Inocencio Rosales, Known As ‘Don Chencho’ Helped Build Lighthouse; Recalls Early Valley History
The following is an article reprinted from the Brownsville Herald (August 15, 1943) by Clarence LaRoche about Don Chencho. He was a remarkable individual that embodied the spirit of what it takes to pioneer on the south Texas coast. Texas was just a new state and Don Chencho a mere teenager when he headed north to find work. After picking up a bit of work in Brownsville, he ended up in Point Isabel. The U.S. Mexican War had just ended. Soldiers and other camp followers stayed in the area and Point Isabel was experiencing a bit of a boom. In 1850, funds were appropriated for two lighthouses. When construction began on the Point Isabel Lighthouse shortly after, Don Chencho signed on. Up until his death just short of the 100th anniversary of the construction of the lighthouse he participated in much of the progress Port Isabel enjoyed and later years was known as the most photographed man in the Rio Grande Valley as he greeted visitors to his beloved hometown.
Intro by Valerie Bates
By CLARENCE LaROCHE
LAST night I sat down and talked with Time.
I talked with Time in the person of Innocencio Rosales–known in Port Isabel as “Don Chencho”–the oldest man in Texas and certainly one of the oldest in the country.
Simon Celaya and I sat down with the old man–it seems so young to call him merely “old”: he belongs to the ages–and chatted long on things past. Some of these things are so long past that they have turned to dust and have been forgotten these many years.
But He Lives On
These things that were new and unbuilt when he came to Brownsville and Point Isabel have long since turned to dust and vanished–except “Don Chencho,” who was a 14-year-old boy at the tie this section was being populated.
“Si, senor,” the slight, almost mummified old man explains in an unbelievable acuteness of memory, “I came to Matamoros when I was fourteen.
“I was born in San Luis Potosi; my mother died when I was still a baby and my father died in a plague that swept the country. I came to Matamoros with some friends in search of work.”
The youngster was not so fortunate finding work in Matamoros at the time. His friends deserted him and he found refuge, he says with a Matamoros policeman and his wife.
Overjoyed to see us–I had not seen him in some ten years, and Simon hadn’t seen him since the early 1920’s–the old fellow kept reiterating how he had known the original Celaya to come to the Brownsville-Point Isabel section.
“I was here when Don Simon Celaya came to Brownsville,” Don Chencho explained, his one good eye animated enough for two. “Tengo mucho gusto de verlo a usted,” he told Simon wringing the Brownsville man’s hand–”It’s good to see a member of such an illustrious family.
“Imagine how old he must be,” Simon turned to me and said, “Don Adriano tells me the old man Celaya came here around the early 1850’s.”
Church Being Built
“THE church in Brownsville,” the old man went on, “was being built when I came across the river in search of work. There were buildings and streets and it wasn’t hard to find work in the new town if one was willing and strong. But I was only fourteen and had a hard time convincing ‘patrones’ that I could do a man’s job.”
According to Judge Harbert Davenport, probably the best authority on the history of this section, Brownsville during the 1848-49 period was enjoying a boom.
“The Stillman group,” Judge Davenport says, “learned of the section of the government in setting up a new fort here; they were able to learn the location of the new fort and laid out the town beside it.
“The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was promulgated on July 4, 1848; Brownsville was surveyed at this time and the town laid out. Cameron county was designated in 1848, and the following year the county seat was moved from Santa Rita to Brownsville,” Davenport says.
This then was the scene Innocencio Rosales, a 14-year-old San Luis Potosi youth encountered when he crossed the Rio Grande sometime between 1849 and 1850. The Stillman Brick – House Crowd (the “Haves” of that day) were entrenched as the powers of the young town. Judge Davenport says many of the brick houses on Thirteenth Street already were up–having been built by the Stillman-Belden interested-hense the reference to them as the “Brick – House Crowd.”
But the Mexican youth was not worried about the Brick House Crowd or any other crowd. He was young, this country was young, and he had to live. And to live he had to work. Work he did.
They’re Gone Now
“The things I helped build in that period are gone and have been gone a long time. Many things I helped build years later disappeared.
“I helped build the Rio Grande Railroad. Si, senor,” he turned to Simon, “Your grandfather was my ‘patron’; he built the first camino de fierro from Brownsville to the Point–then things began to open up.”
Before there was any Point Isabel, before the railroad was built, the little resort of El Fronton–accessible only by state– was the summer recreation spot for Brownsville people. When, as Don Chencho says, the railroad was built in 1875, the coast opened up–the Fronton moved southward to the tracks of the new road. Here were established hotels, bars, restaurants, residences with all the train of good and evil, sordid and beautiful.
