By Kathi Bliss
From the Barrio to City Hall… The long way.
When then-Judge Monico Luis Cisneros sat down to begin his memoirs several years ago, he chose that title to remind not only himself, but anyone who read his life story, that the road to success is bumpy and long, with surprise exit-ramps and u-turns, but that unreserved determination and grace would make that road passable.
Despite humble beginnings in what he referred to as Lockhart’s “barrio,” Cisneros rose to every challenge he was presented, greeting every bump in the road with a keen eye and a level head. When he encountered an obstacle, he rose above it. If he couldn’t overcome it, he went around it. When there was no way to circumvent the roadblock, he chose a new road, clearing a path and laying the groundwork for not only his children, but for his community, to follow along on the way to achievement.
“[It] was just the way he lived,” said his grandson, Victor “Jonathan” Yanez. “He told me when I joined the military that the way to succeed was to do everything the best you could – if you were scrubbing a floor or working with a multi-million dollar piece of equipment, you did your job the best you could, with a smile on your face.”
A smile on his face, and his eyes on a goal – two things that anyone familiar with the man, who passed away on Sunday – always saw, and always noticed. The other thing people noticed was the quiet dignity, and the grace with which he rose to heights of personal and political achievement that others might have seen as impossible.
“Everything he did, he did for us,” said his eldest son, Louis A. Cisneros. “The jobs he took, and his advancement in the military, he did all that to make enough money to make sure that we had the things we needed – not always everything we wanted, but if we ever went without something we really needed, I don’t remember what it was.”
Long before a 35-year career in public service that began as a trustee with the Lockhart ISD Board of Trustees, reached a pinnacle when he became the City of Lockhart’s first Hispanic Mayor, and ended in 2010 upon his retirement from the office of Justice of the Peace for Precinct One in Caldwell County, Cisneros established himself as a role model and a hero, serving in the United States Army for nearly 30 years, retiring in 1982 as a Lieutenant Colonel, with a cache of decorations that includes two Bronze Stars with two Oak Leaf Clusters. His military career led him around the world, and included two tours in both Korea and Vietnam, and launched him to heights of esteem that included work in the Pentagon.
Throughout his service career, his wife, Manuela, stood steadfast at his side, raising their six children, entertaining his commanding officers, and supporting his decisions, his career, and his meteoric rise.
“So much of what he did, he was able to do because of Mom,” his youngest daughter, Lisa, said. “He was a great supporter, but she was, too. They supported each other. They were in it together, and they did it all as a team.”
The partnership began in 1952, only days before Cisneros traveled to Vero Beach, Fla., to participate in training camp for the Brooklyn Dodgers. A lifelong baseball player and fan, his dreams of making a career in the big leagues were dashed when, in September of that same year, he was ordered under the draft to report for enlistment in the United States Army.
Rather than bemoan his fate, he took to his military service with aplomb, rising through the ranks and building a storied career, always with his wife and children at his side.
“Everywhere we went, he made it an adventure,” his daughter Anna said. “Whether it was Germany or Austria, or wherever we were, we were together as a family, and he always tried to make it interesting for us, and he always tried to make sure that we learned.”
Learning and education, in truth, was his lifelong passion, and would have been his chosen profession, had times in Central Texas in the 1950s not been what they were. Because of societal prejudices that existed against Latinos at that time, he said, he was unable to find a job teaching in his home community, despite having earned a degree from Southwest Texas State Teachers College and already being a decorated soldier.
“Someone told him he should put an application in at [what was then Lockhart High School] and said that he would take his application out,” Manuela Cisneros remembered with a smile. “He put the application, and the man said that he would call us back. We’re still waiting for him to call.”
Again, rather than complain or express any bitterness about the slight, Cisneros chose to put in applications at other districts in the area, but still found doors shut tight against him.
“They told him that he should go to California, and that he could get a job teaching anywhere in California,” she said. “But he didn’t want to do that. He wanted to teach, and he wanted to help the people here, where we came from.”
Instead, he continued his service in the military, choosing to teach his family, his troops and the families he came in contact with, not only with his educational credentials, but with his dignified example.
When he retired in 1982, finally, he did become a teacher, a professor of Business Management at Austin Community College, where he was eventually named the Chair of the Business Division for both the Northridge and Cypress Creek Campuses.
Despite all other titles he earned, his role as “teacher” was the most important to him, he said in 2009, shortly before a ceremony where he was honored by the Lockhart Independent School District by having the LHS Freshman Campus (formerly Lockhart High School) named in his honor.
The irony didn’t escape him, nor did it fail to elicit a chuckle and a grin.
He didn’t need a classroom to teach, however, as a community that wept over his illness and now mourns his passing shows.
“We didn’t realize how important he was to this community,” his son, Louis, said. “We knew that he was important, but to us, he was just ‘Dad.’ We’re so humbled and honored by the fact that so many people were so touched by him, and that so many people care so much.”
Over social networks on the Internet and through visitors to the hospital and later to the Cisneros home, the love continues to flow freely for Cisneros and for his family, as all who knew him search for a way to move forward without their friend, mentor and loved one.
One such tribute, from former Lockhart mayor Warren “Pat” Kirksey and his wife and longtime educator Patsy Kirksey, simply said, “M.L. Cisneros brought honor to himself and inspiration to our community as a student, baseball player, colonel, teacher, trustee, Mayor, Judge, husband, father and friend. Thank you, Louie. Because of your dedication, our world is a better place.”
The tribute is one of dozens praising Cisneros for his community leadership, his compassion, his generosity and his greatness. The tributes, most likely, would have made him nervous.
Despite his many accolades, he was never comfortable in the spotlight. He did what he did, and accomplished what he did, because of who he was, and not because he expected any reward or recognition. That humility, perhaps more than any other singular quality, set him apart as a leader, a mentor and a man.
“I told the kids, when we were in the hospital, that he isn’t just ours, but the community’s, too,” Manuela said. “We saw people coming in, and they cry like I cry. They hurt like I hurt. He wasn’t just mine.”
Editor’s Note: I was blessed to have known “Judge C.,” both personally and professionally, and honored that his family chose, at this extremely difficult time, to spend time with me to share their memories of his life, his love and his legacy. I hope all of our readers will join me in praying for comfort and peace for the Cisneros family, and thanking them for their own contributions to this community, by allowing us to know, to learn from and to be touched by their husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather and “Tio.” He was truly a great man, and his passing leaves a hole in this community that will be impossible to fill. -kb