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Once upon a time, J.F. Apodaca built a ballpark.
The park was – still is – in La Mesa, in southern Dona Ana County just a couple of blocks from everyone’s favorite landmark, Chope’s bar and restaurant.
In the late 1950s, when the ballpark was still young, a young pitcher named George Garcia often took the mound for the La Mesa Blue Jays.
Apodaca’s daughter, Mary Helen, was around the ballpark enough to know some of the players but, for her, George stood out.
“I was 23,” says Mary Helen today. “There was an attraction there.”
Enough of an attraction they got married a year or so later, at the old St. Genevieve’s Church in Las Cruces. The attraction lasted long enough the marriage lasted 49 years, until George’s passing less than a year before their 50th anniversary.
Many in Las Cruces know Mary Helen Garcia from her work as a representative in the New Mexico Legislature, where she served from 1997-2014. Her first foray into politics, however, was behind the scenes, about a decade before, as campaign manager for J. Paul Taylor.
“Paul was very reluctant,” Garcia said. “But I ran his campaign. I said, ‘You run and I promise you I’ll run when I’m able to.’”
The campaign was successful, to say the least, as Taylor served his Mesilla district in the New Mexico House of Representatives from 1987-2005.
She and Taylor, both educators, were motivated to run for office because they didn’t like what was going on at the state level in terms of education.
Garcia, whose first work, before raising family, was teaching third great at Mesilla Elementary, returned to education when her children grew up, working at Las Cruces Public Schools coordinating bilingual education, and then serving as an assistant principal at Booker T. Washington Elementary, where she was very hands-on.
“When a student was absent, I’d drive to their neighborhood,” Garcia said. “Sometimes I’d see them looking through the window. So I’d go to the door and say, ‘Get dressed. We’re going to school.’”
True to her word to Taylor, when she finally did retire, she ran for office, to join him in Santa Fe.
Garcia took pride in giving voice to her constituents in the southern part of the county.
“Nobody ever recognized Sunland Park as part of Dona Ana County until I got there,” she said.
She is proud of her role in helping bring Burlington Northern Santa Fe railroad through Santa Teresa, and ensuring bilingual ballots for Spanish-speaking citizens in District 34.
Having grown up in a society where speaking Spanish was shunned, Garcia and Taylor worked to enable English Second Language learners to have a place in New Mexico’s education system.
“We also wanted to make sure students weren’t being promoted until they could fully pass the assessments at third-grade level,” Garcia said.
As a way of recognizing his work, and his life beyond the legislature, Garcia at the 2013 session, introduced House Memorial 79, “celebrating the adventurous life of former State Representative J. Paul Taylor.”
Garcia was asked recently, What does being Latina mean to you?
“It’s a whole culture,” she said. “The family.”
Then she added, with a tequila glass in hand, “The parties!”
She remembers specifically the harvest celebrations her mother and father would host for the field workers and everyone involved with the farm.
“They would kill three or four hogs, and put them in the ground,” Garcia said. “And cook them all night long. There would be chile, green and red, and fresh made tortillas.”
She also loved the music.
“The songs sound much more romantic when they’re sung in Spanish,” Garcia said. “Much more so than in English.”
She also found a taste for a certain Mexican delicacy.
“I never really drank,” Garcia said. “I didn’t care for beer. And then I had some tequila, and that was it. I like the silver, blanco tequila. I don’t like it sweet.”