Dr. Clotilde P. García at her Medical Office
Dr. Clotilde P. Garcia
Physician, Activist, and First Lady of Hispanic Genealogy
Thomas H. Kreneck
Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi
Longtime Corpus Christi physician, community advocate, educator, and historian, Dr. Clotilde P. Garcia (1917-2003) was a remarkable Texan. Dr. Cleo (as she was affectionately known) was active in South Texas for over fifty years and brought tremendous benefit to her region. Moreover, she was, without doubt, Corpus Christi's grand lady of Hispanic genealogy, not only because of the research she conducted, but also for the large number of people she inspired to study their own ancestry. She was also, I am proud to say, my friend, someone for whom I had great admiration.
Clotilde Pérez Garcia was born in Ciudad Victoria, Tamaulipas, Mexico, on January 11, 1917, the fourth child and second daughter of José García García and Faustina Pérez de García. Both her parents had graduated from normal college in Ciudad Victoria where they trained to be teachers. Her mother and father were originally from Llera and Camargo, Tamaulipas, respectively, towns established by Jose Escandon, founder of the northern Spanish province of Nuevo Santander. After her parents' marriage, her father taught school in various small towns in Tamaulipas to support their growing family. Clotilde's upbringing in Mexico was cut short, however, in 1917, when she moved with her family to Mercedes in South Texas, fleeing the ill effects of the Mexican Revolution of 1910.
In Mercedes, just north of the Rio Grande River in Hidalgo County in the heart of the Texas Valley region, José and Faustina García and their children joined other members of the extended García family who had established themselves as local farmers and merchants. Clotilde's parents were dedicated to their offspring. Faustina was an intelligent, kindly, and nurturing mother who stressed the need for education. Equally important was the presence of their father who, along with his wife, began and operated a dry goods store of their own in Mercedes. Perhaps most importantly, José García insisted that his sons and daughters focus on their studies and acquire a profession. Versed in a range of topics from Aztec civilization to reading and mathematics, he tutored his children at home and exerted a profound influence on his family, including Clotilde. Being Roman Catholic, José and Faustina García raised their children in the church.
A diligent student, Clotilde attended Mercedes public schools and experienced a contented childhood, going to classes, playing baseball, studying music and art, and other activities. She helped her parents in the family store in her spare time. After graduating from Mercedes High School in 1934, she attended nearby Edinburg Junior College where she received an associate of arts degree in 1936; she then attended the University of Texas at Austin and earned a bachelor of arts degree in 1938, in pre-med with a major in zoology and a minor in chemistry. Like her older brothers José Antonio (called J.A.) and Héctor, she had always planned to become a physician as their father had advised. Among the many people she met while attending the University of Texas was Dr. Carlos E. Castañeda, the imminent historian, who had been her father's friend in Camargo.
Upon graduation, Clotilde became a school teacher to help her family financially as Texas suffered from the Great Depression. During the late 1930s and 1940s, she taught in several South Texas communities, including Tienditas, Benavides, Hebbronville, and Mercedes, an experience she enjoyed immensely. In these positions, she first impacted her region and its people and came to know them even better. In 1940, she became a naturalized citizen of the United States. In 1943, she married Hipolito Canales of Hebbronville, but subsequently divorced. They had one child, José Antonio (Tony) Canales who would become a distinguished Corpus Christi attorney and serve as U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of Texas.
Clotilde returned to the University of Texas where she earned a master of education in 1950, and wrote her thesis on Latin American literature under Dr. George I. Sánchez. She then made good on her longstanding plans to become a physician by immediately entering the University of Texas School of Medicine in Galveston. By doing so, she again followed in the footsteps of her two older brothers J. A. and Héctor, who had already graduated as physicians from that distinguished institution. Facing the twin obstacles of being Mexican American and a woman in a predominantly Anglo, male institution, Clotilde applied herself to her studies with her characteristic determination. It was a busy time for her. She graduated in 1954, one of seven women and the only Mexican American female in her class. That year, she moved to Corpus Christi where her two brothers had already established their practices and served her internship at Memorial Medical Hospital, 1954-1955. With this experience, Dr. Cleo began her long and illustrious Corpus Christi career in health care and community involvement.
