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Oral Interview with Soledad Sambrano conducted by Jessica Martinez 04/19/2023

JM: Thank you for coming Ms. Soledad. Please state your name, your age, when you were born, and where you were born. 

SS: My name is Soledad Sambrano and I was born on May the 3rd, 1936. 

JM: Tell me about your childhood. How was it like growing up in San Eli?

SS: It’s been a long time. It was a pleasure to reminisce and think about it. San Eli was kind of a green town as I remember it. There was amazing vegetation, and the land was very fertile. If you took a drive, which we didn’t do much driving, it was rows and rows of cotton seedlings. In some of the fields, they rotated the crops. They grew alfalfa in order to keep the soil fertile. My recollection is a very peaceful place. No junkyards, no colonias. Going back a little bit, when I was born, a little story of when I was born. I was born right after Sunday mass. My mother went to church, and she came back and all of a sudden, she started birth pains. There was no doctor there. There was no midwife, so it was very fast, and my father ended up cutting my umbilical cord. I think that’s kind of neat to talk about because we didn’t have doctors or dentists. San Elizario was not a violent place. We didn’t have drugs at that time like there are drugs now. We were never afraid to be out at night or playing outside. It was very peaceful, very enjoyable. My father died when I was two years old, so he left my mother with six children. I have five brothers and I’m the youngest. It was wonderful to have five brothers, on the other hand, I didn’t have a sister. It was kind of lonely I think because my mother had to get up very early in the mornings for work. When I was in school, it was just myself and my brothers at home. Since I was not a boy, I was never really included so I was always by the sidelines. They were very protective of me. My mother went to work at seven o'clock in the morning and worked for twelve hours. She worked very hard. She is very well known in the community. Her name is Josefa Sambrano and my father was Francisco Sambrano. She worked all her life. She was very religious and dedicated her life to God. She was very faithful, very religious and to the children, raising the children, very strict. She had to be strict, I guess. 

JM: What did she do when you say she worked really hard?

SS: For many years she worked in a grocery store there in San Elizario. She was the cashier. All of us worked in that grocery store eventually. One brother was a butcher, another one was a bookkeeper. They were all teenagers. One worked in the department where they sold clothes, mostly underwear, dry goods, those kinds of things. The other one drove the pick-up truck to deliver the groceries. I helped to put groceries on the shelves, so we all worked there. Basically, we were the only ones that had jobs in the town. That was the income. We pulled the income together. My brother that was a bookkeeper, he kept a budget for my mother, and we all gave him the money and he paid for whatever he needed to pay. 

JM: Do you remember any stories of how your family came to San Elizario?

SS: Yes, it’s an interesting story. I don’t know how accurate it is. Anyway, the story was that on my mother’s side, her grandparents came from Spain to what is now San Antonio in the 1700s, they came to San Antonio, that was part of Mexico. Then, they had several covered-wagons, and they would transport goods from San Antonio to El Paso and sell them on the way and then refill the covered wagon with salt. There was a salt mine in San Elizario, and so they filled the wagon with salt. Salt was very valuable and then they went back on their journey to San Antonio and sold the salt over there. They ended up buying land in the El Paso valley, the lower valley, San Elizario and that’s where they settled eventually. Of course, in the 1800s, during the Mexican American War, San Antonio became part of the United States, then automatically became citizens of the United States, but they had been here for a long time. 

JM: That is how your grandparents became part of the United States and then they just stayed in San Elizario?

SS: In our community, San Elizario, everybody spoke Spanish. Most of the people were Hispanic, maybe two percent might have been other races, but Spanish was the language spoken there. I didn’t learn to speak English until I went to elementary school. 

JM: What school did you go to? How was it like there? Do you remember any teachers?

