Posted on January 22, 2015

The Extraordinary Story of Columba Bush

Nick Fagge, Daily Mail, January 22, 2015

Jeb Bush with his fiancee, Columba Garnica

Jeb Bush with his fiancee, Columba Garnica. February 16, 1974. (Credit Image: George Bush Presidential Library)

Her husband is the leading Republican candidate for the White House and hopes to pull off an unprecedented feat: to be the third member of the same family to hold the presidency.

But at Jeb Bush’s side, his wife Columba also stands to make history. She would, of course, be the third Mrs Bush in the White House.

But she would–crucially–be the first Hispanic first lady, and only the second born outside the United States.

Columba has kept herself out of the limelight since he announced his plan to run, as she has throughout his political career.

But Daily Mail Online can today reveal the remarkable story of how the daughter of a Mexican peasant from a farm without running water joined America’s premier political dynasty; and the sad family rift which has marred that journey to the gates of the White House.

Columba, it can be disclosed, is the daughter of a man who crossed into American illegally to work, who was accused of beating her, and with whom she was never reconciled–even in death.

In Mexico, her relatives say they are proud that someone from a remote and still poor area is in a position to make history, but saddened that she no longer has a relationship with her extended family.

The key to Columba’s life story is in fact her father Jose Maria Garnica Rodriguez–a man who went to his grave without seeing her for decades, saddened that he did not know his grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

Antonia Morales Garnica, Jose Maria’s second wife, told Daily Mail Online: ‘Jose Maria’s dying wish was to meet his grandchildren–Columba’s kids.

‘He wanted to meet his grandchildren. He died with that wish unfulfilled.’

Jose Maria’s life could hardly be in greater contrast to Columba’s children’s other grandfather, George H W Bush–the wartime pilot hero from a wealthy family who became an American president.

The oldest of four brothers, Jose Maria Garnica Rodriguez was born on February 5, 1925 in a mud-brick adobe house at the end of a dirt track in the mountain village of Arperos, some 250 miles north of Mexico City.

Fresh water had to be drawn from a well and light came from oil lamps.

His father Hilario Garnica kept chickens and a few sheep, and tilled the land to grow maize to make tortillas–a mainstay of Mexican peasant families.

But the village of Arperos offered few opportunities for ambitious young men such as Jose Maria who dreamed of a better life.

He decided his future lay north of the border and snuck into the United States in 1947 where he worked illegally for about two years.

Living hand-to-mouth and working as a day laborer in Arizona, he toiled in the fields picking fruit and harvesting vegetables; he earned less than $13 a day.

Later Jose Maria found a more permanent job pruning roses for one of America’s biggest florists, Jackson and Perkins.

Columba’s uncle, Antonio Garnica Rodriguez, 76, said: ‘The first time my brother left he entered the country [the United States] illegally.

‘He went to work in Peoria, Arizona, for a company called Jackson and Perkins, a horticultural nursery.

‘He returned from the USA a few years later and he got married to Columba’s mother.’

Jose Maria’s second wife, Antonia Morales Garnica, said: ‘My husband went to the USA illegally.

‘In those does it was not as difficult to cross the border as it is today.

‘He worked as a day laborer, picking fruit and harvesting vegetables and any odd jobs that he could find.

‘He had some friends from Mexico who were already were already in the US who helped him find work.’

Columba’s cousin Maria Gallo Acedes added: ‘Columba’s father Jose Maria Garnica crossed into the United States without the proper papers.

‘He went there illegally. Once he made some money he came back. That was before he got married.’

Buoyed with the few hundred dollars he had saved from working illegally, Jose Maria returned to Mexico a handsome and eligible bachelor.

Through a family friend he was introduced to the daughter of a successful businessman from nearby Leon–a bustling town compared with his home village.

Although Josefina Gallo Esquivel was aged 29, considered almost an old maid in 1940s small town Mexico, she was an attractive proposition to ambitious Jose Maria: pretty, bright and from a good family.

The pair were married on February 10, 1949 and they set up home in Calle Pedro Moreno Leon. Today the former family home lies empty. Next door is a sleazy escort bar and hotel, the Casa Marquesa, which offers rooms at less than $10 an hour.

While arranging to get married Jose Maria visited the Mexican capital and acquired the proper papers to work legally in the United States.

He returned north of the border after the wedding as part of the ‘Brasero program’ through which American firms would hire Mexicans, mainly in the agricultural and horticultural industries, for seasonal work.

Their son Francisco Jose Garnica Gallo was born some ten months later, followed by daughter Lucila Del Carmen in October 1951 and Columba in September 1953.

Jose Maria did not gain the legal right to live and work in the United States until he received his ‘green card’ in April 1960 when he gained Resident Alien status.

Columba’s cousin, Sylvia Cantos-Garnica, said: ‘My father, Jose Maria and my other uncles worked budding roses. It was a labor camp and they lived in barracks, in dormitories.

‘In the 1950s, they got $1.60 an hour, earning less than $13 for working an eight hour day. But the men would save their money and come back to the village.’

