`Dr. Cleo’ Made Her Mark As Doctor & Civil Rights Leader
The name of Dr. Hector P. Garcia has a historical connection to Mercedes along with a local library named in his honor.
The legendary physician and civil rights leader was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984. He was born in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas. His family moved to Mercedes when he was three years old.
The Garcia family of Mercedes would go from their Rio Grande Valley beginnings to forge a great American story – and Dr. Hector would hardly be the only Garcia success story.
His younger sister – Clotilde Perez Garcia – would become a force and legend in her own right.
She was a graduate of Mercedes High School, the class of 1934. Garcia aspired to be a physician as her father advised and in seeing her older brothers gain admission to a University of Texas System medical school. The first step after high school was attending Edinburg Junior College and earning an associate’s degree. From there, she attended the University of Texas at Austin and received her bachelor’s degree.
It was the height of the Great Depression. Her dream of becoming a physician was put on hold. For the next 10 years, she was an educator, teaching at various South Texas school districts that included her adopted hometown of Mercedes. Garcia’s father and older brothers encouraged to return to Austin and the University of Texas in the late 1940s to earn a master’s degree in education.
It was medicine where her real interests lay. She enrolled at the University of Texas Medical Branch in Galveston, just as her two older brothers Jose Antonio and Hector had done years before. In 1954, she graduated from the medical school, the only Mexican-American woman in her graduating class. Garcia would, in fact, become one of the first Mexican-American women in Texas to become a medical doctor.
“My father encouraged all the family to be physicians because he said it was the only way you could be independent and serve humanity,’’ Garcia said in a 1994 story in the Corpus Christi Caller-Times.
She would be one of six physicians in the Garcia family. Garcia, “Dr. Cleo’’ as she became to be known, set up a medical practice in Corpus Christi where her older brothers lived. She quickly made a name for herself in medicine.
“We did everything from bones to brains,’’ Dr. Clotilde Garcia said in the 1994 Caller-Times story. “Children, men, women, geriatrics. There was no distinction. I did a lot surgery because we didn’t have enough surgeons.’’
She was also known for providing medical care for the city’s poorest residents and treating them even when it meant not getting paid for her services. It is said Dr. Cleo delivered about 10,000 babies in her 40-year medical career.
“If my mother couldn’t pay at the time of service, Dr. Cleo Garcia would say, `Don’t worry mama, just pay when you can, let’s take care of these beautiful children,’’ said Sylvia Sepulveda on a Facebook post on the page of Cecilia Garcia Akers, a niece of Dr.(Cleo) Garcia.
Another Corpus Christi resident, Roel Sanchez, fondly recalled Dr. Garcia.
“Doctor Cleo was an amazing woman,’’ Sanchez said on the same Facebook page. “I am thankful that was able to deliver me in 1957. I was one of those ten thousand!’’
Outside of medicine, Dr. Garcia was active in the area of civil rights and politics. She worked with her brother to establish the American G.I. Forum. She marched in support of improved wages for farmworkers in the Valley in the 1960s. Garcia was active in politics in leading efforts to organize the South Texas presidential campaigns of John F. Kennedy in 1960 and Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. She actively promoted local history and Hispanic genealogy. In 2008, Corpus Christi named its public library in her honor.
The Mercedes High School graduate would be inducted into the Texas Women’s Hall of Fame before her death in 2003. She was a woman of great distinction and achievement who came from a remarkable family that got its American start in Mercedes.
- Ricardo D. Cavazos