My Grandmother’s Story

My grandmother Antonia, was born on December 13, 1913, in the pueblo of Laguna Verde, in Zacatecas, Mexico.  Born to Theodosia Cabral and Pedro Nava, the family, which included her older sister Polly, and older brother, Henry, immigrated to the United States in about 1915 or 1916. The family entered through El Paso,Texas, made their way to Williams, Arizona, where Pedro Nava found work on the Santa Fe Railroad. His work eventually led him to Los Angeles, California, where he was struck with influenza and died during the Great Flu Epidemic of 1918.  After Pedro’s death, Theodosia returned with her children to Williams, Arizona, to raise her young family, which had grown to include Antonia’s younger sister, Jessie.

Antonia spent her childhood years in the Williams, Arizona.  Here, Theodosia met and married William “Bill” Duchow, who became a step-father to Antonia.  Bill’s job as a foreman on the Santa Fe Railroad required the family to live away from town and away from a school.  The family would often take the train whenever they wanted to go to Williams.  With her step-father as the foreman, Antonia had unique train privileges.  She would stand along the rails and wave for the train to stop.  The train engineer knew she was the foreman’s daughter, so he would stop the train and allow her to board, even though there was no actual train depot.  This worked out fine until Antonia’s restless spirit had her returning to Williams on an all too frequent basis.  The railroad officials got tired of stopping the train to pick up this young girl so Antonia’s train privileges were suspended for a while.  The greatly aggravated her older sister, Polly, who liked going to town too.

When Antonia needed an education, she and her older brother Henry had to be boarded out to a family in Williams.  During this time Antonia had many adventures, including working as an errand girl, for Miss Carrie, a madam who ran a local brothel.  Antonia soon became a favorite of Miss Carrie’s and Miss Carrie would give her some of her clothes that she no longer wanted.  Some of these clothes may have caused some public scorn since, no doubt, the clothes were intended for a woman of Miss Carrie’s profession and age, and most likely not appropriate for a young girl of 14.  But Miss Carrie’s sense of style no doubt had an early influence on my grandmother, since my grandmother was known to dress fashionably throughout her life.

Looking fashionable at the Williams Depot

During her teenage years, Antonia met Joseph or “Joe,”  a young man working on the railroad.  They met through Antonia’s friend, Lenore, and Lenore’s boyfriend, who was a friend of Joe’s.  The four would often go out together on double dates. On one of these dates, the foursome decided to go to Flagstaff, Arizona and get married. Since she was only one week past her 16th birthday, Antonia had to lie about her age on the marriage certificate.   The couple was married for 57 years, until Joe’s death in 1986.  The newlyweds traveled to California where they had a brief honeymoon. While they were there, they visited the Venice boardwalk and took this portrait.

Honeymoon in California, circa 1929

Antonia and Joe returned to Williams, Arizona and started their family. They had son who was stillborn, and later, Alice, followed by Rose Marie.

Grandma with Alice, at the Williams Depot, circa 1938

Joe continued to work for the railroad as a porter.  At the time Williams was considered the Gateway to the Grand Canyon and it was an embarkation point for tourists who wished to travel to the scenic wonder.  In order to earn some extra money, Joe would sometimes try to find passengers who were stranded in Williams after they missed the last train to the Grand Canyon.  If he found tourists who wanted to travel on without waiting for the next day’s train,  Joe would run home and tell Antonia to bring their Ford Roadster to the depot,  so she could drive the tourists to their Grand Canyon destination.  Antonia became quite adept at navigating the highway between Williams and the Grand Canyon.

Grandma on the highway to the Grand Canyon with her 1929 Ford Roadster.

In about 1940, Antonia and Joe decided to move to  California.  They moved to the Santa Paula area, known as Saticoy, and worked in the citrus groves.  The couple had two more children, John and Robert.   The family then  relocated to the Los Angeles area.  When they moved into Huntington Park, near Los Angeles, they were one of the first Latino families in the neighborhood. You could say they broke the color barrier, in a town which has now become predominately Latino.  Eventually,  Antonia and her family  realized their dreams and purchased a  house in Montebello.

Throughout the years raising her family, Antonia worked at various jobs. She worked at their family owned market.  When she worked in the family market, Antonia was pregnant with her sixth child.  Her pregnancy did not keep her from working, but many of her customers did not realize she was expecting because she hardly showed her pregnancy.  One day, towards the end of her pregnancy, after returning from her last doctor’s visit, she felt herself go into labor.  Antonia and Joe got into the car and drove back to the doctor, but it was too late. Their baby girl was born in the car, on the way to the hospital.  Several weeks later, the baby died.

Antonia also worked as an inspector at the Coca-Cola bottling factory.  She worked the swing shift,  and one of her responsibilities included making sure that the bottles on the line were filled with the correct amount of Coca Cola.  Often, the girls on the line would signal to each other and secretly mark select bottles so they would not be filled to the top with cola.  Somewhere down the line another worker would top off  the selected bottles with rum.  Antonia would then remove the “spiked” bottles from the line and the girls would have their Cuba Libres at the end of their shifts.  Antonia also worked at a yardage store, where she was able to satisfy her lifelong penchant for fashion and sewing.  In fact, Antonia became an accomplished seamstress, making many of her family’s clothing, including some of Alice and Rose Marie’s dancing costumes and party gowns.

Antonia also loved to travel, and would take advantage of the local senior citizens’ trips, visiting such places as Hawaii, Canada, and Copper Canyon, Mexico, and, of course, Las Vegas.  She also loved to go on weekend excursions. She would often aggravate Joe, but delight her grandchildren when she would tell Joe to take her and the ever-present grandchildren for a “ride,” sometimes ending up at an amusement park, or a botanical garden.  Antonia’s love of flowers led her to create her own botanical garden in her backyard.  Even into her last days, Antonia loved to go outside and sit in her patio on her swing, which she had, of course, re-upholstered by herself. She would look around her somewhat overgrown garden and fret that she was not taking care of her flowers.  But when someone would try to water the plants, or pull weeds, Antonia would become angry and insist that she could do it, and order them to stop working in her yard.

This stubborn, independent streak was present all of Antonia’s life, and probably kept her going throughout her long life. Her reluctance to see doctors kept her from seeking any medical attention unless she absolutely needed it.  When she broke her arm after age 70, she knew she needed to go to the emergency room, but only after wrapping her arm in a sling and taking public transportation to get to the hospital!  Her feisty spirit also defied odds and amazed doctors when she was 92 and broke her hip. She endured hip surgery then recovered in record time, to return to living alone in her loved house in Montebello.  While her stubborn streak and insistence that she live alone, “without bothering anyone,” aggravated her family members, that spirit allowed her die as she had lived, independently, and in her own home.

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