Brief biography coming soon!
Interviewer: Jason Siska
Language of Interview: English
Date: Jul 22, 2006
Good morning Sarita. My name is Sal Valadez. I’m a volunteer with the McLean County History Museum in Bloomington, Illinois. Today is April 17, 2012. You are here today to tell us a story about your life, how you grew up, and how you got to Bloomington, and what your experiences have been while you have been in Bloomington. Let me make sure that we have your name correct. Your first name is Sarita, your last name is Mendiola, and your maiden name was Montenegro . Is that correct?
Yes, that’s correct.
Okay, can you tell me when you were born?
I was born in 1947.
And, where were you born?
I was born in San Benito, Texas.
Tell me the name of your parents.
My dad was Salvador A. Montenegro and my mother was Rosita Rodriguez Montenegro.
And did you have any brothers and sisters?
Yes, I had 17 brothers and sisters and with me it is 18.
Let me make sure — so there were 18 of you? Wow! That was a very large family wasn’t it? Wow! 18! And, tell me a little bit about where you grew up.
I mostly grew up in San Benito until I graduated, and on the day I graduated from high school I decided to venture out and find a better life because San Benito there was very little opportunity in such a small town. And then my dad — he was the old Mexican culture man that believed that women should stay at home and do for their family — and I’m like, there’s got to be more to life than this.
And what did your father do for a living?
He was a mechanic and a body shop man. He owned his own body shop. We lived on two lots. His shop was on one lot and across the street was our home.
Let me ask you — I’m intrigued by the fact that there were 18 kids in the family. Obviously it kept your mom and dad very busy. And the town that you were living in, San Benito, how big was the town?
It was a very small town, very small. I believe at the time it started out with something like 8,000 and then it went to 16,000 when I left, but now it is more.
What part of Texas is that in?
It’s in the Rio Grande Valley near Brownsville and Harlingen. It’s between those two towns.
Let me ask you a question about your mom and dad. You said your father was this very traditional Mexican and were they originally from?
My dad was born in South Sausalito, California, because his parents had migrated to California and my mom was born in Carricitos, Texas.
And you said your father’s parents migrated from Mexico - do you remember what part of Mexico they were from?
The story that I heard from my aunts is, they’re parents, my grandparents’ parents and families were originally from Yugoslavia. That’s where the Montenegros come in, because they were from that country way back. And then they migrated. When they had the civil war they migrated to Spain and they lived there. So my grandma was born in Spain, and then from Spain they migrated to — she married this man and they migrated to Mexico and they went to the state of Durango. And in Durango they made a life in Tepehuanes, Durango. And then my grandfather, like other men, took off, you know, to find a better life, and never did communicate back with them, so Grandma had to raise them. And in the meantime, Grandma would raise them by raising goats, doing sewing for other people and things like that.
Very interesting. And do you know any more about your mother’s side?
On my mother’s side I know very little. They were not a very close knit family, you know. All I know is that Robstown, Texas, is where my Grandma was. And we would go visit her, like it was about two hours away from San Benito, north. And we would visit her sometimes for a week or for Mother’s Day. And then we stayed with her for one summer for a couple of weeks. I knew some of my uncles and my aunt, and that’s basically . . . I don’t know too much about them.
Tell me a little bit about growing up with 18 children.
Growing up with 18 . . . Like I said, my dad had a body shop. His brother had gone into the service, he served in World War II, so then when he came out of the service then my dad and he decided that they would go into the bracero business. So they would go to the Customs and sign people up. They would take 50, I remember, and then when the season was over, mostly they did cotton, so they would go from San Benito, Levelland, and to Lubbock, Texas, Arkansas, Little Rock, and they would help farmers with their crops.
So your father and your uncle were contractors during the bracero period in the 1940s?
And then during that time they would take all of them to shop for their food, and shop for their clothes, and take them to a movie that day too and then they would go back home. And then the week would start again. And then, when the season was over, they would bring all 50 back and sign off that they had taken those 50 people and brought those 50 people back. They were given instructions that if ever a bracero wanted to take off, they would turn his name in as taking off, and not being responsible for being checked out so when he would try to do business again, he would stay on that list and never be able to do business with the contractor again.
I see, well your mealtimes must have been very interesting.
Yes, our mealtimes were. We were very poor, very poor people, but we were kind of a happy family. We were kind of a happy family, I think, because all of us kept each other busy. And, we didn’t know any better because my dad would always say, women stay home and you cannot visit other little kids. You can only visit this family and this family and this family — three families, but only because they were across from the body shop. So, he would always keep an eye with the neighbors.
That must have kept him very busy keeping track of 18 kids.
Well, we were grown so the older ones like me and my sister, we were the older ones, we were called the “moms” because every year my mom had a kid she would say, okay, that one’s yours and the next year she would tell me, that one is yours.
So you and your sisters had a major role in raising your younger brothers and sisters.
Yes. We washed their diapers because back then they had the cloth diapers. We would wash their diapers and their clothes. My brothers’ clothes always had to be starched. The shirts and the pants would be ironed after they were starched. And we would hang outside the clothes. Back then we didn’t have a bathroom so we had an outhouse and then we also had an out bath —a shower outside, so we would shower outside. And if it got real cold, we had those big tubs and we would take baths in those and then we would have to go throw the water out and bring water in from outside and heat it on the stove.
Did you speak both languages at home?
No, mostly Spanish at home because English was imposed on us in school. We were told that we could not speak Spanish in the school system back then. We had to learn it.
So, at the beginning you mentioned the fact that you went to school and you graduated from high school, so tell me how you went from graduating from high school in San Benito, Texas, to ending up in McLean County.
