By Matt Norris
San Antonio, Texas, resident Elena Ortiz has a deep family history rooted in the Canary Islands, Spain, Mexico and San Antonio. Her family fought at the Alamo, in the Battle of New Orleans and World War II.
Ortiz was born Elena G. Villarreal on June 18, 1927, in the city of Zaragoza in Coahuila, Mexico, to Felipe Gutierrez Villarreal, a small businessman, and Ofelia Garza Gomez Villarreal, a housewife. Shortly after Ortiz’s birth, her family moved to San Antonio, where they had previously lived. (Her family returned to Mexico temporarily in 1925 because of relatives still living there, she said in writing after her interview.) Her father owned a car-repair garage in San Antonio, and later a grocery store and fish market, as well as a pecan factory.
Ortiz’s ancestors came from Spain and the Canary Islands. They first arrived in San Antonio in 1706 and were some of the first settlers to help establish the area’s mission.
According to the Handbook of Texas Online, Ortiz’s great-great grandfather, José Antonio de la Garza, minted the first coin in Texas in 1818. Ortiz brought with her to her interview a photocopy of a sketch of the famous coin. She says he designed the original Lone Star, although he doesn’t receive credit for it.
“Nobody knows the early [Texas] pioneer history,” she said. “It’s not in the textbooks. Everything is after 1836.”
De la Garza was friends with Stephen F. Austin, Ortiz says. When Austin first came to Texas, he lived with De la Garza for a while, and they remained friends throughout their lives. Ortiz says her family had many letters and documents from Austin, but they were stolen.
She’s proud of her family’s legacy: A bronze statue of her great-great grandfather was erected in Nacogdoches, and Garza County, in the northwest part of the state, was named after him. Also, an historical marker in downtown San Antonio, on Soledad and Houston streets, demarcates the location where he used to live, as well as minted that first coin.
Ortiz grew up the second of four siblings. Her older brother, Edmund, who served in the military for more than 20 years, was stationed with the Air force in Iceland during WWII. She got as far in school as high school, at which point she began helping her father at his grocery store/fish market. During the war, she took an office job at the Veterans Administration.
In 1952, she married WWII veteran Richard Ortiz, whom she met at a cousin’s party in 1944 after he served in the Air Force.
“Everyone was so young that was drafted,” Ortiz said. “My husband was only 18 and he went straight to Africa. … [He] doesn’t like to talk about the war. He lost a few good friends in Africa and wants to keep it to himself.”
After the war was over, Richard used the GI Bill to get a degree in pharmacy from the University of Texas at Austin. And Ortiz’s family threw many parties for cousins returning home as veterans, the women spending all day at her aunt’s house making tamales and pastries, Ortiz says.
Life returned to normal soon after the war, says Ortiz, who still lives in San Antonio with Richard, along with three sons, two daughters, eight granddaughters and two grandsons.
Mrs. Ortiz was interviewed in San Antonio, Texas, on Nov. 6, 2004, by Cheryl Smith Kemp.