From Mexico to the Midwest: The Reyes-Atilano Legacy
My great grandparents, Victoriano and Mariana Vargas Reyes decided to flee the tyranny and aftermath of the Mexican Revolution for El Norte (the United States of America) for a better life and in hopes of one day returning to Mexico. It was during the fall of 1916 when Victoriano, Mariana, sons Feliciano and Santos, and baby daughter Petra made their long journey to the United States. On the 24th of October 1916, at the age of 30, Victoriano crossed the footbridge bordering Mexico and Laredo, Texas with his wife, two sons, 4 month old baby Petra, two nephews, and $1.58 in his pocket. Along they way, they picked sugar beets and onions to make ends meet and slept in gunny sacks. They would journey over 2500 miles and make their final destination in Centerville, Iowa. In Centerville, they were welcomed by Italians, Irishmen, and Swedes as they were all new to the country and in those days, people helped their neighbors. My great grandparents were devout Catholics and I am certain, it was their deep faith that erased any fear they may have had in this new world. The Reyes family settled in a railroad box car as was common in those days. I wondered what it was like having their first Iowa winter in the shelter of a box car. Centerville was a big part of the coal mining industry and Victoriano quickly began working the coal mines. My great grandmother, Mariana, gave birth to her first American born child in 1919, Juanita Pauline. Juanita Pauline would later enter the Catholic Sisterhood in 1936 becoming “Sister Marilyn Reyes.” Another daughter, Sanita, was born in 1920, and a son, Joseph in 1922. Feliciano and Santos would make money by wrestling and boxing respectively. At the age of 12, Feliciano lied to the coal mine foremans about his age, telling them he was 13 so he could help bring in more money for the household. Petra, Sanita, and Joseph were attending school, learning English, and going to catechism. In the summer of 1923, Mariana was carrying her 6th child, due in February. Her happiness would turn to great sorrow in a few short weeks. On the 25th of July 1923, Victoriano hopped onto the side of a passing rail car to ride out to the coal mine to check on his son Feliciano as dinner time was approaching. Father and son, hopped back on the rail car to ride back into town for dinner. Feliciano jumped off first and in doing so he heard a thump. As he turned to wait for his father, he witnessed his father being dragged and mutiliated by the train. Bystanders ran alongside the train to get the engineers attention to stop the train while by grandfather, Feliciano, reached for the hand of his father under the train. With no time to grieve or panic, my 13 year old grandfather, ran to his little rail car home and demanded that his mother give him a white sheet so he may gather up his father’s body. He told her their was no time to cry. There was Mariana, in a new world, with five children, carrying her 6th child, and widow at the age of 36. A neighbor tried to convince Mariana that since there was no father, there should not be a baby.
My grandmother did not know the English language well, but she knew what her friend was trying to convey and simply told her “no, its my religion.” My grandfather , Feliciano, (happy one) became head of the family at that moment. Mariana gave birth to a son in February 1924 and named him “Victor.” Santos went on to become a prominent boxer and entered the service in 1943 and met his death in Luxemburg, Germany in WWII at the age of 34. His v-mail letters have been donated to the Centerville Library. Petra married in to 1942, gave birth to six children, and lived to 90 years. Sanita went on to become a dental hygenist, married, and took care of Mariana for many years. Sanita lived to see 71 years. Joseph followed in Santos’ footsteps and also became a prominent boxer in the Midwest. His boxing archives have been donated to the Centerville library. He enlisted in the military, remained single, and lived to see 67 years. Feliciano became a Naturalized US citizen in 1940, was a member of Civilian Conservation Corps, married Guadalupe Atilano in 1944, raised twelve children with Guadalupe, and retired from the Rock Island Railroad after 48 years of service. He lived a hard life, with tragic events, but always remained true to his name. . .the happy one. He passed away at 80 years of age. Victor and Sister Marilyn are the only two children to outlive their mother. Mariana was a tiny woman of about 4′ 8″ and thick glasses. She was always smiling and her memory was sharp her ENTIRE life. She met Governor Branstad, had her name corrected from Mary to Mariana, watched the World Series, and was the oldest voter in Iowa, voting for Bill Clinton. Mariana never mastered the English language but she conquered life with her faith as her shield. She outlived 3 of her children and passed away at the age of 106 years, but not before planting some very deep and strong roots in the rich soil of Iowa stretching all the way from the mountains of Mexico.