Well, we would always migrate to different jobs later on with my dad and mom to California. We’d follow the grain and the roses, and the vegetables and potatoes. I know all kinds of field work — we were brought up that way. And then we went to Colorado and would come up to Michigan to the cherries. Summertime was always work. The schools would allow us to be back by November 21st and we’d be okay. So from the last day of May, when I was growing up it was mostly like May 25th that they would let us out of school. We’d take off and we wouldn’t return until almost mid-November so that my dad could make sure that they wouldn’t say, okay we can’t give you school this year because you passed the deadline. We would always be there. Like I said, there’s got to be more to life than this. And one time I tried to go work — I went to the employment office and they sent me to clean a house. I went to clean the house and the men were being abusive, and I’m like — oh no! My dad wouldn’t allow nobody to touch us, so I took off running. I told my dad, no, I don’t think I want to work there because the men were starting to touch me and I ran. And he said, no, you won’t work no more. So we would only work in the cotton fields there in the valley for our school money and to buy clothes — to help my dad buy clothes for us — because he didn’t want us to work but we don’t have real shoes like other people, we don’t have good clothes, they make fun of us. We have clothes, but pass-me-down clothes that sometimes got a tear here or a spot here. I said, “They make fun of us.” So, he said, “Okay, I’m going to let you work but only with the people that I really trust.” So we would go every summer. And I said, “I gotta go.” And my dad got real upset because when we went to California — he and my mom had a lot of difficulty through life. For them, life was not happy — life was not a happy situation. I think it was just the stress — the stress you know. And he, being a macho man, and my mom . . . he would not let my mom ask for welfare. That’s why none of us in the family asked for welfare when we needed it, because we were brought up that way. Even when you really needed it bad — you know we’ll ask one brother or a sister for help because we can’t cross that line. Even my daughters saw that and my daughters said, oh Mama, I can’t make it with my husband — so many bills. Go ask for welfare, you’ve got a right to it. I worked 40 something years, you’ve got a right to it. I know you got that instilled in your because you saw it in me that I would never ask, but there are times that you have to humiliate yourself and ask for it until you get back on your feet. Well, she would not, and up to this day, none of my kids do, and they need it sometimes. I never let on, but they saw it in me. And so when I graduate from high school, I say, there was a thing in the paper that said that they were hiring in Michigan and it was like campesino work — the migrant workers. So, I told my girlfriend, what do you think, do you think we can sign up and venture off, me and you? I said, because my dad would never hear of it. And she says, well, we can go. So we left. Her brother lived here which he is listed in here, this Campesino in Michigan.
So, you have a document here that —
When we wanted to incorporate into Latinos Unidas.
So, this is a document for a not-for-profit that you and several other people were considering forming. When was this?[Note: this document for the incorporation of Latinos Unidas is in the McLean County Museum of History arcives]
This was back in 1981, I think.
So in this document, as you are telling this story, that there was a man who lived here in Bloomington —
He and his brother have moved on.
Okay, now had they been here a long time?
They have been here for several years when we came in 1968.
Do you know when he got here?
No, but I can find out for you because I still know his wife.
That would be fantastic. Now, you had originally planned to go to Michigan . . .
But, we stopped overnight here and like again, the Mexican culture, [family] said, no, you can’t go by yourself! You can’t go, you’ve got to stay here with us, But we said, we already signed up for this job and when we get there they will give us a check and a house. It was like a farmhouse where there are several people. They give you a room and a little stove and a little bed. And they said, no! You’re not going!
So, the family here, when you stayed here overnight, they told you here in Bloomington that they really preferred that you would not go to Michigan because you and your girlfriend were women and they saw some danger.
So, we stayed with them and they said, “We will try to find you jobs. “We’re going to take you to some people that we know, and show you how to apply and all that stuff.” So, we started working at the Ramada Inn . . . used to be Ramada Inn. But now it’s like the Comfort Inn, something like that over there. So her and I worked there part-time and then Katarino took us to this place that’s on West Washington that’s Keller’s — a little restaurant there — used to be Linda Morton’s — Linda and John Morton — they had that little restaurant. They would always get like city workers in there because she used to cook home meals.
Yes, they would always go there because she had good prices and she would serve always a home meal — like the potatoes, the green beans in the meal and the biscuits.
In what year was this?
This was like in 1970.
So, this was your first year here in Bloomington and you worked at the Ramada Inn?
We came in 1968. We did the Ramada and then we went with Linda —
And in 1970 you were over at Keller’s.
Well, it wasn’t called Keller’s; it was called Linda’s Restaurant.
Linda’s Restaurant on West Washington?
But it is now Keller’s — it says Keller’s on there. Linda Morton still lives here — she has that little shop on East Empire on Lee — I want to say Lee, but the one before. What’s the street before Lee? Mason? Mason, or something like that.
So, Linda Morton is still alive?
Yes, her and her husband are still alive. They own that little antique collectible shop there on the corner of Empire and — I forget the other street — It’s not Center because Center you come in and then the one right next to it —
Oh, I know, it’s over there by Thornton’s, it’s actually off of [Route] 9. They sell —
. . . the little collectibles. That’s the shop they own.
Can you give me the names of other families that you met when you first got here?
The Bosquez. I met them, and Martinez —
Do you remember the first name of the Bosquez?
His first name is Robert. His daughter [Maria] is still here in Bloomington — Nora Bosquez and Robert. The Martinez was Dionicio, and his wife Berta. They got children. And who else did I meet? Estobedos. I met them through Catarino [Villaneuva]. That was the only families I met for a little while. And then I started venturing out more and met a couple more. We also met Carolina [Rodrigez]; her name is Philips now.
