How Filiberto Gómez got to Gustavus Adolphus College, part I

How did a Mexican boy from Chihuahua end up at a small Lutheran college in Minnesota? Like the Mexican students in Tennessee mentioned in the last post, Filiberto Gómez González’ college education took him to a remote corner of the United States.  Known as “Chito” to his friends, Filiberto Gómez González (1904-1999) enjoyed renown for several talents during his life: he was a basketball star, physical education teacher, a specialist in the Tarahumaras, and an expert in rural development. While his story has mostly been forgotten, traces of his work and his journeys abound.

This post tells part of the story of Gómez’ life, and later posts will complete the tale. At the end of the post, I’ve listed some sources used to write the section. If you’re interested in a more formal version of the biography with full citations, contact me.

Gómez' border crossing card, downloaded from Ancestry.com
Gómez’ border crossing card, downloaded from Ancestry.com

Filiberto Gómez González was born on November 30, 1904 in the town of Villa de Allende, Chihuahua. Gómez’ father (also named Filiberto) worked as a telegrapher operator. Both Filiberto Sr. and his wife Virginia, Gómez’ mother, probably had at least several years of formal education.

In July 1912, Filiberto Gómez migrated with his family—his mother and father, his paternal aunt, and his five siblings—to El Paso. The family was classified as refugees by the immigration officer who inspected them. Many other families from Chihuahua fled the Revolution and settled El Paso during this decade, when the city’s population nearly doubled, reaching 77,560 in 1920. Many of these Mexican immigrants were children, and Mexican children soon came to form the largest group in the El Paso school population. Though many of the refugees were destitute, some Mexican families belonged to the elite or the middle class, like Gómez’ family.

The Gómez family spent their first years in El Paso living in the neighborhood Chihuahuita or South El Paso, the city’s main Mexican barrio and the place where most new arrivals from Mexico first settled. Soon after moving to El Paso, Filiberto Sr. became the proprietor of a grocery store. The Gómez family stayed in Chihuahuita until at least 1924.

Conditions in Chihuahuita were notoriously unsanitary and unsafe. As a 1915 housing report noted, “Probably in no place in the Untied States could such crude, beastly, primitive conditions be found as exist in Chihuahuita,” and public outcry did lead to city and charitable interventions. But unlike many recent immigrants in Chihuahuita, no one in the Gómez family worked in low-paying railroad or agricultural jobs. As the owner of a grocery store, Gómez’ father belonged to a relatively small group of the Mexican El Paso labor force classified as “low white collar.” While the family was hardly wealthy, Filiberto Sr.’s work differentiated them from the poorest Mexicans in their neighborhood.

To be sure, Gómez children’s early school experiences may have been marked by the difficulty of adapting to English and the humiliation of studying alongside much younger children. While the language barrier affected children of varying social class, families like the Gómez family at least had the wherewithal to keep their children in school.

Gómez may have become familiar with the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) during his youth: a “Mexican YMCA” was founded in 1914, located at 517 South Florence Street, less than two blocks from the Gómez family store in Chihuahuita. As Yolanda Leyva notes, “El Paso’s youth were urged to go to the YMCA, where their bodies and energy would be rejuvenated rather than destroyed” by the juvenile delinquency thought endemic to South El Paso and its young Mexican inhabitants.

Perhaps relying upon skills he developed at the YMCA, Gómez won a boxing championship in El Paso at some point in his youth. Later biographical sketches report that Filiberto Gómez attended high school and junior college in El Paso; though sources do not say where, he may have attended El Paso High School, about a mile and a half from the family home on South Campbell Street. In 1924, when Gómez was 19 years old, a border identification card (shown above) issued to him listed his occupation as student.

Yet as the border crossing card suggests, it seems that Gómez ventured beyond El Paso to points south and actually resided in Mexico when he was a young man. However, when he registered for the draft in 1942, Gómez listed El Paso as his place of residence from 1912 to 1932. Inconsistencies with dates and locations could have simply been errors, or Gómez may have had his reasons for omitting some of the time he spent in Mexico.

In any case, Gómez still was closely tied to his family’s El Paso homestead in the 1920s and 1930s. There were clear signs of the Gómez family’s upward mobility. By 1928, the family had purchased a house worth some $5000; this home would remain in the family until at least 1972. The home was located in Sunset Heights, originally an Anglo neighborhood that had been settled by elite Mexican exiles during the 1910s, though by the 1920s many more Mexican families had moved to the area. Two of Gómez’ sisters worked as public schoolteachers, placing them in the highest socioeconomic group of high white collar professionals who were just 1.8 percent of the Mexican El Paso labor force in 1930. Gómez himself worked as a physical education teacher. Through marriage, the Gómez family had also connected to the elite strata of Mexicans in the United States: Gómez’ older sister, Virginia, married Alfredo Baños, Jr., son of the Mexican consul in Baltimore in 1930.

Check back for another post to tell the story of the next phase of Gómez’ life!

Sources:

García, Mario T. Desert Immigrants: The Mexicans of El Paso, 1880-1920. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.
Leyva, Yolanda Chávez. “‘Qué Son Los Niños?’: Mexican Children along the United States-Mexico Border, 1880-1930.” Ph.D. diss., University of Arizona, 1999.
Martínez, Oscar J. Border Boom Town : Ciudad Juárez since 1848. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1978.
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