An illustration of two white shilouetted figures running in front of a mysterious green and blue light
Illustration by Anthony Freda

Home Before
Sundown

Old gives way to new in Hidalgo, but the ghosts persist

by Rubén Degollado

In the only photograph I have of my grandfather, taken in the 1970s, he is wearing his City of Hidalgo deputy marshal uniform. He is half smiling, head slightly askew, with one hand on his leather police belt. Whenever I see this picture, it’s not his uniform, his badge, or the .357 Magnum on his hip that draws me in. It’s the expression in his eyes: kind and gentle, but also commanding of respect and wary of wrongdoers. It’s also the way he wears his cowboy hat, back on his head and tilted left at a cocked angle. In those eyes, I see strength and courage, but also love for his family and for the town he helped build, first as a school bus driver, then a taxicab company owner, and finally a peacekeeper. I envision my grandfather Roberto Dennett Garza Sr. wearing that uniform as he gathered my uncles and aunts—children then—in their small living room to pray, as he did every day before he went to work.

I never got to know him well. My parents had moved up north to Indiana in the late ’60s, and I spent most of my childhood away from the Rio Grande Valley, seeing Grandpa Roberto only at Christmas and sometimes in the summer. He went on to glory before we had a chance to return home in 1981, a move driven by my father’s desire for his children to grow up around family. I did get to know him in my own way, though, through the stories my mother and her sisters told on Saturdays when we would visit the tiny house in Hidalgo where my Grandfather Roberto and Grandmother Juanita had raised their family.

Their tales were either stories of bravery and heroism involving my grandfather or the supernatural legends of La Llorona (the Weeping Woman), La Mano Pachona (the Furry Hand), and El Jinete sin Cabeza (the Headless Horseman). I longed for these stories to collide—to hear Grandpa Roberto had confronted La Llorona, thrown La Mano Pachona into the river, or lassoed El Jinete sin Cabeza into submission. I could never understand why they didn’t. I spent those Saturdays exploring his hometown for myself—the roads, levees, canals, ruins, and banks of the Rio Grande brought his presence to life for me. The ghosts were always present in my mind, somewhere beyond sight.

Those moments of my later childhood in Hidalgo were full of adventures with my cousins Gregorio and Steven, whom we called Goyito and Stevie then, while everyone called me Benny. In this little town, my primos and I learned how to drive in my mother’s Ford Thunderbird, got our first jobs mowing our grandmother’s mostly dirt lawn, and talked about girls we had crushes on. We had free rein, made our own decisions between life and death. On those Saturdays of our youth, I lived by only one rule: Get back before sundown. Because if you don’t, the ghost of La Llorona will get you.

There are many versions of the legend of La Llorona, and the story’s roots are often disputed. Some claim it’s an Indigenous story that predates the arrival of the Spanish to Mexico, while others say it’s a result of the latter’s colonization. In the version I grew up hearing, a woman named María is engaged to a soldier, but he tells her he can’t go through with marriage when he discovers she has children. Fearing a life of poverty and an inability to put food on the table without the soldier’s wages to support her, she drowns her children. She then returns to the soldier and tells him they are free to marry now that she is childless. When he learns what she has done, he rejects her and rides out of town. María—with no lover and no children, wracked by guilt, wearing her white wedding dress—drowns herself. She is denied entry into heaven and is cursed to an eternity of roaming along the banks of the Rio Grande, searching for her children, weeping, and crying out for them. Every night, when La Llorona doesn’t find them, she takes any child she finds, and they are never seen again.

To most, it’s just a Mexican ghost story, a cuento de fantasmas, fodder for retellings like Joe Hayes’ popular bilingual book La Llorona: The Weeping Woman. But to my family, the story was real enough, and La Llorona was out there, a fact reinforced by accounts we heard on those Saturdays. My mother had her own brush with La Llorona when she was a teenager in the ’60s. One night, she and her friends found some cigarettes and snuck out of the house. Before they’d even had a chance to light them, they heard wailing coming from the river, about 50 yards away. They ditched their smokes, ran to their homes, and were too afraid to look behind them, terrified they might see her. As an adult, one of my tías saw La Llorona when she was taking care of my Grandmother Juanita in her later years. She’d gotten up in the middle of the night and heard the same telltale cry of La Llorona, then saw a white sheet flying by the window. My cousin Goyito even saw her along the canals in San Juan one foggy morning on his way to school. These family legends reinforced our parents’ commandment to always come home before dark.

