February 2018 is tattooed in my mind, for this was the month I met a woman whose wisdom and humility I will always cherish until my dying day. At the time, I was an editor at a local, bilingual newspaper, and one of my tasks was to interview people who have done memorable deeds for their community; and Etelvina Menchaca, the woman I am writing about today, was a champion when it came to making someone else’s life a little easier.
She did that for me more than once.
Etelvina was 79 years old when I first met her, as she slid open the door of her humble home, inviting me into her life with the most gracious smile I have ever gotten from someone I still didn’t know much about at that moment. I was ready to bathe in the waters of her wisdom and the depths of her well-lived journey. I lost my breath more than once, as I heard Etelvina talk about the old days, the movie stars and public figures she brushed shoulders with, her love for mariachi and all things that reminded her of her Mexican roots. She was born and raised in Santa Barbara, growing up along a city that has metamorphosed several times, turning into what is today, a safe place for our vibrant Hispanic community; the community she so diligently nourished with her love and wisdom.
A few paragraphs in a newspaper or a magazine will never do her justice. A woman like her deserves a volume of tomes that should be used as a guide for us to learn how to be just a little bit like her. I dubbed her a Pandora Box because getting into her mind and learning about her life was not an easy task. She had done a lot, starting from her tenure at La Casa De La Raza in its early days, volunteering her time, helping the place grow into one of the most iconic staples of this city, a place with open doors for anyone who also shared the same love for their roots.
And of course, her love for volunteerism didn’t end there. 25 years ago she became a proud member of The Mariachi Festival, a non- profit organization dedicated to promoting and preserving the tradition of Mariachi Music and directing its revenues to provide scholarships that help further the education of Latino students.
Sitting on a stool in her kitchen, with a warm cup of Nescafe and Galletas Marias, my affection for Etelvina only grew as she shared stories of her parents and how they fostered in her a passion for education and love for the community. Talking to her was a memorable experience, a chance for me to hope I could emulate her, doing my part, giving back to this city that had also welcomed me once upon a time with open arms.
Just when I thought I learned everything that needed to be learned, she would educate me more, telling me about her time at La Casa, working closely with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. These are names I’ve heard before, about memorable people who always fought for the rights of the growing Hispanic community nationwide, but never in a million years I thought I could be blessed to be standing in front of a true pioneer and trailblazer such as Etelvina Menchaca; more importantly, I never thought I could ever be lucky to be considered her friend.
It was evident that she had a passion for education, I pointed out as I nibbled on one of those cookies that took me back to my own childhood memories as I talked to my elders, soaking in their wisdom. She smiled, glad to see that I was listening. She went back into her own childhood memories, telling me how she learned Spanish by reading songs and poems that her dad wrote. Later in life, she taught her children at home the value of education and continued allowing others to learn through her arduous work in the nonprofit sector.
Molding the youth of her city from the beginning was a full-circled mission because what she wanted to do was to make sure we did the same, not only for the next generation but also for our elders, the ones who paved the way for many of our successes. The people who are sitting up there on high chairs should have as their mission a plan for more affordable housing, basic needs, and healthcare, just like Etelvina would have wanted it.
A year-long friendship between us grew that February afternoon of 2018, as I sat in her kitchen. She was like a grandmother to me, someone I could always talk to about anything. She taught me a lot, just like she did to many more people. Rest in peace, Etelvina. You will always be missed.
Goodbye, my Pandora box.
May 29, 2019