Rogelio Fernandez Muñoz, was born 71 years ago on March 25th in Nava, Mexico, a beautiful country village. He was the 6th child of Fructuoso Munoz and Armandina Fernandez. His home in Nava was covered with beautiful pecan trees, towering avocado trees, and a stream that ran through his home’s backyard. He lived there until he was 5-years-old when his parents immigrated to the United States with their two sons and five daughters. Rogelio had one older brother Oscar, four older sisters, Dora, Irma, Olga, Graciela, and a younger sister Maria Elena.
His parents, who we knew as Mama and Pipo, came to this country with humble beginnings wanting a better life and education for their children. The family lived in El Indio, Texas for a year while Pipo worked as a mechanic on a farm, fixing a cotton gin, and other farm equipment. Then he got a job in at the White Mines Asphalt Mining Company and moved his family to Uvalde.
Rogelio grew up with a father who worked from sun up to sun down in dangerous conditions. He was raised by a mother that worked even longer hours caring for her children, helping them adjust to a new life, and maintaining the home.
Mama and Pipo taught their children to have pride in their Mexican heritage, to live with integrity, to work hard, and to respect other people. Mama and Pipo also encouraged their children to recognize inequality and injustice and to do what was possible to make life better for others.
This family wisdom shaped Rogelio’s life. Rogelio epitomized all of these family lessons and he lived as an example for his children and family.
Rogelio lived a life of service, working to deliver the promises of justice and democracy. From his own life experiences he knew that democracy was a project, something to fight for, to bring to fruition. He witnessed discrimination and exploitation, but he also experienced it first-hand.
When Rogelio arrived in Uvalde schools, they were segregated schools and children suffered corporeal punishment for speaking Spanish. His parents and older siblings helped him learn English and transition to schools in Uvalde, and eventually Rogelio excelled as a student. But the kinds of inequality suffered by Mexican children in Uvalde schools also shaped his outlook. As a student he recognized the inequalities.
Later in his life he reflected on his time playing football for Uvalde High School. He remembered both the team victories and the unfair punishments from some coaches. In one case, he later recalled, his close friend Gilbert Cuellar was kept from playing in a football game in Eagle Pass because a coach overheard him speaking Spanish on the bus. Cuellar was crushed because he was looking forward to playing in Eagle Pass in front of his family. Muñoz was hurt to see his friend distraught for merely a slip of the tongue, a casual conversation with friends on a school bus in the wrong language.
These early experiences with cruel English-Only policies stuck with Muñoz and inspired him to help mobilize parents and students to demand their civil rights.
As a teenager he also saw first-hand the kinds of discrimination Mexican Americans suffered as laborers. To help his family with money he sometimes picked crops during school breaks. He also worked as a sheep shearer, with tacinques that shared their wisdom of life and love and tales of hardship, racism, and violence. And he remembered the hard work.
After graduating from Uvalde High School in 1967, he attended Southwest Texas Junior College. Rogelio and his friends Mauro Cardona, Arturo Alonzo, and Juaquin Rodriquez founded the Mexican American Youth Organization in Uvalde. They organized to help improve public schools, register voters, and support campaigns to have Mexican American candidates elected to city and county government. Rogelio believed in the power of voting. He believed that voting was a civil right and a civic duty. He helped mobilize Mexican Americans to participate in electoral politics. He was instrumental in helping elect Gilbert Torres and then Amaro Cardona as Uvalde County Commissioners.
As a college freshman his parents started to worry because adults regularly came to their home and had long conversations with their young son on their porch. They learned Rogelio was collecting the stories of families living in the Burns Addition, a neighborhood on the westside of Uvalde. The neighborhood did not have access to city water and families were forced to buy water from a co-op. Families were drinking contaminated water. Rogelio Muñoz and other community organizers helped expose the problem. Uvalde finally annexed the neighborhood. His foresight and activism helped improve the daily lives of residents for generations to come.