Can you remember where Mr. [Dionicio] Martinez was working?
Mr. Martinez worked for the railroad for the longest time and then he worked for road construction. Catarino worked for road construction too.
So Mr. Dionicio Martinez worked for — at that point I believe it was the Gulf Mobile — GM&O —
Yeah, I think so — that’s the name
Mr. Bosquez worked for the railroad too.
And Mr. Salinas?
No, that was a lady[Maria Salinas]. She worked for cleaning houses, and then she worked for the corn plant over in Gibson City for a long time, and then she just retired I think after that.
And you’ll remember the names —
I’ve got it in here somewhere, but I don’t want to take your time. I’ll look it up for you in a minute because I have a list, see here. And, I’ve got some more lists.
And Mr. Catarino Villaneuve, what did he do?
He worked for road construction.
So, anyway, you said that your first job here was at the Ramada Inn, and then in 1970 you worked in Morton’s Restaurant . . .
And I went to St. Joseph as a cashier in the cafeteria. And I kept looking for better jobs because like I said, I kept thinking — it was always in my mind, there’s got to be something better than this in life. So, I went to St. Joe’s and applied there and they said, yes, we can hire you as a cashier. Well, I didn’t know what a cashier was at the time. Well, I knew from Linda’s, but I mostly did grill work for Linda. So, well, okay — I had done a little bit of cashiering there. Linda would let me help her out, so I said — I wonder how intense this cashier’s job is? Cause they are telling me it’s a cashier’s job. So I would fix salads and I would do the cashier charging for lunch hours. And then I would clean up where they would put the buffet at that time, and I always kept thinking, there’s something better. So, I asked Juanita [Aliniz Villaneuva], who was Catarino’s wife. She said, “Why don’t you apply at State Farm? You’ve got an education, you’ve graduated.” And I said, “State Farm? Who is that?” And she tells me, “Well it’s a place where they do a lot of business, paperwork, and all this. And I’m like, I’ve never done nothing like that so they’re probably not going to take me. . . Oh, who cares, I’m going to go and apply. So I go in and apply and I met Lorraine Anderson. At that time she was in personnel and she asked me a little bit about my life and culture, you know, because she had been to Mexico and back and forth. She said, you know, “I really enjoyed talking to you. I’m going to see what I can find you.” So, she got me in there and they started training me. She said, “Don’t be scared, they’re going to train you. You’re not going to be left alone.” So, they trained me. But you know I was always yearning for my mom and dad. I couldn’t get over. . . I lived so many years with them . . . I couldn’t get over that. And weekends would come and holidays and I’d be like, “I’ve gotta go home! I gotta go home and see my parents — I can’t take it!” So I would rush over the weekend. And my girlfriend would rush too, because her mom was back there too, and some of her brothers and sisters. So, we would go quickly and then come right back.
And how would you go?
We had a car. We had a little car and so we’d take off.
How did your mom and dad and the family react the first time when you went back? Do you remember what year that was?
I think it was 1970.
So you went for two years without seeing your mom and dad? Would you write back and forth or call them?
We’d just basically call on the phone and I basically talked to my sister more, because my dad was very upset because I had gotten away from the home.
I was going to ask you about that.
He was such a macho that he did not believe in it.
How long was he angry with you?
He was angry with me for about two straight years.
And the first time you saw him again?
The first time I saw him again he was like . . . he told my sister, “I don’t want you seeing Sarita no more. She is not part of this family no more.” When my sister told me that I’m like devastated kind of. “Why,” I said? “I have done nothing to hurt him, except I wanted a better life. Why doesn’t he understand that? Why can’t he understand that?” And my sister said, I don’t know. She said, “You know you’re not the only one who is going through a hard time because I wanted to go to a nursing school. They were going to give me a grant to go to a nursing school, and Dad said, no. He was not going to sign the paperwork. And even to this day my sister still says, "I regret that very much." Look how old I am and I’m still not . . . Think about that, my dad may never let me go to nursing school. That was her dream.
When did your dad stop being angry?
Well, about three years later. My daughter was born in 1975. She came along and my dad decided that he would come visit us. Well, he came and visited us. This was before my daughter, we were living on a farm and I hadn’t gotten married yet. He decided he would come and stay with me and my brother, John and my girlfriend, Lydia. And then Mom said, “We’re going to come for a visit.” And I said, “You are?” And I said, “Is Dad coming?” Yes. I said, “He’s not going to give us a hard time, is he? Because we’ve made a life already; me and my brother [Johnny Montenegro]” And then another brother came too. “I don’t want to be mean to my dad,” I said, “Because he has been good to me.” But I said, “We’ve already made life. We’re going to stay here. He doesn’t have the right to come and make us pick up and live with him no more.”
What year was this again?
This was around the summer of 1970.
When you were still single? You were still single and you were living in a house — where?
In Towanda, we used to rent from the lawyer, Thomson. That’s who had a farm way out in Towanda on the outside.
And who was living in the house?
We also worked for her [Thomson] at the Ramada [inn]. She was another part-time job that we took on and that’s how we found out about that house because she told us . . . because we kept saying we’d like to get a house on our own because we had lived already with Elidia Villaneuva for quite a while. So we didn’t want to impose so they let us just go over there.
So, who lived in the farmhouse?
Me, my brother John, and my girlfriend Lydia, and that was it. Well, when my dad came (We accepted), we showed him the house where they could stay. I was raising chickens at the time, part-time — I was already working at State Farm. I was raising chickens to keep me busy in the afternoons, and then my family came, and then one of my little brothers decided to sell my chickens to the teachers.
Your little brother? How old was he?