SS: I went to San Elizario elementary school. There was only one school. Now there are a lot of schools but then there was only one. We had one Spanish-speaking teacher. She taught kindergarten or first grade and she spoke Spanish, so she helped us with the transition. We learned English quickly because maybe it was emergent. We were not allowed to speak Spanish in school. In school, we spoke English but at home we spoke Spanish. The community also was very small, and everybody knew each other. The center of the community was the church and the school. Most of the announcements about the school starting or whatever were done at the church. This is an interesting story I tell is that on the first day of school, we went to school and just before everything got started, they marched us all to the church and we went to mass. The whole school went to church, it was just about a block and a half away. There was no difference between state and the public school system at the time, I guess. But everybody was Catholic. 

JM: So, you saw everybody at school and at church together?

SS: Yeah. I really liked school. I was telling my son the other day that maybe I like school so much because I was so much alone at home with my brothers. I loved school. The teachers were really nice, and I was a really good student and I spent most of my time studying. It was between studying and activities at the church. 

JM: Do you remember Mr. Alarcon at school?

SS: Mr. Alarcon? Oh, definitely. yes. Everybody knows Mr. Alarcon. I’m still very good friends with one of his daughters that lives in California. Mr. Alarcon was very encouraging. When I was in the eighth grade, it was during World War II, and there’s always a shortage of teachers in San Elizario, and then there was more of a shortage of teachers. He had to teach the eighth grade, even though he was the superintendent, he was also teaching the eighth grade, and I was in the eighth grade. He had to go and take care of the office many times. He also left me in charge. He had a lot of confidence in me. He helped me write the speech, the valedictorian speech when I graduated, and then I memorized it. He was a wonderful man. At my wedding, I remember he said to my husband, you could have gone around the world and not found a better wife. I always remember that. 

JM: So you said you were also involved in the church, what did you do there?

SS: One of the other things I learned to do was learn to play the piano. It was the music director at the church, the lady, that taught me to play the piano. We didn’t know how to play the piano, we were very poor, so we did not have a piano. We did not have a piano but after school, I would stop at her house on my way home, her door was always open. and I would go and practice on her piano. Isn't that amazing? I learned how to play the piano and I learned how to play the organ for a while. Everybody was very helpful, and everybody liked my mother and respected my mother a lot. One of the schools is named after my mother down there, Josefa Sambrano elementary school. Everybody respected her and everybody was very nice to us even though we were very poor. My brothers never got into trouble, so it was okay. 

JM: How did she help out in the church?

SS: How did what?

JM: How did your mother help in the church?

SS: Oh, she was in the choir of course. She taught Cathectic. Then we had these quermeses and of course she always planning for that. We had great quermeses, they always do, and it was great. The way that I finally got a piano was at one of those quermeses. My brothers and I had a booth, we sold, I don’t know what we sold but we made money, five hundred dollars and I bought a piano, a used piano. 

JM: You were involved with the church, you liked going to school, what did you like to do for fun and outside of both of those areas?

SS: I was good at sports. I was a very good volleyball player and baseball player, I was a pitcher. On Sundays, during the summer, there were games that we went to in San Eli. Also, the adults had a team. Sunday was, in the afternoon, going to the baseball game, that kind of thing. In the morning everybody went to church and then we went to the baseball games. When I was a teenager I kind of hung around with my friends, with the girls. We went to the games together. We didn’t have a theatre, no place to go really, so we hung together and the boys, when I was a teenager then, the boys from the other towns used to come on Sundays, on the weekends. One of the things we loved to do was dance. There was a dance hall in San Eli that was used for weddings and every time there was a wedding, people didn’t get invitations, like when I got married, I didn’t send out invitations, everybody was invited. We went to the dances, and I have five brothers, so I was popular with my friends because I had good looking five brothers and we’d go, and they had someone to dance with, so did I. That’s basically what we did for entertainment. 

JM: You said there was so much vegetation going on, what was your favorite food there?

SS: My favorite what?

JM: Food. 

