Juan Vargas, soldier in the Mexican War of Independence, eyewitness to the battle of the Alamo, and later celebrated centenarian in San Antonio, was an indigenous native born probably in 1795 in Oaxaca, Mexico, to Simon Vargas and his wife Maria Jacinta. His parents were of the Aztec tribes living near Mexico City, Mexico. Due to the oppression suffered under the Spanish colonization of Mexico and the continual wars between the Mayans, Zapotecans, and Aztecs, the Vargas family fled south to the tropics of Oaxaca, Mexico, before the birth of their son Juan. Sources differ regarding the exact date of his birth. His death certificate listed 1795 as the year, and his gravestone gives the exact date of January 1, 1795. Other sources have given an alternate birth date and location of January 1, 1796, in Monclova, Mexico.
Much of his early life was recounted by Vargas in an interview for the San Antonio Express during the last year of his life. At about age twelve or thirteen, he left Oaxaca and headed north to Mexico City, Mexico. He later described how he and other young men were lured by ambitions for a better life through fame, fortune, and gold. Vargas began his military career as a soldier under Padre Miguel Hidalgo, who led the revolt against the Spaniards on September 16, 1810, thus beginning the Mexican War of Independence. After Hidalgo was defeated, Juan Vargas then attempted to return home to Oaxaca, Mexico, but he was caught and forced to fight for his captors. He later reflected that he received no pay, no clothes, little food, and he did not know which side he was fighting for, but that for some years to 1821 he was either fighting on Augustín de Iturbide's side or sometimes against him. Iturbide became a self-proclaimed emperor of Mexico, but eventually he abdicated his throne.
Vargas’s life in Monclova, Mexico, apparently started sometime before or during his service to Augustín de Iturbide. This conclusion is based on his marriage and birth of his children. Various newspaper articles refer to Juan Vargas’s marriage in Monclova to Perfecta de la Cruz (ca. 1800–1894) and the birth of their children starting with Jacinta (born in 1818) and Geronima (1822–1935). Other children must have been born in Texas as Juan and Perfecta arrived in San Antonio de Bexar in 1830. The facts may have been clouded by language or other barriers as U. S. census reports reflected the children's birth places as Mexico rather than Texas. Their children were: Ambrocio, Francisco, Guadalupe, Cesario, Sevastiana, and Santiago.
In 1830 Vargas moved his family farther north to San Antonio de Bexar, Texas, where he purchased a large tract of land which included the San Fernando gardens. The Vargas family began tilling the ground and growing crops and had horses, mules, and oxen. As the gardens and livestock flourished, so did his family and their wealth.
In Louis De Nette's interview of Juan Vargas, published in April 3, 1910, edition of the San Antonio Light and Gazette, Vargas shared his recollection of San Antonio when he arrived in 1830:
Twas but a pueblito, a few houses here and there, mesquite trees everywhere. Main plaza was the center, and around it clustered the adobe houses. Streams of clear water ran through the town, the San Pedro ditch running…water for the use of homes. My own home at San Fernando was considered far out in the country. The ox team was our mode of transportation. The very rich had carriages. Then I, too, had one.
Vargas also recalled contending with American Indians and Mexican troops who raided their crops and livestock. He witnessed the appearance of Halley's Comet over San Antonio and likened the celestial body “as a sword that el buen Dios sent to portend to the Mexicans that they were to lose Texas.”
Juan Vargas was most heralded as an eyewitness to the events of the Texas Revolution in San Antonio, namely the battle of the Alamo and its aftermath. In his 1910 interview, he recounted how Gen. Antonio López de Santa Ana's troops came to quell the Texan revolt and, along the way, took what they wanted and enslaved captives as they closed in on the Alamo. This included Juan Vargas, who was forced to perform “kitchen and equipage tasks about camp.” In refusing to go into battle with the Mexicans, Vargas never entered the Alamo but instead was witness to the slaughter from outside its walls:
But never can I forget the battle of the Alamo. I did not fire a shot, neither did I storm the old fort when the Mexicans rushed in to cut to pieces the last remnant of the gallant band. They did their own work, I refusing to go to the Alamo. For this they threatened execution when the day was won, but could not at that time waste a shell on me. One shell might mean victory or defeat. They used their shells on the Texans.
