Estela G. Torres: Resident since 1984
This is an excerpt from Neighbors: Oral History from Madera, California Volume 2 by Lawrence F. Lihosit, a local historian. It is available at Maildrop and G.B.S. on Howard and on Amazon.com Books.
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The fifth of nine children, Estela G. Torres was born on November 12, 1958 in Zamora, Mexico (106 miles southeast of Guadalajara) where she completed grammar school, secondary and accounting studies. Orphaned at a young age, she raised four younger siblings while working and studying. She immigrated to Madera at the age of twenty-six where she worked various jobs while studying and eventually earned an Associate of Arts degree from Reedley College. She recently retired after a twenty-three-year career at the Fresno Housing Authority where she worked her way up to accountant. An active member of a Latin American women’s social group. Mrs. Torres and her husband raised two children in Madera.
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We went to a public elementary school for people with low incomes. We went to school from eight in the morning until two in the afternoon and after lunch, from four until seven at night. We had to clean the patio and all the classrooms. They put me on the volleyball team and I was so small and skinny that I could never serve it over the net which was embarrassing. The only time in my life that I got into a fight was at school and it was to defend someone else. This school was old and many of the classrooms had broken or wobbly desks and chairs. The Gabriela Mistral School has been remodeled and still exists.
My mother passed in her early forties when I was about twelve years old. She had been sick a few weeks before going to a doctor. My older sister was by her side and told me that she was jaundiced from liver issues when she entered the hospital. The doctors were supposed to operate the following day but that night, she was throwing up and passed away.
The youngest of my siblings was only a year and a half. Since my older sisters and brothers had moved away, it was my responsibility to watch over my younger four brothers and sister. I worked full-time, studied at night and took care of my younger brothers and sister, washing clothes, cooking, helping them with homework. Every morning I got up at five or five thirty, went to the mercado (market), prepared breakfast, sent them off, put lunch in the oven, showered, changed clothes and walked about a mile in high heels to my job at a food distributor where I was the bookkeeper. I opened, answered phones, paid bills, prepared payroll and kept the books from eight to two, then walked back home. Whoever got home first finished cooking whatever was on the stove. I was back at work from four until seven. Then, I went to el Colegio de Auxilio (a school run by nuns) to get my G.E.D. (General Education Development- a high school equivalency exam). Thank God my younger brothers and sister never got into trouble.
Before he passed, my father gave my younger brothers and sister money to buy me Mother’s Day presents. I didn’t really have a childhood. I didn’t have many friends either because I would have had to go with all my brothers and sister. My friends were actually my mom’s neighborhood friends. I would go and ask them, “How do I cook this? How do I cook that?”
When I was seventeen, my father fell backwards after a rain on our wet, slippery patio, cracking his skull. The doctor didn’t do anything. My father suffered serious headaches for a long time. He finally walked to the hospital on his own but about two o’clock in the afternoon, he had a stroke due to the brain inflammation and died. We had been waiting for a surgeon. Later, I found out from a friend that the surgeon was never coming because Zamora did not have the resources for surgery. I still had brothers and a sister in school.
My sister Elena, who is five years older than me, came to Madera first, married and started a family. They lived near Avenue 7 and her husband worked in the fields. He finally said, “No more.” He went to school and became a welder. My sister became a baby sitter. When I came here at the age of twenty-six, I came to their house. I stayed there for two or three years, working in the fields. Once when I was pruning grapevines, the foreman came over to correct me but I didn’t understand a word he said. So, I just kept doing it wrong and he shook his head and walked away. I had never studied English in Mexico.
I was homesick and mad, thinking, “What am I doing here? In Zamora I went to work in high heels and worked five days a week. Here, I eat my lunch under a tree while sitting on dirt.” I also picked cotton, packed peaches and apricots. I worked in a tortilla chip factory.
Everybody drives here. There are no people on the street. It made me sad. In Mexico, you see the garbage man, the mailman, the milkman. You walk along the street greeting neighbors, “Hi! Good morning.”
I went straight to night school in junior college, studying accounting with three dictionaries. While studying, I worked at Yum Yum Donuts on the northeast corner of Yosemite and Gateway Avenues. They put me at the front counter helping customers even though my English was not great. At first it was embarrassing and the Hispanic people were ruder than the rest. One time a lady asked me, “Can I have a lid?” I did not know what a lid was. She got really mad and started pointing at a shelf, “That thing there!” Another asked for a half-dozen donuts. I didn’t know what a dozen was. But I enjoyed these experiences because they made me stronger. I earned an Associate of Arts degree in accounting.
I met my future husband, Joe, at the donut shop. On weekends while working during the day, Joe came. He worked at Three Boys Wrecking Yard and wore a uniform with his first name on it. So, I always called him Joe as he came in the door. He figured out my schedule and started coming and coming. Even though his grandfather was from Monterrey and his father spoke Spanish, he still doesn’t speak Spanish. One time, he handed me his business card. He was the owner’s right-hand man. I threw it away, thinking, “I’m not going to call you.” I found out that he regularly cruised by with his friends to point and show me off.
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To be continued.