Dr. Cleo became a legend in Corpus Christi and South Texas as a general practitioner. Her principal goal in life was to care for people through medicine, especially the poor who happened also, in most cases, to be Mexican American. During her early years as a doctor, she not only medically treated their ailments, but also helped educate people on infant care, nutrition, and other health issues. She devoted herself around the clock to her patients, saw them on a first-come, first-served basis, and drew great meaning from her work. Dr. Cleo literally touched the lives of thousands of people in the region. Amazingly, it was estimated that she delivered over ten thousand babies during her career, thus assisting entire families. She ranked the delivery of babies as the most memorable experience of her career. As she has noted, it meant "holding each individual, a precious, new person." When a patient died, she often attended the funeral, helping the family to deal with its loss. For such dedication, she came to be revered and recognized everywhere.
In addition to Dr. J.A., Dr. Héctor, and Dr. Cleo, three more of the García siblings - - Cuitlahuac (C.P.), Xicotencatl (Xico), and Dalia - - would earn their medical degrees, a total of six children of José and Faustina García to do so. Such was the accomplished nature of the family and the impact of their parents' counsel. Of additional pride to Dr. Cleo, her son Tony Canales married the former Yolanda García and had three children: Barbara Ann, Patricia Marie, and Hector Antonio. Dr. Cleo was present at each grandchild's birth and became a devoted grandparent.
Dr. Cleo's contributions as a physician were complemented by her other community service. Among her many activities, she served as a regent of Del Mar College for twenty two years (1960-1982), succeeding her brother, Dr. J.A., in that position; founded the Carmelite Day Nursery Parents and Friends Club in 1968; was a national member of the board of directors of SER (Service, Employment, Redevelopment) Jobs for Progress, 1966-1967; served as national health director for LULAC in 1966; was a member of the board of directors of the Nueces County Antipoverty Program, 1970-1973; was appointed to the Texas Constitution Revision Commission in 1973; was a member of the Task Force to Evaluate Medicaid in Texas in 1977; and served on a plethora of other local and regional bodies to better the community.
Of course, she assisted her brother, Dr. Héctor P. García, in his work with the American G.I. Forum as well. Like her brother, Dr. Cleo has always been a loyal member of the Democratic Party, playing important roles in the South Texas campaigns of progressive candidates, including the races of John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and the other Democratic standard bearers. She served as a delegate to party conventions as well as held campaign positions during the gubernatorial bids of such pioneer female office holders as Frances T. "Sissy" Farenthold and Ann Richards. Political hopefuls constantly sought her advice, support, and assistance. She would often humorously comment after attending to a baby's birth that she had "just delivered another Democrat." Her commitment to civil rights and the poor carried her beyond conventional political activities into participation in marches and other protest demonstrations for equality and justice. For example, when the Texas Valley farm workers came through Corpus Christi during their famous Minimum Wage March of 1966, Dr. Cleo, along with Dr. Héctor, placed herself at the forefront of the column. She likewise participated in direct action for effective desegregation and improvement of Corpus Christi public schools during the 1970s. Though diplomatic and courteous, Dr. Cleo has always been courageous and, when the occasion warranted, plain spoken about her views; she extended moral and material support (often from her own funds) to younger activists in their quest for social justice. To her credit, she consistently sided with the underprivileged and articulated their concerns.
Numerous accolades naturally came her way for her medical, civic and charitable endeavors. Among the more prominent of these, Del Mar College named its newly-constructed Science and Health Building for her in 1983. In 1984, she was named as one of the first twelve members of the Texas Women's Hall of Fame, along with such individuals as Lady Bird Johnson.
Having always displayed an interest in the past, Dr. Cleo focused her attentions on Hispanic historical research in the 1970s. She published the Siege of Camargo in 1975, her translation of reports on a famous Indian uprising of 1812. This was the first of nine volumes she authored dealing with local history, including works on such notables as Padre José Nicolás Ballí, Captain Alonso Alvarez De Pineda, Captain Blas de la Garza Falcon, and Captain Enrique Villarreal. She became a spokesperson for the teaching and study of Hispanic history, as she urged people to become aware of this important part of our national heritage. For Hispanics in particular, Dr. Cleo felt that an appreciation of their past would foster self-awareness and personal dignity, essential ingredients for advancement.
Dr. Cleo was a longtime member of the Nueces County Historical Society and Nueces County Historical Commission, and served on numerous history-related bodies, including the American Revolution Bicentennial Commission and Nueces County Sesquicentennial Commission. She was appointed by Governor Ann Richards to the Texas Historical Commission.
