Contreras Family

Israel Garcia, Thomas Contreras, and Manuel Contreras in the San Tan Mountains
Chandler Museum Collection, 2005.38.10

Severo Contreras was born in 1914 in Coahuila, Mexico. His mother, Anita, died when he was two, and his father, Victor, re-married. In 1925 Victor brought the family to Texas. Times were hard in Mexico and he wanted to find better job opportunities in the United States. At age eleven, Severo, as the oldest son, had to shoulder many responsibilities for the family, because his father suffered from arthritis and could not work much. Severo has one sister Juana, and three brothers, Jose, Manuel, and Tomas.

In 1939, the family moved to Arizona, hearing about work in the cotton fields. They moved from labor camp to labor camp across the Valley, from Buckeye to Chandler.  At the age of 26, Severo lived and worked with his family in Camp Three, a farm labor camp connected to the town of Goodyear. Here he met a pretty young woman named Margarita Mesa, who also worked in the fields. She was only seventeen and liked to call him “Viejito.” In August of 1941, he married Margarita, who was born in Phoenix. They lived in various places, picking cotton, until they eventually settled in Chandler.

They raised three girls, Margaret, Josie and Elida (Ellie), on Hidalgo Street, which was sometimes known as “El Sovaco (the arm pit),” because the cattle feed lots nearby created a strong smell. They met many families there and created long-time friendships. They attended St. Mary’s Church regularly and often shopped at Gene’s Market, a store on east Boston Street owned by Gene and Dorothy Ong. His father, Victor, and other family members also lived on Hidalgo Street. Beginning in 1944, Severo worked for 17 years as a gardener and landscaper at the San Marcos Hotel. He enjoyed the job although it was low paying. He also did landscaping for the Valley of the Sun Memorial Park, the City of Chandler, and later as his own business.

Margaret Contreras Rosales remembered that her aunt and uncle used to tell her about the ghosts that haunted Hidalgo Street. She also explained that each year their family celebrates Cinco de Mayo as the day when the Contreras family passed through Eagle Pass, Piedras Negras, Chihuahua, into Texas in order to begin a new life.

Eventually Severo and Margarita moved to a home on south California Street, which they purchased for $6,000.  In the late 1970s, Severo was in a car accident and was injured. He promised to honor the Virgen de Guadalupe if she helped him to get well. Severo healed, and he built a shrine for the Virgen in his yard. On December 12, 1979, he held his first Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe. He decorated the shrine and invited friends, neighbors, and family.  This celebration still happens every year. The family decorates and cooks food for the guests. They say a rosary, and enjoy food, desserts, and atole. At times Severo has invited matachine dancers and bands to play.

Today, Severo can’t move as well, so his family, especially his grandchildren, carry on the tradition. The people who come generally are old friends, former neighbors, and family, rather than the local neighbors.  At the age of 91, Severo enjoys working a little in his yard. He says, “I can’t stay inside, I’d rather be outside.” When thinking about the shrine he built, he remembered, “The Virgen helped me a lot. I was going through bad times and I asked her to help me, and she did.”

Ellie Contreras
Chandler Museum Collection, 2005.38.105