[A photograph of mi Tía Alicia taken as a toddler in 1928, looking so cute and fancy!]
Every year that passes, I feel as though I am one more year removed from some of the most important people in my life. The entire generation that makes up mis abuelitxs had passed away by the time I was eighteen; I often feel that I did not get a chance to get to know them as well as I wished because I was so young when some of them died. Because of this, commemorating them has grown in importance to me as I’ve gotten older. In honour of el Día de lxs Muertxs next week, the next two posts on the Historical Hotties Blog will be dedicated to two women de mi familia, one from each side of my family. Today’s Blog post is for mi Tía Alicia (1925-2008), known to many in our community in her later years simply as Tía.
Alicia Gómez Mota was born in May 1925 in la Ciudad de México to Josefina Mota Ávila and Samuel Gómez Jiménez. My great-grandmother (Josefina) was the daughter of a midwife who, on the day of Alicia’s birth, was away helping another woman give birth. In desperation as she began to go into labour, Josefina walked to where her own mother was catching another baby. Mi Tía was born literally minutes after Josefina arrived to see her mother; there was so little time between Josefina’s arrival and mi Tía’s birth that they only had time to slip a bag of corn under Josefina before Alicia was born. This story of mi Tía Alicia being born purple from Josefina’s strain on a bag of corn was a constant point of reference in mi Tía’s life that I heard (re)told often throughout my own childhood and adolescence. The story’s constant repetition in the frequent tellings of family history that made up family dinners in our household is instructive of the story’s meaning to mi Tía y mi familia.
Mi Tía’s life was shaped by circumstances that were common to many working class mestiza, city-born women of her generation in México. Growing up as one of the darkest people out of her four other siblings (she was the oldest, born just ten months – ! – before her younger brother Jorge) and the extended family, she suffered the combined effects of colourism, internalized self-hatred and colonization, and misogyny from both her own family and the broader society she was a part of. She often told the story of how, as a young girl, she had gone to a cousin’s birthday party but as the darkest child there, was refused a piece of chocolate cake by her own tía. She understandably carried a life long hatred of chocolate cake that was only intermittently broken late in life by politely eating my burnt attempts at Betty Crocker cakes I passionately made as a child.
[Mi Tía Alicia is the oldest girl, centre, sporting a big grin and long wavy hair. Above her is her next closest-in-age sibling, Jorge, followed by mi Abuelita Ernestina to her right, and youngest brothers Manuel (directly in front of her) and Samuel (infant in front of Tina). This photo dates to roughly the mid-1930s]
The daughter of working class, urbanized Mexican parents who laboured with their hands (her father building road scales for trucks, her mother running their household), Alicia and mi Abuelita Ernestina did not finish the sixth grade as it was incorrectly believed that school was “just for sitting” aka because the labour involved in education went “unseen,” you were therefore “lazy.” As the oldest child – and specifically, oldest daughter – of the family, when her mother Josefina passed away early in life it became mi Tía’s responsibility to care for her father. Her (often unwillingly performed) labour in running a household went relatively unacknowledged, and led to her living a somewhat lonely life populated in great part by the various non-human animals she rescued, including geese, ducks, parrots, 100 canaries, a mountain goat, and even a lynx.
[Mi Tía, sitting, beside mi Abuelita, for someone’s wedding that I should probably ask my mom about but for the moment will remain unknown.]
While she bitterly worked away at caring for her aging father Samuel, her life was, however, filled with other pleasures and rather remarkable events. She was one of the most gifted chefs imaginable who cooked for every family wedding, eventually taking a course or two in specialty baking in later years. She was also extremely lucky in being able to travel widely in her middle age, going to the United States, parts of Western Europe, and even China when it was first opened up for public travel under Communism. The child of parents who lived through the Mexican Revolution and the Great Depression, saving money was one of her greatest skills and allowed for her to journey out into the world beyond México. Her impact on many people’s lives, including my own, spans literally across decades and borders/fronteras, especially due to the events in her life that took place between the Second World War and the 1980s.
During the Second World War, one of her brothers met a Welsh man serving in the British navy while in the United States. The Welsh man – Herbert, Bert for short – wanted to practice his Spanish, so they exchanged addresses and promised to write to each other. Bert began to write, but his letters went unanswered. Mi Tía, taking pity on this random man’s letters who kept arriving but remained unopened, began to write to Bert. Alicia and Bert wrote to each other over the course of several decades, each living incredibly distinct lives but never missing a letter. Bert went on to return to Wales, marry a woman (sending mi Tía a piece of cake from their wedding in the mail), have children, and move to the small Canadian city of Victoria, BC because he had found it pretty while stopping there during the Second World War.
[A snapshot of mi Abuelita Tina on the left, and mi Tía Alicia on the right]
Eventually, after many years, Bert and his wife divorced each other and he randomly ended up in México on a missionary trip in the 1980s (ick missionaries I know, but the world is strange). After over two and a half decades of writing each other and Bert sending pictures (but mi Tía never once sending one of herself), Bert decided to go and meet mi Tía in la Ciudad de México. When he arrived, he was greeted by the entire family in true Mexican fashion. Finally meeting in person in their mid-fifties, after hundreds of letters, wedding cake slices, continent relocations, and who knows what else, mi Tía packed a single suitcase and moved to Victoria, BC with Bert – much to the consternation of her own father because what good is patriarchy for if not to scold middle-aged daughters! Mi Tía’s move to Canada was what precipitated my own mother – then just a teenager – to buy a lottery ticket in the airport at her send off, winning just enough money for a plane ticket to visit La Tía and eventually meet my dad, whose own aunt was mi Tía’s (future) neighbour.
[The world’s happiest holder of a giant papaya, mi Tía Alicia]
Mi Tía lived the rest of her life in Victoria, BC and was one of the integral figures in my life. She helped to raise me, giving my parents the night off to go see the odd movie while my brother and I stayed home to watch animal documentaries and eat all the delicious food imaginable. Some of my fondest memories from childhood involve standing on a stepping stool and being taught how to make tortillas, sopes, and cakes at her side. Despite living a difficult life, she did not do so silently or without complaint. Tía Alicia was well known in my family for being a fighter – both physically and verbally – and for being as stubborn as possible (Taurus born in the Year of the Bull, just as a clue to the level of stubbornness I am talking about!). Her passion for life could not, however, be stifled by the bitterness and self-hatred that she lived with due to her earlier life experiences. For years, she took care of every non-human animal that crossed her path, including buying dog food, boiling eggs, and feeding Maria cookies to the raccoons who frequented her patio for over a decade in Victoria.
[One of my favourite photos of mi Tía, looking regal as fuck while at the Eaton’s Centre Santa Breakfast in the early 1990s]
Even at the end of her life, she refused to give up her fighting spirit. In the last few months of her life, she became quite ill but refused to go without a fight; Tía Alicia lamented that her hospital bed was placed on the second floor where the windows didn’t open, because she was determined on throwing herself out the window rather than die laying in a bed. Eventually, on April 24, 2008, she passed away, ready to see her sister Ernestina and husband Bert again.
[Mi Abuelita Tina, me, y mi Tía Alicia cutting up vegetables in mi Tía’s home, early 1990s.]