Basilisa Herrera (1899-2003)
Written by Catherine Babikian
Basilisa de Torres Herrera was born in León, Guanajuato, Mexico in 1899. When she was thirteen, her family moved north, living in North Dakota before settling in Bettendorf, Iowa. At eighteen, Basilisa married her boyfriend Primitivo Herrera, a worker in the Zimmerman foundry. In 1920, Primitivo built a house on 2nd Street. But the house burned down in 1922, just fifteen days after the birth of their son, Marcelino. The family moved to the Cook's Point barrio in southwestern Davenport, where Primitivo built a new house. Basilisa remembers living in Cook's Point:
Bueno los tiempos más bonitas eran enel verano. Bueno en el verano era porque todo el tiempo venían y toda la gente sembraban. Toda la gente sembraba sus jardines y tenía uno todo fresco. Teníamos gallinas, tenía todo fresco, también mataban una gallina para ser caldo de gallina fresca. Nostros teníamos puercos y también teníamos unos chivos... Vivíamos contentos.
The best times were in the summer, in the summer because many people came and farmed all the time. All the people planted their gardens and one had everything so fresh. We had hens, we had everything fresh, and the hens would also be killed to make fresh hen soup. We had pigs and we also had goats…We lived happily.
Primitivo was killed in a foundry accident in 1936, so Basilisa had to look for work outside of the home to support her children.
En ese tiempo no había seguro social, apenas se estaba arreglando. [Si] mi esposo hubiera muerto un año después, podía haber agarrado yo seguro social de él porque él había trabajado muchos años, pero no había seguro social, entonces yo no agarre ni estampillas ni nada agarre.
In that time there was no Social Security, it was barely getting started. [If] my husband had died a year later, I could have gotten his Social Security because he had worked there for so many years, but there was no Social Security, so then I didn’t even get food stamps or anything.
For many years, Basilisa worked at the Black Hawk Hotel in downtown Davenport. But she grew “sick of it there” because of the low wages. For cleaning seventeen rooms each day, she earned four dollars and for working in the hotel laundry, just 89 cents an hour.
She started working at the Oscar Mayer packinghouse in 1948.
Y quería ver si me daban trabajo. Me dijeron que viniera otro día como a las diez, pero dije no, yo no voy a ir a las diez, voy a ir a las siete. Me vine a las siete de la mañana y me agarraron. Trabajé veintitrés años allá en Oscar Mayer.
I wanted to find out if they would give me a job. They told me to come another day around ten, and I said no, I won’t come in at ten, I’ll come in at seven. I went at seven in the morning to get a job. I worked there for twenty-three years over in Oscar Mayer.
Although Basilisa never returned to Mexico, she sent money to her relatives when she could. As the years passed, her children grew up and had children and grandchildren of their own. By the end of her life, “Mama Bacha,” as she was called, had three surviving children, twenty-six grandchildren, eighty-four great grandchildren, sixty-nine great-great grandchildren, and even one great-great-great-grandson. She died in Davenport in 2003 at the age of 104, not so far from where Cook’s Point had originally stood.
(Quotations and audio clips from an oral history interview with Basilisa Herrera conducted by Ernest Rodriguez and Grace Nuñez in 1993 as part of Nuñez's MA Project at the University of Iowa)