I was eight when my father first told me that he knew Brownsville’s federal district judge. But it wasn’t until I was grown that I believed him.
Because it is almost Christmas and because I am eight years old, an age still young enough for a boy to want to go places with his parents, my father is driving us to look at all the pretty lights in the neighborhoods across town. I am sitting behind my mother; my father’s Stetson, which I am not supposed to touch, is near the rear window. From the backseat of our ’64 Falcon, the night looks like almost any other in Brownsville, the weather just a little colder and wetter than it was at Thanksgiving. As we pull away from our house, I see the artificial tree flickering in the window and the plastic Santa face with its rosy cheeks and scraggly beard hanging from the front door. The lady a few houses down from ours has set up a nativity scene next to her papaya tree, making sure to keep it behind her chain-link fence and close to the house so that nobody walks off with her baby Jesus. Around the corner, one of the shrimpers has a pink buoy the size of a disco ball hanging from the mesquite in his front yard, but this particular ornament stays up year-round, Christmas or no Christmas.
At the end of our street we pass the projects and Lincoln Park, where one night years from now a teenage boy will be found floating on the surface of the murky resaca, a drowning victim until they discover his stab wounds. After crossing International Boulevard, where the steady traffic is headed to Matamoros, my father takes the frontage road that passes just behind Guadalupe Church, avoiding Fourteenth Street and the row of cantinas where the police are always being called to break up fights. Alongside the freeway is Buena Vista Cemetery, which sits near the railroad tracks that divide one side of Brownsville from the other.
My father is taking the same route my mother takes every morning when she drives me to school. I come to this other side of town because she wants me to have a real teacher and not a teacher’s aide, like I used to at the school across the alley from our house. First my mother put me in a private school, and later, when it became too expensive, she put me in a public school in this part of town. What I remember from the private one is not the teachers but a shy boy in my class. I can still see him, staring down at his black loafers when his mother invites me to his birthday party. It rains the afternoon of the party, and we all stay inside the house while he opens presents. Out the back window is a swimming pool with a slide that spirals into blue water. It is the first time I have seen a real swimming pool at some place other than the civic center. Then, a few months after the party, a woman in a large car runs over the shy boy. The school holds a memorial and everyone attends and a lot of the girls cry, even ones who never spoke to him or showed up to his party. After this, no one mentions him again. But tonight, as my father happens to drive by the shy boy’s house, I see the top of the spiral slide and imagine the perfect blue water lapping against the sides of the pool.
In this neighborhood there are only a few streetlights to see who or what is walking in the street, which makes sense because no one is ever playing outside or walking to the corner store or smoking on their porch steps. Luminarias glimmer on the winding paths and Christmas lights twinkle from balconies and palm trees. One of the nativity scenes has a manger that looks large enough for me to stand under. In another yard a Santa waves mechanically at us from behind a team of cardboard reindeer. Next door an inflatable Santa is balanced on the roof, trying to find the chimney. Sometimes my father passes by for a second look.
Then, without saying much, my father pulls over and idles the car along the curb. Across the street is a two-story colonial brick home, stately with double front doors and white pillars that remind me of a library. In the window there is the flicker of what could be a blinking light, but otherwise the house is unadorned for the holidays. It is the first time my father has actually stopped the car tonight. My mother is looking at my father as he looks at the house, as if he is waiting for someone to invite us in.
“There’s where the judge lives,” my father says, barely lifting his index finger from the steering wheel.
His name is Reynaldo Garza, my father tells us, and in 1961 he became the first Mexican American appointed to be a U.S. federal district judge. I listen to my father and nod. I am still in third grade and not sure what a federal district judge is, and since we live in a town where just about everyone is Mexican or Mexican American, I am also unsure why exactly it matters to be the first. What I do know is that there are all kinds of men here, good and not so good, rich and poor, learned and unlearned, short and tall, fat and skinny, dark and light-skinned, but only one who is a federal judge. I know this means something to my father. It also means something to him that there is a photograph, which I imagine is probably in the house across the street, of Judge Garza shaking hands with President Kennedy. I know about Kennedy not just because he was the president and we studied him last year in school but also because my father owns only one book and it happens to be about Kennedy. He keeps the book under the table that has the lamp on it, and sometimes, when he is not inside the house, I will look at the pictures. My father also has a small rug with President Kennedy’s face on it, but he keeps this in the hall closet and does not actually use it as a rug.
