B. 15 May 1903
Grant County, New Mexico Territory
D. 27 Jan 1992
Palos Verdes Peninsula, CA
When I think of Grandma, I think of her strength and independence. I think of her cleaning houses for extra income at an age where most of us would sit back and relax in deserved, but exhausted, delight. I think about tamales and enchiladas. I think about this wonderful, defeated-but-playful, facial expression she had when her adolescent grandchildren ran amok during a Thanksgiving or Christmas meal — and I most especially remember the exasperated comment she’d make after her patience had ended: “Ay, por dios!” (It didn’t usually stop us, though). And I think, too, about how strange it must have been not to drive a car in Los Angeles! How did she manage?!
One of my earliest memories of Grandma was when she scrubbed me in the tub. I must have been pretty dirty as I remember thinking “wow, she’s scrubbing me hard!” and I looked at my skin and saw it turn red.
But Grandma was a cleaner; she cleaned homes until her 70s, until she was no longer able to do so. I remember watching her in action, as she cleaned a floor, on her knees, really putting some muscle into it, scrubbing. Like she did with me in the tub that day.
Not too long ago, I watched as my 9-year old daughter Lucy (yes, also the name of one of Grandma’s sisters) scrubbed our kitchen floor. I smiled and told her that she reminded me of her great grandmother, and how she had to do something just so — and we took a moment to talk about her. I think they would have liked each other, my Grandma and my Lucy; they would have really enjoyed each other’s company.
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Grandma Dora Chavez was born Aurora Maria Torres on May 15, 1903 in Grant County, New Mexico Territory (New Mexico didn’t become a state until 1912) to Andrea Donaldson (25) and Francisco Torres (36).
Dora’s siblings Antonio (Uncle Tony), Lucinda (great aunt Lucy), and Annie were already born, and Francisco was transitioning from being a teamster (a driver of a team of animals, not The Union guy!) in the Lower Mimbres to a man who owned his own farm in Dwyer, an unincorporated community in Grant County, near Silver City and the Mimbres River.
My mom, Norma, said “there were hot springs and mineral water near the Torres farm, and for a long time (ancient time, even) people would come to the springs to get rid of their aches and pains. At the time of Grandma’s birth, it was actually quite a popular and successful resort. In fact, the name Faywood was named for and by the developers of the Faywood Hot Springs: J.C. Fay and William Lockwood.”
Of growing up on a farm in the frontierland of New Mexico, Grandma once told me a story about how, when she was little, she would ride a cow (or was it a burro?) to the market. I reckon it may have been a very long ride…
By 1910, the house in Faywood became packed with more siblings — Esther, Procopio and Harriet. And by 1920, there were several more: Minnie, Ida, Julian and Eva. Perhaps the crowded house is why Grandma Dora’s parents encouraged the older siblings to leave the homestead and find work.
So, Grandma did indeed leave the farm, and her first (paid) job was working alongside her sister Esther in the dining room of the Fort Bayard military hospital, while sister Annie worked there, too, living in the dorm rooms in the nursing headquarters.
Exchanging the historic Mimbres River for the not-quite-as-beautiful L.A. River, Grandma followed Annie and Josie, a family friend, west to Los Angeles in 1922 or 1923, where they rented a small home in East Los Angeles. They all found work at the American Can company, and the sisters saved money to help other family members make the journey to California.
But the big city of Los Angeles took a little getting used to: Grandma once told me a story about when she first moved to Los Angeles and someone offered her a burrito. A bit aghast, she declined, as she thought they were offering her a little burro.
The same family friend, Josie, also introduced Grandma Dora to her future husband, Emiliano Madrid Chavez. Dora and Emil were married on June 24, 1924 in South Pasadena. Grandma was a youthful 21, and Emil was 23 and worked as a painter. The couple had three children in 10 years: Fred, Connie, and my mom, Norma.
Freddie was born in January 1925, but tragically died from meningitis just two short years later. In October 1932, Dora and Emil had their first daughter, Connie. And two years later, they had my mom, Norma.
