Garcia, a Harris County commissioner, is the kind of Texan who speaks reverently about the Battle of San Jacinto - the most important battle in our state's history, the battle in which Sam Houston's ragtag army shockingly trounced Santa Anna's larger Mexican force, not only winning Texas' independence from Mexico but also paving the way for California and New Mexico's entry into the United States. It was, as historian T.R. Fehrenbach has written, the battle in which "the West was won."
Given half a chance, Garcia will rhapsodize about the Twin Sisters, the two cannons that Houston's army used. So it thrilled her that right there in her hands, she held the only Twin Sisters cannonball that archaeologists have ever found.
And she loved, too, that its discovery this spring held even greater significance. The cannonball, along with roughly a hundred other objects from the Battle of San Jacinto, was found nearly a mile from the San Jacinto monument, and about half a mile outside the markers that indicate the outer edge of the battle - important confirmation for historians' suspicion that the battlefield was actually much larger than the one currently memorialized at the state park.
Still, as we drove to the dig site, the mood in the car was funereal. Garcia was in her last days on the job as a county commissioner. A few months before, she'd seemed invincible: the highest-ranking Hispanic officeholder in Harris County, one of the most powerful Hispanic women in the country, president of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. But in November, to the astonishment of political observers, she lost her election to a little-known Republican outsider.
More than a month later, Garcia still seemed in shock. She shifted the cannonball from hand to hand, a heavy little reminder of the things she'd accomplished in her eight years with the county.
"I love this so much," she said to Mark Seegers, the aide who was driving us. "I wish I could keep it."
There was a long silence. Garcia tried to lighten the mood: "Maybe I'll just put it in my purse," she said. "We'll say we lost it."
She expected us to laugh - a county commissioner! stealing a sacred Texan artifact! - so Seegers and I did.
But the joke was heartbreaking. Garcia really didn't want to let go.
South Plaza, the dig site is called. The weedy, one-acre triangle sits in the V where Vista Road veers off from Independence Parkway. Before the lot was fenced, coyotes lived there, and refinery workers across the street would feed them scraps from their lunches.
Garcia wanted to attract more tourists to the battlefield, which lay in her district, so she convinced the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which owned the land, to allow her to build a battlefield visitors' center there using county money.
The state required an archaeological dig, but the commissioner was happy to bankroll that, too. Maybe, she thought, they'd be lucky: Maybe they'd turn up a scrap of wagon wheel or some other debris left by the "Runaway Scrape" - the flight of thousands of Anglo Texian refugees who feared for their lives after the Mexican victories at the Alamo and Goliad, and followed Sam Houston's troops.
Instead, the archaeology team began turning up artifacts obviously related to the Battle of San Jacinto. Janet Wagner, the team's leader, showed some of them recently: musket balls, both Texian and Mexican, some fired, some not; parts of muskets; a watch and chain; and buttons, imported from France, that would have decorated the top-ranking Mexican officers' uniforms.
There were also broken links of chain: shrapnel, Wagner says, stuff the Texians made to fire from their cannons, since they didn't have enough cannonballs.
In her report to the Texas Historical Commission and Texas Parks and Wildlife, Wagner suggests three different historical incidents that could explain the artifacts. Two involve skirmishes the day before the battle. The third - and the one that seems to fit best - took place as Santa Anna fled the carnage of the battle, along with his personal guard and high-ranking staff. Texians with fast horses gave chase and killed at least one of the officers. But Santa Anna got away - not to be captured until the next day.
Garcia was excited by Wagner's early reports, and one day in March, she and Seegers visited the dig site. The metal detectors located something large, and the crew calmly began to extract it.
Someone called Garcia over, and the crew instructed her to lift the object out of the ground.
It was the cannonball, of course. The metal-detecting crew stayed calm, like surgeons completing a tricky heart procedure. But Garcia was free to be astounded: She held an important piece of Texas history, lost since 1836!
Maybe it was luck that she was at the site just then. Maybe it was destiny. Whatever it was, it was with her that day.
Destiny : In the car, Garcia proudly pointed out a gigantic mural by that name, the creation of artist Gary Foreman. At the Lyondell refinery, the vinyl image covers one curving side of a 40 -foot chemical tank.
The mural shows Sam Houston, posed against a background of silhouetted soldiers and an enormous Texian flag. Houston, with absolute conviction, points forward - away from the crushing defeats at the Alamo and Goliad and toward victory at San Jacinto, toward Texas' preordained greatness.
Garcia loves that mural, the first unveiled by Project Stars, a nonprofit organization that she launched. With banners and tank murals, the project aims to turn the refinery-lined road between Houston and the battlefield into a "museum without walls," to dress up Houston's industrial underbelly as the prelude to a tourist attraction.
But Garcia, of course, is a Hispanic woman, one of nine siblings who grew up picking cotton in South Texas. In San Antonio, Mexican-American activists have for decades complained that Alamo exhibits demean Hispanics. But in Houston, Garcia is one of the battlefield's prime supporters.
Garcia is a Texan to the bone. She doesn't identify at all with Santa Anna, the Mexican dictator who so underestimated Sam Houston's forces at San Jacinto. Instead, she sides completely with the Texians, and with the Tejanos and Mexicans who fought alongside them against Santa Anna. Near the battlefield, she named a new little park after Juan Seguin.
It doesn't occur to her that the battle of San Jacinto could be a metaphor for her own recent defeat: underestimated Anglo forces coming out of nowhere, catching the powerful Hispanic unawares, wreaking an utter and lasting defeat.
No: To Garcia, this election was not her Battle of San Jacinto; to her, the Battle of San Jacinto signifies only victory, not defeat.
To her, this election was an Alamo, a Goliad - a bloody slaughter, a galling loss, but a prelude to some dramatically lit destiny.
In the back seat of the car, she wishes she could keep the cannonball.