The many lives of Abe Gonzalez

Photos courtesy of Gonzalez family / Abe Gonzalez poses on his front porch in his El Paso sheriff deputy uniform. Gonzalez went on to become the first Hispanic Sheriff of Presidio County.

Abelardo “Abe” Gonzalez was a Marfa native, born in the infancy of the Great Depression, on March 19, 1930. Later in life, he would become a distinguished presence in Presidio County, serving at times as a justice of the peace, sheriff, barber, preacher, volunteer and friend to many. But early on, he was a young man attending Blackwell School and playing his way to a full basketball scholarship at the Texas Western College of The University of Texas, which later became University of Texas El Paso.

Gonzalez passed away July 20, 2021, at the age of 91. Throughout his life, he refused to be narrowed down to one path. On top of his basketball practices and the courses he was taking toward a coaching degree, a young Gonzalez picked up running track at the university. He began boxing, too, excelling enough to become a five-time champion of the Guantes de Oro boxing tournament held in Mexico. He even received an invitation to join the Mexican Olympic boxing team, which he declined.

He coached women’s basketball at McMurry University in Abilene and at Lydia Patterson Institute in El Paso after graduating college, and in El Paso he began a 30-year career at a cement company. When he started working as a sheriff’s deputy in El Paso, he knew he wanted to return to his hometown to serve in law enforcement.

By the time he arrived back in Marfa in 1985, he had a lifetime’s worth of memories in his rearview mirror, but 36 years still ahead.

Instead of considering retirement, Gonzalez became a justice of the peace in Presidio County. He ran against Sheriff Rick Thompson in the 1988 Democratic primary for sheriff, but was defeated.

While personally disappointing, that loss changed his trajectory. Thompson was suspended from office after an indictment on federal felony drug charges in January 1992, and because of his previous run for the office, 83rd District Judge Alex Gonzalez (no relation) appointed him to take over the job in the interim.

The same week he was appointed interim sheriff, Gonzalez and three others filed to run against Thompson in the Democratic sheriff primary. Thompson dropped out, Gonzalez made it to a runoff, and his runoff opponent declined the race, handing the primary nomination to Gonzalez.

With the county in turmoil at the sudden loss of a sheriff and a budding chance for mistrust toward elected officials to grow, Gonzalez offered a steadying presence in the interim. The nickname “Honest Abe” adorned his campaign flyers, and in November 1992, he won in a landslide, garnering 68% of the vote and breaking a barrier by becoming the county’s first Hispanic sheriff in its then-117-year history.

Gonzalez’s tenure was also remarkable in his decision to not carry a gun, something that hadn’t been seen before in the county. “He didn’t want people to ever feel like he was better than them because he had a gun,” explained his granddaughter Anissa Lujan, who lived with Gonzalez through her childhood and in the final years of his life.

When a local bar called for him to pick up a drunk patron, Gonzalez offered a ride home instead of a night in jail for public intoxication. That attitude built trust among the community, though on one occasion it resulted in the bar owner calling again when the inebriated patron who Gonzalez had dropped off at home immediately returned to the bar. Even then, Gonzalez let the man sleep it off at the jail rather than writing up charges.

“He was a good sheriff because he could communicate with the people,” said Felipe Cordero, who was a county commissioner while Gonzalez was in office. “He was very familiar with the local people and the county. That made him one of the most honest officers that I know of, because he always treated people decent.”

“He didn’t like discrimination; I think he had a lot of discrimination in his life, so he always wanted to treat people equally all the time,” his granddaughter said. “Even until recently when he passed he would say he loved everyone so much.” Gonzalez could often be found throwing parties at his home, inviting friends, family and neighbors on the block, even if he didn’t know them well.

“He would work with us [county officials] in many ways. We were partners in crime,” said Cordero this week, laughing at the double meaning before clarifying they did not commit crimes together. “We used to play baseball together and set up the Marfa Lights [Festival] together,” Cordero said. “Abe was always working on our side.”

Gonzalez meticulously kept a journal during his time in office, writing down his day to day activities, which ranged from a slow day in Presidio to being “at the concert all day” during the Marfa Lights Festival. “Back then,” Cordero explained, “we loved our community and we’d do anything to put it in the spotlight, and everybody would work and participate in the programs.” Gonzalez would help organize, patrol and enjoy the festival every year with his colleagues, neighbors and friends.

Gonzalez ran for a second four-year term as sheriff and lost to Danny Dominguez, but it didn’t dissuade his pursuit of trying on a wide variety of careers. He moved into a role at the U.S. Marshals office. He got licensed to be a barber and opened up a little shop in front of his house, running it up until a few years ago. At times, he would also preach at the Methodist Church.

In the final years of his life, Gonzalez was a dedicated volunteer at the city’s Meals on Wheels program, delivering hot meals every week day to housebound residents and then joining friends for a game of bingo at the Marfa Activity Center. Socorro Rodriguez delivered meals with Gonzalez for two years. “He was a good man and I miss him,” she said, remembering with a laugh, “Sometimes he’d give me a quarter so I could play bingo with him.”

Through his life, Gonzalez was a husband three times over and a father to 14 children. His family remember him as stern but sweet and a product of an older generation. “He was really stubborn and tough, but really good,” said Lujan, who had many long talks with Gonzalez about his life. “He would always say he was for the people.” To his family, it felt like he had lived three lifetimes in one.

In an interview with local radio station KMKB before his passing, Gonzalez reflected, “I always treated everybody equal, I respected everybody equal, and I tried to help everybody,” adding, “They still call me ‘Sheriff’ over here.”