LEÓN, Mexico — The story of Columba and Jeb Bush began by happenstance in 1971, on the elegant, sun-washed central plaza of this city in the heart of Mexico.
Columba Garnica Gallo was a shy high-schooler, tagging along for a drive with her sister and a new boyfriend from the States. John Ellis Bush was an aimless yanqui blue blood, in Mexico for a couple of months on a program through his New England prep school. He was captivated by the doe-eyed beauty he spotted in the car with his friend.
“My life can be defined in one real, powerful way, which is B.C. and A.C.: Before Columba and After Columba,” the presumed establishment front-runner for the 2016 Republican nomination tells audiences. “I fell madly in love with her — literally love at first sight. Whatever I was doing beforehand, I vaguely remember. But my life got really organized after that.”
Destiny and DNA might have foretold that Jeb would make a run for the White House someday, aiming for a job that both his father and brother held. That Columba stands a chance of becoming the first Latina first lady is a more unlikely story.
In Mexico, Columba, now 61, is sometimes spoken of as a real-life Cinderella. There is pride here that the daughter of a local farmer joined one of the most powerful political families in U.S. history. But like many fairy tales, hers has storylines of secrecy, trauma and sadness.
Her early years were defined by a tortured relationship with her father — one that both connects her to the roiling immigration debate and helps explain why ending domestic violence is a cause to which she is passionately and personally committed.
“She could be a powerful voice against domestic violence” because of what happened in her own home growing up, said Beatriz Parga, a Colombian author of a 2004 book about Columba published in Spanish.
Parga’s book — “Columba Bush: the Cinderella of the White House” — offers accounts from Columba about how her father battered her mother and intimidated her. Its cover declares, in smaller letters: “It’s too late, Papa.”
In the slender volume, Columba, who declined to be interviewed for this story, is quoted as saying that her father “caused the most painful memories of my life and made the life of my mother hell.” She said he often beat her mother, once breaking her fingers with a belt buckle.
A source who has spoken with the Bushes, but who declined to be identified, confirmed that Columba did speak to the author about her childhood but said she did not authorize publication of the book.
Columba’s personal history also has political resonance, with immigration a frontline issue in the 2016 primary campaign. Last year, Jeb caught flak from conservatives in his own party when he said that many of those who cross the border illegally do so as an “act of love. It’s an act of commitment to your family.”
His own father-in-law had made that journey, as did many of Columba’s relatives, walking across the border decades ago to get work in California.
Jose Maria Garnica Rodriguez, who died at 88 in 2013, grew up in Arperos, not far from this city famous for its leather boots and clothes. It is reachable by a hilly dirt road. He helped his family grow corn and avocados until he left for the United States, like so many other men and women did from his poor village.
After World War II, it was common to cross the border without proper papers, said Columba’s uncle, Antonio Garnica Rodriguez, who made the trek, too. “We just went across the border, worked, stayed there for a while and came back.”
He said his brother later joined the “bracero” program, which allowed manual laborers temporary legal entry to the United States. Jose Maria got his “resident alien” card on Feb. 4, 1960. It indicates that his point of entry was El Paso, Tex. He moved back to Mexico in the 1980s.
The card that legalized him is still in his brown leather wallet, in his widow’s home, along with his ID for the Laborers International Union of North America Local 300 in Los Angeles, and a black-and-white photo of Columba as a teen.
According to both sides of the family, Columba’s parents had a loveless, stormy relationship. Her mother, Josefina Gallo Esquivel, came from a wealthier family in León.
Their marriage formally dissolved in 1963, leaving their shy, deeply religious 10-year-old daughter feeling stigmatized and set apart from other children in a conservative Catholic city.
“When my parents divorced, it was a really big deal for their families and friends. To get divorced in the sixties in Mexico was a sin,” Columba said in “Mamá,” a 2003 collection of essays about Latinas and their mothers.
Over the years, Columba has offered few details of her childhood. She said her father deserted his family in Mexico when she was small, leaving an impression that she never saw him after that and that she did not visit the United States until Jeb swept her off her feet.
“We don’t intend to relitigate the numerous offensive actions of a deceased man who abandoned his family in poverty while Mrs. Bush was a young child,” Bush spokeswoman Kristy Campbell said in an e-mail. “Mrs. Bush, her sister Lucila, and her mother have remained close and severed ties with him more than four decades ago.”
Columba’s older sister Lucila married Jeb’s friend John Schmitz, the boyfriend who was in the car with her and Columba that day in the square in León when they encountered Jeb. They moved to the Miami area, where their mother — now in her 90s — later joined them.
Her brother Francisco lives in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, relatives said.
As is often the case with broken families, there are conflicting versions of what went wrong.
Members of her father’s family in Mexico — a half-dozen of whom were interviewed by The Washington Post — insist that he was very much a part of Columba’s life when she was growing up. They say she visited him more than once in La Puente, Calif., outside Los Angeles, and even lived with him for a while in her late teens, as her romance with Jeb was blooming.