“El depot,” Don Chencho reminisced wistfully, “I helped build the depot–it’s now been gone twenty years. The first railroad pier I helped build–palmetto posts were used; and if you go to the beach at low tide you can see the worm-eaten, barnacle-laden stumps. I helped dig in those posts when they were newly rolled off the flatcar.
“The lighthouse that nbow stands forgotten in its glory except in memory, and seems so lonesome in unfamiliar surroundings, I helped build. It won’t be long before it, too, is pulled down and the bricks used to build something new.”
Recalls Old Timers
“SOME of the great old names that are immortally associated with this section dropped from the old man’s lips as he recited incidents that are now known almost only to local historians. The names of Belden, Stillman, Forto, the Brownes, Don San Roman Werbiski; a little later Celaya, Don Juan Simon, frank Garriga, Feliciano Parra, Timoteo Solis, and that grand border character, politician, and gentleman Jim Wells.
Don Chencho knew them all.
Of all the stirring episodes he has lived on the border, the ancient citizen explains, the great storm of ‘78 was the most important.
“Con un muchachito,” he says–”with a little boy I lay on the floor of a house here at the Point. The windows and doors were blown in and we lay flat on the floor, covered up in a piece of canvas to protect ourselves from the wind and rain. Then the roof of the house went off. Fortunately, the storm seemed to slack a bit and we were able to find better shelter.”
It was a marvel–here was an eye-witness of one of the most disastrous storms to hit this section of the country; the old Civil War port of Bagdad and its American twin-city, Clarksville, was washed from the coast in that hurricane.
“That was the storm,” Don Chencho continued, “in which I lost my birth certificate. I didn’t get another because, as time went on, we had no time to think of ourselves too much–the country was building up and good workers were needed. I was never idle.”
During the halcyon days of Point Isabel’s seaport glory, Don Chencho worked many years as a stevedore, in the warehouses and freight yards. As he says, there was work to do and he was not idle.
Worked At Anything
When work slacked off at Point Isabel, he could be found in Brownsville or on ranches in the Brownsville-Los Fresnos-Point Isabel vicinity, farming and running cattle.
It was on such a peregrination, soon after World War I that I found him as a laborer helping to open up the El Jardin section. Sure he was old at this time, but he still was strong and able. I definitely remember the old man at this time, for this was my first introduction to him… it was one of my first childhood memories.
The story should end about here–the old man, under the harsh rules of our present type of so-called civilization, has outlived his usefulness and has been forgotten by the people who have followed into the country he helped build.
It is precisely for this reason that he should not, must not be forgotten.
They say he’s a Mexican citizen. Who says this?–our federal law says it: Don Chencho, apparently, never bothered to take out naturalization papers–he was too busy helping to build a country–a country that was later to deny him. Today he is in utter poverty and in dire need of financial help–but the great men he knew and who would have helped him are gone; and he must look to new people for help; especially, as he says, to the descendants of those original settlers who knew him.
He is not eligible for a pension, of course because he is not a citizen. (Although I expect to show b poll tax rolls that the has bored and probably was registered many years ago for citizenship by Jim Wells.)
Should research prove Don Chencho is not a citizen of the United States, The Herald and many responsible local citizens propose to gain at least Texas Citizenship for the old man. This will make him eligible for a pension, and will relieve him somewhat in his last days. We propose Texas Citizenship for him, because under the federal law today no one can gain citizen who can not speak English. During Don Chencho’s prime, English was more or less secondary–we even used Mexican money as legal tender– to business and politics down here.
May Get Reward?
So, if the Lighthouse at Point Isabel is pulled down–that’s the prediction made of the day Don Chencho will die–perhaps the State of Texas and the people down here will justly reward one of their most faithful and constructive workers.
Today, Don Chencho lives in a little jacal at the Palangana in Point Isabel. His home–and his gratefulness is one of the most sincere tributes I have ever heard paid to any organization–was built by the Red Cross. He still goes to Point Isabel daily to gather garbage and slop for his pigs and himself–he may be seen in the morning driving his burro and cart down the highway toward the town.
His son, Lencho, a cowboy, helps out–but Lencho is married and has four children and a wife to support. And there is nothing left over to help the old man.
“Yo como,” he answered our question, “lo que me da Dios–I eat what God gives me!”
Let’s see if we can help God a little and give the old man something more tangible than salvaged garbage to eat.