MERCEDES — After losing her husband in March, 64-year-old Dionicia Gonzales is the sole caregiver for her 10 grandchildren, whose parents are no longer present in their lives. Without the income of her husband, Gonzales finds herself barely making ends meet for the family.
The family started out with the two oldest who Gonzales raised with her husband since their infancy after their daughter decided that she could not care for the children any longer, Dionicia said. The couple raised the two boys until they graduated high school and she still cares for them to this day.
Five years ago, the Gonzaleses gained three more mouths to feed when Child Protective Services placed another of her daughters’ children in Dionicia’s custody. An 11-year-old girl and two boys, one 19 and the other 17, were placed in foster care before Gonzales stepped in, an experience she said still haunts the trio.
Dionicia has more children whose kids are also in her care, including a 9-year-old girl and a 5-year-old boy from one daughter, and three boys ages 8, 6 and 3 from a son.
Making 10 now, another one of Dionicia’s daughters left a 13-year-old boy for the grandmother to raise last year.
Among the struggles each child faces, Dionicia said she also had to teach the children to keep the peace in the home. Given that the family is composed of different households and arrived at different times, there were adjustments that needed to be made.
As the only mother figure the children have, those that were in Dionicia’s custody first did not want to share their grandma with the new kids.
Dionicia said she has taught them to realize that they have each other as support. They are brothers and sisters under her roof, as she puts it.
Although hectic at times, the children have learned to become dependent on one another now that their grandfather is gone.
Caring for the children on her own is something that has kept her distracted from mourning her husband’s death.
The two seemed to be quite the power couple taking on 10 children, but now, on her own, she finds herself trying to catch a break anytime she can.
A typical day for Dionicia starts at 5 a.m. when she cooks breakfast for everyone and ships out all the kids to their designated schools.
“Every day it’s a blessing to wake up and wake up the kids,” she said.
The 10 children share bunk beds and just about everything else in their three-bedroom, one bathroom home.
With her husband gone, Dionicia finds herself struggling to make ends meet and said she often resorts to donating plasma to earn some money.
Her husband was the main breadwinner and took on the role of disciplinarian with the children.
The grandchildren nicknamed him the “Grouch” for his grumpy demeanor before he died of cancer, but Dionicia admits she loved that he took care of that aspect of raising them for her.
“There always has to be a good cop and bad cop,” she said, laughing as she told stories of her husband.
She assumed her natural role as the loving one, which she embodies every day as she makes her grandchildren meals, sometimes cooking three different plates at a time to satisfy everyone’s cravings.
The grandmother said she enjoys the second chance at “doing things the right way” with her children’s children, because she feels she didn’t quite get it down the first time.
Dionicia comes from a family of eight brothers and sisters and kept to the tradition of a big family by having nine children of her own, one of which died when he was a baby.
She said she grew up in conditions much like the ones the kids are in now. She shared everything with her brothers and sisters and was quite crowded.
While she assumed the basic role of caregiver for her own children, she felt she lacked being involved in their lives.
Dionicia vowed to be better about that with her grandchildren and is proud to say she attends every school meeting and every sporting event for the kids.
However, the running around and recent loss of support is spreading Dionicia thin.
This year alone, Dionicia has lost most of her support group to COVID-19. Her mother and brother were infected with the virus in July and died within two days of each other — devastation that Dionicia has still not fully processed.
She stuck by both her brother and mother until the end, risking exposure to the virus.
“When they’re sick like my husband that was sick, you’re waiting for that, but when they’re not it’s hard,” she said.
The grandmother of 10 said she was blessed to not get sick after being exposed to her brother for quite some time.
Dionicia’s biggest fear at the moment is that something will happen to her and she will leave the children behind.
“My kids always tell me, ‘Mom you’re the backbone of this family, if anything ever happens to you what’s gonna happen to all the kids,’ I mean they’re here because their mothers didn’t want the obligation,” she said.
The only person that helps Dionicia now that her entire support system has died is the grandmother of two of the children, who helps with money for clothes when the children need it.
She said one daughter moved to Mission and made her own life there and started over. Three other daughters live in Weslaco and occasionally help her with dinner, a gesture that although rare, Dionicia appreciates.
Last winter, the Gonzales household also suffered severely through the winter freeze, with only one gas heater.
Dionicia believes the freeze also attributed to her husband’s already-declining health and fears that it may happen again this year if any of the children become ill.
While she prays for good health for her grandkids, Dionicia knows she needs to create the best environment possible to protect her children.
The home they live in has running water and electricity, but she fears she will not have enough with one gas heater this winter.
“Right now just any presents for the kids because there’s not gonna be any presents,” Dionicia said when asked what she needs the most. “I’ve been getting my husband’s bills still and it’s hard.”
This holiday season, Dionicia asked that the community help in any way they can, but needs the funds to afford presents for her 10 grandchildren because she will not be able to afford them. She hopes to give the children a Christmas to remember after losing their grandfather.
Donations for this family, and others, can be made by contributing to the Spirit of Christmas campaign through the United Way of South Texas. They can be reached at (956) 686-6331 between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Monday through Friday. Due to COVID- 19, only monetary donations are being accepted for families in need.