SS: There wasn’t much variety. There was Mexican, beans, and rice. Oh we did have vegetables, plenty of vegetables because most people had a small plot of land and everybody grew vegetables, not everybody but most people grew vegetables. We had a lot of fruit trees, pears, and apples and quins, and peaches, lots of peaches. The adult women canned all these fruits, so in the winter had plenty of food. We were very poor. In terms of meat, we had chickens, we had a cow for milk. My grandmother made asaderos, cheese from the milk. I had an uncle that was very well off, and he would slaughter a pig or a calf, and they would put it in a ground pit and cook it all afternoon. Then, everybody got a big piece, a big chunk of meat and the neighbors did too. We had desert, of course we had lots of food, but some of my aunts baked cakes and cookies. It seemed as most aunts had a job. My grandmother made the chile colorad, another aunt made the French jelly, so everybody seemed to have a job, everybody gave each other food. 

JM: Was this for special events or just to help each other out?

SS: For social events, daily activities, it was how we lived. On Sundays we got together. My aunts came from El Paso with their families almost every Sunday. Everybody gathered together in the backyard. My grandfathers’ house was left to us. There were lots of aunts, like six aunts and one uncle, they got land, and we got the house. On Sundays they would come over and everyone would bring food, and we got together. I remember making ice cream outside. In the morning my mother would cook the peaches, so we had peach ice cream. We all worked, I don’t know what you call it, the crank, we cranked the ice, bucket, or whatever it was. 

JM: That sounds delicious. So, did you also live with your grandma or was it just with your mother and your siblings? 

SS: When I was very small, I had both grandparents, both sets of grandparents and for some reason, there a number of old maids. There were two old maids on my father’s and one old maid on my mother’s side. They were very helpful. I suppose that they actually took care of me when I was very small because my mother went to work immediately after my father died. They were very helpful. I had one of my aunts that came on Mondays and did the laundry. Tuesday, they did the ironing, so yeah, they were very helpful. 

JM: And they would come from El Paso to help? 

SS: Pardon me?

JM: They would come from El Paso to help you? 

SS: Oh yeah, my mother was working and they would come over and help at the house. 

JM: At the grocery store that your mother worked at, was it the only grocery store in San Elizario?

SS: There were two grocery stores in San Elizario. There were very few commercial centers. Two grocery stores, the one we worked at was the Blanco Store and it was the larger one. The other one was the Madrid Store, and it was smaller. There was that and all the farmers came from the outside, no, they’d send in their list of the groceries they wanted, and we’d put them together and my brother then delivered them to them because nobody had transportation, well very few people did. There were two stores and there were two bars, where the men went. There was one school and the church and a post office. In later years, my mother became the postmaster, so she was working at the post office, so she ended up working for the Postal Service, so at the end she had a pension. She didn’t have a, I think she just had an eighth grade education.

JM: You mentioned you worked in the grocery store growing up, did you every work in the cotton fields? Or your siblings worked there? 

SS: When I was very little, my mother, her first job, right after my father died, she wanted to make sure that people understood that she needed a job, so she took all of us with her and we went and picked cotton for a while. Then, she was a given a job with the WPA. That was a coveted job. There were few jobs, but she got it. That was before she started working at the grocery store because those jobs dwindled. When I was maybe eight and ten before I started working the grocery store, I would pick cotton in the afternoons and during the summer. Those in my family that were not working yet would pick cotton. That is how I learned my first lessons in economics, I think, because there was no way to spend the money. What can you buy? You can’t buy anything, maybe a piece of candy, and so I always saved my money. To this day, I’m always like that, and I would save my money. Then in the winter, my brothers, would run out of money, they would borrow money from me. I didn’t know about interest, but they would pay me back more than I loaned them, so I was the little bank for my brothers. 

JM: How was it like picking the cotton do you remember? 

