San Antonio war bride’s life woven with war, discrimination and love

2022-06-18 23:28:53 By : Mr. Leon yin

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Joan Christine Barrera, 95, smiles as she share memories of her life. Barrera, who is originally from England, came to the United States after meeting her husband during WWII.

Joan Christine Barrera, 95, looks over at an old portrait of her husband, who she met in WWII when she was a teenager in England.

Knitting needles and yarn belonging to Joan Christine Barrera, 95, who has been knitting all of her life.

Joan Christine Barrera, 95, shows off a scarf she has been knitting. Barrera, originally from England has been knitting since she was 4 years old.

Knitting scarves is a hobby that’s given 95-year-old Joan Christine Barrera joy through the ups and downs of a life filled with war, disappointment and, most importantly, love.

Each day, she sits in her coffee-colored armchair, knitting for hours in the Northeast Side home she shares with her daughter, Catherine Castillo. She’s surrounded by mementos of days gone by from her birthplace of Wotton-under-Edge, England.

Cups, steins and plates commemorating the royal family’s history decorate three shelves on a living room wall. A bust of the late Prime Minister Winston Churchill, topped with a Santa hat, rests on a half-ledge across from her.

“I wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for him,” Barrera said. “He’s the one who saved England — him and President Roosevelt.”

On a corner wall hangs a portrait of her late husband, Manuel Barrera, in his Army uniform. It’s a comforting reminder of the man she fell in love with during the war between the Allies and the Axis forces.

Barrera watches the news of the world on television as she knits. It’s been her pastime since she learned the craft at the age of 4 in school. She still has an English accent, laced with a South Texas drawl.

She’s woven hundreds of scarves, every color of the rainbow, as gifts for family, friends in England, ladies at church and the poor. She’s knitted shawls and scarves through a clash of cultures, discrimination and missing the green country pastures of her youth.

Joan Christine Barrera, 95, looks over some of the scarves she has knitted this year. Barrera has been knitting since she was 4 years old living in England.

She taught preschool and played piano at different churches in the area. But knitting has been woven through her life.

A 22-year veteran of the Air Force, Vincent T. Davis embarked on a second career as a journalist and found his calling. Observing and listening across San Antonio, he finds intriguing tales to tell about everyday people. He shares his stories with Express-News subscribers every Monday morning.

“I have had a wonderful life over here with my husband,” she said, glancing at his portrait. “I have no complaints.”

World War II figured prominently in Barrera’s life. She recalled sitting around the radio with her family when Churchill announced that Britain was at war with Germany. She was 15 when she stood on a knoll at night and saw German planes drop bombs on Bristol, 22 miles away.

In April 1944, Barrera and her friend Hazel rode their bicycles to check out the American soldiers posted at the 94th General Hospital at Tortworth Castle. Manuel Barrera, a good-looking soldier, caught the 17-year-old’s eye. The teens asked him if he knew the way to their town. They knew he’d say no — they just wanted a closer look at the 19-year-old from Texas.

A week later, she saw him at a local village dance. Barrera was with a soldier from Wisconsin, but that didn’t deter her future husband from asking her to dance. She spent the rest of the evening with the man who would become her suitor.

They dated for 15 months, riding bikes through the countryside and stopping at a special bench on Wotton Hill. Manuel Barrera, who worked in the camp kitchen, brought his girlfriend Baby Ruth candy bars and her mother canned chicken.

He proposed to her at their special bench. He asked her mother for her hand in marriage and permission to take her to America. A priest married the couple at St. Dominic’s Catholic Church in Dursley, where they had a three-day honeymoon.

In July 1946, Barrera became one of an estimated 70,000 war brides to join their husbands in the United States.

She and other war wives boarded the Zebulon B. Vance Army ship for a 15-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to America. The three women she shared a room with all were seasick. Barrera wasn’t. She had brown paper pinned under her vest, an old sailor’s trick a former seafaring neighbor had recommended that her mother pass on to her.

Barrera traveled from New York for three days by train to San Antonio. Her husband and his sister, Mary, were waiting at the Missouri Pacific Depot for the bride, who wore a camel-hair coat and a dress made of parachute silk. It was 104 degrees that day.

The couple lived with his aunt Matilda in the Alazán-Apache Courts on the West Side. The next year, they moved in with his grandmother, who taught Barrera to speak Spanish and cook traditional recipes.

On her first Christmas with her new husband’s family, they served tamales, and she cried. She missed the traditional British dinner with mincemeat pies and turkey with dressing. On their way home, he stopped and bought her a sandwich.

Barrera recalled that she was taken aback by the discrimination she and her husband faced in the 1950s. They were turned away at the Majestic Theatre and denied an apartment because of her husband’s heritage.

But airmail letters from her mother every week helped Barrera keep a sense of home. She found support from her husband, his family and the British Brides Association, a group of British war brides who met once a month. It was through the group that she was able to return to England with her six-year-old son, David.

Castillo called her mother a spitfire whose strong faith keeps her growing. She grew up with Hispanic and British traditions that included festive foods, wearing paper hats and popping English crackers on New Year’s Eve. And there was her mother’s traditional British trifle pudding, a layered dessert.

“I had the bests of both worlds,” said Castillo, 64. “It’s great to grow up in two different worlds.”

When fall arrives and temperatures dip, Barrera brings out her yarn and starts knitting. It has been a comfort for what’s been a tough year for her.

There have been health issues that she’s overcome, to the delight of her family. Her dearest friends are no longer with her, and COVID has isolated her from one remaining comrade.

But the yarn and the knitting needles are still with her, always within reach to knit more scarves that bring comfort and joy as we enter another year.

Vincent T. Davis started at the San Antonio Express-News in 1999 as a part-time City Desk Editorial Assistant working nights and weekends while attending San Antonio College and working on the staff of the campus newspaper, The Ranger. He completed a 3-month fellowship from the Freedom Forum Diversity Institute at Vanderbilt University in 2003 and earned his bachelors degree in communication design from Texas State University in 2006.