On the way back across town, my father tells us the story about how he met the judge. Here is the short version: The judge bought his daughter a Shetland pony, but he needed a permit for the pony. My father works for the USDA, where, among other things, he issues permits to people who own livestock, like cattle and horses and sometimes even ponies, and on rare occasion will deliver paperwork directly to the owner, as he did the afternoon he walked up to the house with the pillars.
This is not the last time I hear about Judge Garza. After Christmas is over, and for years to come, my father continues to mention the judge, even when the pony is gone and the judge no longer needs a permit. One morning he sees him walking out of church. Another day he runs into him downtown, near the courthouse. Each time, he mentions the judge as if they are friends. But by now I am older, almost twelve, and I am doubtful of things I do not see with my own eyes, particularly if it is my father who asks me to believe them. After all, my father’s friends come to the house for dinner on Christmas Eve, but we have only ever parked across the street from the judge’s house. Then there is the fact that I have never actually seen him in person, only his grainy black and white image in the newspaper. There is no sign of him in President Kennedy’s book with all its colored photos.
Later, President Carter asks the judge to be attorney general, which means that he would be the first Mexican American to become one. I know because I read it in the paper but then also because my father brings it up at dinner that night, especially the part about Judge Garza turning down the president of the United States because he does not want to leave his family, and because he does not want to leave Brownsville and go live somewhere else. My father looks at me across the kitchen table when he says this.
Carter, it turns out, visits Brownsville during his reelection campaign. This is the first time we’ve known a president to come to our town, and my father says we should go see what the man has to say, as if what he has to say, good or bad, might change the fact that my father is destined to vote for him, straight ticket. But since the president comes on a Saturday, half of Brownsville also shows up to hear him speak at the college. My father and I stand in the middle of a large parking lot, barely able to see the president onstage. During his speech, Carter reminds everyone that after Judge Garza turned down the attorney general position, he appointed him to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, making him the first Mexican American to serve in this position. Every time the president mentions Judge Garza’s name, the applause is thunderous, as if no one has figured out that the man is just saying it to get more votes. Afterward I read that the judge would have been at the rally but was out of town on business.
More years pass, and like my sister and two brothers and all my cousins, I leave Brownsville to live somewhere else. It takes another twenty years before I move back, and by this time my parents, who were never young to begin with, have retired and become elderly people. They spend their days visiting elderly friends, sometimes at their homes, sometimes in hospitals. One morning, after calling on a family friend at the nursing home, my father happens to see Judge Garza sitting in a wheelchair. The judge invites him to have a seat. He tells my father he is recovering from pneumonia, but the doctor says he should be going home soon to be with his family, which leads my father to say he is happy that his youngest son, the one who wrote a book, has come back home after so many years away and that maybe the judge would like to meet him sometime. Then, according to my father, the judge invites us both over to his house.
By now I am accustomed to my parents thinking someone wants to talk to me, when really the person is only being kind, inquiring about their children. I also have to question why the judge would invite my father to his house now, some forty years after the time it seems they first met. Perhaps his invitation is simply a gesture of appreciation from one old man to another for having kept him company during his convalescence, expressed genuinely in the moment and only later reconsidered. But as with most topics, there is no changing my father’s mind, and so late one summer afternoon, I drive us across town. This time there are no Christmas lights in the other neighborhood, and it is not even dark, so the judge’s house seems larger, the pillars more imposing.
My father has asked me to give the judge a signed copy of my book, which at first seems like a nice idea but then makes me feel awkward when we are actually standing at the double front doors and my father is trying to figure out whether to use the knocker or the doorbell. The judge’s wife opens the door and invites us in, saying they have been expecting us. In the old grainy pictures the judge looked tall, but now he bends forward as he uses a walker, assisted by two of his law clerks. My father and I drink coffee and eat cookies off a silver tray while the judge does most of the talking. Though he is still ailing, his voice resounds like that of a man who is used to being heard. The living room is ample but smaller than I used to imagine it. A large deer’s head is mounted on the wall, its face turned away but its ears cocked as if it is listening. When we run out of things to say, I hand my book to the judge and thank him for inviting us into his home. I look at my father and motion toward the door, but then the judge says he wants to give me a copy of his book, a biography of his life and career. On the cover is a photograph of him standing in the Oval Office with Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.
Later that night, back on the other side of town, I open the judge’s book and notice how the slight tremor in his hand has jumbled his words. It was a thoughtful gift, but now I remember how much effort it took him to write the two or three lines. As much as I strain to make them out, they are unreadable. In fact, the only thing I can make out is his last sentence: Your dad and I are old friends.