Dr. Cleo simultaneously emerged as perhaps the most energetic, well-known advocate of Hispanic genealogy in the United States. She was keenly interested in her own family history, especially her roots in Camargo and other parts of Nuevo Santander and Northern Mexico. On the local level, she initiated efforts during the 1980s to make the Corpus Christi Public Library a center for people to utilize in researching their family trees. To accomplish this end, she donated books and microfilm at her personal expense. In 1987, Dr. Cleo, along with her sister Dr. Dalia P. Garcia and fellow enthusiasts Herbert G. Canales, Elvira Garcia, Minerva Overstreet, and Mira Smithwick, founded the Spanish American Genealogical Association (SAGA). The organization had as its object to promote the research, collection, and development of genealogical data on the earliest Spanish and Mexican settlers of the present South Texas triangle (from Brownsville to Corpus Christi to Laredo) below the Nueces River. Dr. Cleo led the organization for its first several years of existence, ensuring that it would become a force in genealogy and history circles. Dr. Cleo and SAGA were especially active in further building the Hispanic genealogical resources of the Corpus Christi Public Library through the purchase of hundreds of rolls of microfilm data. They likewise completed compilation projects which provided Hispanic-related data to the public which had previously been unavailable.
As SAGA president for its initial years of operation, Dr. Cleo used her prestige and energy to kindle interest in Hispanic genealogy. The formation of SAGA ranks as one of Dr. Cleo's chief contributions. She likewise emerged as an initiator and power within state-wide genealogy conferences, helping to bring together researchers from across Texas. Her impact on Hispanic genealogy was felt internationally as well, from Northern Mexico through such acquaintances as the notable Dr. Israel Cavazos Garza, to Spain where she was feted by dignitaries during her trip to Toledo. Equally important, she focused much mainstream media attention on the benefits of Hispanic genealogy, often bringing non-Hispanics to discover their own Hispanic connections.
In recognition of Dr. Cleo's efforts to celebrate the Hispanic past, King Juan Carlos I of Spain awarded her the Royal American Order of Isabella the Catholic in 1990. The medal was presented to her by the minister of cultural affairs for the Spanish Embassy in Washington, D.C. at a gala event at Corpus Christi's Bayfront Plaza Convention Center. Sponsored by SAGA, the event was attended by local officials, dignitaries from five countries, and more than one thousand people; it represented a high point for recognizing Hispanic genealogy and cultural heritage in the area. In 1992, she was a principal figure in Corpus Christi's observance of the Quincentenary, spearheading the effort which erected the statue by noted sculptor Roberto García of Christopher Columbus at the city's Port.
Dr. Cleo retired from her medical practice in 1994, and reduced her level of activities. That year, she donated her books and many of her papers to Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi, where they are housed in the non-circulating holdings of the Special Collections & Archives Department of the TAMU-CC Library. In this manner, Dr. Cleo would continue to instruct people about the Hispanic past. Although in declining health, Dr. Cleo remained a popular figure. Her many friends and admirers enjoyed seeing her at local events. She died on May 27, 2003 and was universally mourned.
In 2005, her son and daughter-in-law, Mr. and Mr. J.A. (Tony) Canales and their family donated the rest of her voluminous papers and books to A&M-Corpus Christi Special Collections & Archives. They comprise an invaluable resource for research and education.
Imbued with a love of learning, she was a rigorous, devoted student all her life, whether of medicine, literature, history, or genealogy. A person of great compassion, she contributed in many arenas, always with her characteristic good wit and boundless energy. In return for her many good works, Dr. Cleo was loved and respected by all who knew her.
Sources for Further Reading:
Fernandez, Sara Lee, “Dr. Clotilde P. Garcia, who birthed 10,000 babies, dies at 86,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times, May 28, 2003, A1, A7.
Libby, Leanne, “’La Doctura:’ Family and Friends Send Love to Dr. Cleo,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times, November 12, 2000, H1, H3.
Munson, Sammie, “Clotilde Garcia: Doctor of the Barrio,” in Munson, Our Tejano Heroes: Outstanding Mexican Americans in Texas (Austin: Panda Books, 1989), 40-44.
Personal Collection of Papers and Books Donated to Library by Dr. Clotilde Garcia,” Island University News (Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi), August 3, 1994, 1.
Roehl, Linda, “Remembering La Doctora,” Christus Spohn, 3-6.
Saugier, Mari, “Family Donates Dr. Cleo Garcia’s Papers,” Corpus Christi Caller-Times, September 6, 2005, 1A, 5A.
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Webpage revised on 11/20/2013