Preserving a vanishing history

I logged in to one of my accounts this evening to check my balance. “We’re protecting your account!” said the cheerful message. “Please enter the first name of your maternal grandfather (your mother’s father).”

I was ashamed to draw a blank.

I never met my Abuelito Gutierrez. Neither did my mom, in fact: He died shortly before she was born, so she knew him only through her older siblings’ stories.

Now many of those 10 siblings are also gone.

These sad realizations reminded me that I need to start recording my family’s lore. First, because the stories are wonderful. (How many people’s uncles have landed a 737 during an earthquake?) But also so that my nieces and my nephew never draw a similar blank.

So here’s the first installment. This is my grandma (“Abuelita”) Josefina Arias de Gutierrez, at about age 35.

As a young woman she was so beautiful that her parents once immured her to hide her from a roving bandit. But shortly after she posed for this photo she found herself widowed, with 11 children to support. So she went to work as the principal at a military school for boys.

My grandma moved from Hermosillo to Sonora, to Guadalajara, to Puebla, and finally to Ventaprieta as she took the helm at successive schools. But her career as an educator ended in Mexico City after she had a minor heart attack.

To pass the time, Abuelita Josefina started doing book reviews for the Jueves de Excelsior magazine. Soon she was getting visits from heads of state, a parade of writers, and several prominent actors and artists (including the beloved Cantinflas).

Along the way she also founded several literary criticism groups, wrote a handful of plays, and was invited to join the Real Academia de Historia y Geografía.

But as much as those accomplishments may impress me, what I remember most fondly about my grandmother is her conversation.

I loved chatting with her in her office, surrounded by her shelves full of books and the autographed portraits of her famous admirers. And after my parents moved to Peru—and then to Minnesota—I loved continuing those conversations by mail.

Some 20 years after her death, her letters are among my most treasured possessions.

It was wonderful reminiscing with my mom tonight about Abuelita Josefina. I did my best to take notes as the stories poured out. I may have missed a couple of details in the chronology of my grandpa’s rags-to-riches-to-rags story, but one detail didn’t escape me: His name was Aurelio Gutierrez Loarca.

I’m sorry I never got to meet him, but I’m truly privileged to have known his wife.

Te mando un gran abrazo, Abuelita. Hasta que nos veamos de nuevo …


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