Remembering a strong, strong woman

On this day, 122 years ago, my father’s oldest sister was born near San Luis Potosí in Mexico. She died in 2003, at the age of 103. I wrote this about her 28 years ago:

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 Tía opened her eyes.

“Emilio?” Tia asked, an understandable mistake, given my resemblance to Luisa‘s son.

Once I embraced her and told her who I was, the confusion disappeared and Tía Benita spoke in a strong voice. Of how glad she was like 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 Luis Potosi on April 3, 1900, which makes her 94. Even as kids, all of us were intrigued by her birthyear, and how easy that would always be for us to remember her age. But we never imagined she’d still be alive as the millennium approaches, that we would 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 is the sole survivor. By the time 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. 

Gertrudes died of tuberculosis in the late 1940s, leaving behind a young widow and six children. My grandmother died in 1951 and her husband died 17 years later (he is buried a few blocks from where Tía lives). Domingo, my father, died in 1984 and Adrian, 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, California, 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. 

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. 

Tia Benita spoke about the departure for the hour or so we were there. I’ve heard some of that story before, from my father and others, but she provided much more details.

All the versions I had heard earlier had my grandfather fleeing Mexico because he was in on the wrong side of the revolution, or something equally romantic. It turns out it was nothing of the sort. It was a death of a mule that led to the Palomos’ becoming Texans.

It was not just any mule, of course. It was a prized mule, one of the two that perform specialized tasks at the ranch. A mistake by my grandfather led to its being run over by a railroad 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 by night and hid in the mountains during the day. The final indignity came when a friend who’d been paid to drive them across the Rio Grande pocketed the money, forcing the wo wade across instead. 

They settled in Crystal City and lived in nearby farms, among them the Holdsworth Ranch, owned by a man whose daughter married a guy named Howard E. Butt, founder of HEB. It was in Crystal City that Tía Benita met MelecioAlfaro, a labor contractor who would become her husband.

It was Melecio’s relative affluence that helped our family survive during the Great Depression. And it was the Alfaros who kept our family alive in 1938. That was the year my mother almost died after giving birth to her sixthchild, 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 to pay for his treatment. Finally it was the Tía 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 Luisa, who saw to the care of my brothers and sisters. 

It seemed fitting, then, that it was with Luisa‘s help that Tia was now telling me about that life so long ago. 

“Fué una vida my dura, hijo,“ she concluded. We agreed. How could it be classified as anything but a difficult life? Later, as we prepared to leave, she mused: “¿Por que me habrá dejado Diocito vivir tantos años?“

She obviously didn’t expect an answer. But if she had, I might have said maybe God intended her to live so long to bring us all a dose of humility.

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 Tía opened her eyes.

“Emilio?” Tia asked, an understandable mistake, given my resemblance to Luisa‘s son.

Once I embraced her and told her who I was, the confusion disappeared and Tía Benita spoke in a strong voice. Of how glad she was like 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 Luis Potosi on April 3, 1900, which makes her 94. Even as kids, all of us were intrigued by her birthyear, and how easy that would always be for us to remember her age. But we never imagined she’d still be alive as the millennium approaches, that we would 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 is the sole survivor. By the time 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. 

Gertrudes died of tuberculosis in the late 1940s, leaving behind a young widow and six children. My grandmother died in 1951 and her husband died 17 years later (he is buried a few blocks from where Tía lives). Domingo, my father, died in 1984 and Adrian, 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, California, 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. 

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. 

Tia Benita spoke about the departure for the hour or so we were there. I’ve heard some of that story before, from my father and others, but she provided much more details.

All the versions I had heard earlier had my grandfather fleeing Mexico because he was in on the wrong side of the revolution, or something equally romantic. It turns out it was nothing of the sort. It was a death of a mule that led to the Palomos’ becoming Texans.

It was not just any mule, of course. It was a prized mule, one of the two that perform specialized tasks at the ranch. A mistake by my grandfather led to its being run over by a railroad 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 by night and hid in the mountains during the day. The final indignity came when a friend who’d been paid to drive them across the Rio Grande pocketed the money, forcing the wo wade across instead. 

They settled in Crystal City and lived in nearby farms, among them the Holdsworth Ranch, owned by a man whose daughter married a guy named Howard E. Butt, founder of HEB. It was in Crystal City that Tía Benita met MelecioAlfaro, a labor contractor who would become her husband.

It was Melecio’s relative affluence that helped our family survive during the Great Depression. And it was the Alfaros who kept our family alive in 1938. That was the year my mother almost died after giving birth to her sixthchild, 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 to pay for his treatment. Finally it was the Tía 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 Luisa, who saw to the care of my brothers and sisters. 

It seemed fitting, then, that it was with Luisa‘s help that Tia was now telling me about that life so long ago. 

“Fué una vida my dura, hijo,“ she concluded. We agreed. How could it be classified as anything but a difficult life? Later, as we prepared to leave, she mused: “¿Por que me habrá dejado Diocito vivir tantos años?“

She obviously didn’t expect an answer. But if she had, I might have said maybe God intended her to live so long to bring us all a dose of humility.

About juanzqui7

Former Texas reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Remembering a strong, strong woman

  1. Aart Millecam says:

    Lovely

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