So many of us who were gathered to pay final respects to my mother were strangers to one another. That we were, and that so few of us cried, are the first clues to the personality of Guadalupe Castillo de la Vega.
My mother was an only child, born in Saltillo, in the northeastern Mexican state of Coahuila, on July 14, 1904. Her father was taken away to fight in the revolution for a few years, after which the family reunited in Monterrey, closer to the U.S. border. My mother completed six years of school and, while still quite young, went on her own to live with her mother's sister in Houston.
She met my father, Francisco de la Vega, on the beach in Galveston, where he worked as a lifeguard. Over a period of 12 years, first I and then my brothers -- Francisco, Fernando, Humberto and Rolando -- arrived. During that time, the Depression drove us back to Monterrey.
In 1944, we journeyed north again, settling in San Antonio. That is where my mother, Dona Lupita, died two summers ago.
A description of how she raised us will reveal nothing startling to those acquainted with the traditional role of the Hispanic woman. She was religious, creative and loving -- the motor of our family. She sang beautifully and got up at 5 a.m. every day.
"Camaron que se duerme, se lo lleva la corriente," she advised us often. The shrimp who sleeps gets carried away by the current.
Her domination and control were pervasive, but so subtle they were almost invisible. She made pinatas, so we all made pinatas. In fact, when my laborer-father was disabled for more than a year, our pinatas kept us housed and clothed and fed. Because of her, we all ended up in the church choir. Because of her, I got weekly singing lessons when the 50 cents they cost could have bought our hungry family a huge hunk of round steak. Because of her, when one of my brothers, already over 21, was making plans to move out of the house, he ended up buying a trailer and parking it on the rear of our property.
Eventually, however, we all moved out, and our mother's focus turned to taking care of our father. But since it wasn't a demanding job like raising five children, she enrolled in some courses at a community center. She studied and became a U.S. citizen. Her interests spread to politics. She stuffed envelopes and distributed posters. Her black hair was salted with gray, but her mind and body seemed to be growing younger. She tried socializing at a senior citizens' center, and soon was teaching sewing, embroidery and beadwork to other habitues.
In 1973 our father died. Our mother wanted to stay in the home they had shared. We all feared for her loneliness and invited her to move in with any of us. My brothers were still in San Antonio. I was in Washington, D.C. We compromised. She reluctantly took an apartment in a city-run senior citizens' complex in San Antonio. She would go shopping, sightseeing and to church regularly, always taking a friend or two with her. She bought a new stereo, with all the components. Sometimes, she admitted, she played it too loud, and the neighbors complained. Three times she visited me in Washington, on each occasion touring the White House and the Capitol, and proudly reading the famous Washington Post in English.
Her hair was no longer gray. It was reddish-brown, with just a fashionable steak of gray in front. Some of her friends spoke no Spanish, so her vocabulary became more and more flecked with English words. She told me how she shared my letters -- even our intimate family problems -- with her many friends. "Some are so alone, they don't even have others' problems to worry over," she explained.
She started taking her companions on trips to Monterrey and Saltillo and even to Mexico City to let them share in the rich culture of her youth. She went to Disneyland, and with a $300 bankroll from one of my brothers, ventured to Las Vegas. She returned with 50 cents and a smile.
At the senior citizens' center, she bought a pair of leotards and began directing exercise classes to trim her 4-foot-11 frame back to a size 10. She became impossible to reach by phone. She was always busy or off traveling somewhere.
Two summers ago, preparing for the occasion with a permanent and a manicure, she went into the hospital for what we all thought was a minor operation. A few days later, at age 75, she was dead.
None of us dared cry at her funeral. It wasn't her style. No hay mal que por bien no venga, she used to tell us. Nothing bad happens that some good doesn't come from it.
At the funeral, one gentle stranger summed up our loss to me. "Your mother promised to take me to Las Vegas in December," she confided. "I just hope there's someone to replace her."