It is fitting now that I take my own children—my two sons, ages 16 and 12; and my 8-year-old daughter—to visit Hidalgo. I want to share a little of my history with them but keep the scary stories to myself for now. Just as I have always wanted to know more about my grandfather, they often ask to hear about the days when I was young, so I tell them about my adventures with Stevie and Goyito.

I come from big families, with over 40 uncles and aunts when you combine both sides. This means a lot of cousins. In large families, you get grouped with the ones who are either your age or share your interests, or in the case of Stevie and Goyito, those who share both. You love all your cousins, but these two are like a mix between siblings and best friends. All of us still live in Texas—I live on a ranch in La Feria, only 30 minutes from Hidalgo. Every time we see each other, the years of building families and careers fade away. We are kids again, the proud grandsons of Roberto. We revert to our childhood nicknames.

A few years ago, we got together for my uncle Ed Vela’s 90th birthday. He is the former mayor of Hidalgo and married to my mother’s twin sister. As we told stories with increasingly inflated details about those younger days, we took turns sticking out our tongues and saying, “Ahh,” in a low voice. This is our Rio Grande Valley way of playfully expressing disbelief. We also used our chins instead of our forefingers to direct our collective attention to someone we hadn’t seen in years because we were all taught as kids that it’s rude to point. We repeated, “Pues si, pues si”—Well you are right, well you are right—when we agreed with someone’s philosophizing. We jokingly said, “Deja tú”—What’s worse—when we wanted to emphasize an important point. We all laughed in appreciation of these “Valleyisms.”

There is no greater symbol of my childhood and the Rio Grande Valley’s complexities than the Hidalgo Pumphouse, which we all called La Pompa. It was an imposing building that housed a steam-powered pump, which provided thousands of gallons of water to farmlands beginning in 1909. By the mid-’80s, when we were adolescents roaming the town, it was a defunct shell of what it had been but a place of imagination for us. We never could have envisioned what it would become in 2022.

Today, our Pompa is the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, a tourist attraction with a renovated museum and an event center. The now picturesque location is used for engagement, quinceañera, and commemorative photos. As I stand with my children in the same place I stood with Stevie and Goyito, I explain how none of what we are seeing was as nice as it is now. In my childhood, it was a ruin, a place of wonder that gave me the account I am about to share with them.

It is a few years after my Grandfather Roberto passed away in 1981. On this Saturday, my cousins and I are in a dry canal a few hundred yards from the house—as the grackle flies—near the ruinous Pompa. We are running from danger, and one or all of us might not make it back to the safety of Grandma Juanita’s casita.

We had gone exploring during the hottest part of the day, armed with tree branches we fashioned into spears with the Swiss Army knife I got for Christmas. Sometimes we’d go as far as the banks of the Rio Grande, but it seemed like we always ended up at the Pompa. In my mind, the Pompa was a castle from whatever Dungeons & Dragons campaign I was playing then or a post-apocalyptic fortress where we could live out our boyhood fantasies of surviving in the wasteland, scavenging for resources, and fighting off roving gangs of road warriors.

Our fantasy of survival has become far too real as we are now running for our lives from a pack of wild dogs. Our earlier bravado with the spears has faded, and my Swiss Army knife is no more capable of protecting me than a nail clipper. The dogs are a few hundred yards behind us, but they are gaining. Our only hope is to make it to the Pumphouse’s dam, which forms a bridge where the water from the Rio Grande was released by turning gears to raise wooden gates. We throw our spears, climb up the gates, and make it to the top. We are out of breath. Goyito has lost one of his shoes. The dogs approach the bridge, cross under us, and trot away. We realize they were never really chasing us, and if they were, they are now bored with the hunt. They are not the dingoes from the wasteland I had imagined. Still, at 12 years old, we had never felt more alive.

As I relive the story in its retelling, I see wonder in my children’s faces, something like a newly found respect for me. I realize I should have brought them to Hidalgo sooner, or at least told them more about me as a boy. They should know who I was, who my cousins and I were together. We were young, invincible, and we were Garzas even if we had different surnames. We were Roberto’s grandsons—proud, brave, and strong. We wore our baseball caps tilted back on our heads at a cocked angle, in much the same way our Grandfather Roberto wore his cowboy hat.

