It’s mid-afternoon, late summer. Narrow, winding residential streets are empty. Not even insects buzz in cottonwood trees shading the old houses. But the little living room of 91-year-old Vitalia “Vita” Candelaria is full of cool, filtered light. It sets off the shine in her combed white hair (still run through with faded black wisps) as she adjusts her hearing aid.
Gradually, her three younger sisters and cousin Eva Chavez all arrive. Dark-haired, sad-eyed Dora Perea is on crutches, her foot in a splint. Second-oldest sister Delia Lopez uses a cane to lower herself onto the loveseat next to Eva. The youngest sister, Fina Perea, smiles quietly as she settles in next to Vita.
The swamp cooler is working hard, and Vita’s daughter opens the front door to let fresher air circulate. Soon the five elder women are reminiscing about their long lives spent in historic Los Duranes, on this same plot of land that looks drastically different from the days when they were little girls playing hide-and-seek and kick-the-can along the water-filled acequias.
Their story begins with their mother and now-deceased family matriarch, Delfinia Gabaldon Anaya. Two of the main roads that meander through the neighborhood bear both her married and maiden names—a nod to the families that settled what was formally known in the 1700s as La Plaza del Señor San José de los Duranes. The five women return to the subject of Delfinia constantly over the course of their three hours of conversation, glowing with admiration, often cheerfully interrupting each-other.
“She was a workaholic,” says Fina.
“She'd get us up about five and we'd be out there in the yard,” says Dora, “peeling chile. By about three in the morning, she'd have the horno going.”
“She used to, by herself, kill the ovejo—come se dice?—the lamb,” says Delia, her eyes gleaming behind round glasses. “She'd kill chickens—”
Fina, laughing: “Hang them up from a tree—”
“She'd get their necks like this!” Delia twists her hands in the air. “God, but she was quite a woman.”
Born in 1900, Delfinia inherited a narrow strip of farmland just half a mile from the river, northwest of where today’s I-40 converges with Rio Grande Blvd. Day in and day out, she tended animals and grew crops like corn, tomatoes, beans and chile. All of it went toward feeding and supporting her family. By the time her first husband died in a car accident, she already had six kids, none of them older than 10. She and her second husband steadily conceived four more.
“She was her own midwife. She had all her babies by herself. She'd say, Go get me the water, the scissors.”
“She was her own midwife,” says Eva. “She had all her babies by herself. She'd say, Go get me the water, the scissors.”
The women recall how everyone in the house was expected to follow Delifinia’s example of hard work. The children all woke early to sweep the patio until it was immaculate, wax the hardwood floors, gather fresh eggs. When they weren’t in school, Delfinia sent them out on their bicycles to sell their fresh milk, cheese and chile to older neighbors. All of this before and after their lessons at school.
Tiny Duranes Elementary at that time had one classroom for each grade, one through eight, and an extra room that functioned as a proto-ESL class for the predominantly Spanish-speaking students.
Delia remembers her teacher trying to send her back to “the baby room” because she was struggling to understand English in her second grade class. When Delia refused to go, her teacher ordered her into her brother’s class for his teacher to deal with her.
“Ms. Perea was there, my mother's sister-in-law at the time,” she says, grinning. “When I went in there, she tried to push me to do what she wanted, and I said, No way. I got her by the hand and she hit me, and I got her and I punched her—”
“... If someone builds you a home, you have to exchange money. Not in those days.”
“She has always been a fighter,” says Vita, shaking her head.
“She slapped a schoolteacher when she slapped our younger brother,” adds Dora.
The women say they enjoyed school, but their mother pulled all but a couple of them out early so that they could work and bring home a paycheck.
“There was a lot of poverty,” says Eva, “but we never suffered no hunger.”
“There was poverty, but everyone was hardworking,” Dora says. “And no one was thinking of going to college or anything like that.”
Eva nods. “That was beyond our means. I wanted to go to school, but my parents didn't have money. That ended that.”
Their conversation wanders back and forth in time, from memories of church holidays (“Our mom on Good Friday would walk all the way to visit the church in Alameda, for penance.”) to dance society jitterbug socials in Old Town, to hand-in-hand journeys across town with other neighborhood kids to watch Abbott and Costello or King Kong for 10 cents at El Rey Theater. Other than the inevitable death in the family, the women say their childhood was overwhelmingly pleasant and secure.
“Sometimes we talk about how we’ve lost the simpler things in life,” says Dora. “All of the land has exchanged hands. There's no farming here any more, and this was all farming land.” She says that the biggest change in the neighborhood is the sense of security and fellowship. When they were growing up, if someone needed a house, all the men in Los Duranes would pitch in to build one, while the woman cooked for them. Dora says the workmen were called peones, and their communal effort helped bond and stabilize the neighborhood.
“... You know, we were here way before you. We're happy. We keep it clean, but don't tell us what to do.”
“There was no pay involved. ... That’s why all the older people had homes. People now have homes, but they’re having to buy them. Or if someone builds you a home, you have to exchange money. Not in those days.”
As centuries of agricultural history gradually disappear from Los Duranes, residential and commercial development squeezes into its place. Multimillion-dollar developments are cropping up where there were once rows of food crops and animals grazing in alfalfa fields. A 2010 joint city-county sector plan collected feedback from community members, who have voiced concerns about losing the rural character of the area.
“There are all these homes being built—I mean mansions, over here in the forest,” says Eva, “and they're owned by people with a lot of money, people that are not natives.”
Delia says she’s experienced some of the tension firsthand that can erupt between old-timers and newcomers. At a recent neighborhood association meeting, some of the members complained about the appearance of older properties, about broken-down cars sitting out in the sun and stands of dried-out weeds. Delia and she and an old friend were indignant.
“We said, You know, we were here way before you. We're happy. We keep it clean, but don't tell us what to do.” Her sisters nod in agreement.
Neighborhood politics aside, the women all say they feel mostly positive about how the city has changed around them. There’s better access to education now, and therefore many more opportunities for young people. But they bemoan the fact that their grandchildren and great-grandchildren are too busy with computerized gadgets to play outside, that the streets don’t feel as safe as they once did.
“We had freedom,” says Delia of their childhood, and “everything to do. We weren't afraid because nobody would hurt you. We wouldn't steal from each other. In that way it was a lot better time.”
Vita’s daughter emerges from the kitchen and sets a platter of fresh-cut watermelon on the coffee table as the women’s conversation dwindles.
Outside, cicadas in the nearby strip of what remains of the Bosque have picked up their metallic song. It reverberates off of the row of newly built houses a few blocks north of the sisters’ property, fresh blacktop glowing with heat, not a child in sight.