A cousin, Abdon Garnica Yebra, recalls picking almonds with her one weekend, when she visited California for the summer.
Columba’s father provided financial support and arranged for his daughter to obtain the legal documents she needed to settle in the United States, several relatives said.
Records indicate that Columba was issued a Social Security card in California in 1966. But it is not clear when she obtained a green card, and the Bushes declined to provide the date.
Garnica’s relatives say she became estranged from him around the time she started getting serious about Jeb.
“When Columba met Jeb, she stopped talking to her father,” said Antonia Morales Garnica, 65, who was married to Jose Maria for 30 years until he died. “He suffered.”
By the window in her living room was a small shrine to his memory, where a candle burned in front a crucifix and photos of him.
She described her husband as a devout, hardworking man, who did farming and construction. He was known as Bajito — or Shorty — because he was small.
However, Garnica’s widow also said Josefina called the police and had her then-husband thrown in jail: “She probably told [authorities] that he hit them, but I don’t believe it.”
Columba has never met her father’s widow. “Mrs. Bush’s father’s second wife does not seem to know the full story, as what she said is incomplete and false,” said Campbell, the Bush spokeswoman.
Those who have heard Columba’s side, including author Parga, say Garnica tried to get in touch only after he realized his daughter had married into a famous family.
Over the years, Jose Maria collected a stack of clippings, several inches high, about Columba. His widow pulled them from a green plastic grocery bag and spread them across her Formica dining room table.
There in the pile was the 1998 headline that a local girl — a Leonesa — had become first lady of Florida. A triumphal front-page photo four years later of Jeb celebrating his reelection as governor. A National Enquirer story about his granddaughter’s drug problem, and accounts that his grandson, George P. Bush (now the land commissioner of Texas), was making appearances nearby in Mexico.
Some of her father’s relatives say that Columba has kept her distance because she is embarrassed about her humble roots.
“It didn’t fit” with her new life, said her cousin Araceli Garnica Calvillo, who runs a store that sells hair dyes and beauty supplies in Silao, a town near Arperos.
Others in the family say they carry no grievance. “It’s her luck. We have to let her live her life,” said her aunt Agustina Yebra de Garnica.
When Jeb announced to his family over Christmas in 1973 that he wanted to marry her, it “came as no surprise to us as Columba was the only girl he had ever dated,” his mother, Barbara Bush, wrote in her memoir.
Barbara went with her son to Boone and Sons Jewelers in the District to buy a small engagement ring, and to get his great-grandmother’s wedding band sized to Columba’s finger. Jeb’s fiancee was something of a mystery to the large, close-knit Bush family, which had never been introduced to her. Much of the couple’s courtship had been done by phone and letters.
“How I worry about Jeb and Columba. Does she love him? I know when I meet her, I’ll stop worrying,” Barbara wrote in her diary.
But they liked the influence that the girl he called Colu had on the besotted Jeb, who was determined to prove to her that he was something more than a rich man’s dilettante son. He put his slacker days behind him, buckled down and got his Latin American studies degree from the University of Texas in just 21/2 years — thrilling his parents when he made Phi Beta Kappa.
Meanwhile, Columba decided she would go to Southern California and live with her father, according to his relatives. She took a job in a factory that made parts for airplanes, Parga wrote. Moving to this country also made it easier to be in touch with Jeb in Texas.
The last time Columba spoke to her father appears to have been in 1973, when she was 19 or 20.
The version in Parga’s book goes like this: He came home from work, saw that Columba had been smoking a cigarette — which he forbade — and was so angry at her that he took off his belt and came after her. She said she locked herself in the bathroom until he left the house, then went to the bus station and began the long journey back to her home town in Mexico.
His relatives tell a different story: That she told Jose Maria she was going out to get the mail — and never came back. They assume that Columba left for Jeb, who they said had been calling while she lived in California.
Jeb and Columba had a tiny wedding on Feb. 23, 1974, at the University of Texas’s Catholic student center (an Episcopalian at the time, he would convert to his wife’s faith two decades later). Her mother and sister attended, along with his close family.
The couple has only one photograph from that day — thanks to the fact that their designated photographer, his brother Marvin, double-exposed his film with shots previously taken at a Frank Zappa concert.
The surviving snapshot, taken by his mother on her Kodak pocket Instamatic, shows an incongruous couple. Columba stood barely 5 feet tall in her frilly wedding dress, nestled under the arm of her new 6-foot-4 husband. He was 21; she was 20.
Her mother-in-law recalled that day as a rare happy moment for the Bushes at that time. It was the middle of the Watergate scandal, and Jeb’s father, George H.W. Bush, had the unenviable job of being chairman of the Republican National Committee.
