By Stephen Elliott, Hola America
There are moments in history that Aurora (Hernandez) Vasquez speaks about, moments of nearly a century of life in the Quad-Cities.
Some of the memories are of growing up in a boxcar, raising 11 children, participating in community functions and fundraisers, and once cooking a meal for one of the more prominent social and civil rights activists of the 20th Century.
Vasquez, one of the earliest members of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) — Council 10, Davenport, will turn 100 on Nov. 5. A celebration with family will be held at the Iowa Masonic Health Facilities in Bettendorf on Nov. 4, where she resides.
Vasquez’ story intertwines with the story of 20th Century America where both political and social movements became part of the nation’s fabric. Through Vasquez’ eyes, she saw and experienced poverty, discrimination, achievement, validation and lived with a determined purpose to see both her family generations and her community strive for excellence.
On this evening, Vasquez speaks from her room about accomplishments along with some of the daily challenges and joys life has offered. She was born in LaSalle, Illinois. At age 2, she moved with her family to the Iowa Quad-Cities.
“We had 17 brothers and sisters all together,” Vasquez says. “They’re all gone except for six of us. My father came from Mexico and my mother came from Texas. They were Jesus Garcia and Manuela Sanchez.
“My father started out as a cement worker. Then, he jumped to different towns looking for jobs. He landed work on the railroad. My dad always found work, so the Depression that followed made our lives difficult since he traveled to different parts of the country for employment.”
While working for the railroad, Vasquez’ father was able to have his family stay and live in a boxcar for free near Buffalo, Iowa, on the Mississippi River.
“I didn’t know no different,” Vasquez says. “We had no running water. There was a pump at the entrance. We used the Mississippi River water to do laundry.”
One of Vasquez’ daughters, Marie Ptak, is with her on this night. She says later in life, the family lived at Cook’s Point, a predominantly Mexican settlement in Davenport, Iowa, west of the Crescent railroad bridge crossing the Mississippi.
Again, with no running water, people lived in the small shacks that were built on the grounds for little rent. Even with the challenges, the family persevered and found joy in the little things in life, Ptak recalls.
They had gardens and Ptak remembers selling turnips from the family garden three for 25 cents at the local tavern. Her grandfather would let the kids use some of that change to buy two bottles of Pepsi cola, water it down and put it in a pitcher for them to drink as a reward.
“I was like seven,” Ptak says. “We lived there very cheaply. The living conditions were not very good. No electricity, no running water. You were living next to a dump in shanty houses.”
The area was cleared out in 1952 for an industrial park on the city’s southeast side, according to an Associated Press story from 1987.
The family later moved to a 2-acre site in Buffalo where Vasquez’ husband and father bought land to build family homes.
Vasquez raised 11 children of her own through the decades along with her first husband, Barthol Hernandez. When he passed away, she remarried to John Vasquez.
Her life was all about family, she says. Asked what she was most proud of, Vasquez says it was “taking care of my children. My grandchildren and great-grandchildren, I wanted them all to receive a higher education and get good jobs, and work for themselves. I have a lot of children. They have college degrees. They have good jobs.”
Vasquez’ life took a change in 1960 when she joined LULAC Council 10. The Davenport chapter was chartered in 1959 with the assistance of the late Henry Vargas. Vasquez attended meetings religiously, bringing her small children with her. They played with other children while she worked and helped with fundraisers to provide money for education and other club goals.
She wanted to be part of the betterment of the community, she says.
Through the years, Vasquez participated in the social justice push throughout the Quad-Cities. She volunteered her time for dances, fundraisers, and political events, along with the weekly bingo operations. When there was a national boycott of California table grapes in the late 1960s, Aurora Vasquez’ husband, John Vasquez, met with one of the 20th Century’s most prominent labor leaders and civil rights activists, Cesar Chavez.
In 1968, when the country was a mix of hope and chaos, with the Vietnam War, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, along with riots and protests throughout the country, there was a national table grape boycott to get behind farm workers and their plight. The mass support throughout North America landed in Davenport when Chavez arrived in the Quad Cities.
It also meant Aurora Vasquez, a busy housewife and activist in her own way, would meet Chavez.
“The people did the picket lines here when Chavez was talking about the grapes,” Vasquez says. “My husband did. He worked with them. Went out there in the streets. We didn’t buy any grapes for a long time.”
Vasquez was asked to cook for Chavez one day, and she did.
“Henry Vargas was taking him around, and he said, ‘I’m going to bring Mr. Chavez over. Do you think you can make dinner for us?’”
Vasquez laughs at the memory.
“I said, ‘oh yes,’” she says. “So, I made Mr. Chavez dinner at our house out on 6th Street when we lived there.”
It’s just one of many moments in her life that Vasquez cherishes.
“Aurora Vasquez is a lifetime member of LULAC Council 10 Davenport. As a committed lifetime member, she has dedicated her time and energy to various Latino causes within our community,” says Michael Reyes, administrator at LULAC Council 10. “She attended monthly meetings religiously. Her insight on issues that the council addressed were invaluable, such as education, health, civic engagement, etc. We cherish her and her late husband John’s contributions to LULAC over the years.”
Vasquez also worked for the Center for Active Seniors (CASI), bringing seniors meals and taking them to appointments. On Nov. 4, there is a big family scheduled to tell her thanks at her birthday celebration.
“I’m proud of all of the accomplishments that our family, and the Hispanics, have achieved over the years,” she says. “I’ve encouraged my children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren to further their education and build life-long skills. I wanted them to become good stewards of their community.”