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  • Writer's pictureKirstie Bender Segarra

Dios De Los Muertos or Tex-Mex?

Updated: Dec 13, 2021

I teach at the University of New Mexico-Taos, this year we decided to put up a Dios De Los Muertos and Samhain altar in our classroom to honor our ancestors. This is the first time I have opened a space for the altar. Within a few days I was surprised with new information about my lineage. Here is the story.

Mattie Ella Vernice Lawhead Barnes (Paternal Great Grandmother)

There is something in an oral family story that has sent me wondering and exploring family heritage for years. My father, L.E. Bender III, who was born in Odessa, Texas in 1947 had a tendency to tell the big stories. Thus it was hard to discern fact from fiction. My paternal grandmother was Eula Vernice Barnes born in Quitoque, Texas in 1921. I remember stories by L.E. that she was a great shot—with a gun that is, she could out-shoot all the guys. I can visualize her standing on a front porch with a rifle shooting tin cans. My grandfather, L.E., taught me to shoot tin cans off of the back fence when I was 6 ½ years old in his backyard in Oklahoma City.

Vernice and L.E. Bender, Jr. (Paternal Grandparents)

My memories of Vernice was her love of jazz, singing, smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee at the kitchen table—my father and myself are jazz players. She was 5 feet 1 inches tall with dark hair and piercing blue eyes. She is pictured above with my paternal grandfather, L.E. Bender Jr, who was 6 feet 4 inches tall, who was her second marriage. There was a wildness of spirit within Vernice’s eyes. I don’t know who her biological father was—this was the mysterious part of the story. I may say that my father’s story of his grandmother Mattie was not so kind. He tended to blame the unknowing on her multiple relationships, instead of reframing them to Mattie did not find a good man until she met Homer Barnes.

The opportunity for education was different for Mattie and Vernice. Mattie's highest level of education was 6th grade and Vernice finished 8th grade. My father use to say he was the first person in his family who went to college. Vernice served as an aviation cadette in World War II in Lubbock, Texas where she met my grandfather L.E. Bender Jr. who was from Tarrant County outside of Fort Worth, Texas.

Eula Vernice Barnes (paternal grandmother)

I don’t remember meeting my great grandmother Mattie Vernice Roach Barnes. Barnes is the surname of Homer Barnes whom Mattie married but was not the biological father of Vernice. Somehow Vernice took on his last name. The story is Mattie was married four times and Homer had been in jail. The story of him being in jail in Michigan was confirmed by a nephew writing a family story about him being jailed for larceny. He married my great grandmother after he left jail and relocated to Lubbock, Texas where he became a tree surgeon. The nephew stated that Homer married a Mexican woman who had a daughter. The daughter would have been Vernice.

One of the frustrating things about searching the lineage on Vernice and Mattie is I cannot locate any birth certificates. I am not a 100% sure on Mattie’s maiden name, I am going by a newspaper article in Clovis, New Mexico announcing her marriage to Homer Barnes and his Census that stated her birth year and place.

The other part of the story is the indigenous Cherokee lineage from Mattie. I have located Cherokee Rolls with her name but it could be someone else with the same name. Without a birth certificate there is no way of proving it. However, this is the oral story that was told.

The story of Mattie being Mexican was super helpful in answering why it has been so mysterious. Mattie was born in either 1903 or 1904, Homer stated Illinois as place of birth on the census. The early 1900’s would have been a very different time and hiding one’s birth race may have been perceived as beneficial. There was a visceral relief in receiving this story as it confirmed the stories told by my father. I am super grateful to be gifted this knowledge. I have sense that reclaiming our Mexican heritage will be powerful. It really sheds light on my attraction to staying in Taos, New Mexico where my ancestry is more in alignment with the history of the land. Blood is blood.

Great grandma Mattie, grandma Vernice as child and her Stepfather Homer in Lubbock, Texas circa 1930.

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