Muñoz went on to attend the University of Texas at Austin. There he took an interest in Mexican American history. He studied with towering scholars like Américo Paredes and George I. Sanchez. He excelled as a historian, helping to preserve community by conducting oral histories. He also recognized the needs of Mexican American students at UT Austin and of his family and friends that did not attend college, but were instead drafted to fight in the Vietnam war.
Rogelio participated in conversations with African American and Mexican American organizers on campus. He ran for student government at UT on a platform to stop the Vietnam war. He won and he continued to raise an awareness of the atrocities taking place abroad and the impact on families in Texas.
As a member of the student government he met with school administrators and petitioned for more courses in Chicano studies and organized students to call for the establishment of the Center for Mexican American Studies. The center was opened in 1970 and will celebrate its 50 year anniversary next year. The center has since expanded into a Center, a research institute, and the Department of Mexican American and Latino Studies. His foresight and efforts helped make change for generations of students that followed.
While he was a student at UT, Rogelio Muñoz never lost sight of needed change in Uvalde schools. In 1970 he helped to organize students that walked out of Uvalde schools in protest of discrimination, segregation, and the denial of their civil rights to bilingual education. Although the UCISD school board members refused student demands, Genoveva Morales filed a lawsuit against the school district and in 1976 court found that indeed, Mexican American students were being denied their civil rights and ordered a federally mandated desegregation order.
Rogelio learned that sometimes protest alone couldn’t deliver social change. In some cases, legal action was needed to bring justice. This court decision came at a key moment in his life and strengthened his faith in the judicial system.
After graduating from UT, Rogelio worked as a VISTA volunteer, and he then enrolled as a law student at the University of Houston. He knew that the application of the law was not always equal and that laws themselves could be unjust, but he believed that the basic protections for people were written into the American constitution. Knowing that the judicial system had failed so many communities inspired him to practice law, to use legal arguments to make change. He wasn’t cynical or hopeless, instead he became more committed.
As a lawyer, on the inside of the judicial system, he found his calling. After graduating he lived a life dedicated to law, justice, and democracy.
Through all this schooling and activism, he was supported by his wife Anna Luna Muñoz. The two met in high school and they maintained a relationship while he was at school in Austin and then in Houston. He didn’t have much money, but he wrote letters and every Sunday he called her at home for a quick phone call. When he graduated from law school in 1974 they married. While Ana and Roy were on their honeymoon he received a phone call from his parents with the news that he passed the bar. So, they cut their honeymoon short, returned to Uvalde, and he got to work.
As a young lawyer, Rogelio Muñoz started his career working in Legal Aide in Crystal City and after a year he opened his own law office in Uvalde. He couldn’t have done it without her. She managed the office, worked as a paralegal, and a notary all while raising four children. Together they had Maria Elena, Patricia, Rogelio Martin and Armando Fructuoso.
Rogelio grew his practice and established his reputation as an excellent and fierce attorney. He made bold legal decisions and accepted cases others would not. In the 1980s he agreed to represent a group of HEB employees that had been wrongfully terminated. In the end, the case resulted in the largest employer wrongful termination suit settled at the time.
He also answered the call to serve himself. Rogelio was appointed as County Attorney in 1978. In 1985 he received a personal request from Governor Dolph Briscoe to consider serving as District Attorney. He agreed and soon after Governor Mark White appointed him District Attorney, making him the first Mexican American District Attorney for the 38th Judicial District. He was re-elected and served in that position until he resigned and returned to private practice in 1994.
Rogelio was held in high esteem by members of the court and lawyers in Texas. He was respected by his peers and a trusted advisor. Lawyers and judges sought out his guidance. Some recalled that they learned more from watching Rogelio in court, picking juries, making arguments, and interacting with witnesses, than they ever did from courses in law school, professional trainings, or conferences.
