‘Kika’ de la Garza dies at 89

McALLEN — The meaning of a life lives in boxes, in his home district, where he chose to live after more than three decades of public service, even if he didn’t have to.

These boxes hold thousands of photographs of Eligio “Kika” de la Garza, who died yesterday at 89, around the world learning about agriculture on different continents, aboard vessels in different oceans and meeting with world leaders such as Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev, all to help the Rio Grande Valley.

There were 900 boxes sent from Washington, D.C., to McAllen after he returned home in 1997. His wife, Lucille, organized them by category over the years. All photos are marked, some with “no fecha,” but most are dated and numbered, each with significance that only Lucille can fully explain.

De la Garza, who suffered from failing kidneys, spent his last moments here with family at the Legend’s Healthcare Center in McAllen. His funeral is scheduled for Friday at 2 p.m. at Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church in Mission.

The former Democratic U.S. Representative from Mission served from 1965 to 1997 in Congress. He left high school at 17 to serve in the Navy for two years, continued his education at Edinburg Junior College and the Army Artillery College in Oklahoma. After the service, he attended law school at St. Mary’s in San Antonio and soon after was elected to the Texas House of Representatives.

But perhaps his most distinguishable work came as chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture from 1981 to 1995. He was especially proud of his portrait that hangs in the committee room in Washington, D.C. — he’s leaning on a fence wearing boots, blue jeans and an open short sleeve shirt as cattle grazes behind him.

“When I first got elected, Kika called me up,” recalled U.S. Rep. Henry Cuellar, D-Laredo, whose district partially overlaps with what used to be de la Garza’s. “Make sure no one paints a suit on my portrait.”

The other chairmen wear suits in their portraits, including de la Garza’s successor, current U.S. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan.

“Out of respect, we never called him the Ranking Member,” Roberts said Monday. “We called him Chairman Emeritus. Kika served with distinction and provided great leadership for all of agriculture. He was not only my chairman, but a colleague and a close personal friend as well. Our relationship was a classic example of how members could work across the aisle.”

De la Garza’s favorite story regarding the importance of agriculture came from a visit to the USS Cincinnati as a guest of the Navy, according to Lucille, and a 1986 San Antonio Express-News magazine story. He asked the captain how long the nuclear submarine could stay submerged.

“I can stay underwater for as long as I have food for my crew,” the captain said.

That showed de la Garza that it’s the farmers and ranchers of America who are in control of the security of the country.

It was also de la Garza’s work on the North American Free Trade Agreement that earned him prominence, especially with his work alongside President Bill Clinton.

“Kika de la Garza was a good man, very effective congressman, valued friend, & a champion for opportunity and social justice,” Clinton wrote on Twitter on Monday. “I’ll miss him.”

NAFTA had a profound impact on the United States, Texas, the Valley and Mexico. The significance was summed up in an official report in one of Lucille’s boxes at their McAllen home of 20 years, with photographs of de la Garza with astronauts.

In the end, it was always the Valley that mattered to de la Garza, and not just the important elected officials and representatives.

John David Franz worked one year with de la Garza and his mother worked 25 years as campaign treasurer for the congressman. Franz often drove de la Garza around, and one time they drove to the Zapata County fair.

“Anybody who was anybody from the district was there,” Franz said. “He got to talk with all the important people in Zapata. We were driving back on Highway 83. I was tired. We approached this little community in Lopeno. He asked me to pull over to this little store — he knew the name of this little store owner. I said, ‘Congressman, you already saw everyone at the county fair. You have a lot of support out here.’ He said, ‘no, I’m his congressman, too.’”