José, I don’t know if you know José. He is a deacon at St. Mary’s
José, your brother. How old was he?
At that time, he was little. I can’t remember how old he was. He must have been like 10 or so.
So, was he living with you?
No, he came — all of them came with my dad.
So they all came with your dad and he sold your chickens?
Yes, one day I asked my mom, “Mom you know my chickens are not laying eggs. They were always laying eggs.” She said, “I don’t know. I’ve only picked a couple for the breakfast for the kids.” I said, “But they always lay so many and there are no eggs to be found.” And she said, “I don’t know.” And that went on for a couple of days and then I asked her several days later, “Mom, I don’t have as many chickens as I used to — what’s happening?” She said, “Well, maybe a coyote is taking them.” And I said, “Well, it could be.” Then one day a teacher shows up and she says, “I would like to buy some more of your chickens, they are such good chickens.” And I said, “Buy chickens? We don’t sell chickens?” She said, “Oh José brought some to school with the eggs and sells them to us, and he brings chickens now.” I said, “Mom, I know where the eggs have gone and I know where the chickens have gone. José has been selling them.”
And he was how old about that time?
About 10. He would always find a way to sell things.
So, he came up for a visit — and was he going to school then?
Yes, all of them were going to school.
So your mom and dad were here for a while.
For a little while; like a couple of months. I think only two months.
And during that time your brothers and sisters were going to school, and your little brother, José was selling the eggs and the chickens. Oh, my goodness!
In Lexington, he was selling them in Lexington.
And during this time you’re driving back and forth to State Farm, to the offices here in downtown Bloomington?
I started in the Ireland Grove Road, which is Oakland.
Well, let’s continue this, but I would like to ask you some questions about State Farm. So, obviously you and your dad reconciled?
Yes, finally. Because, like I said, we weren’t taught to talk back to our parents or anything. So when they came, we just accepted it. But we had already talked, me and my brother, that we would not be going, that we would stay here. This was going to be our home.
How did José end up here?
My brothers all came with my mom and dad.
Yes, but you mentioned that José is a deacon now at St. Mary’s.
Oh yes, but he’s grown up. Now, he’s a deacon at St. Mary’s.
Now, when they left after two months, did they take all their . . .
Oh, then our dad talked to us. Like I said, he always knew how to talk to us. So I left State Farm and went with him, and my sister and my brothers, we all went . . . I said, we’re going to take you, but we’re coming back. Me and my brother are coming back.
So, you drove them back? So, did you actually leave State Farm to take them back to Texas?
Yes. No, we went to California because he was going to go work. It was the summer already, so we were going to take him to work. But we were going to come back. And my sister kept saying all the way, “Try to find a way to talk Dad into letting me come back. Let me come back with you.” So I said, “Okay. That’s all I can do, talk.” But you know Dad. Nothing’s going to change his mind if he is set on it. So, finally I just talked and talked, “Look Dad, look at what we have accomplished me and my brother. We’ve got good jobs. We started out with dirty jobs but we’ve got good jobs now.” My brother was a mechanic and then he went into the service and he became a mechanic. Like I said, I kept jumping jobs until I got to State Farm. And I said, “Over there you know we would never make it. We would always be peons to somebody else.” I said, “You have to accept it. You have to accept for us to become better people. That’s what you have taught us, to always be good people.” I said, “This is our chance — give us that chance. And my sister wants to come with us. You’ve got to give her that chance.” So, finally, after weeks of talking to him, he finally decided, okay. So, we came back and my sister started a job with State Farm too because I talked to Laurene. I said, “I’ve got a sister — is there any way you can bring her in like me?” She said, “Well State Farm does have that situation where we always do for the family. So being she’s your sister we are going to view her as family.” And so they brought her in.
Okay, so let me just step back for a second now — I want to get the facts right — after your father came here in 1970 and you took him back to California, you reconciled and he accepted the fact that you were looking for a better life. How was he when you left?
When we left he was a little sad because, you know, he had lost three children. But then it got worse. Then the boys started to come on their own. They got away from the house. Then my other brothers, Edward, Salvador and José came up here, and then Octavio. And that’s when my dad said I was stealing his children. And I said, “No Dad, I’m not stealing your children. They are wanting to be in a better job. They always worked night and day for you and have never had no childhood days. These children have gone from being in school to being adults. They had never known a childhood.” I said, “Do you not understand?” I said “You yourself were an orphan, and you would always tells us stories about how you had to survive. So why is it that you cannot understand that we want a better life. You blame me because they come to me. I’m the oldest sister and they have nowhere else to go for help. At least they are following the family. You can’t say that my brothers have gone and steal from people or becoming gangsters or things like that. “Why can’t you understand that? What is it that makes you so fateful about that? I understand that you want the family. But you’re not able to. We don’t curse you for it. We don’t hold it against you that you’re not able to, because you were always brought up with being Catholic and so you had all these children. But you’ve got to let go. You’ve got to let go, there’s no other thing about it. You’ve got to let go.” And so he come again . . . and then he said, okay, if this is where you want to be.
How did this affect your mother?
My mom was always a person that . . . I think because of so many children and so many traumas that she went through; she didn’t want to settle here. She wanted to be always in San Benito. So, she would say, “Okay, we’ll go over there for a couple of months, but then we will come back. My dad would want to stay because he wanted to stay with the children. As a matter of fact, he got a job as a mechanic with the Bloomington bus lines because he was such a good mechanic. He went there and they told him they would try him out for a week, and he said, okay. And so when they tried him out, they said, “You’re hired.”
But your mom pulled back to what she considered home.
Yes, she would always go against my dad. She said, I want to go back home, I’m tired of being here. I want to go back home. This is not my home.