…Mexicans were mowed down as though a scythe passed; the uncounted dead were piled in camp, while [a] sort of service was rendered the living by doctors, aided by myself and others who, like me, had been impressed for this service.
After the battle of the Alamo, Vargas and his family restored the San Fernando gardens and rebuilt their holdings and wealth. When the Civil War broke out, Vargas was more than sixty years old. Reportedly, he donated provisions to the Confederate soldiers. After this war ended, he sold his San Fernando land for a new property in South Heights, which was on the east side of San Antonio. During the next twenty-plus years, little by little, his land was sold to pay debts and aid and support his growing family and descendants. Before his death, his land holdings and net worth had been reduced to a small adobe house on Vargas Avenue where he lived his remaining years.
In 1904 Vargas had built next to his home a small chapel that he named Our Lady of Guadalupe. The chapel was located at Vine and Vargas Avenue (a street named after him; a second street spelled Bargas was also named after him). Vargas recognized a need for a place of worship for the Spanish-speaking citizens, and a Claritian priest from San Fernando Cathedral began celebrating Mass occasionally in the Vargas chapel. On January 14, 1905, Vargas sold his chapel and the land it was on for one dollar to the Diocese of San Antonio. In 1913 Bishop John W. Shaw gave stewardship of this chapel to the Redemptorist priests and brothers at St Gerard's Catholic parish and asked them to minister to the Mexican Americans on the east side. The Redemptorists credited Vargas who “laid the foundation for the establishment of a Redemptorist mission to the Spanish-speaking on the east side of San Antonio.” In 1914 the Redemptorists moved the chapel a few blocks away and changed its name to Our Lady of Perpetual Help Church.
In his advanced years, Juan Vargas was celebrated as a man who had witnessed parts of three centuries of history. By 1910 he was the patriarch of five generations of the Vargas family, most of which made San Antonio their home. His feature by Louis De Nette in the San Antonio Light and Gazette included Vargas’s advice on “How To Reach 114 Years Of Age.” By this time, much of his diet consisted of corn mush, strong Mexican coffee, and meat broth. He smoked almost all of his life but urged, “Drink strong drink in moderation.” He also advocated work; plenty of sleep and open air; drinking plenty of water; eating what you want, when you want it”; and having “some sort of religion.” He suggested, “Don’t believe you are old when you get to be 70 or 80. That’s the prime of life, so to speak. Be always cheerful and contented.” Vargas concluded, “Follow these maxims and you will live at least to 90 or 100 years. Few men can hope to get to 114, and it has its disadvantages unless your children love you as mine do.”
When Louis De Nette's 1910 interview was conducted, Juan Vargas was slated to be the guest of honor at the Menger Hotel for the 100th anniversary of the uprising in Mexico on September 16, 1910. He died less than a month earlier, on August 19, 1910. He was buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery in San Antonio. As an early San Antonio resident and patriarch of the Vargas family, Juan Vargas remained in the memory of San Antonians. A special Mass was held on September 14, 1980, at Our Lady of Perpetual Help in San Antonio to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Vargas's arrival in San Antonio de Bexar. Mayor Lila Cockrell proclaimed September 14, 1980, to be “Juan Vargas Day.” Another special Mass was concelebrated for the 100th anniversary of Our Lady of Perpetual Help by Archbishop Gustavo Garcia-Siller with the then-pastor Father Daniel Cisneros and a dozen other priests on April 13, 2013.
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Gerald Bass, Working for Plentiful Redemption: A History of the New Orleans Vice-Province (Redemptorists of New Orleans, 1995). Todd Hansen, ed., The Alamo Reader: A Study in History (Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania: Stackpole Books, 2003). “Juan Vargas,” Find A Grave Memorial (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/60041220/juan-vargas), accessed May 24, 2022. Timothy M. Matovina, The Alamo Remembered: Tejano Accounts and Perspectives (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995). San Antonio Express, September 14, 1930. San Antonio Light and Gazette, April 3, 1910. Today’s Catholic, April 2013.
Republic of Texas
Late Nineteenth-Century Texas
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