If you ask Gonzalo De La Cruz what his children need for Christmas, he’ll tell you they have everything — a roof over their heads, a lit bit of food in their modest kitchen and clothes to wear. But a quick look around the house will tell you otherwise.
The spry 74-year-old is the sole provider for his three children. His eldest daughter Jasmine, 20, is nonverbal and has a number of health issues that require round-the-clock care, including cerebral palsy and Rett’s Syndrome. Juan, 18, struggled with school and now cuts yards to help out, and his youngest, Jessica, is a sharp 10-year-old who thrives in fifth grade.
Together, they live in a modest blue wooden home, where the girls and their father share a bedroom. Juan sleeps in a small room not connected to the home.
The house has a second bedroom, but Gonzalo built a second shower there.
“So that in the mornings they don’t have to struggle,” he said in Spanish.
Everything he does is for his kids, he said.
When he first bought the property about two decades ago, the family was living in a very small trailer. But little by little, Gonzalo used his income tax returns from working at Church’s Chicken, where he labored for 20 years, to build the home they live in now.
“I hired someone to do the foundation because we were tired of living in a small trailer, all of us on top of each other,” he said. “And I built the rest.
“We’ve suffered a lot to have the things that we have.”
FIGHT FOR HIS KIDS
About five years ago, Gonzalo came home from work to find his wife had left him and taken their four kids, including 14-year-old Max, who currently lives with her.
He didn’t know where they were for about three months, until he received a call that the state wanted to take the children away from her. She had taken them to live in Austin at the behest of a friend.
Jessica, who was about 4 years old at the time, had somehow wandered off alone, police got involved, and soon the state saw that the kids’ living conditions were not adequate, Gonzalo said.
So he went to stay with his sister in San Antonio while he fought for custody.
“They asked me, ‘Are you really going to make it? There’s four of them,’” Gonzalo said about his relatives. “And I said, ‘I’m going to make it’ and I brought them. I love them. They’re my children.”
It took about a month to get them back while social workers made sure the children were going to live in a safe environment.
“They checked, but I don’t smoke or drink, and they came and checked here, too,” he said about a home visit. “They checked everything — how I was, what I had — and they gave them to me. I won.”
By this time, Gonzalo had already retired and was receiving a small Social Security check. He also had some money saved.
“I worked day and night. I earned good money — for them,” he said, pointing at his kids. “I bought the truck for the kids, so they can be more comfortable. Everything for my kids.
Not for me, for my kids.”
The family is still surviving off of Gonzalo’s Social Security check and the extra money he makes fixing and reselling washing machines.
“What I’m earning is not enough for a family of four. It’s nothing,” he said. “If I had to pay rent, or pay for the lot or the trucks, I wouldn’t have a penny.”
Jasmine, who has special needs, receives a disability check and has a provider, Gabriela, who helps her bathe and dress. Gabriela has been working with the family for more than a decade and has seen how Gonzalo cares for his children.
“He’s a good man,” she said Tuesday.
His youngest daughter agreed.
“He’s a good person because when my shoes rip or something, he right away goes to the store and gets me everything I need,” the 10-year-old said.
Gonzalo can’t help but beam with pride when he talks about Jessica.
“She takes a bath in the morning, she gets dressed, she fixes her hair. I don’t struggle with her,” he said.
A shy Jessica hugs her father, buries her head into his shoulder and nods.
“She loves me a lot, and I do, too,” he said, tears welling in his eyes. “She’s number one in school. She’s the angel, right mija? That’s what they call her. They love her a lot at school.”
Gonzalo also takes pride in providing for his children.
“I went and bought her three bras,” he said about Jasmine, who already graduated from high school but continues to attend.
Then, he turns to Jessica with a sly smile. “I bought her a gift that she doesn’t know about, and for my son, he doesn’t work, I bought him some socks. They were five dollars for 10 pairs.”
Most of their clothing, however, comes from thrift stores and their bare kitchen shelves speak louder than his words.
On Tuesday, ramen and egg were for dinner, but they had to be cooked one at a time because only one burner works on the tiny stove they own. And on the half-empty kitchen shelves: coffee, creamer, oil, a bag of russet potatoes, half a loaf of bread, and half a box of spicy shrimp ramen noodles.
Gonzalo had never applied for food stamps until recently.
“I didn’t ask for them because I don’t know how to read or write,” he said. “If they sent me letters, I didn’t know.”
The family received its first round of SNAP benefits on Tuesday, but Gonzalo hadn’t been able to go shopping by the time he spoke with a Monitor reporter.
“I bought that with my money yesterday because we didn’t have anything,” he said, pointing at his kitchen shelves. “So I bought like 40 dollars worth of food because I said, tomorrow we’ll go buy some more.”
Instead, he spent his day at the U.S. Social Security Offices disputing a child support claim his wife filed against him via an attorney.
“She was supposed to be giving me child support, but I never asked her for it,” Gonzalo said.
He said he recently found out she’s been taking almost half his check for the past five months.
“I hadn’t noticed because I have a little bit of money in the bank and I would just go and withdraw, but I never asked (for my balance),” he said. “In five months, that’s more than $2,000.”
Gonzalo also feels duped by an insurance company that appears to have taken his money and run.
During a heavy thunderstorm in June, his house was flooded and his roof sustained damages. He’d been paying $130 per month for home insurance for the past five years so he expected the company to help.
“They came here. Promised all sorts of coverage,” he said. “They never helped me. They said they were going to help me in case of a hurricane, a fire… Oh, but for payment, yes. They were ready.”
Gonzalo didn’t apply for help from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, either.
“I don’t like to (ask for anything),” he said.
And it was evident when he was asked what the family needs.
“You all know, whatever you want to help me with, is OK. Because thank God they don’t need anything,” he said. “I buy them things from the thrift shops.”
Jessica spoke for herself and her sister Jasmine. The 10-year-old, who wants to be a teacher when she grows up, wants a dry-erase board, Barbies and slime. Her older sister likes stuffed animals, she said, and could use a ball.
Juan wasn’t around to answer, but his father said any gift would be greatly appreciated.
And as for Gonzalo, he appears to need legal advice and could benefit greatly from some much-needed home repairs. The family could also use some furniture, including a working gas stove, couches and a twin mattress.
For information on how you can donate to the family, call the United Way of South Texas at (956) 686-6331, between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, and inquire about contributing to The Monitor’s Spirit of Christmas campaign.
All donations go to the family. United Way does not keep any of the proceeds donated.