Throughout his extensive legal career, Rogelio maintained his commitment to electoral politics. Early on he supported La Raza Unida Party and eventually became a staunch Democrat. He was an active member of the Mexican American Democratic Committee. He regularly sponsored political rallies for democratic candidates, hosting them at his office and his home. He joked that his donkeys were Democratic mascots. In 2016, he was elected as a delegate to the national democratic convention in Philadelphia where he represented Uvalde County with pride. When he died he was the Democratic Party Chair for Uvalde County, a founding member of the Highway 90 Democratic Coalition of Counties, and was preparing to mobilize voters for the next election.
Tragically, all of this, his life’s work was cut short.
People in Uvalde might know his work as a lawyer or as a civil rights activist, but his family also remembers him for what he loved. In the last days of his life, Rogelio Muñoz’s family remembered the changes he made, all that he accomplished, and expressed how proud they were of his efforts. But they also laughed and cried remembering the things that he loved.
Throughout his life he carried a tremendous amount of stress and pressure. And so he found solace in his family and in the outdoors. He relished time outside in the open air. Time on a tractor, feeding his livestock, and experimenting with new crops. He also loved teaching his son Roy about caring for the ranch, their livestock, and fixing farm equipment. When Roy struggled with a project, Rogelio always knew the solution.
He loved cooking over an open flame, testing out new grills, building his own grills. For family celebrations he grilled feasts, cooked whole goats, and for his granddaughters birthday even bought a cajon de chino to roast a whole pig. His dogs were always by his side, and most recently, so was his protective pet turkey.
He hired DJs and hosted dances at his home on Ft. Clark, but he was no stranger to going to bed by 8pm even when the party outside was still raging.
As an adult he loved returning to Nava in Mexico. He organized regular visits during Dia de los Muertos, All Souls Day in November, to pay respect to our antepasados and to see relatives still living in Mexico. He cleaned the gravesites of his grandparents and extended family and paid to have tombstones repaired. He helped organize these trips bringing his wife, children, and parents, and siblings and their children, organizing informal family reunions of the Fernandez and Muñoz families.
He enjoyed visiting with primos, tiás and tiós, and hearing stories of their family history. He also loved the food. He loved eating the caña, sugar cane, and avocados in Nava. He bought pecans by the sack-full and dulces de calavasa by the pound. And he always found the need to buy one more molcajete and a new jarro to add to his huge collection.
Although he was happiest at home, he organized family trips to places that he loved. He planned trips to Mexico City and Mazatlán to visit churches, eat good food, and to go fishing. He made road trips around Texas to buy livestock, to eat the best B-B-Que, and to visit historical sites.
But mostly, he traveled to visit his children and grandchildren. He flew to Nicaragua, to Palo Alto, and to New York City. Although he didn’t appreciate city life, he made trips to stay with Elena and her kids in their Manhattan apartment, or what he called “a box in the sky.”
He and Anna also traveled for their own philanthropy. For years they made trips back and forth across the border into Mexico to visit an orphanage they sponsored Casa de Hogar in Morelos, Mexico run Carmelite nuns. They also coordinated with the Uvalde Sacred Heart Church to support the Carmelite nuns that ran the orphanage. During a trip to Nicaragua to visit their daughter Elena, they befriended a local priest and maintained a close family friendship. Meeting others, providing aid to people in Mexico and in Nicaragua, epitomized Rogelio’s compassion for others and his commitment to helping others.
Rogelio was a student of history. In any spare time, between working on his legal cases and on his ranch, his children always found him reading. He loved reading about history. A few years ago he gave an impassioned speech at the Uvalde Fourth of July celebration in the town square. He described how much he admired the courage and tenacity of people who fought for independence during the American Revolution. He described his respect for those that fought to keep the nation together during and after the Civil War. He also spoke with conviction about the ongoing efforts for freedom and democracy around the world, and in our own country.
His love of history was so great that he even wrote his own historical essays. Using archival research he recently published a series of essays on the history of the Ku Klux Klan in the Uvalde Leader News. And because he knew how important it was to preserve our own histories, he also sat for multiple oral interviews with historians from Brown University, UT Austin, and at Texas Christian University.
