‘Old­est man in Las Colo­nias’

WWII vet’s birth­day gath­ers to­gether four gen­er­a­tions of la fa­milia

The Taos News - - FRONT PAGE - By Jesse Moya [email protected]­news.com

His fam­ily gath­ered ea­gerly be­hind the front door as they hushed each other to not give away their sur­prise. With ev­ery­one hud­dled and hid­den, his sil­hou­ette crossed in front of the win­dows and the door opened to break the si­lence.

“Sur­prise!” they shouted. “Happy birth­day, Grandpa!”

“This is re­ally nice,” he said with a smile and a tear. “We got the whole fam­ily.”

Jose “Gus” Gar­cia has been cel­e­brat­ing his birth­day in Las Colo­nias for a long time and over the years, his cel­e­bra­tion has evolved into a fam­ily gath­er­ing that spans four gen­er­a­tions. As the self-pro­claimed “old­est man in Las Colo­nias,” Gar­cia cel­e­brated his 95th birth­day Dec. 14 among fam­ily, both near and far, as part of an an­nual fam­ily tra­di­tion that lasted all week­end.

His five chil­dren and many grand­chil­dren try their hard­est ev­ery year to make his cel­e­bra­tion spe­cial.

The Gar­cia fam­ily’s reach even goes as far as Alaska. Grand­daugh­ter Ana-Chris­tine Tafoya stud­ies ma­rine bi­ol­ogy in Juneau, Alaska and for the past three years has made the hours­long flight to be home in time for Gar­cia’s birth­day and Christ­mas.

Tafoya said she would do what­ever it takes to be with her grand­fa­ther for his birth­day. “Any lit­tle mo­ment that I have with Grandpa is just heart­warm­ing for me, just to be home,” said Tafoya.

She is just one of Gar­cia’s loving fam­ily who makes the jour­ney home for his birth­day cel­e­bra­tions.

Gar­cia, like many who re­mem­ber the old days, grew up in a dif­fer­ent era of Taos. As a boy, he would of­ten find him­self walk­ing the few miles into town or hitch­ing a ride on a horse-drawn wagon to get around. His birthdays as a child were full of wad­ing through feet of snow try­ing to get to the old Las Colo­nias school­house for a Christ­mas cel­e­bra­tion just af­ter his birth­day.

Christ­mas was dif­fer­ent in Taos then. Gar­cia doesn’t re­mem­ber trees be­ing in­side the home un­til the last Christ­mas be­fore he was drafted into the Army to serve in World War II. Af­ter that, hol­i­days and birthdays were in­ter­rupted for a brief time.

“The summer of ‘42 I spent in Colorado,” Gar­cia said. “That’s when the draft started and ev­ery­body had to reg­is­ter. I got the call from here, from Taos, so I came home to get ready for Un­cle Sam.”

Gar­cia was work­ing in farms in Colorado when the draft called his num­ber, and he had to re­turn to Taos to pre­pare to ship out. Gar­cia had sev­eral teachers from the area who tried to en­cour­age him to stay, but as fate would have it, he trav­eled to Cal­i­for­nia to ready for war and with that jour­ney, he found love.

“I only saw her once and from when we met, it hit. It hit her and it hit me,” Gar­cia said.

Gar­cia met his wife Chris­tine who promised to wait for him while he was at war. Chris­tine worked in the Cal­i­for­nia fac­to­ries lay­ing riv­ets in metal air­planes while Gar­cia fought in the Pa­cific.

The war took Gar­cia to the Philip­pines where he served as an ar­tillery gun­ner with the 389th Bat­tal­ion. On Christ­mas Day, Gar­cia’s bat­tery was at­tacked but they fended off the Ja­panese and the en­emy was di­verted to an­other part of the island, away from Gar­cia’s bat­tery.

Shortly af­ter that, Gar­cia was part of Op­er­a­tion Down­fall, a pro­posed Al­lied in­va­sion of Ja­pan. The or­ders were can­celed when the Ja­panese sur­ren­dered af­ter the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Na­gasaki in Au­gust 1945.

If the Al­lied forces had been sent in to Ja­pan, Gar­cia said, “We wouldn’t have come back.”

Chris­tine was wait­ing for him when he re­turned. Shortly af­ter the war’s end, Gar­cia took a well-de­served rest. He and Chris­tine be­gan their life to­gether back in

Las Colo­nias.

Af­ter con­sid­er­ing school in Chicago with his GI bill from the mil­i­tary, Gar­cia de­cided to stick to his roots and pur­sue a ca­reer with a bar­ber­shop in Taos.

School came natural to him as Gar­cia was adept at cutting hair and had an early in­ter­est in the art. Af­ter pass­ing school and ap­pren­tic­ing in So­corro, he joined with a friend and opened up La Fonda Bar­ber Shop on the Plaza. For 25 years, Gar­cia en­joyed a liv­ing cutting hair in Los Alamos and in Taos be­fore switch­ing to plumb­ing as a pro­fes­sion in his later years.

Sev­eral phone calls rang through the house as friends and fam­ily mem­bers checked in and wished Gar­cia a happy birth­day in be­tween the stories he told. Telling stories to friends and fam­ily is some­thing that this “coun­try boy” is good at. Gar­cia re­mem­bers nearly ev­ery de­tail from his past to present and smiles as he tells each tale.

Gar­cia said the most im­por­tant as­pect in life is fam­ily and to pro­vide the best life he could for them. With five chil­dren who all have chil­dren of their own, Gar­cia said his life in Las Colo­nias has been won­der­ful.

“We didn’t have any prob­lems at all,” he said. “It has been won­der­ful, thanks to God.”

Chris­tine passed away in 2015, and since then the Gar­cia fam­ily has stayed tightknit. The im­por­tance of fam­ily has been passed down from Gus and Chris­tine to their chil­dren and now to their great grand­chil­dren.

“Dad was at work, and Mom was the hen that kept us close, kept us pro­tected and kept us in line,” said daugh­ter Vi­vian Martinez. “You get up in the morn­ing, you do your er­rands, you do your part, you con­trib­ute. We learned that from them. You con­trib­ute in the com­mu­nity.”

Gar­cia’s con­tri­bu­tions within the com­mu­nity still af­fect many in the area. Both he and his wife were ac­tive mem­bers in the Catholic church, League of United Latin Amer­i­can Cit­i­zens, or LULAC, a na­tional ad­vo­cacy group for Latin Amer­i­can cit­i­zens, and other or­ga­ni­za­tions around town.

The past week­end was full of fam­ily and friends get­ting to­gether and cel­e­brat­ing with Gar­cia, who ad­mit­ted that he was a bit tired by Sun­day af­ter­noon at the end of the fes­tiv­i­ties.

Gar­cia said he re­ally en­joys spend­ing his time with fam­ily as of­ten as he can. His goal for the new year is to visit ev­ery­one in the fam­ily as best as he can.

Jesse Moya

Jose Gar­cia, cen­ter, greets his great-grand­son Anthony Tafoya and grand­daugh­ter Ana-Chris­tine Tafoya, left, dur­ing his birth­day cel­e­bra­tion. Af­ter 95 years, Gar­cia still has enough en­ergy to have some fun with the fam­ily.

Jesse Moya

Jose Gar­cia, cen­ter, is greeted by his grand­son Eric Tafoya, left, and grand­daugh­ter Ana Chris­tine Tafoya, right, dur­ing his sur­prise birth­day party.

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