And how many of your brothers and sisters ended up in Bloomington?
Let’s see. Johnny, me and my sister, Salvador, Edward, José (Joe), and Octavio. Seven of us.
What was your sister’s name?
Are they all still here?
No, Martina married and moved away. She went with a serviceman, and then she made her life in San Antonio. Johnny lived here and worked under the Brandtville Lines. After he came out of the service he worked for the Brandtville Lines. Then his wife . . . got real bad with arthritis, real bad arthritis. She’s crippled. So they moved to Houston because they told him that he would have to find a better climate. So he went with another truck line and became manager for them and stayed there. And Edward is here. He used to work for the railroad too because the Alvarezes got him in there
Which Alvarez are we talking about?
There are a lot of Alvarezes. There was Rodolpho . . . Let me see, I just saw their names here. There was a lot of people that were here from when we started. . . Raul comes once in a while in the summer to see his children.[referring to Latinos Unidos documents]
And these are from documents that you provided us.
Yes, these are people that signed in when we became the Latinos Unidos. Western Avenue was very good to us. They would let us have meetings there. They started a little preschool for us.
So your sister’s name . . .
And she left and you had a brother, Johnny, whose wife had arthritis and moved to Houston, and who else?
And there was Edward, he is still living here.
He worked for the railroad.
Johnny worked for Brandtville. Edward worked for the railroad and then they laid him off. It was over; the jobs for them were over. Then he went to Eureka-Williams. They made vacuums at that time. And I also worked for a couple of months for Eureka. But I couldn’t take it. They were . . . Those people spoke a lot of bad words and bad stuff. I said, “Dad, I can’t work here no more.” — Because my dad would bring me at night and pick me up in the morning.
Were you working two jobs?
Yes. I have always worked two jobs.
So you were working at State Farm and —
At night at Eureka. I said, “I’ve got to let go of this job, I can’t take it.” And so Edward was there and then Edward went to . . . now he is doing a maintenance job with Grandview Estates. He works for the management there. Joe [works] with the City of Normal. That’s who he works for. He will be retiring, probably next year. Octavio worked odd jobs until he landed a job as a janitor at ISU. And then Emilio was here too. He became a carpenter and did house building. And then he left too. And my brother, Arnold came for a couple of months and then he left with my dad. And, that’s it.
That’s a lot of family up here. Let me, if we could, go back to State Farm. You mentioned that at State Farm you found a person who was very sympathetic and who liked you. What was that person’s name?
Laurene Anderson. She was in Personnel.
And she got you and your sister, Martina, in. How many years did you end up working for State Farm?
I went away for two years and then I came back and then I worked until I retired in 2003.
And your sister — how long did she work?
She worked for about ten years until her husband said, we’ve got to move.
Would you mind if we took a quick break?
Note: The interviewer’s questions are in bold italics
Today is May 24, 2012. The last time we met we talked about how you came to Bloomington/Normal. You had mentioned that when you got here there was a family that was here that you already knew -- what was the name of that family?
Do you remember the first names?
The first name was Catarino, and Juanita, and Jesus Villaneuva
Catarino with an “o” and his wife Juanita. And Jesus was the brother of Catarino. Okay, fantastic. And in this part of the interview I would like to focus a little more about questions regarding other families that were here and how as a community you maintain your culture. What kind of social life there was -- food -- and also the social dynamic here in the community. How were you treated? How did you feel about living here in Bloomington; anything that you would like to share with us? So, let’s start again with the families. Now the Villaneuvas were here. Our research indicates that there were Mexicans living here working for the railroads and in other sectors of the community as far back as the early 1900s. What we’re trying to find out is if you know of other families that went back to that era, the older established families. Were there other older established families when you got here?
Yes, there was the Bosquez
Los Voscos --
And the Martinez, and from what I hear the Segobianos were here too.
The Martinez family; I have found information about the Voscos (?), and the burial records -- the cemetery records. The Martinez family -- do you remember the names of the people?
Yes, Dionicio. And let me see, the wife’s name -- I have to think about it.
That’s okay -- you can get it -- so Dionicio Martinez. We should be able to --
I believe he had brothers here and then I think they moved to Pontiac -- his family and the wife’s family.
Do you remember what the Bosquez did for a living?
They worked the railroad too. Dionicio worked for the railroad and then he went to work for road construction in his later years.
Do you remember, in your discussions with those families, getting any information of how people lived here when they first got here way back when? The reason I’m asking is that along the right-of-way of the Alton Railroad off West Oakland in the census records there were records of families that were living in boxcars -- a boxcar community -- which is not unusual. That happened in many railroad communities around the country, especially with the newer immigrants. Do you recall people talking about this?
I recall that they talked . . . over on I believe it was the 800 and something block . . . Where they had the C&W Railroad back here of the house there were some boxcars there. And I had heard that people lived in some of them. But I never --
That would be the 800 block of West Oakland --
No, on Chestnut and Walnut.
Oh, I see, and the C&A -- the Chicago and Alton. Okay, fantastic. We’ll have to see if we can find somebody who can tell us of those stories. We would love to have photographs. So, when you talk to people out in the community -- we are really short on photographs -- so if any of those old families we would like to ask them if they would share some of their documents and stories.
I think if you approach the Martinez family, they would probably be able to give you some photographs.
Is there anybody in particular?
His wife, and that’s the one I can’t remember . . . I gave you a list and if I could see the list I could tell right away.
We can find it. Do you know any of the sons or daughters?
Yes. Berta, Gloria, Jose Raul, and Danny. Berta . . . Diaz is her name now but it used to be Martinez. And José Martinez, he belongs to the church on -- is that Grandview in Normal? There’s a church over there. It is not a Catholic church.
