Ricardo Isaias Zavala comes from a long line of vaqueros — cowboys who worked the ranches of Southeast Texas in the 19th and 20th centuries. That tradition stopped with his grandfather — but in the Zavala family, parts of it live on.
Ricardo’s grandfather’s name was Vicente Domingo Villa. His family moved from ranch to ranch, looking for work. Most of the ranches were in the scrubland of South Texas, east of Laredo.
“And his father was a ranch hand, as his father before him was a ranch hand,” Ricardo tells his son, Ricardo Javier Zavala, at StoryCorps. “And his father before him was a ranch hand.”
That was back in the 1920s. And Ricardo says that when his grandfather was a little boy in the 1920s, he looked up to the vaqueros enough to want to dress like a cowboy.
“And when he was about 6 or 7, he did ask his mom if he could have cowboy chaps — just like the cowboys wore on the ranch,” Ricardo says. “He didn’t think he had much of a chance at getting it, but Christmas Day, his mom presented him with a pair of chivarras.
“Chivarras are chaps,” Ricardo explains, “but instead of cowhide, they’re made out of goat skin. It’s a smaller animal, so they fit children a lot better. And he said he was so excited, he was so happy. That was the best gift he’d ever gotten.
“The only problem was that his father got very upset with his mom for having wasted the money on a pair of chivarras for a boy who doesn’t even do cowboy work, and it caused a lot of fighting,” Ricardo says.
“So, he decided he would ask his mom to return the chivarras,” he says, “but he figured he could at least sleep with them that night. And that’s what he did.”
When he got older, Ricardo’s grandfather did not become a cowboy, like the men in his family had always done. Instead, he worked as a carpenter. But his family remembered his early love for those cowboy chaps.
“Well, towards the end of his life he was at a nursing home,” Ricardo says, “and we ended up getting him real cowhide chaps. But he kinda got upset with us. He said it was a waste of money.
“So, I told him that I actually had a favor to ask of him,” Ricardo recalls. “I told him, ‘I’d really like for you to consider — once you do pass — having the chaps buried with you. And that way when I get to heaven, I’ll be able to recognize you.’
“And then he looked down, and he said, you know, ‘I don’t know if that’s where I’m going.’
“A few months later he got real sick, and he was dying,” Ricardo says. “We were at his deathbed, and I was standing next to him, and he said to me, ‘Entiérrenme con mis chivarras‘ — ‘Bury me with my chaps.’
“And that brought a lot of comfort,” he says, “because later on that night, he did pass. It was May 5 of 2003. And I knew that he knew where he was going.”
Audio produced for Morning Edition by Michael Garofalo.