Benita Aguirre (born 1931)
Written by Catherine Babikian
Benita Aguirre was born and raised in Fort Madison. Her parents, José Prado and Cleofas Rodriguez were born and raised in central Mexico. They met in the farm fields of California. When they heard of work on the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway, they left for Fort Madison, a small town on the Mississippi River in southern Iowa.
Like many other Mexican families in Fort Madison, Benita’s family lived first in a neighborhood called El Cometa, and then moved to the Mexican Village on Avenue Q. Benita, her parents, and her nine siblings lived in a two-room house with no plumbing or electricity. Her mother kept a garden, where she grew flowers, vegetables, and rose bushes.“We had the most beautiful flowers,” Benita remembered. Her father worked on the Santa Fe railway; it was difficult work, but he worked there for the rest of his life.
[My father] really enjoyed working there. And he had another brother, Tomasio, and my uncle’s cousin, they would get their lunch buckets and go to work. They worked there everyday. And they would take their lunch, you know, taquitos de frijoles and cebolla and eggs and stuff like that. And then the güeros, American guys, would see all their food and they’d say, “Oh, we want to exchange lunch with you.” So they would exchange their sandwiches for what my dad and my uncle would take in their lunch.
At school, Benita, her siblings, and other Mexican American children learned English in a special classroom called the “Americanization room.” After two years there, they would join a regular classroom—but, Benita remembered, they still felt separate from their white classmates. “They never accepted us so we’d just run around by ourselves in there and played…they never did invite us to do this or that,” she said. “We just went to school and came right home.”
We had to play on the street [in the Mexican Village]. Our streets weren’t paved, so we would play—they call it "Ollie Ollie Oxen Free," you know, Hide and Seek, different games in the street, Red Rover, Red Rover. But that’s when—after we got done with our dishes, we had chores to do, we got dishes to do, you know, help our parents with the little ones. And we couldn’t get out and play until evening. And then at the end of the block, there was an empty spot. And they made a baseball diamond over there. So then the Mexicans started playing ball down there. And that was excitement because they would practice all week long and then they’d bring another team to play against them. And they were good.
After finishing high school, Benita married Steve Aguirre in 1950; they had two daughters. Benita worked off-and-on at a local restaurant, and then at the Sylvania Products factory in Burlington, before finding work at the Sheaffer Pen factory in Fort Madison in 1974. Although Benita's address on Avenue Q in Fort Madison stayed the same, the neighborhood changed as time passed.
Everybody was getting running water…they put the streetlights on the corner, and they paved all around us. They paved the streets. Oh, and then people just got married and moved away. They just branched out. And we had a Mexican store there in the village. Manuel Salazar, he was working at Santa Fe but he opened up a little store. And he would get rolls and milk and different canned goods for the people that lived there. He’d get ice cream for the kids. And that phased out too…Everybody just grew up and everything changed.