I wrote this column in September, 1994, after a visit to California. I thought it might be of interest to my many Palomo nephews, nieces and cousins and their children and grandchildren who don’t know much about our family’s history.
HER EYES closed, she sat in her wheelchair outside her room.
“Tía,” my sister said, tapping Tía Benita on the shoulder.
“Look who’s with me,” Luisa added, in Spanish, when she opened her eyes.
“Emilio?” Tía asked feebly. An understandable mistake given my resemblance to Luisa’s son.
Once I embraced her and told her who I was some on the confusion disappeared and Tía Benita spoke in a strong voice. Of how glad she was I was taking the time to visit her. About how she was asleep because she’d had another sleepless night.
Benita Palomo Alfaro was born outside San Luís Potosi on April 3, 1900, which makes her 94.
Even as kids, all of us were intrigued by her birthdate, and how easy that would always make it for us to remember her age. But we never imagined she’d still be alive as the Millennium approaches, that we’d actually be contemplating having a 100-year-old aunt.
When Alejandro and Manuela Palomo gathered their children in the middle of the night and fled the hacienda where my grandfather worked, Tía Benita, their ninth child, was the oldest. Eight others had come before her – all had died.
Today she’s the sole survivor. By the time of the Palomos waded across the Rio Grande near Eagle Pass on a cool April day in 1920, the two youngest, Cirilo and Isabelita, had also died.
Gertrudis died of tuberculosis in the late 1940s, leaving behind a young widow and six children. My grandmother died in 1951 and her husband died some 10 years later. He is buried a few blocks from where Tía Benita lives.
Domingo, my father, died in 1984 and Adrián, the youngest, died a few years after that.
Although still strong of mind, body and spirit, old age, arthritis and other ailments have for several years conspired to deny Tía the use of her legs, so she spends most of her time either in bed or on her wheelchair in the San Jose, Calif., nursing home where she’s lived the past several years.
That does not mean she’s been inactive. Far from it. Until the home’s kitchen changed directors, for instance, she would often help prepare the meals. And not long ago, she talked her granddaughter into taking her to Mexico to visit her birthplace – for the first time since the family left that country 74 years ago.
Tía Benita spoke about the departure for much of the hour or so we were there. I’d heard some of that story before, from my father and others, but she provided much more detail. All the versions I’d heard earlier had my grandfather fleeing Mexico because he was on the wrong side of the revolution, or something equally romantic.
IT TURNS OUT it was nothing of the sort.
It was the death of a mule that led to the Palomos’ becoming Texans. Not just any mule, of course. It was a prized mule, one of the two that performed a special task at the ranch. A mistake by my grandfather led to its being run over by a rail car. Fearing retribution from his boss, my grandfather quickly organized the great escape. It was a hard trip. They had no money and almost no food. They traveled at night and hid in the mountains by day.
The final indignity came when a friend who had been paid to drive them across the Rio Grande pocketed the money and forced then to wade across instead.
They settled in Crystal City and in the nearby farms. It was there that Tia Benita met Melecio Alfaro, a labor contractor who would become her husband. Tío Melecio’s relative affluence was what helped her family survive, especially during the Great Depression.
And the Alfaros were who kept our family alive in 1938. That year my mother almost died after giving birth to her second child and my father nearly lost his arm to gangrene after a job accident. His bosses didn’t believe it was a work-related injury and refused pay for his treatment. Finally, it was Tia Benita who lent my father the 50 cents he needed to visit the doctor when he could no longer take the pain. And it was she, along with Louisa, who saw to the care and feeding of my brothers and sisters.
IT SEEMED fitting, then, that it was with Louisa’s help that Tia was now telling me now about that life so long ago.
“Fué una vida muy dura, hijo,” she said. We agreed. How could it be classified as anything but a difficult life? Later as we prepared to leave, she mused, “¿Por qué me habrá dejado Diocito que viva tantos aõs?
She obviously didn’t need an answer. But if she had, I might have said that maybe God intended her to live so long so she could bring us all a sense of humility.
[Benita Palomo Alfaro died in 2003. She was 103. It is unclear exactly how many siblings she had. A list prepared by my oldest sister, Maria Luisa, with the help of Tía Benita, indicates there were 13. The oldest was Daria, born in 1895. She was followed by Felipe, 1896, Domitila, 1898, Teresito, 1899 and Benita, 1900. They were followed by Gertrudis, Domingo (1904), another Domitila, Francisca, Cirilo, Adrian, Pedro and Isabel.]