Rodriguez, Estefanía "Steff"
Estefanía Joyce Rodriguez (1923-2008)
Written by Catherine Babikian
“I’ve had a great life and a hard life,” said Estefanía “Steff” Rodriguez, a lifelong resident of the Quad Cities. "But the hard life taught me many, many things.” Among them were independence, self-reliance, and determination, lessons she first learned growing up in the Holy City barrio in Bettendorf, Iowa.
Steff’s father, Norberto Rodriguez, was originally from Jalisco, Mexico. He had first come north in 1910 to work in the sugar beet fields, and met Steff’s mother, Muggie Adams, in Buxton, Iowa. They married in 1920. When Norberto found work in the Bettendorf foundry, the family followed him to Holy City, where they lived in a railroad boxcar and later moved into the apartment building known as the "flats." Muggie managed the household. “Everybody liked her,” Steff remembered. “She fed a lot of people. You know, like Jesus fed the people with nothing on the mountain. Well, that’s the way my mother was, feeding the hobos and the tramps and everybody that came their way.”
[During the Depression] my dad got by with what work he could find, what we could grow, what we could get out of the river and like that. And like I remembered the relief, the welfare, they used to give us flour to make tortillas. But my mom used to always make Indian bread. You know the Indian bread, the fried Indian bread. She used to make that a lot. We used to eat beans…And we ate rice, oh, we ate anything we could get, you know. We were hungry too sometimes. I can remember being hungry. I was about ten years old when we lived in the Flats and I was so hungry I thought my stomach was going to turn inside out.
During the war, Steff worked at the Rock Island Arsenal, a weapons factory across the river. “I got about thirty dollars a week,” she remembered. “And then I had to give all of that to my mom because of living at home.” After the war, she married Joe Jimenez, a former resident of Cook’s Point, and raised their eleven children. A navy veteran, Joe worked at the Farmall tractor plant in Rock Island, but his wages were not always enough to make ends meet.
This one year we were pretty much up the creek. We didn’t hardly have nothin’. And I had all these kids…so I took his discharge paper down there [to the Veterans’ Administration] and I said, “I need some help.” …My husband, he didn’t want to go beg, not beg, but ask for anything. But it wasn’t beneath me to go ask, if I had to get on my knees and beg, because my children were at stake. I was doing it for my kids.
War again touched Steff’s family when, in 1966, her son Norbert was killed in Vietnam. “I think it [the army] sucks,” Steff said. “They’re not doing right by our men and the women that are in there today.” For over two decades, she fought an intractable military bureaucracy to have her son’s remains returned to Iowa. Finally, in 1999, she was able to bury her son in Davenport.
Steff became an early and active member of the League of United Latin American Citizens, LULAC Council #10 in Davenport.
Yeah, I joined LULAC, oh, just a little bit after they started because I was their secretary. I was their secretary and I did a lot of work. I was real active. I used to write all their letters to the different dignitaries, the senators, the congressmen and all that. I used to help my brother [Ernest Rodríguez] with El Reportero, the newspaper…We used to work together on a lot of things, him and I. And we used to do, we were really active in there. He’s active up to this day.
Despite the hardships Steff faced, she never gave into self-pity or defeat. “I can’t sit up here and feel sorry for myself,” she says. “You know what I say? ‘Steff, you’ve got to get up!’”
(Oral history interview conducted by Iskra Núñez for the Mujeres Latinas Project, August 11, 2005)