Isabel Casillas Sánchez
Neighborhood and Education Activist
Graciela Sánchez, daughter of Isabel Sánchez, shares this remembrance of her mother:
Isabel Sánchez was born on July 1, 1923 and she was raised by two strong women, her mother Francisca Gonzalez Casillas (1893-1973) and her grandmother Teresa Cantú Rocha (1864-1947). From these two strong women, she learned the values of love, honesty, community, hard work, courage, respect, and justice. From her grandfather Sebastian Rocha and her father Dionicio Casillas, she learned the joys and power of unconditional love.
Teresa was a business-woman. Living in Laredito with her husband and adopted daughter Francisca, Teresa ran a business selling food and drink at Military Plaza and, later, Plaza de Zacate. The Mexican-American Laredito neighborhood was demolished by the flood of 1921 Like many other Mexican-Americans living in the historic barrio Laredito, the family lost their home and business in the flood of 1921. Teresa and Sebastian Rocha moved to the Westside in 1924, building a house at 1507 Chihuahua and caring for Francisca’s eldest children, Gilberto and Alejandro Benavides.
Francisca, who apparently was living in Oklahoma at the time of the flood, returned to San Antonio, and by 1926, she and her young children were living on the northern half of the Rocha’s lot at 910 Santiago. Although Isabel had been born a couple of blocks away, it was the home at 910 Santiago where Isabel spent most of her childhood. And with the exception of two years living in Chicago as a newlywed, Isabel has spent all of her 97 years living in the half-block area of Santiago and Vera Cruz. This is part of the near Westside, in the neighborhood south of Guadalupe St. and north of the Apache creek. Claimed by wealthy white San Antonians during the late 1880s, the Westside was the area designated for Mexican and Mexican Americans. Racially segregated and economically stranded through redlining, which lasted from 1930 through the 1970s, the community has always been working class and working poor. When Isabel was a child, most of the streets in the near Westside were dirt roads, while all of those downtown and northside were paved. Most of the houses were built by laborers hired by various lumber companies (Guadalupe Lumber Company, Richey-Kirby Lumber Company, and others) or by resident families themselves.
Isabel’s mother Francisca worked alongside her husband Dionicio Casillas to make ends meet. She cleaned homes, washed laundry, and ironed clothes for white women. Francisca also cleaned the home of the sister of Dr. Aureliano Urrutia. One day, Dr. Urrutia visiting his sister and seeing Francisca’s skills, took her to clean his office. Eventually, working for Dr. Urrutia became Francisca’s full-time job. In addition to cleaning, she worked as a nurse’s assistant to Dr. Urrutia. Because of the knowledge she gained working for the doctor and her unwavering generosity, Francisca was often called upon to render care to her Westside neighbors, bringing children to life and accompanying those close to death.
Although racially segregated and economically isolated from the rest of San Antonio, the Westside of Isabel’s childhood was still plagued by a virulent color-bias within the Mexican-American community. Isabel remembers her mother being told “Oh no, that can’t be your daughter, she is so dark!” Neighbors telling her “Well, of course Dionicio is not your real father,” and other children telling her that she is too “ugly” to ever get married. Isabel survived these insidious attacks because her mother told her that they were totally false, ignorant, and mean, but they did hurt and did weaken Isabel’s self-confidence, making her activism as an adult all the more courageous.
The Westside, already poor, was hard hit by the Depression. Some families left to find work in Mexico. Many others lost their homes to foreclosure, among them Isabel’s recently widowed abuelita Teresa who then moved to live with her daughter and her family. Isabel felt fortunate though. She recalls, with some embarrassment, that her teacher began each day asking the children what they had eaten for breakfast and that she was often the only one reporting that she had eaten an egg, supplied by her family’s chickens.
Moreover, Francisca managed to keep the house at 910 Santiago. Isabel remembers that one day during the Depression a white man came to the house and told her mother that she and her family had to move out because she had failed to make a payment on a loan. Francisca responded calmly yet courageously: “I will pay you as I can, sir, but you will not put me out until you come here with a court order telling me I must get out.” Within a few years, Francisca and Dionicio were able to pay that debt and to get out from under the lien on their house.
Isabel Sánchez, my mother, definitely inherited or learned her mother’s steady courage. One of the dearest and most impactful moments of my life was watching my mother testify in court in about 1980, when I was about 20. The City had adopted new “Beautify San Antonio” ordinances and my parents had been cited by Code Compliance for having an unused car to be parked in their driveway. The citation required my parents to pay a fine of several hundred dollars and to either repair or remove the car. Mom wanted to challenge the citation and asked for my opinion. I said I would support her in any way I could and if she wanted to go to court, I would go with her. So we went to the Municipal court house and waited for our case until our case was called. The judge asked my mother if she wanted a jury trial or one that he as judge would rule on. We decided to take our chances with the judge and before we knew it, Mom was on the stand testifying about the situation that we faced with such a frivolous citation and heavy fine. Why, she asked, did the City waste time and money harassing her and her neighbors with exorbitant tickets, when instead, the City should offer help to solve the many problems burdening her community, and especially the children of her community. To me, it was like watching James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. My mother gave a compelling and tear-jerking speech that reached the hearts and minds of every person in court that day. And the judge heard her. Rebutting a city attorney determined to win, the judge found a loophole allowing him to rule in my Mom’s favor.