All siblings remember Rogelio as being “el consentido de Mama.” She adored her youngest son and made sure that he was taken care of. When he was a little boy he was a prankster and a joker. He had a sharp tongue and a quick wit. Even as a young boy he advocated for himself. His siblings remember he used to say “y con quien juego yo” when his older sibling went off to school, leaving him alone without playmates.
His younger sister Maria Elena remembers that Rogelio single handedly changed the course of her life. When he was a law student he took a trip back to Uvalde to meet with his parents and encourage them to allow Maria Elena to leave Uvalde for college at UT Austin. While Mama and Pipo always believed in the importance of an education, they didn’t know the avenues for accessing higher education. They were also bound by tradition and conservative gender norms, but Rogelio helped convince her parents to let her go. Maria Elena went on to graduate from UT Austin and to get her Masters. While raising their own families, Rogelio’s sisters Olga and Graciela also went on to graduate from college. And Rogelio’s nieces and nephews followed his lead and went on to college.
Part of Rogelio Muñoz’s legacy are the changes he made to improve the lives of others. Another part is the life and work of his children.
His daughter Patricia worked alongside her Dad for 25 years, working as a paralegal, business manager, and she was the face of the law office. For all the respect that the Muñoz law firm deserved, visiting the law office and sitting across the desk from Rogelio could be an intimidating experience. His daughter greeted everyone with a smile and warmth. Her children Ariana and Ethan were regulars at the office. She is the heart of the family practice. She lives in Uvalde with her husband Eulalio Diaz Jr. and their kids.
Roy graduated from UT Austin and South Texas College of Law and then returned to Uvalde. He practices law with his dad for 14 years. He learned from his Rogelio’s legal wisdom and demeanor and developed his own reputation as a respected lawyer. Family members recall Rogelio bragging about his son’s first day in court. Roy represented his client with such conviction and passion that that the courtroom erupted in applause when he finished his argument. Rogelio laughed as he retold the story days and weeks later, “G-- Damn, I’ve never seen anything like it.” Roy and his wife Erika have two children, Arabella and Rogelio who are also regulars at the law office.
His youngest son Armando graduated from Stanford University with a bachelors and the University of California at Berkeley with a Masters in Business. He’s chosen a career in public service over the corporate sector. He has followed in his father’s example of making change. He leads the strategy and impact team at the Melbourne City Mission, helping young people escape homelessness and educating marginalized students. He lives in Melbourne, Australia with his wife Ema Lawrence and their two children Oscar Armando Lawrence-Muñoz and Maya Natalia Lawrence-Muñoz.
His oldest daughter Elena graduated from Carnegie Mellon University. After college she worked for Peace Corps and lived in Nicaragua. She then worked for the International Rescue Committee and received a Masters from Columbia University. She has had a long career working for the United Nations for 15 years. She lives with her children Estella and Thomas in New York City.
Rogelio Fernandez Muñoz was a beloved son, brother, father, grandfather, friend, and leader. He was an advocate for social change, for civil rights, and for American democracy. He called out injustice and spoke truth to power. He offered aid to those in need. He led a life of integrity and was a pillar of our community.
As we grieve the loss of this great man, we commit to continuing his legacy and his unfinished work.
Rest in peace Rogelio Muñoz and may God be with our family during this time of need.
A rosary will be held on Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. at Rushing Estes Knowles Mortuary in Uvalde. A funeral mass will be held on Thursday, October 3, 2019 at 10:00 a.m. at Scared Heart Catholic Church following interment at Hillcrest Cemetery.
Pallbearers will be James Mchazlett, Daniel Kindred, Joe Martinez, Hiram Munoz, Osman Munoz, Robert Gonzales, Antonio Martinez, and Conrad Ybarra.
Honorary pallbearers will be Richard O. Gonzales, Gilbert Cuellar and Armando Cardona.
Memorial donations may be made to the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society at www.lls.org
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