There are Latina women who do not know that their life experience and voice is important beyond the family and should belong in the picture of the grand scheme of American History. When I read Latino literature or writings about Latinos, I can’t help but notice that the majority of the Latina grandmothers in the stories tend to be brujas or wise old medicine women; there is a certain magic about old Latina ladies in books and culture. The hard work it takes to become a wise old woman is not addressed. The things overcome and adjusted to in a life are brushed over and any reward for women in the Latino literature and culture seems to come from the men in their life. I am also thinking about my grandmother while I say that. Juanita Valenzuela, my grandma, was born sometime in the 1910′s and lived in Texas her whole life, never leaving the farm or even owning shoes until she was thirteen years old and about to be married. Her first husband was a traveling salesman. He sold cure-alls and snake oils from the back of his rickety old wagon. It is said that he never gave her money but took half of the food on the road with him. They had five children, all girls. Once when he came back to restock, he went drinking at the cantina. After a few too many drinks, a knock-em dead all out fist fight broke out between he and Grandma’s father, over the love of a saloon girl. Great-grandpa shot Grandma Juanita’s first husband that day because they’d agreed to an old western style duel to be held in a nearby meadow; it was the 1930s. When Grandpa heard about the murder of his brother, he married my grandma, as per the custom of the culture, and made five more children with her. The first son born, after two more daughters, is my father.
My dad told me the story and I could not help but notice that he, like everyone, is intrigued by the details of the murder of a man by a father-in-law. My biggest concern was my poor grandma. I did not learn of the immense trauma it caused her heart. I did not hear that she was in love or even if she had a say in getting married at all. Her role was simply daughter,wife, mother. Grandma had been working very hard while the first husband went on the road and while my Grandpa went to play in the big band night clubs every night.. The day-in and day-out of her hard working life included started her own business dress altering and repair. She could sew fantastically since childhood. She also made quinceanera and wedding dresses, as well as clothes for all of the children. On top of that she raised ten happy children, ran a farm and then in the 1940s or 50s a small record label for big band and Tejano music with my Grandpa Valenzuela. My grandma did all she could without ever attending school or even knowing how to read. I used to read the sales adds to her when I was in kindergarten.
I am a Chicana, an American of Mexican ancestry, and I was raised by Grandma Valenzuela. She taught me what being a lady means in our culture; women look to their mothers as role models, and for cultural guidance. She raised me from a four year old until I was nine years old and her lessons of what a strong, resilient, Chicana woman looks like has never left me. She inspires me so much even as she is in her mid-nineties now. Alzheimer’s has taken her mind, for the most part. I am compelled to tell her story to not only recognize her legacy, but also to discuss the importance of her, and so many like her’s, imprint on American culture. My grandma has more children, grandchildren, great and great-great-grandchildren than can be counted. We are all blooming in her honor, because she taught us how to be good people. The story of Juanita Valenzuela belongs in the history books as a great American story and to serve as inspiration to Latina’s all over the country. Stories like my Grandma’s don’t get told often enough. The house she lives in now was the first and only house my grandpa bought for her. It was the first one on that street and when the city was naming the street, they named it Juanita Street after grandpa died. It was and still is her piece of land– Juanita Street, San Antonio, Texas. What is your Grandmother’s story? What hardships did she over come so that you could go to college, start your own business, or contribute to society in some sort of a positive manner?
by Viktoria Valenzuela
To learn more about Viktoria, visit The Chicana Momma’s Non-fiction.