But “we were not an easy family to marry into. I had found the big Bush family a little overwhelming, so I could imagine Colu’s feelings! To complicate things, she spoke very little English then, although she became fluent very quickly,” Barbara later said in her memoir.
The couple moved around, including a stint in Venezuela, where Jeb worked for a branch of Texas Commerce Bank. In the early 1980s, they settled in Miami, where Jeb embarked on a career in real estate — and gravitated toward the family business of politics.
She was glad to be living near her mother and her sister, who is also her best friend, and loved the city’s vibrant Latino culture.
By then, his father was vice president of the United States, a consolation prize after losing to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 Republican presidential primary. When George H.W. Bush ran for president again in 1988, Columba surprised her in-laws with the announcement that she had become a U.S. citizen — six weeks before the Florida primary.
That year, on her 35th birthday, a visibly nervous Columba gave a nominating speech in Spanish from the convention floor in New Orleans.
When her husband ran for Florida governor and lost in 1994, the ordeal put strains on the marriage. He has acknowledged he neglected his family, and she made it clear that she was not keen on campaign life. Reporters heard her complain that she “didn’t ask for this.”
But Jeb ran again in 1998. And this time, he won.
As Jeb was preparing to run for a second term, in June 2001 the Associated Press took note of his wife’s unusually low profile: “Columba Bush has become known as Florida’s invisible first lady.”
“I have never been a social person,” Columba has said. “I think it’s just my personality. I just love silence. I like to read a good book and go for a walk.”
Friends say Columba never felt as if she fit in at the capital, Tallahassee, which is culturally closer to Georgia and Alabama than the diverse environment of South Florida, where she continued to spend much of her time.
But she was determined to make a difference in her quiet way.
Jeb had been in office less than a year when Tiffany Carr got a call from Florida’s new first lady. Carr runs the Florida Coalition Against Domestic Violence, a network of 42 certified shelters.
The two women spent more than an hour talking. “She said, ‘I would like to be helpful. Do you think it would be purposeful for me to be helpful?’ Those were her words,” Carr said. “She’s purposeful.”
Her husband in recent days visited a battered women’s center in the early primary state of South Carolina, and he credited Columba with raising awareness of the issue in Florida, where penalties against abusers were increased and waiting lists to get into shelters were reduced.
At the time she first began working on the issue, Carr recalled, advocating against domestic violence did not enjoy the currency it does now. Back then, it was the kind of subject that could clear the room at a cocktail party.
But Columba helped bring attention to the problem by holding fundraisers, recording public service announcements and paying special attention to the needs of rural women and minorities, such as Spanish-speaking and Haitian communities.
Columba also spent many hours talking with victims, though Carr says she never made any reference, publicly or privately, to her own experiences.
Her family history also drew her to the cause of curbing substance abuse.
She called Joe Califano, the former Health, Education and Welfare secretary under President Jimmy Carter who had founded the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.
Columba’s own daughter was struggling with a drug problem. “She decided to do something about it,” Califano said.
He ended up putting her on the organization’s board in February 2000. The work was so important to her that she brought Jeb to a meeting in New York the following December — despite how busy Jeb was as governor of Florida, where a recount was underway to decide whether his brother, George W. Bush, would be the next president.
Columba also wanted to see the problem close up, going across Florida to jails and treatment centers and programs for addicted mothers whose children had been taken away from them.
“She was always unseen in this, and hence the general view was that she wasn’t a very visible first lady,” said Jim McDonough, named by Jeb as Florida’s first drug czar. “We covered thousands of miles. We did it for eight years.”
McDonough recalls that Columba never shared her own experiences with the issue, preferring to listen.
“It wasn’t, ‘I have suffered what you have suffered.’ It wasn’t her style. As with many things with Mrs. Bush, that was very private,” McDonough said.
When the buzz began last year over the prospect of another Bush running for president, many of those close to him believed that Columba’s reluctance would be the biggest obstacle to him entering the 2016 race. So when Jeb declared in October that “my wife is supportive of the idea,” they knew that a threshold had been crossed.
It will be hard for her to stay in the shadows if her husband gets the nomination — and impossible if he makes it to the White House.
Columba “doesn’t like the spotlight particularly, but I’ll have to say, I didn’t either,” her sister-in-law, former first lady Laura Bush, recently told CNN. “I got used to it.”
“I did give Columba advice,” she added. “I told her that she ought to get a really good speech and give it. She can give a speech in English and Spanish. I think that’s a huge advantage for her. I think it can be a huge asset for the Republican Party to reach out to Hispanics in this country.”
And she would also have a claim to making history as the first Latina to live in the White House. To date, there has only been one first lady born outside the United States. John Quincy Adams’s wife, Louisa, who also married into a dynasty, was born in England.
None of which could have been anticipated by the Mexican teenager who caught the eye of a visiting American student more than four decades ago. “I did not ask to join a famous family,” she has said. “I simply wanted to marry a man that I loved.”
Alice Crites contributed to this report.