During the years of America’s Great Depression, Dora and Emil moved from Boyle Heights to Maywood, a small city in southeast Los Angeles by the LA River.
My mom remembers:
“There was a woodstove for cooking, a pump for water, a cow [named Daisy Mae] for milk & butter, a big tin tub for bathing, pictures on the wall and an outhouse. Across the road was a reservoir where the kids in the neighborhood & I learned to swim. I was happy there. I loved reading Little House on the Prairie because it brought back happy memories & that was in the depression! I remember one year [I believe this was the Los Angeles flood of 1938] there was a lot of rain & there was fear the river would overflow. We packed the car up with clothes & a big container of soup & left but soon were able to return ’cause the rain stopped.”
According to my cousin Denise (Aunt Connie’s daughter), Grandma used to raise rabbits and chickens at this house, and then killed them – it was her home business, as people would pay for the meat. When the flood of 1938 came, they had to tie the rabbits and the chickens to the car.
After the Depression, Grandma worked in factory assembly lines. In fact, the area of Maywood had become popular for its assembly plants: Chrysler and Ford had factories there. After the United States entered World War II, a great many automobile plants were retooled to manufacture war machinery; Lockheed, for example, took over one of the Maywood factories.
After the war ended in 1945, Grandma worked for the Catalina Swim & Sportswear Company in downtown Los Angeles for a few years. Cousin Denise told me a wonderful story about when the company – famous for its connection to Hollywood celebrities, and the founders of both the Miss USA and Miss Universe pageants – asked Grandma to be a swimsuit model! Grandma declined the invitation.
Later, Grandma wanted to be closer to home so she took a job at a cleaners very close to where her family lived.
By 1939, Emil had changed jobs from a glassblower to a furnace man, but according to the 1940 census, he hadn’t been working. Perhaps it wasn’t entirely coincidence, then, that Dora and Emil were able to afford a nicer home in 1940 after my mother Norma was hit by a car as she got off a red car trolley! Or maybe they saved their money from making moonshine in the bathtub during Prohibition!
Either way, Mom remembers the new house had “indoor plumbing, a porcelain tub, an ‘ice box’, a gas stove, a rental house in front” and that Grandma was able to afford a new car, too.
When Grandpa Emil died in 1959, Grandma sold her house on Catalpa Street and bought a house in Northridge near her daughter Connie.
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One of my strongest memories of Grandma, as mentioned above, is when my sister Bonnie and I, and our unruly, but beloved, cousins (two of Aunt Connie’s five children — John and David) would fluster her when we were pre-teens or young teenagers and we’d run around, completely free (and a bit exhausting, I imagine). She would declare “Ay, por dios!” and then roll her eyes, hand-to-face….memorable! Lo siento, Grandma!
Despite the above antics, Grandma would still sweetly call me “mija” (ME-ha). I knew it was a term of endearment, but I never stopped to think what it meant (seriously, I almost named by daughter Mia!). I am embarrassed to note here that it wasn’t until last year, 2014 (when I was in Spain taking a Spanish class) that I figured out (ok, it was my instructor), that Grandma wasn’t saying “mija” at all — she was saying “mi hija” — my daughter.
In the 1980s, I visited Grandma at her independent living residence in Northridge. She lived in the same complex as her sister Minnie. It was not long thereafter when Grandma suffered a series of strokes. I remember that she reverted back to her native language of Spanish. And though she battled physically, she still wanted to feel useful while she lived in our home (Yes, Grandma! You can fold the laundry and clean the house!).
Grandma died on January 27, 1992 at the age of 88. She is buried next to her siblings at the Resurrection Cemetery in South San Gabriel, not very far from where she lived when she first arrived in Los Angeles with her sister, so long ago.
Submitted by Stephanie Thomas, granddaughter of Dora Torres-Chavez. With quotes from Denise Sapin and Norma Thomas.