The Mennonite Church? We can find out.
He was very involved with the city so I think he would be the person to approach, and he could probably put you in contact with his mom.
Were you in contact with the other families in the surrounding McLean County area?
Do you mean Hispanics?
Yes - in Chenoa?
Yes, we had a lot of gatherings in Chenoa. You know how we have our Quinceñeras and we have weddings, and if one knows one other person, then we all invite each other. And at that time we were such a small community that we would gather together with the Chenoa and Pontiac families.
In Chenoa we found an early family -- the name was Ernesto Garcia -- were you familiar with Ernie Garcia -- Ernesto Garcia?
I don’t know if I am or not. The name sounds familiar.
Do you remember any of the families from Chenoa?
Yes, there was Miss Salinas, but she was from Fairbury. Now the Salinas have been here for a long time too, and they live in Fairbury. I don’t know the address, but if you really need an address I could find out for you.
And what was her name?
I think her name was Maria.
So the Salinas family was in Fairbury --
In Fairbury, and she has sons and daughters and they know a lot of the history of how it came about. And in Pontiac it is where you would find some of the Martinez families -- the older ones. They kind of stuck with living in Pontiac and making it their town.
We visited a place down near Lincoln. Did you know of any families down in Lincoln or near Lincoln?
No. I don’t know if there were any Hispanics, like I went to the Chamber of Commerce and it has a little bit of history there and as how they got there. Most of them went to work in Clinton, the pottery factory that used to be there, in Clinton, Illinois. And they would go from Lincoln and they would go from other little surrounding towns. In the pottery industry place.
So, Clinton was the pottery --
But it closed down, so you would have to go to the library. They could probably give you a lot of information.
Which Chamber of Commerce were you talking about?
The one in Lincoln.
So, the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce has some information about Hispanics? Okay -- fantastic. Any families in Normal?
In Normal? Well, I’m not sure because I really didn’t know any families in Normal. All the ones I knew were here in Bloomington.
Did you know the Sandoval family?
Yes, I know the Sandoval family. They came here after us.
Right, and from what I understand, the Sandoval family, the mother’s father was here early in the 1900s, and then went to work in Rockford, and then he moved back here and married Louise Sandoval. That’s another family that we’re talking to. Okay, let me ask you this, Mexicans by and large are Catholic. Was that the case in the community here where most Mexicans --
Yes. We were offered church services at the Western [Avenue Community Center] when it was [run by] the Second Presbyterian [Church], and then it burned down and they redid it again. But before it burned down we had a lot of little duties there. They had school for us. Charlotte Collins had school for us for bilingual; she started a little bilingual class there for the older people and then --
So, at Western Avenue Community Center -- the roots are with the Second Presbyterian Church -- but they accommodated you to practice your faith or were they giving you classes and service?
Well, they were doing their service but then we said, “We really need to get involved with the church here in town that will cater to our needs and our culture.” So that’s when it was decided to find out for us more information on how to go about it. And he went to talk to St. Mary’s Church and said, “Well, you know our culture here. We need a church that can give us service for baptisms, confirmations, weddings, Quinceñeras, you know, any kind of activity with the church and give us a church service in Spanish too because most of the ones that are here are not bilingual yet.” They are still very much in their Spanish. So we approached him and Cristina [Deutsch] helped us to try to organize it more. And so finally we got St. Mary’s approval that we could have church service with them.
St. Mary’s Church --
And that they would bring a priest that would speak a Spanish mass.
And who again at Western Avenue helped you?
Was he Latino?
No, he was Puerto Rican.
And then Cristina Deutsch.
But the one that really started us was Charlotte, the Director. And she is still there.
What was her name? Charlotte Collins. And Cristina Deutsch was working there and she is not Mexican.
She is from Peru.
She’s Peruvian. And so you went to St. Mary’s. And who did you work with at St. Mary’s? Was there a priest that spoke Spanish?
Way back then it was Father Gerald. Fritzburg, I think was the last name. But his first name was Gerald. And then we had Father Francis after him. And now we have Father Greg. I think they just incorporated another father because Father Greg has been sick on and off lately . . . a lot. So they have incorporated another father to come in here from I believe either Rockford or Peoria.
And so, at St. Mary’s you were able to practice your faith, to meet as a community, to celebrate those festivals and those activities that are key to the community related to the catechism and related to the culture. So you had baptisms, funerals -- Mass, did you have Mass?
Yes, Mass, and weddings in Spanish and Quinceñeras. And also we had catechism classes started for the younger kids.
Was there a society there? Did you create a society -- sometimes in the churches they have societies?
Not until later in the years. We started getting more and more people involved, and now I have a brother there who is a deacon. So they really have created a society that handles all the church parts.
And your brother’s name is?
José Montenegro --
José Montenegro is now the lay deacon at St. Mary’s.
They are incorporating another deacon too. I think this is the year that he will be ordained, if I’m not mistaken.
Do you know in your experience, where did the people get food?
We didn’t really have like a local restaurant or things like that. The food we would basically get in Chicago. But then like everything else, someone says, “Oh there’s a market for that.” So, we had a couple of families that would go to Chicago and bring the stuff back and say, “Okay we’re going to Chicago. What do you want to order?” And they would bring the order for us and charge us a little extra because of the gas expense and the time that they put into it.
What were the items that were most in demand?
Tortillas, that was the biggest item that people wanted. Sweetbreads; that was the second item they really wanted. Avocados.
What about the spices?
Spices, yes, like little bags of spices or little bottles of spices.
And the peppers?
