Granny Get Your Gun: The South Valley’s Rita Maldonado Is Still Bagging Elk At Age 85

The South Valley’s Rita Maldonado Is Still Bagging Elk At Age 85

Toby Smith
7 min read
Rita Maldonado
(Eric Williams
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If you lived in Albuquerque’s Atrisco neighborhood a half-century ago, you didn’t want to mess with any of the six Sanchez children. The mother of those kids could drop a deer at 50 yards. She could gut and field-dress an elk. She knew her way around shotguns. She drove a bus for a living.

Standing 4 feet 11 inches, this was one tough little gingersnap.

Still is.

Early December found Rita Maldonado, now 85, in the hard, snowy Zuni Mountains of west-central New Mexico. A cow hunt brought her there. Her son Chris sat behind the wheel of his pickup as they crept up a rise.
Shhh. Rita put her hand out to signal Chris to stop. In the distance she had spotted something. She grabbed her Winchester .30-30 and silently eased her way down and out of the truck. In one swift motion she got off a shot.

A 700-pound antlerless elk toppled to the snow, a bullet buried in its back. She finished off the animal with a round to the head.

She’s a straight shooter, this woman. “I hunt because I like it,” Rita says. “I like to get out of town.” That might be understandable, for she has lived on the same block all her life.

For God’s sakes, don’t call her a huntress. That’s for those shouting “Tallyho!” and chasing foxes.

“You don’t see a lot of people out there when you hunt,” she says. “Lot of times you don’t see anybody.”

For certain you don’t see many women. A
2006 U.S. Fish & Wildlife survey showed that of the nation’s 12.5 million hunters, 9 percent were women.

For certain you don’t see many female hunters with six great-great grandchildren.

“When men see me hunting, they rush over to help.” She laughs. It’s a laugh that suggests, Hey, I’m not exactly helpless here.

She’ll accept a hand though, if offered. She had lots of help getting her recent elk, which was much lighter with the entrails gone, into the bed of Chris’ truck.

“It still was a beast,” says Chris.

Tony Saavedra, her father, hunted. He was a sheepherder, down around the Hubbell Ranch at the south edge of the city. Rita’s ex-husband, Herman Sanchez, hunted too. Thing is, Herman didn’t think women should be like men. “He didn’t want to take me. He said, ‘What if you go and you don’t get anything?’ I said, ‘What if I get something and you don’t?’ ”

Is it any wonder they divorced?

She learned to shoot early on. Her father owned .22s and she grew up knocking over bottles near the ditch bank. From there she advanced to cans she threw into the air and fired at.

By the time her sixth kid came along, Rita was heading into the woods once a year. To Corona, to Mount Taylor, to Quemado or Zuni.

“That Zuni, it’s a cold monster,” she says.

“I remember my mother going hunting in a blue Ford Fairlane 500 we had,” says Rita’s daughter Geraldine Lovato. “She slept in the back seat.”

A bit brisk, no? “Aw,” says Rita, “we had blankets. Anyway, I didn’t want to sleep on the ground. There are snakes on the ground. Well, maybe not in the winter.”

She’s been shot at while hunting. More than once, in fact. “Some guy shot at me twice. I don’t know why. We were at Mount Taylor. I could feel the bullets going by. When I met up with him, I said, ‘How come you did that?’ He said, ‘I thought you were a deer.’ I said, ‘A deer with two legs?’ ”

Curiously, she never wears red or orange for safety when hunting. “I don’t know why. I just don’t.” She pulls out a snapshot of her standing beside the lifeless cow. Yep, she’s wearing a white ski jacket.

“My mother is old school,” says Chris Sanchez. “She doesn’t use a scope. She’s always shot iron sights.”

You want to be a successful hunter? She has three pieces of advice:

Be downwind.

Be quiet.

Be patient.

Over the years, hunting has changed, Rita says. “Used to be you could get one license for deer and bear and other things. Now you got to have separate licenses. Bear? No, I never shot a bear. If you wound it, he’s gonna come after you.”

Nor has she shot rabbits or squirrels. Big game is her aim.

One time she went hunting with her friend Boni Santillanes. “He went all the time but he never got anything. So I gave him the deer I shot. Sometimes I didn’t have anybody to go with. Boni, he died. I had a cousin. Isaac. He never let me go by myself. He died, too.”

She’s nowhere near ready to go. Her mother lived to a few months shy of 100. “I felt a little pain in my back the other day.” Rita reaches around herself to find the spot. “It went away.”

Some chunks of the elk she killed remain in her freezer. “I gave a lot of it away. Some game got a wild taste and some don’t. Sometimes I fry it. Or I make it with green or red chile and some pork. Sometimes I make empanadas and put it in inside.”

The eldest of 14 children, Rita had to go to work early—at age 11. She dropped out of the fifth grade to wash dishes at a café on Central Avenue. At 13, she drove a car. At 14, she became the live-in housekeeper for the four Unser brothers—Al, Bobby, Jerry and Louie—who lived up the way on Central. “They really liked the outdoors, those boys. They would pack a lunch and get on their bikes and go off and sit somewhere under a tree.”

Later, of course, those Unser boys earned great fame by sitting in race cars.

For 28 years she drove a school bus. She took grief from no one. “One time some kids poked me with a pin,” she says. “I reported them.”

After that, she drove a city bus for 11 years. Never sat on a pillow one day. When people who knew of her fondness for firearms saw her driving up, they said, “Watch out, here comes Annie Oakley.”

The city wanted her to keep driving when she stopped. “I could still do it.”

She met her current husband, Lupe Maldonado, on the job. He was a bus mechanic. They’ve been married for 36 years. He goes hunting with her on occasion and has no problem if she gets something and he does not.

“She can do anything a man can do,” Lupe says. His smile is wide. “She’s brave and daring and strong. She’s not afraid of nothing.”

“I used to feel sad when I shot something,” Rita says. “Poor little animals, I would think. That was a long time ago.”
Rita Maldonado

Eric Williams

dead elk

Elk: about 700 pounds. Rita Maldonado: less than 5 feet tall.

Courtesy of Rita Maldonado

Granny Get Your Gun

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