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By Rachel Gor
In Antonia Meza's day, girls had chaperones accompany them on dates and stayed home with their mothers to make tortillas. Today, Meza's own granddaughters spend entire weekends with their boyfriends, and even she buys tortillas from the grocery store.
These are only a couple of ways in which traditions have changed from the WWII generation to the present.
Born in 1930 in Laredo, Texas, Meza recalls growing up in a household in which her mother stayed home with the six children and sold handmade corn tortillas to add a little extra income to what her father brought in as a carpenter. She says her parents didn't push her and her siblings to go to school, and she eventually dropped out after the seventh grade to help her mother and older sister with household duties.
"We didn't have machines back then to grind and mix the corn, so we had to do everything by hand to make the tortillas," she recalled. "We also didn't have machines to clean the floors or anything, so we used old clothes and rags to polish the furniture and the floors."
As the baby of the family, Meza was close to her parents and spent a lot of time with them, especially since she was the last to get married. She met her husband, Juan Meza, while working at Kress, a store frequented by many in Laredo.
"He came in with one of his friends, and they asked me what my name was," Meza recalled. "I gave them a fake name, Elvira Saenz, which was the first thing that came to my head. I thought it was his friend that wanted to talk to me, but when Juan asked me my name again later, I gave him my real name."
Dating was much more conservative back then than it is today, Meza says. Sometimes she’d go to nightclubs with her parents and Juan would "happen" to be there. Any time she and Juan went out together, it was never only the two of them; her parents or friends always accompanied them.
"I don't know about the youth today, who go and spend the whole weekend out with their boyfriends," she said. "I wonder what would have happened if we'd done that. Parents today are much more relaxed and less strict. They give in all the time."
Although they were strict, Meza says her parents accepted Juan and thought he was a good man. They married in 1950, and soon after, moved to San Antonio, Texas, so Juan could take a job there.
"He made about $80 every two weeks, which was good money then, but we suffered so much to save money," Meza said. "We lived in this little room and paid $25 a month for rent, which was a lot. The first thing we bought after we had saved up enough was a car so we could drive back and forth between San Antonio and Laredo."
Aside from financial struggles, the Mezas encountered another hardship in San Antonio -- discrimination. Meza recalls there generally being many jobs Latinos couldn’t have and restaurants that wouldn’t even let them in. A specific time she recalls being discriminated against was when she and Juan tried to rent an apartment.
"My husband used to be very fair-skinned, so people thought he was white," Meza said. "The man who was renting out the apartment asked him if his wife was Mexican, and he said yes, and the man told him, 'Oh, I can't rent to you then.' People wouldn't have done that in Laredo. I felt so bad about that. I thought, we are all humans. We should all be equal."
After a year of marriage, Meza became pregnant with their first child and spent those months back home with her mother. Only months after the baby was born, the Mezas moved back to Laredo permanently. They’d eventually have five more children, but devastating news would force Meza to spend the majority of her time with her oldest son, away from the rest of her children.
"When he was 16, Juan told me he had a little pain on his right side," she remembers, gesturing to her stomach. "We went to the doctor, who told us it was a malignant tumor about the size of an egg.''
Eventually, Juanito went to Houston for treatment. And in Houston, Meza became even more fearful of her son’s condition after talking to a woman she met while waiting in line for treatment at the hospital.
"This American lady asked me how many times I'd brought my son in for treatment, and I said this was the first time -- we'd only gotten to Houston two days ago," Meza recalled. "The lady told me her child had been coming for treatment for five years already. After hearing that, I was afraid to talk to people in the hospital because I didn't want to hear about how bad my son's condition could be."
Throughout this challenging time, Meza's good friends in Houston, Abraham and Celia Ramirez, let Meza and Juanito. stay in their home. Juan stayed with the other children, while Meza drove Juanito between Houston and Laredo.
"Thank God I knew how to drive, and I knew the routes from Houston," Meza said. "I would drive six and a half hours each way, praying I wouldn't get a flat tire, and I never did."
Juanito survived his illness and later married and adopted a little boy. The other Meza children have all grown up and now live in houses their parents bought for them.
"My husband and I just want to feel comfortable knowing that when we die, all our kids will have good homes that we've given them," Meza said.
She says she encourages her children to be close to each other and always stay in contact. All of them live in Laredo, and she says she talks to them by phone almost every day. She also encourages them and their families to keep up their Spanish skills.
"Today, people speak English well, but they butcher Spanish," Meza said. "I think learning proper Spanish and English is important, especially if you're Mexican and you live on the border."
One tradition Meza hasn’t kept is cooking and making tortillas. She says she hasn’t made tortillas in six or seven years; she buys them and other foods from stores and restaurants.
"Where I live, I have Burger King, Church's, Whataburger, McDonald's -- so I go there," she said. "All my kids are out of the house, so I don't have to make dinner. I'm too tired to cook anyway."
Meza attributes her frequent fatigue to the open-heart surgery she underwent Nov. 10, 2001. Even though her heart is fine now, Meza says she still doesn’t feel 100 percent back to normal.
"I used to be really active, but this is what's stopped me the most," she said. "I feel good now, but I can't do everything I used to be able to do."
Throughout her various challenges, Meza says she has remained grateful to God for many things in her life.
"I thank God for my husband -- he didn't waste money, he didn't drink, he didn't hit me," Meza said. "I thank God that my children are all set in good homes. I thank God for the chance to keep on going every day."
Mrs. Meza was interviewed on September 28, 2002, by Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez.