|Interview of Mary Helen Valenzuela taken March 6, 2008|
Written by Cassie Otero with contributions from Marlene Busani
shopping centers and movie theatres filled every street corner,
there were small towns where everyone knew their neighbor. Mary Helen
Olgin was raised in a town very much like this, known as Gilbert, Arizona. She was born in Mesa in the South Side hospital, which she believes was the only one in the area at that time.. Her
wonderful experience of seeing a town change and grow has made her the
woman she is today. Lighthearted and independent is the best way to
describe Mary Helen. Though she often misses the way things used to be,
she enjoys telling her grandchildren stories from the past.
Mary was the eldest of the two children born to Gilberto & Tomasa Olgin. Her grandfather on her dad's side was born in Solomonville, Arizona
but later moved to Tuscon where his son Gilberto was born. Gilberto
eventually settled with his parents in Gilbert where he met his future
wife. Once Gilberto married, he started a hauling business that
transported alfalfa and a number of other things. Mary mentions that
Gilbert was the alfalfa capital of the world at that point. Her
father's business grew and turned into a good sized trucking business
with six or seven trucks. They mainly hauled barley, hay, wheat,
cotton, and anything they could make a living from. Mary remembers her
father always had the best looking hay stacks on the trucks; "it was
something to take pride in." She recalls going out into the fields and
helping her dad load the products throughout her childhood.
Her mother, Tomasa Marquez, came to Chandler
legally with her family during the Mexican Revolution of 1912. The Marquez
owned a small grocery store where they made their living. Once Tomasa
married, she created her own business of owning and managing rental
houses in both Chandler
and Gilbert. Mary remembers Tomasa as being her own person, who did all
of her own work on the houses including repairs. "Yet she was still
home in time to make dinner. I really gave her a lot of credit for
that; she was my mentor. I knew I could do all of that because my
mother had done it," says Mary. Tomasa was a very well-rounded person
who could sing, sew, cook, and play the piano. Mary Helen
explained that she cannot sing at all. That is one thing that she does
not have in common with her mother.
a young child one of Mary's fondest memories was laying on the beds of
her father's semi-trucks listening to stories. "History was handed down
by telling stories" says Mary. The whole family would lie out on the
trucks and gaze at the stars trying to identify them. She remembers
living in Sonora Town
and looking at the twinkling lights of Gilbert off in the distance. "I
always felt that the Gilbert people always looked down on the Sonora Town people, but it didn't really bother me." The town of Gilbert decided that the Sonora children didn't need a ride to school on the bus, so she had to walk everyday. She didn't mind because she mostly stayed in Sonora Town with her friends and family.
Mary started school, it was still segregated at the time so she had to
attend the Mexican school. Mary attended school where the Gilbert
Historical Museum now stands. She was thrown into a class where they
were not allowed to speak Spanish "which was 'whoa,' talk about a
shock!" The only words she knew in English at the time were "please"
and "thank you." "The first couple of days weren't terrifying, but
pretty close to i,t" she recalls. Although she had to learn how to
speak English for school, life at home was another story. Her parent's
would not allow anything but Spanish spoken in the home; it was
considered rude to speak in English.
remember nothing but good times in Gilbert," says Mary. Her family
spent a lot of time traveling together, going to church on Sunday, and
going on picnics. She recalls that they were the last family in Sonora
Town to get a TV because her father didn't believe in them. He also
would never let her go trick or treating, because he didn't think it
was proper for a girl. Mary's father did a lot of hauling when she was young so she was able to travel all around Arizona.
"I was driving a truck when I was eleven," says Mary. Summers for Mary
were not something to look forward to. While other children were at the
swimming pool, she was working with her father's trucks. When she did
have free time, she would go to the drive-in movies right behind the
local barber shop. People in Sonora Town
also used the canal as their swimming pool, or went to a local hot spot
called Sander's Pond where fresh water was always flowing; "it was the
place to be." Another fun activity Mary remembers is water skiing on the canal, but instead of being pulled by a boat, they were pulled by a pick-up truck!
Mary started the second grade, the segregated system ended and she was
put in Mrs. Kirby's class. Somehow Mary ended up being the only
Hispanic in the class and was forced to make new friends. Her classes
were divided into three sections: A, B, and C. Mary was always put in
the "A" class when all the other Sonora
children were in the "C" class; she never did figure out why. Later in
the year she was eventually joined by one other Hispanic girl. She
remembers walking home from school at the end of each year hoping she
would be put in the class with the other Mexican children. It wasn't
until the sixth grade she was put in a class with her Hispanic friends.
Some years later Mary would attend Seaton Catholic High School in Chandler where she graduated.
Eventually Mary got a job at Maricopa County Hospital,
and married her husband Mr. Anos Valenzuela and had children of her
own. She never had any problems with gender issues when trying to find
a job because of the way she was raised. When she was young her mother
would take her along when they had to take care of things with the
business that usually only a man would do. Mary was used to working
hard by this time and doing many things on her own. She already gained
a strong sense of independence from her mother, which would stay with
her as grew into a woman and a mother.
doesn't feel like home anymore," says Mary referring to Gilbert. She
misses the old Gilbert where you knew everybody and went to church on
Sunday and saw friends. "Things have just changed…" Mary says. Although
the times have changed, Mary still remains living in Gilbert, within a
mile of the house she grew up in. She will always have her memories,
and those will last throughout time. She says she was born here, raised
here, and will most likely die here.
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Photos courtesy of the family.