Contributed photo.Don Emilio displays the picture of Congressman Rub..n Hinojosa presenting the General Zaragoza Society's invitation to their 2002 Cinco de Mayo celebration to then President George Bush. He had accepted, but travel restrictions after 9-1-1 forced him to cancel.
Son of a Mexican immigrant farm-worker, retired Judge Emilio Vargas Jr. has met five U.S. and two Mexican presidents. In 2005, the Goliad Post Office was named to honor him.
Don Emilio’s story is a Goliad history lesson.
His grandfather, a rancher and judge in Mier y Noriega, Nuevo León, foresaw in 1907 that Mexico was on the verge of revolution and sent his 17-year-old son Emilio Vargas to San Marcos, Texas, where other family members had previously immigrated. Emilio’s mother’s family from the same town was drawn to San Marcos by claims that money was “lying on the ground.”
What WAS on the ground was cotton to pick. Both the Tobías and Vargas families worked as share croppers, eventually settling in Goliad, where Don Emilio’s parents were married and raised six children.
Emilio, Sr. was very proud of his Mexican heritage, reciting poems and telling stories about his patria. He often wrote letters in Spanish for less-educated neighbors.
However, his allegiance was to the United States. He volunteered to serve in World War I but was told his service as a farmer was more important.
The Vargas family acquired an early radio, and many neighbors came to their home to listen to a Mexico City station. When Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Emilio, Sr. gave his children and neighbors a geography lesson, showing them on his map where the news was occurring.
The Vargas family belonged to Goliad’s Sociedad Mutualista de Cuahtémoc, formed in the 1920’s to provide assistance to needy people; there was no welfare then. Such societies had been organized throughout the Southwest, with the first one in San Francisco raising funds in the late 1860s, through a Cinco de Mayo celebration, to help Benito Juárez in his struggle to rid Mexico of its French emperor, Maximilian.
In the 1940s the Goliad Sociedad learned that Ignacio Zaragoza, the Cinco de Mayo hero, was born in Texas, but they didn’t know where. In 1941, when Goliad historian William Neyland researched in Mexico City archives, he learned that the Mexican general was born in La Bahía.
In 1944, the Sociedad changed its name to the General Zaragoza Society, with Carlos Reyes as president and Vargas, Sr., vice president. They began organizing Cinco de Mayo celebrations; young Emilio, Jr. acquired his love of history from those early meetings.
In the 1960s, when Elisa de la Garza learned that the Zaragoza Society was searching for the location of the hero’s birthplace, the elderly woman led members through the brush near the ruins of Presidio La Bahía and pointed out the site. Her father had been a childhood friend of Ignacio’s. When the men cleared the brush and began digging, they located the foundations of the house. After acquiring the land, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department reconstructed the structure on the original foundation, dedicating it on May 5, 1976.
Emilio’s older sister, Abigail Vargas Carbajal, longtime president of the Zaragoza Society, not only worked for the birthplace reconstruction, but also advocated for a statue of the famous general, which the Mexican state of Puebla donated in 1980.
When Emilio graduated from high school in 1954, he joined the Air Force and was stationed in northern Japan, then in Wichita Falls.
When his military service ended, he and a friend applied for jobs at South Texas industrial plants. The friend, whose surname was Shaw, was offered a job, but Vargas wasn’t. However, when Shaw reported to work and the employer saw his Mexican-American features, he was fired. Emilio decided that he needed to fight against discrimination.
He registered to vote, which at that time required paying a poll tax. Through the Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations, he met Dr. Héctor García of Corpus Christi, who encouraged him to register people to vote.
He was eventually employed by the Department of Human Services; he was at the Job Corps in San Marcos in 1965 when President Lyndon Johnson arrived by helicopter to sign his Higher Education Act—and walked directly to speak to Emilio.
Back in Goliad, Vargas was elected to the school board, becoming its first Mexican-American president. He served 18 years—until his son and daughter-in-law were hired to teach in Goliad, and his resignation was required.
After he retired from DHS in 1995, Emilio was elected Justice of the Peace, serving four terms. In addition to his long-time participation in the Zaragoza Society, he has worked with the Goliad Chamber of Commerce, Lion’s Club, Rotary, the Goliad Historical District and the local hospital board.
His civic service earned him an invitation to Mexico City in 1999 to meet with President Ernesto Zedillo, along with 33 other Mexican Americans, at Los Pinos, the Mexican White House. The next year President Vicente Fox invited 300 U.S. citizens, including Emilio, to celebrate las Fiestas Patrias in the Zócalo—another memorable visit.
In addition to LBJ, Emilio has met Presidents Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton and both Bushes. He met Hillary when she was campaigning in the Valley in 2008, so he may be able to add another U.S. president to his list.
His dream is to have both the U.S. and Mexican presidents attend a Cinco de Mayo celebration in Goliad.