Yes, the peppers . . . the jalapeños. They wanted the jalapeños. And they would order in big cans . . . because they would only go about once a month.
Now, in our community there is the use of the dried red peppers -- different types of dried peppers. Where would those come from?
They would come from Chicago too; cilantro, chili de Arbol, chili secos, those kind of hot peppers.
And do you remember the first store that actually sold things?
Actually, we had a little restaurant before the store. It is right here where the Pantagraph sat; the back parking lot right on Jefferson and Center. If you go down Jefferson you’re going to hit Center. That parking lot right behind the Pantagraph there used to be a little restaurant and Juanita Villaneuve used to run it. You’ll probably find in the library write-ups, because there was a big write-up for a couple of weeks. Maybe the Pantagraph would have it. I could find out the year for you.
Do you know approximately when that was?
It was around the 1970s, but I couldn’t tell you what year.
Do you remember the name of the restaurant?
No, no, I don’t, and I worked as cashier for her -- me and my sister we would do like the steam table and we’d do the cashiering and the tables, you know, and all that.
Do you remember what her specialties were?
Her specialties were anything you wanted cooked, she would cook it, but most that they had was tacos and tostados. Basically, she kept it simple because it was such a small restaurant and it only had a couple of tables, but it was a big hit once it got up. She couldn’t keep up with it, her husband got a little frustrated that it was picking up so much business and he wasn’t ready for it. He was not ready for it; it was not his type of work. He was more a relaxed man. He worked at his job. You know road construction is heavy work. So by the time he came to the restaurant he wasn’t for it, you know.
I understand. Do you remember talking to people about where they were originally from? Like the Villaneuvas; do you know where they were from?
They came from Texas and Juanita came from Texas too. They were from different towns but they found each other and married. And we were from Texas, but most of the people that we met here were Mexicans.
Now, the Martinezes, do you remember where they were from?
No, no, you would need to talk to them and really find out. It’s been years since I asked them and have forgot -- there was also another family from Columbia and they were the Escobañas. I think that was their last name.
Well, we will try to find them also because their story is important too. What did people do for entertainment?
Weddings . . . we would all get together. There weren’t really official invitations — like sending out the invitations because we didn’t know everybody’s addresses, but word of mouth ran quickly. So, when the wedding came, or the Quinceñera came, we were there.
And who provided the music?
Well, we would either get someone from Chicago, or if there was a little local band they would put it together and play for us. And the food would come in . . . . Everybody brought something or the women would always say, oh, I want to help you cook; and they would. They would provide everything, and you would say, no, and they would say, I want to help you pay for this. And you would say, no, this is my party.
Let’s talk a little bit about the relationship between the Hispanic community and the rest of the town. How would you describe that?
The rest of the town? Well, for me personally, it was nice because in Texas I experienced racism quite strong in the schools. So, even though we were a majority, we were pretty well profiled. We had to speak English only and when we would go places, people would look at us funny as if we didn’t belong in the stores. It was just like, okay, you feel that way, but I don’t feel that way, so whether you like it or not, I’m going to be at the store. And I’m going to buy, and I’m going to stay out of your way, but that doesn’t mean that you have the right to treat me this way.
So, people had an idea of what your place was and if you stepped outside of that place, they’d let you know one way or another.
And when I got here to Bloomington it was different. I went to the stores and people would always be saying, "How can we help you?" Even in the jobs, I never experience racism.
And you worked a long time for State Farm.
Right, but I worked other little places; St. Joseph’s Hospital, I worked Ramada Inn, and the little restaurant. I was so surprised that people here are so different. And there are white people just like over there, but their ways of treatment are so different. And then one day a lady asked, because I was just thinking, and she said, “What are you thinking about?” I said,
“Oh, I was just thinking to myself how different people are here from back home.” And she said, “Well basically it’s because a lot of the people here are farmers and farmers know how to appreciate the land and people. They are close-knitted.” And so I said, “Oh, okay.” I didn’t know that was why it was different. And once in a while now, the younger generation . . . but I think it’s because we have people from other countries — other cities . . . come in and we experience it now. But, we’re like, “I’m not going to play your game, you’re ignorant. And I’m not going to be getting there because I know how to handle myself.”
So, as the community has grown
As the community has grown I have noticed a difference in attitudes.
So, there are some tensions.
Yes, there are some tensions and even in the businesses. You know you go in; you’re here to do what you’ve got to do and leave it at that. And it’s like; I’m not going to go there. But at State Farm, in my later years I was encountering that with the younger group. And I would stand my ground. I would say, “Now, if I’m going to respect you, you’re going to have to respect me, whether you like it or not. I’m here in the office and you’re going to respect me. If you don’t want to respect me on the street or out in your home wherever, fine. “I’ll deal with that, but here, whether you like it or not you’re going to show me respect, just like I show you respect.
Because we talked quite a bit the first time, what I would like to do is give you an opportunity to reflect on your actual lifetime experiences here . . . your experiences here in Bloomington, Illinois and in McLean County.
