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Josefina Mendoza de Sanchez dies; lovely photo led to marriage

The courtship of Gregorio Sanchez and Josefina Mendoza started with this picture, and led to the couple's 38-year marriage. | Provided

In a house on Manuel Doblado Street in Irapuato, Mexico sat a framed photo of a woman who was “como una rosa” — like a rose.

“Who is she?” asked Gregorio F. Sanchez.

His question led to a hunt for the young beauty, a wedding proposal, and a new life in Blue Island. During their 38-year marriage, Josefina and Gregorio Sanchez had five children, 11 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren. She died last month at 98.

It all started with the picture of Josefina Mendoza, her enormous eyes a mystery under a jauntily tilted veiled derby.

“My dad saw that picture and said ‘This is the one,’” said their daughter Angelica de la Soledad Sanchez.

It was 1947. Josefina, around 30, was the convent-educated daughter of a tailor. A “catequista,” she helped youngsters prepare for communions and confirmations.

Josefina Mendoza de Sanchez | supplied photo
Josefina Mendoza de Sanchez | supplied photo

Gregorio Sanchez, then about 42, was in his hometown of Irapuato in Guanajuato, Mexico to visit his brother, the Rev. Ursulo Sanchez. Gregorio had lived in Blue Island since he was 6. He’d already raised two grown sons and had helped support cousins through his work in the steel mills around Chicago.

He and Father Ursulo dropped in at the home of Josefina’s father, Maximino Mendoza, an old schoolmate of the priest.

Gregorio “saw this picture on the dresser and he said, ‘Who is that?’” said their daughter. “He found out where she worked and he went, after he left their house, to go look for her.”

Josefina’s father was slow to warm up to the match, said their son Thomas. “My grandfather said, ‘You have to wait a year because I don’t know who you are.’”

And Maximino Sanchez already had a suitor in mind, Thomas added: “He had a doctor lined up for my mother.”

“If you’re really serious, you can wait a year,” Maximino told Gregorio. “You can correspond with her and you can correspond with me.”

For a year, the couple communicated via letter. They married on Christmas 1948, at midnight mass in Irapuato.

“He beat the doctor,” Thomas said.

Josefina and Gregorio Sanchez on their wedding day. | supplied photo
Josefina and Gregorio Sanchez on their wedding day. | supplied photo

Gregorio Sanchez returned to Blue Island and waited for his bride to get her immigration papers, a process that took almost a year.

“Their love had to be so great for her to leave,” their daughter said. “She was from an upper-middle-class family and she didn’t know the language here.”

In 1949 Josefina set off by rail to join her husband in the United States. Before her journey, “She [had] never ventured far from her house,” said their daughter. “Maybe she had been to Mexico City once.”

“I think she would rather gamble on life up here, as opposed to being with a doctor in Mexico,” their son said.

On the train north, she had her first experience with segregation. Mrs. Sanchez told her children: “They pulled me out of the train, and I [had] just sat there because that’s where there was room. The conductor said, ‘You can’t sit there, that’s for Negroes.’”

“They sat her in another car,” their daughter said. “That always stayed with her.’’

Life in Blue Island was lonesome at first.

“There were very few telephones, and so she was cut off from her family, and my dad would go to work at the steel mill for 10 hours a day,” said their son. Sometimes, “She would find a closet in the house to fall asleep in, because she was afraid of being in a big house by herself.”

Gregorio and “Fina” Sanchez, immigrants from Guanajuato, Mexico, raised five children in Blue Island. | family photo
Gregorio and “Fina” Sanchez, immigrants from Guanajuato, Mexico, raised five children in Blue Island. | family photo

Cooking was a challenge. To get Mexican spices, Mrs. Sanchez had to wait for a peddler.

“He came from 95th and Commercial, a big enclave of Mexican-Americans,” said their daughter. “He would take the train to Blue Island with these oilskin bags, get off at Prairie Street with chorizo, chocolate, and he would deliver it. . . . They would get the dried chile peppers, ancho peppers, chicharron (pork rinds).”

Their five children started to arrive. Mrs. Sanchez joined St. Benedict’s in Blue Island, where, her daughter said, she helped the church obtain its first picture of Mexico’s patron saint, Our Lady of Guadalupe.

She learned enough English to get by, working for around 25 years in the laundry at Sr. Francis Hospital.

“She could get any stain out with Fels Naptha soap,” said Angelica de la Soledad Sanchez.

With her children, she used only her first language, telling them: “I didn’t learn to speak English so you could speak Spanish properly.”

“She was so proud of her Mexican heritage,” their daughter said, “but at the same time, she was very respectful of the country that had given her a better life.”

Mrs. Sanchez stressed “education, education, education.” All her kids graduated college. And the Sanchezes always bought their children the best shoes, believing “You have to take care of your feet.”

Every other summer, the family drove to Mexico to visit relatives, stopping in Texas so Gregorio Sanchez could buy a cowboy hat. “I think just to rile my mother he would go to Irapuato with a big 20-gallon hat,” their daughter said.

Josefina Mendoza de Sanchez making tamales in 2007. | family photo
Josefina Mendoza de Sanchez making tamales in 2007. | family photo

Still, “He just thought she was beautiful,” she said. Until his death in the mid-1980s, “He would do anything for my mother.” He loved to dance with “Fina” to the song “Luna de Octubre” — “October Moon.”

After her husband died, she learned that Johnnie, his son by a previous relationship, had been diagnosed with AIDS. In an era when even health care professionals worried about transmission, Mrs. Sanchez took Johnnie into her home and nursed him six months until he died. “When the doctors and hospitals would not take care of him, my mom did,” said Thomas Sanchez. “She said ‘He’s your father’s son, he has to come home.’ She did everything for him because he couldn’t do anything for himself. He passed away on the couch.”

Josefina Mendoza de Sanchez with her eight great-grandchildren. | family photo
Josefina Mendoza de Sanchez with her eight great-grandchildren. | family photo

Mrs. Sanchez always wanted to visit “la madre patria” — the motherland, Spain. At 80, she traveled there with Angelica and her granddaughter Marina Ziolkowski. A highlight of the trip was a Real Madrid championship win.

And, she followed the Bulls when “Miguelito” — Michael Jordan — played.

She enjoyed watching the nightly news on Univision with Jorge Ramos and Maria Elena Salinas.

In her later years, she went camping every summer in New York’s Allegany State Park with her daughter Angelica’s in-laws, the Ziolkowskis. About 70 people attended the reunion, Angelica said, and the Ziolkowskis looked forward to Mrs. Sanchez’s enchiladas on “Mexican Night.”

To slow aging, she advised her kids to stay out of the sun and use Pond’s cold cream.

Mrs. Sanchez is also survived by her daughters Margarita Eugenia Sanchez and Laura Marina Sanchez and son William A. Sanchez. Services have been held.

Her son Thomas, a former corporate lawyer, does free legal work for clients facing immigration issues, many of them women. Sometimes people ask why he does it.

He said, “My answer’s always been, they look like her.”

Josefina Mendoza de Sanchez and her five children. | family photo
Josefina Mendoza de Sanchez and her five children. | family photo