SS: Oh yes. We’d pick the cotton on the land. We had a small plot of land, maybe five acres that we leased to our neighbor, and that’s where we picked the cotton. My brothers would go out, but I picked the cotton there. It was hard to pick the cotton because it’s very prickly, so your fingers get swollen and rough and sometimes blood. It was a little hard to pick the cotton. 

JM: You also mention that not a lot of people had cars, how did you get around in San Eli?

SS: We never had a car until my brothers came back from the military. They were all drafted during the Vietnam and Korean War. When they came back, they bought cars. There was a bus system that went from Clint, Texas all the way to El Paso. I went through maybe every couple of hours, so we never had an occasion to go to El Paso. When we did, we took the bus. It took about an hour to get to El Paso on the bus and then it would come back. There was no way to get a ride. We walked everywhere, to school, to church, to the job, with our friends we walked a lot. 

JM: What high school did you go to? Did you take the bus there?

SS: Yes, I rode the bus to school. I went to Ysleta high school. There was a school in Clint. The bus went to Ysleta. Ysleta was not a place where I developed leadership skills in the school. I developed my leadership skills in San Eli, in the church. Going to school in Ysleta, the Hispanics were not included, or maybe we excluded ourselves, I don’t know. We stayed together, with each other. The only thing that I belonged to was the National Honors Society. At home, I was a leader in different things. In high school, I didn’t do that. We had to come home in the bus. The boys couldn’t play sports either because there was no way of coming home other than the bus. If you missed the bus, how would you get home? So, they didn’t play sports. That is why one of my brothers went to high school in Clint. He wanted to play sports and he went to Clint. He was the only one that went to Clint. 

JM: You mentioned you were in eighth grade during World War II, how was San Elizario at that time during World War II? 

SS: World War II. I graduated in 1945 from San Elizario. I’m getting a little mixed up here. What was the question? I’m sorry.

JM: How was the community of San Elizario during World War II? Do you remember?

SS: We didn’t have a newspaper. We didn’t have a library in our school. It’s amazing that some people were successful learning English or whatever. There was no newspaper. There was no library, so we did not talk very much about the war. We didn’t know what was happening except that we knew the men that were being drafted. When they came home or they died, my cousin died, so there wasn’t much communication. 

JM: You mentioned your brothers went to war and then they came back. 

SS: They were drafted right after high school, one right after the other. In a sense that was very good for them because they got out of the town, saw the different world. They all served in Germany, and one was in the Navy, Korea, Vietnam. What happened was when they came back, they had the GI Bill, so my first brother that came back went to Western Texas College at the time, no, it was College of the Mines at the time, and he studied engineering, electrical engineering. As each one came back, they got the GI Bill, and went to school and they also worked part time and lived at home. They went to college because they had the GI Bill. It did very helpful. The only one that didn’t get the GI Bill was me. When I graduated from high school, I went to work and started going to night school. One of my brothers was going to night school, so I had a ride home. Then after that, during the day, still working full time, going to school, took me five years. Paid for everything, myself. 

JM: When did you learn how to drive? Did you learn how to drive in San Eli?

SS: Yes. My brother had a big truck. They used to haul, I don’t know what they would haul. I learned to drive in that big truck back and forth in the driveway when I was sixteen. I learned to drive right away. We didn’t have cars. 

JM: By yourself or did your brothers teach you? 

SS: Well initially back and forth by myself. Later on when we had the car, it was my youngest brother that taught me to drive. 

JM: Who else were some memorable people that just comes to mind in the community?

SS: In San Elizario? Well basically, I just though or Mr. Alarcon. The teachers were nice. Actually, two young teachers, it was their first year teaching, they came to teach in San Elizario. I was in the sixth grade, and they gave me clothes. It was the first time I had wool clothes. It was all cotton. I made my own dresses when I was growing up. You know what I made them out of? I made them out of flour sacks. We used to buy one hundred pound flour sacks and if I chose two of the same pattern, we had patterns, two of the same patterns, I could make a dress. 

JM: Who taught you? How did you learn?

