HARLINGEN — Father’s Day is special to Antonio Hernandez, who first became a father in 1933.
He is 102 years old and heads a family of 132 that is in its fifth generation.
His first daughter, Elodia, died as an infant, but he and his wife had 10 more children, all of whom are living.
“We just had the family that God sent us. I love them all,” he said in Spanish.
“I have five boys and five girls. I can’t wait until the next day so I can bless every one.”
On Saturday, at least 50 of his family members were on their way to his Harlingen home to wish him happy Father’s Day. The party was Saturday night at the home he shares with his daughter, Santos Yanes, on South Ed Carey Drive.
Antonio Hernandez Jr. said family life has always been his father’s highest priority.
“My dad is a provider, he dedicated his whole life to his family,” Antonio Hernandez Jr. said. “I left the Valley, went into the Army at Fort Carson and married a Colorado girl.”
But he remembers rules that he and all his siblings had to abide by.
“Mom and Dad were pretty strict,” he said. “Kids learn from the parents.”
Grandson Robert Leal said his grandfather taught the men of the family how to respect their wives.
“He was more by example,” Leal said, “the way he treated his wife and how to do things. He was a worker and he got out and did things. He was quiet, he was always busy.”
His fondest memories of his grandfather are at Christmastime, Leal said.
“He is a family man. This has been a gathering center for everyone,” Leal said of the home. “On Christmas, he’ll put on his Santa hat, give everybody a gift. Whenever anyone goes by, he’s always sitting in his chair. He usually has about $20 in his pocket to pass out dollar bills to the great-grandchildren.”
Esmeralda Salinas, the youngest of Hernandez’s children, said she would come home on weekends from college and all her siblings were already out on their own, but the rules still applied to her.
She and her sisters were always required to have chaperons, she said.
“Even when I was in college, I couldn’t go out past 10 p.m.,” she said.
She didn’t have any siblings left to act as chaperons, but her father still required her boyfriend — now her husband — to come to the house and ask permission to take her to the movies.
“Dad said, ‘I need her back at 9:30. Don’t be late, either.’ And I was in college!”
Family members continued to come through the door to greet Hernandez, sitting in the den surrounded by portraits of past and present family members.
One very old photo of him, in an oval wooden frame, shows a faded portrait of him proudly posing in his cowboy hat as a young man. Another large family group photo from 1963 shows dozens of family members from several generations, assembled in neat rows.
A RICH LIFE
Although he didn’t push his grandchildren to have as large a family as he did, he says he wouldn’t change anything if he had his life to live over.
He was born in Linares, Mexico, in 1911. After his father died in Mexico, Hernandez, then 7 years old, moved with his mother and siblings to live with his grandfather in the McAllen area, where he helped out on a goat farm and delivered milk.
Hernandez later worked as a laborer, helping clear farmland for Lloyd Bentsen Sr.
He married Maria de los Angeles Peña in 1932, calling her affectionately “Angelita.”
A farmer most of his life, Antonio stayed busy caring for his family and for livestock on the farm, he said.
After becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, he worked at a variety of jobs, helping to clear farmland that was then covered with mesquite, a back-breaking job with hand tools.
From 1950 to 1976, he worked as a delivery truck driver for Bush Supply Co. in Harlingen, he recalls. “I would be all over the Valley,” he said proudly.
Later he worked for a time with the Texas Highway Department, Hernandez said.
“I remember when we built the first highway to Mission,” he said. “I remember when the railroad came through here (in 1910).”
He later returned to farming. During World War II, he was drafted and had a wife, five children and a farm to care for, so after he took his physical examination in San Antonio, the Army sent him back home, he said.
“I wanted them to send me back,” he said, recalling all his responsibilities.
Hernandez lives in Harlingen and the family mostly resides near their father’s home.
For many years, the family lived on a farm on Oklahoma Street, just a couple of miles away from the home of his daughter on South Ed Carey Drive.
After Angelita died in 1980, Yanes, who lived next door to her father, at first just took care of his laundry and meals. But after he became frail in recent years, she moved him into her house, she said.
“On special days, especially Christmas, you can drive by my house and see all the cars,” she said, smiling.
The family is not only large, but everyone is successful in their careers, Yanes said, smiling.
“Although my dad never went to school here, we have a county commissioner and lawyer, one district judge; most of the kids are teachers; my daughter’s a CPA for the San Antonio school district. One of his grandsons is a coach at (Harlingen High School) South. Everybody’s got something going,” she said.
Among the family members at the party were grandsons Dan Sanchez, a lawyer and Cameron County commissioner, and state District Court Judge David Sanchez.
“What helps is we all stay close together,” Yanes said. “We all live around here. We get together, mostly at my house or at one of my sister’s.
“There were so many of us, we kept each other company,” Yanes recalls of her childhood.