The money was very little in the United States, but it went a long way in Leon.

Columba became a pupil at the Instituto Mayllen, a smart private school close to Leon’s historic center–a labyrinth of Spanish colonial buildings and squares.

But it was not a happy time at home.

In a rare interview in 1989, she told the Chicago Tribune her childhood was ‘a little sad’.

Her parents, she said, were separated when she was a young child and divorced when she was 13, adding: ‘Society resents that.’

In fact, relatives say there were frequent rows between Jose Maria and his wife–and also that he hit his daughter.

Mrs Bush’s step-mother Antonia Morales Garnica said: ‘One time when Jose Maria came back from the US he worked at the Hotel Leon as a waiter because he spoke good English.

‘He would come back from work tired and frustrated and he smacked Columba a couple of times.

‘That caused problems between him and his wife to the point that she kicked him out of the house three times.’

The marriage ended in divorce in 1963. It was rare enough in America at the time but in Catholic Mexico it was unthinkable–a fact acknowledged by Columba herself.

‘I think she [her mother] never really was in love with him [her father] but always accompanied him with an attitude of acceptance and delivery. She said; “I’ll give it my best”,’ Mrs Bush said in an interview about her close relationship with her mother in a book titled ‘Mama: Latina Daughters Celebrate Their Mothers’.

‘The end of my parents’ marriage was a big blow to their families and friends. Divorce in the 1960s in Mexico was a sin.’

What is clear in Mexico, however, is that Columba’s version of her parents’ divorce is not the only perspective on it.

Her cousin on her father’s side, Sylvia Cantos-Garnica said: ‘Columba has said that her father abandoned her but that’s not fair.

‘He continued to see his children after he got divorced. He provided money for their upkeep and sent for them to come to the states to see him.

‘Columba went to the farm where Jose Maria worked. He never abandoned his children.’

Antonia Morales Garnica added: ‘His daughter says he never helped them out while he lived in the USA but he always sent them money.

‘It might not have been as much or as often as he would have liked but he tried his best to provide for his children.’

Jose Maria started a new life in California after he split from his wife.

He bought a modest house in La Puente, a small town east of Los Angeles, and he started a new career in construction.

On his own account, given in his only interview in 2001, Columba and her sister came to live with him in California. That too is what relatives in Leon recalled to Daily Mail Online.

But Columba herself says that her relationship with her father ended in 1963, suggesting that she did not live with him in California.

It remains unclear, therefore, whether she was herself a resident in the United States before she married Jeb Bush.

But it was definitely in Leon that she attracted the attention of a tall American boy who was to become the stabilizing force in her life.

She was a 16-year-old rebel, described by one relative as a ‘hippy’. He was John Elliot Bush–‘Jeb’–a 17-year-old exchange student from the elite Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, teaching English in Mexico.

Columba was driving around the city with her sister Lucila and her sister’s boyfriend, a classmate of Jeb’s, on a Sunday night when they stopped to talk to the 6’4” American.

Four days later he asked her out on a date. They fell in love.

‘He was so tall,’ Columba, who stands 5 feet, said in a 1999 newspaper interview.

She said that for him it was love at first sight–while she took two days to fall in love.

They corresponded almost daily and he visited every six months. It was, she said, ‘very romantic’.

Her cousin, Sylvia Cantos-Garnica told said: ‘I remember when we were teenagers Columba told me she was dating a young man, an American, whose father was a politician.

‘Columba was about 18 or 19. That was one of the last times I saw her.’

It was at her father’s modest home in La Puente, California that Jose Maria’s relationship with his daughter fell apart finally, in 1973, according to her friend, and to relatives in Mexico.

She told her father she was popping out to go to the post office or to buy some cigarettes, depending on which version you accept.

Olga Maria Hernandez, who has known the politician’s wife since 1958, said in an interview with Mexico’s AM newspaper in 2001: ‘Jose Maria said Columba went out to buy some cigarettes and never came back. That is a lie.

‘Columba was mistreated by her father because she was smoking a cigarette.

‘She decided to leave and come back to Leon.

‘Later Jeb Bush came for her and she found all the love and support that she never found with her father.’

What is clear is that turning from her father was followed quickly by being welcomed fully into the Bush family.

She married Jeb in February 1974 in a Catholic ceremony at the University of Texas chapel. At the time her husband did not share her faith, but he converted from Episcopalianism in 1996, and their three children were brought up as Catholics. His brother George, the former U.S. president, is a Methodist.

If he wins the White House, Jeb would be the first Catholic in the White House since John F Kennedy, and the first convert to the church to hold the presidency.

Sadly, the Bush’s happy marriage was not to be mirrored by a reconciliation with her father, and therefore with many of her relatives.

She also appears to have lost contact with parts of her mother’s family too, although her mother now lives in Miami where she is said to be ailing. And her sister–who married Joseph Schmitz, the Andover boy she was dating when Columba met Jeb and is her closest confidante–lives there too.

To some of her relatives in Mexico the rift has caused lasting hurt.

Her cousin on her mother’s side, Maria Gallo Acedes, told Daily Mail Online: ‘I am very hurt by Columba’s attitude.

‘I am disappointed how she left her family behind, her father’s family and her mother’s family. She has forgotten the Gallo family.

‘We were close when we were young. I organized a party to celebrate her 15th birthday [a traditional coming of age celebration for young Mexican women known as ‘quinceañera’].I got her a dress for the celebration.

‘But after she got married to Jeb Bush she stopped all communication not only with her mother’s family but her father and his family as well.’

Speaking at her modest home in Leon Mrs Gallo Acedes, a retired accountant, said: ‘Columba was my chaperone when I was dating a boyfriend. It was a time when a young lady was not allowed to go out with a boyfriend alone. So Columba was my chaperone when I was dating.

‘I am the oldest member of her mother’s family, the Gallo family, and one her of her closest relatives. We grew up together. We have many childhood memories.

‘I am not pleased with the way Columba has treated her family. I have so much to say about the way she has behaved with us.’

Another cousin went further, accusing Columba of being ‘snotty’ and a ‘snob’ who was ashamed of her father’s humble beginnings.

Sylvia Cantos-Garnica told Daily Mail Online: ‘Because Columba lived in the town and went to a private school it was like she did not want to be associated with the country side of her family.

‘It was like she was being a snob.

‘I wish she would get over that snotty part of her character and engage with her Mexican family.

‘Leon is a really snotty town. People from there look down on country folk. Leon is known for being snotty. There is a real class structure here in Mexico. And it continues today.’

Jose Maria had married a young woman from his village, Antonia Morales Mendez, upon his return to Mexico on 14 October 1985. She was 26 years younger than him. He was 61 she was 35.

Antonia gave birth to a baby daughter whom they called Nadine but tragically she died just two months later.

He bought an avocado farm in Ensenada, Baja California, Mexico, where the couple lived for 13 years before setting up home in the town of Silao, near his childhood village of Arperos.

Later in life, Columba’s father battled to rebuild his relationship with his daughter.

In 1999, as the son-in-law he had never known was elected governor of Florida for the first time, he put aside his hurt pride.

Antonia Morales Garnica, his widow, said: ‘My husband tried to get in touch with his daughter when we lived in the farm in Ensenada.

‘He called her house and her husband answered the phone. He asked to speak to his daughter but Mr Bush told him she was not available.

‘My husband thanked Mr Bush for looking after Columba. He replied that he did so because he loved her.’

He even tried to reach out to his daughter by offering a family greeting to newly elected President George W Bush during his state visit to Mexico in February 2001.

He waited outside the Mexican president’s official ranch, San Cristobal, which is near to Leon, for hours in the hot sun to hand over pictures to the President Bush to give to his grandchildren. But it was in vain.

His widow, Antonia Morales Garnica, told Daily Mail Online: ‘My husband never expressed anger that Columba never tried to get in touch. Instead he felt sad because he was not able to see his grandchildren.

‘He followed Columba’s life through newspaper clippings.’

But sadly, they were never reconciled.

Her uncle, Antonio Garnica Rodriguez, told Daily Mail Online: ‘Jose Maria, Columba’s father, my brother, died over a year ago. He passed away on the 26th November 2013. He was 88.

‘A lot of people showed up for his funeral. It was a very nice service. He was cremated and placed inside the Church of Jesus Christ Lord of Forgiveness here in Silao [Guanajuato].

‘Columba did not come. She must have been busy. Only his son Francisco turned up.’

A spokeswoman for Jeb Bush confirmed to Daily Mail Online that the rift had never been healed.

In a statement, the spokeswoman said: ‘Mrs Bush did not have a relationship with her father after he left her mother and their family when Mrs Bush was just a young teenager.

‘This is not an uncommon situation in families when one parent abandons the rest of the family.

‘Mrs Bush remains very close with her sister and ailing mother, who now live in Miami.

‘Mrs Bush also remains close with many family and friends back in Mexico.’

Some detect bias in the family rift. Cantos-Garnica urged Columba to ‘get over’ her alleged prejudice of country folk if she is to help her husband win the support of America’s millions of Latino voters.

She told Daily Mail Online: ‘The majority of people [of Mexican origin] in the U.S. come from places like this.

‘If they [the Bush clan] want to get the Latino vote, Columba needs to acknowledge her roots, her humble background.

‘For her that was shameful. But this is where she is from. She should own it.’

The cousin was speaking at the Garnica family ranch in the village of Arperos. Cantos-Garnica had reached the remote mountain village via the rough dirt track that leads down to the main road to celebrate the fiesta of the Santa Maria de Guadalupe with her mother and aunts and uncles.

They say they would have welcomed Columba.

Antonio Garnica Rodriguez, Columba’s uncle, added: ‘If she becomes the first lady, we the family will be very proud of her, but we don’t know if she will be very proud of us.’