SS: I taught myself a lot of stuff because my mother was working. 

JM: What are some other great memories you had growing up in San Elizario?

SS: I think of the peacefulness of San Elizario. Although I’m a little disappointed when I go down there now. It is not the same. It used to be beautiful, at least that’s what I remember. It used to be beautiful. What other things? 

JM: How was the community?

SS: Well, the community was very supportive. One of the things I enjoyed doing was, in the summers, we’d put on plays, when I was a teenager in high school. In Spanish. The day before the play, we’d go on this truck with bull horns, and let everybody know the play was tonight and come and join us. Everybody would go to the play in Spanish. 

JM: Where were the plays?

SS: It was there in the hall, the church hall.

JM: I’m sorry?

SS: I went to go to teach in San Eli. Let me go back a little. When I was in the University of Texas, first it was the Texas Western College, that’s where I met my husband, and we got married in 1959. I lived in San Elizario until I graduated from college and got married. I got married in the summer after I graduated. Then, my husband and I went off. He went to graduate school and we lived in a number of different states around the country. I have three children. I don’t know if you’ve met my daughter. No, no, she hasn’t been there. I have a daughter, Maragaret, that has worked with the Genealogy, Malok, Margaret Malok. My middle son, John, who lives here and this is why I came here. Another son that lives in, what’s the word? So, I’m grateful for San Eli because I learned my values, my faith values in San Eli. That was basically my mother. She was very religious. Even the school was very poor, I still got the basics to the point where we all went to college. After my marriage ended in 1973, this is not about San Eli but in severty-three, I went to graduate school at Harvard school with three children. Then I got a job in Washington, so I worked for the federal government for thirty-one years. I was a senior executive for the federal government. Head of research for substance abuse prevention, the National Director. I tell you this because, I also got a Ph.D. in child development, and that was while I was raising my children. These values that I have, I got in San Elizario taught me to be self-sufficient, to have strong faith, which I always have, to be resilient, resourceful. I remember at Harvard, the first class I had, one of the professors said, “It’s not how smart you are but how resourceful you are.” I have done that. I have been very resourceful. The background that I had certainly helped me survive all that I went through and raise my children all by myself and give them a very good education. 

JM: That is so inspiring because an example you gave was the dresses you made, that was resourceful. 

SS: Resourceful yes. Having very little at the beginning and working very hard. We all worked very hard picking cotton when we were just kids. Throughout the. Years, worked at the grocery store and then while I was in college, worked in college, helped put my husband put through graduate school. 

JM: During college, would you commute from San Eli or were you living in El Paso? 

SS: I lived at home. We all lived at home until we got married. Everybody did. It’s not like now, my grandchildren, my granddaughter belongs to a sorority and all that, we didn’t have that. We worked but that was good, you know? 

JM: I remembered other women talked about the posadas, do you have any memories of the posadas? 

SS: Oh, very good memories of the posadas because I was in the choir, we were the group that was signing. We really looked forward to the posadas every year and then going from house to house. At the final house we got chocolate, it was lovely. The community was so involved, it was a true community, which we don’t necessarily have areas like here. I live in New York and moved to new York because one of my sons lives here. I told my children that when I retired I would move close to one of them and I guess this one says he won out. I moved here. 

JM: Yes, because in New York everyone is to their own and San Eli was very community based?

SS: Everyone is to their own but on the other hand I live in a community in New York, Larchmont, which is like thirty minutes from the city, on the train. I came here and I was surprised how welcoming the community was. I got into volunteer work right away and even became president of the Women’s Club in Larchmont. Very welcoming and I’m still very much involved in the community. 

JM: Is there anything else you would like to say about growing up that maybe I have missed? How was the weather, did it ever snow?

