Mendez Salazar, Hesiquia
Hesiquia Mendez Salazar (1902-2006)
Written by Catherine Babikian
Hesiquia Salazar was born in Pénjamo, Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1902. Orphaned at an early age and separated from her family, she spent much of her childhood working in a nearby village, where she rolled cigarettes and braided shawls.
Hesiquia’s older brother, Vicente, had left Mexico years before. His job with the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railway had taken him to Fort Madison, Iowa. In 1919, he returned to Mexico to look for his relatives. “He found three brothers,” remembers Hesiquia’s daughter, Lucy Prado, “and my mother.”
Lucy Prado: When he found out that my mother was there, living with an older lady, he went and talked to her and said, “She’s my sister and I want to take her back to the United States to live with my family.” My mother was afraid. She didn’t recognize him. She didn’t know him anymore. The older lady said, “You have to go. This is your brother and he wants to make a home for you. He wants you to live with him and his family.” So she came to the United States…She said the snow was something she had never seen and it was really something for her. She was surprised and excited. She said they’d go out and hang clothes and they were frozen, she got a big bang out of that. She didn’t know how that happened. She was really surprised—everything was so different.
Shortly after arriving in Fort Madison, Hesiquia married Manuel Salazar. Like Vicente, Manuel had come to Fort Madison from Mexico in order to work on the Santa Fe railroad. The couple first lived in boxcars provided by the railroad, in an area of town called El Cometa. But when the neighborhood flooded in 1926, Hesiquia, Manuel, and many railroad workers bought property on the 3400 block of Avenue Q. The city block, and the surrounding area, became known as the Mexican Village. “We didn’t have any plumbing,” remembers Lucy. “It was just grassy land.” Manuel continued to work for the railroad, while Hesiquia raised their six children and adopted niece. They opened a grocery store out of the front of their house. Manuel ordered the groceries, and Hesiquia kept the store—and the family—running each day.
Lucy Prado: They [the flour sacks] would all come with beautiful prints. She would use them and save them after she used the flour…she’d cut them, she didn’t have no pattern, she’d just take and measure you like this, and then cut for the arms and everything. I used to love this dress she made for me. It was a brown and white checkered bottom and she made a bolero that was brown checkered, but the blouse part was yellow that went real good with it…I’d wear this outfit to school and I’d think, “Oh, I’m so lucky, I have the prettiest dress.”
Hesiquia and her family were among the first Mexicans to live in Fort Madison. “We were discriminated on the jobs, we were discriminated here in Fort Madison, in the barber shops, in the taverns, anywhere,” said Sebastian Alvarez, Hesiquia’s brother-in-law. And Lucy vividly remembered the schoolboy who would “knock our books down and call us dirty Mexicans.” Despite the discrimination they encountered, Mexican families in Fort Madison preserved and celebrated their heritage. For many years, Hesiquia’s family helped organize Fort Madison’s annual Mexican Fiesta to celebrate Mexican culture and Mexico’s independence from Spain.
(Oral history interview with Hesiquia Salazar and Lucy Prado conducted by Rachel Garza Carreón for the Mujeres Latinas Project, September 22, 2005)