Woman traces her life as kidnap victim (Video)
March 23, 2013 at 5:02 p.m.
Updated March 24, 2013 at 10:25 p.m.
Juanita Garcia's father was dead. He died when she was 8. She saw him buried.
When she moved in her late 20s from McAllen to Bloomington and met a man who claimed her father was still alive, she didn't believe him.
The stranger said he knew a man from Mathis whose daughter had been stolen as an infant. The Bloomington man was struck, he said, by how much Garcia looked like the man from Mathis.
The woman Garcia had always known as her mother, Antonia Ayala, lived with Garcia and her husband. When confronted about the story, Ayala adamantly denied that Garcia was a stolen baby.
Garcia believed her mom and refused to pursue the mystery further.
Garcia's husband, Vicente Garcia, however, decided to investigate the claim and took a train to Mathis to meet Vicente Zarate, the man whose daughter was stolen.
What he discovered changed Garcia's family forever.
Josefa Zarate gave birth to Juanita Garcia in a boxcar on March 4, 1928, in Mathis, according to baptismal and birth records.
Josefa Zarate died in childbirth, and Vicente Zarate, the baby's father, asked Antonia Ayala to care for his newborn while he planned his wife's burial.
"But she took the baby from him when she was only 3 days old during the funeral services," explained Garcia's son, Clemente Garcia.
Zarate never reported the kidnapping to police because he immigrated to the United States illegally, fleeing the persecution of Pancho Villa's troops. He never thought U.S. law enforcement would help.
Though Zarate and his two older sons searched for Garcia for many years, even offering a reward for the return of the baby girl, they never found her.
Garcia, meanwhile, grew up as Juanita Ayala in McAllen, the daughter of Miguel and Antonia Ayala, 150 miles away from her real family.
Garcia said Ayala always seemed afraid to let the young Juanita out of her sight.
"She was really strict," Garcia recalled. "She was mean with me. She wanted me to just be sitting down or not jumping or running. She never let me go with someone else to the movies or to a dance. She was always with me."
Still, Ayala could not keep Garcia from meeting the love of her life, Vicente Garcia, and getting married at 17.
"I was working at a place where they make candies, and every time when I passed to go to work, I saw him outside. Then one of his sisters got married and invited me to go to the wedding. I danced all night with him. And from that night, I was like, 'He is mine,'" Juanita Garcia said, grinning.
Garcia's last name on the marriage license is recorded as Ayala.
The young couple moved to Bloomington after World War II so Vicente Garcia could work in the oil fields.
There, Vicente Garcia befriended the stranger who made the bizarre claim.
After the man convinced Vicente Garcia that his wife might have been abducted, Vicente Garcia left for Mathis against his wife's wishes.
There, he met with Vicente Zarate - a former Pancho Villa soldier, known healer in Mathis and worker for the Santa Fe Railroad.
Zarate showed him baptismal records and, most importantly, Zarate looked just like Vicente Garcia's young wife.
Coming back to Bloomington, the couple confronted Ayala again.
This time, Garcia said, Ayala conceded that Zarate was her father but said he had given her up, that he didn't want her.
Garcia, hurt and angered by her father's neglect, refused to visit Zarate in Mathis.
She said she was unhappy when Zarate called her.
"He said, 'Mi Juanita, this is your daddy.' I said, 'Why are you calling me? Why do you want to talk to me? You gave me away.' But he said, 'You better come Juanita, and I will tell you all the story, so you can know what is true,'" Garcia recalled.
So Garcia, her husband and her children went to hear the story of her birth. Clemente Garcia, her son, was 8 when they made the trip to Mathis.
"His wife came out and thought we were just another customer coming in at first. But she looked at my mother when she got off the truck and dropped what she had in her hands and hollered, 'Vicente!' When he came out, he was crying and came up to my mom," Clemente Garcia said.
Though determined to be angry, Garcia said she cried when she hugged her father.
"My daddy told me to sit down, and he said, 'I'm going to tell you a story. The story is that they took you to the Valley, and it was Ayala who took you. My name is Zarate, and you are my daughter.'"
Confused and torn between two worlds and two families, Garcia said she went home to confront Ayala one last time.
"When we came back, Mom confronted Antonia again, and she sat down crying and told her the truth," Clemente Garcia said. "My mom was really mad at her, asking, 'Why did you do that?'"
But every time Garcia said she asked Ayala why she kidnapped her, she would only reply, "You are still my daughter."
Garcia, now 85, stares at her only picture of her father.
Yellowing and crinkling at the edges, the picture shows an older man, his face weathered by sun and time, wearing a well-used cowboy hat.
Even now, as Garcia lightly holds the picture by the edges, she said she can see the similarities between father and daughter - the long, lean face with the dark eyes and the same mouth that seems to rest at a crooked, almost smile.
She knew him for only about 15 years. He died in 1976, and she could go down to Mathis only in the summer when her children were out of school.
Alfredo Sarate Jr., a grandson of Vicente Zarate, said he was about 9 years old when the Garcias started coming for visits.
"It was a mystery. All of a sudden, she showed up. We were used to just having an uncle, and she started going to Mathis and taking her family to meet their grandfather. We were so young we didn't know what was going on," Sarate said.
No matter how much time they spent together, the lost years could not be reclaimed - memories were stolen, and a life was hijacked.
Ayala was still her mother, Garcia said, the only mother she ever knew, and Ayala lived with Garcia's family until she died in 1962.
"Every time when I go to my daddy's house, I feel OK with him. And then I wasn't mad at her because she took care of me," Garcia explained. "She said she was sorry, but I was a baby, and she had to take care of me."
Garcia said she forgave Ayala and Zarate, embracing them both as family.
Because family, she said, is the most important thing.
"Mom always said Dad promised her richness, not with money, but with love," said Alice Garcia, one of Garcia's five daughters.
And with 13 children, 33 grandchildren, 41 great-grandchildren, seven great-great-grandchildren and more than 200 people at her recent 85th birthday party, Juanita Garcia said she has always been rich indeed.