SS: In San Eli? No, no. It seldom had snow and we didn’t have winter clothes either. I remember one time my brother took me to El Paso because my mother was working. We got on the bus, and we went to El Paso, I must have been ten, to buy me a coat. Now we have closets full of coats. I remember also, this winter, we had basically one pair of shoes, like Sunday shoes, but I remember having a hole in my shoes and putting in cardboard until we were able to take it to the shoe repair man. We were very poor. 

JM: That was you being resourceful. 

SS: That’s it, yeah. Also, believing in yourself. Gain confidence. I gained a lot of confidence in San Elizario because I was right there in the middle of the community arranging things at the church and the school. That year that I spent in San Elizario teaching was a wonderful year. It was wonderful because I knew the parents and they didn’t have parent teacher associations, but I got all my parents involved and I had gone to school with some of them, the parents, they were helpful to me. I was even the coach for the girls. We won the district that year I was there. 

JM: What year was that when you taught? 

SS: What year? I only had my daughter. It was in sixty-two. We were there in El Paso one year. My brother was teaching in San Elizario, one of my brothers was the principal and he said, “you need to come and teach over here.” So, I did and it was great. On the weekends I used to take four children to the library in El Paso and used my library card and then they wrote book reports, so every Saturday I took different children to the library. 

JM: What grade did you teach? 

SS: It was fifth grade. They were lovely. 

JM: What did you coach? 

SS: I didn’t even have a degree in education, but I was very good at sports. I loved sports. That’s another thing that builds character and fellowship with your teammates. I had that and so, after school, I would coach the girls. 

JM: When you played sports in elementary. Did you play with other schools? 

SS: Yes. In fact, we used to go to school and Mr. Alarcon was, “Soledad, you can do everything except drive the bus, would you go get a drivers license for driving the bus.” So, I could take the girls everywhere. 

JM: Do you remember the kiosko on Sundays?

SS: Oh my gosh, yes. That was the main center for the activities. We had the musicians there. The politicians never mind, they came over, and that’s where they gave their speeches. I had never really been into politics. Basically because working for the government you can't really be involved. That’s where we heard all the politicians in San Eli, at the kiosko. My mother was involved but she never let us know who she voted for. (laughs)

JM: Ms. Soledad, I don’t have other questions for you but if you have anything else to say, I’m happy to hear. 

SS: What are you going to do with this? 

JM: It’s going to go to the San Eli museum, the Portales museum. I’m just collecting a lot of interviews, they are hoping to put them on a website that is accessible to people. Also just for them to have available for the community if community members ever want to know about life in San Elizario, they can always refer to your video. 

SS: I think it’s a good idea to look to the past and see how the past has influenced us because it has certainly influenced me. I still regard San Elizario as my home-town even though I’ve lived in many places. Living here, I still go down there once in a while, and in my will, I have asked to be buried there. I can be buried in a very nice place, but I want to be buried there by my mother. My father is in the cemetery and my brother is right there. I’m going to have my plaque there in San Eli. I’m going to go back to my roots. 

JM: What happened to your house there? Is it still there?

SS: In San Elizario? Yes. It was sold. A young coupled moved there years ago and remodeled it. One of the things we didn’t talk about was the difficult times growing up without electricity. I think that came soon but we didn’t have running water. We had an outhouse. We had a pump. We used to pump water to take a bath. On Saturdays, we took a bath, just on Saturdays, and pumped the water. We heated the water on the stove and then brought in a big tub, the tubs that we used for washing, tin tubs, really big and brought them in. In the kitchen we’d put the tub and that’s where we took a bath. Then we’d go to confession. We always went to confession on Saturday afternoon. Very religious, my mother. It was hard times. We were poor but everybody was poor. Everybody was poor. There were a few families that had money but those were few but they didn’t have anymore than we had, I don’t think. No, I mean, they had the lands, but they didn’t have a lot of extra money, I don’t think. 

JM: People lived off their land, the food that they farmed, they ate out of it?

SS: Land really makes a difference. Land is a good investment. Even then, it was a good investment. 

JM: Thank you for doing this Ms. Sambrano.

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