Well, what I would like to share is that people, when they make demands, that they don’t make demands like a dictatorship. Don’t dictate a culture to change for you because it’s our culture. It is what made us strong. When you start dictating to us, we don’t want you to do it this way. We want you to do it this way in the community. We feel like you’re treating us — taking away from us that respect, that pride we have of picking ourselves up through the years, where we want to go. It’s not to offend you. It’s that we see how people live so happy and they have that sense to carry themselves with pride that they have accomplished their dreams. Well, we want to do the same. We are in a different generation and it’s not that we want to go against anybody. We’re just trying to reach that dream that we see in other people. And as we see that happiness, we figure if they’re happy, maybe we can reach that happiness too without having to be [mean to] people, hateful, sarcastic, things like that. For some reason they think that God said, I’m going to make you different, and I’m going to give you different languages, so, who are we to judge someone else? Yes, we can say, “Okay, this person did a wrong, a real wrong, and we need to fix it.” Okay? We can go to the limits to fix it, but not crucify the people for what they’re trying to do. We feel we are not criminals by wanting to reach a dream. Everybody has dreams, whether in this nation or in another. That’s why we’re all different. That’s why we’re able to travel, so when we travel we start finding out . . . The true thing is that we enjoy the flowers as they grow. That’s how we call it. And that’s what I would like people to see. Not see us as . . . okay, somebody got drunk, somebody did a hit and run. All right, that person did it, but because of that person you’re going to crucify 100 or more? No, it’s not right because they’ve done it too. But they take care of it because they have money, which we don’t have . ... And that brings problems for us in our generations because that’s how they look at us.
Let me ask you -- can you share with us what makes you strong and what makes the community strong?
What makes the community strong?
I’m talking specifically about the Mexican community.
What makes us strong is that we are always willing to help a person if they ask for help. Like say you come into the community for your first time and say, Oh Señora (statement spoken in Spanish) we are willing right away.
So when people come here, in your example, and because people identify with the community, you may have a situation where a newcomer will say to you in Spanish, I just got here. I need help --
Finding the doctors, and that’s why Western Avenue decided to become the center point for people that are just coming in. So, if we meet someone like that, we’ll tell them go the Western Avenue, they will give you all the information there about doctors, hospitals, lawyers, stores, almost anything you want to find out they’ll know the information.
So, Western Avenue has played a critical role in the Hispanic community?
Yes, I truly respect them for that because they have been around for us for many years. I’ve been here 40-something years, and in those 40-something years I’ve known them. People before me have known them more because they were already there.
It sounds to me -- and please correct me if I’m wrong -- that the Hispanic community has depended a lot on themselves to survive and succeed in their new home. Is that an accurate description?
Yes, like I said, they go to Western and once they start learning all the ropes then they go to the places and start meeting people and just start talking. It’s our custom, saying hello, I’m so and so, where do I live? And, how did you get here? Where do you work and what church do you go to? Just little things like that; do you have children? What schools do they go to? You start finding out.
Anything else you would like to share?
Well, I would like to share this. When people come to us and say, I have a problem with immigration. . . . Someday that dream for us will get realized; that we are here to work and we’re not here for . . . there’s been so much on narcotics, that our culture is triggered that we are all in that and it is not necessarily true.
So you are concerned about the stereotypes?
Yes, and I think that people don’t realize that you can stereotype everybody for a couple of people who have done wrong. I mean, if they would . . . really look at the history; it’s all types of people who have done things like that.
There have been positive contributions also.
Right, so it’s not just us. But they trigger it at us because the people behind . . . you know, they just get a little slap on the hands. Say, if it’s a president that really started it because he was too eager to make so much money or a police department that wants to make too much money; they’re here too. They’re just not exposed, and that’s the reality of.
So, you are cautioning everybody about making assumptions about the Latino community and using negative stereotypes. You are reminding people that we are a positive contributing community.
Say there’s ten people that come in. Maybe one is in that business, but the other nine, but because this one has more activity and he’s more known in the community for doing what he’s doing, you’re making these other people suffer by attacking them because of this person, when they had nothing to do with it.
That’s a very insightful way of --
And they are the ones that are in the news. So, you forgot that just because these people do not want to be exposed out there because they’re afraid. All they do is go from home to work, to home to work, to home to work; trying to get their family to doctors, go get them food, go get them clothing. They don’t even visit anymore. You know, we’re losing that because we’re afraid of being in the street and getting caught. We are approached right away; “What are you doing?” Even if they’re not doing nothing; they’re just walking down the street.
Is that for everybody?
It’s almost for everybody. Who wants to get stopped? I, myself . . . Look how many years I’ve lived in this community, and I still, once in a while, get followed by a policeman. “I’m not afraid of you. I’m not doing nothing wrong. And, I am a legitimate person here, so if you want to stop me. . .” I’m thinking through my head, “You know if you want to stop me, fine, stop me.” Because they will follow me for blocks. And I’ll turn and they’ll turn. And this is how I know that they are following me, because I don’t have to make those turns but I do just to find out if they are really following me. And a couple of times that I get stopped, they say, “Oh we stopped you because of this.” I think, “I don’t think so. I know what I was doing.” But, I’m not going to argue because I know how you’ll react if I start arguing.
Well, that’s a very sobering, cautionary -- let me ask you to summarize your experience in Bloomington and McLean County. Did it meet the expectations of your dreams? Were you able to accomplish the things that you set out to do as a young girl?
It did. It did to a certain point. That’s why I would like people to get more with their children to educate them because I didn’t have that education. My parents were just like . . . I guess they didn’t have no dreams. Theirs was more like the survival life. You work, you feed your family, you clothe them, you house them, and that’s your dream. But now, to keep up with the times, we have to be more conscious of our education to get somewhere, because we have more barriers in life. I kind of feel sorry for the people that are in school that are under that dream, American, because they’re taking their rights away. And these are children that have learned the American Dream and they’re trying to get there. And now they have another barrier that comes up for them. It was set to their stories, how they were just trying to reach that dream of an education. If their parents don’t have money, they can’t get no grants. I feel so sorry for them. I myself, even though I wasn’t educated, I always knew that education played a big part in life.
It plays a big part in our community. Well, I want to thank you for your time. We really appreciate your sharing your life story, your advice, your outlook on the past and the future. So, on behalf of the project, I thank you very much.