One of my favorite stories about my grandfather exemplifies his courage and inspired us to find our own. Roberto had been called to a local bar after a fight had broken out. What had started as a disagreement was now an all-out brawl involving most, if not all, of the bar’s patrons. I imagine it was the kind of bar fight you see in cowboy movies, with chairs being thrown and mirrors breaking. It was one the bartender could not stop, necessitating the call to the police station. When my grandfather showed up, he looked around the room and saw the faces of the men. He took off his Stetson and started slapping them with it, yelling at them to calm down and stop fighting. He called them muchachos. When they saw who it was, they immediately stopped fighting and apologized. Roberto had been their bus driver when they were kids, paternally giving them his consejos, or advice, and getting them to behave when they got too rowdy. I think he even got them to clean up the bar. Sometimes we heard these stories at the kitchen table, eating bowls of beef caldo my mother or tía made weekly, or roast chicken from the Wonder food store. And though the stories were entertaining, and the food was always good, my cousins and I longed to venture outside, go to the Pompa and along the river to make our own stories. So, we stuck out the tips of our tongues—“Ahh”—and went on our way.

 

Despite how much time has elapsed and altered the familiar Hidalgo I knew, I still see the old town from memory. There are new houses and apartment complexes alongside the homes I remember, and this makes me think about how memories linger despite change, just like La Llorona forever roaming the banks of the Rio Grande. Some things persist.

My kids and I drive down Ramon Ayala Drive, named after the famous norteño musician who owns a home here. The road is also named East Texano Drive, a reminder of how the old and new coexist alongside each other in Hidalgo. Along this stretch, the Hidalgo Killer Bee statue—though a nod to Hidalgo as the “killer bee capital”—recalls the time when the town had its own minor league hockey team that played at State Farm Arena, now Payne Arena. The Killer Bees belonged to the Central Hockey League in Texas. In 2012, when other teams folded, sadly, they too called it quits due to increased travel costs. To the north is the Hidalgo City Cemetery, established in 1884. My grandparents and great-grandparents are buried there. I take the kids to pay their respects. After a prayer for our departed, I tell them even though our family no longer lives here in Hidalgo, we will always have roots here. Like memory, our family’s history will persist.

All these places hold meaning for me, but I feel most connected to the Pompa and the area marked by a drive-through overhang bearing the name Old Hidalgo. You can take a guided tour of the Old Hidalgo Pumphouse, ride a trolley past it during the annual Christmas Festival of Lights, enjoy the hike and bike trails, and go birdwatching, since the Pumphouse is also a wing of the World Birding Center. As I stand here with my kids, I point at the house next to the water tower, which in 1983 became something of a shrine and local pilgrimage destination. The woman who owned the house saw the face of Jesus on a tortilla from the burns the comal had made. I tell them about standing in line to see it. It’s now Paula’s Tea House & Deli, a highly rated eatery. Where there was once wild brushland around the Pumphouse, there are now park benches, stringed hipster lights, a trendy gift shop, and Rock & Roll Sushi—a popular music-themed Asian fusion chain that serves boba tea. Hidalgo also hosts many sites with Texas Historical Commission markers: the Old Hidalgo County Courthouse, the Hidalgo Irrigation Pump Plant, and the Vela Building, where my Uncle Ed lived when he was a boy.

As we walk back to the parking lot and reach our car, I pause when I hear the scream of a chachalaca bird off in the horizon. A story comes to mind: an adventure I had all by myself just before I started junior high in 1984. My cousins hadn’t come to Hidalgo that Saturday, and I’d decided to head to the Pompa alone. It was late in the day, and I remembered the one rule about coming home by sundown. As I walked along the canal’s levee, I heard an unmistakable sound in the wind, somewhere in the trees toward the river. I remember hearing it distinctly.

And then the revelation hits me. I finally understand why the fantasma stories and the tales of my grandfather’s courage never converged in the way I wanted them to in my childhood. This was my story to live, my story to share with Roberto’s great-grandchildren as I stand in this place of remembrance.

So, I tell it. I tell them how, with my Grandfather Roberto’s courage and faith pumping through my heart, I walked toward the sound, not away from it. I was either going to help someone like my grandfather had or face the actual ghost of La Llorona. I would tell the spirit about forgiveness like Grandpa Roberto would have, tell her how she didn’t have to scare people anymore, even slap at her with my hat if necessary. But as much as I wanted to, I never found the wailing woman. Here at the Pompa now with my children, I am surrounded only by the ghosts of my memories. I can hear them calling to me from all around, as the wind whispers through the trees.

From the October 2022 issue
The December 2022 issue of Texas Highways Magazine, "A Tex-Mex Holiday"


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The December 2022 issue of Texas Highways Magazine


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The December 2022 cover of Texas Highways Magazine


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