river, the Solis family prospers with a wealth that cannot be measured in monetary terms. They kept the tongues of their wagons pointed toward the North Star.


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