As told to Carmen Ponce Sforzini and Charlotte Sforzini Arton, May 27 & 31, 1972
INT = Interviewer, either Carmen or Charlotte
MP = Maria Ponce
- INT: Can you remember back on your childhood, and how many children were there in your family?
- MP: I can only remember back to the days when I was about six or seven years old. Thinking back now, I really never had a childhood because I was the oldest of the girls and I had to help my mother with all the work and the bringing up of her six children.
- INT: What were some of the chores you had to do?
- MP: Well, while my mother had to go about a half mile to bring some water to our house, as we had no running water. So, while she did that, I had to, ah, be like a babysitter and take care of the little ones. And then, when she had to go and wash clothes, it was the same thing. You know, they couldn’t be left alone, so I had to stay with the children.
- INT: What did your house look like?
- MP: Well, my house used to be one house…a big house, and my grandfather wanted to make two houses out of the big one house. So in one part of the house, my uncle and his family lived, and we lived on the other side.
- INT: Were there a lot of cactus around there?
- MP: No, none whatsoever. No.
- INT: How did you used to dry your clothes?
- MP: Oh, ah, Benagalbon was built like on a little hill, and, ah, we used to go down where there was a little river and we used to wash clothes there. Nearby there used to be some cactus plants, you know, the long ones with points, so we used to get the clothes and hang them here and there, and leave the clothes alone and go home in fear of some people stealing them, which occurred so many times.
- INT: Mother, I remember you telling us about having smallpox. Do you remember?
- MP: Yes, I remember that there was an epidemic of smallpox in Benagalbon, and I remember that one day when my mother went to get the water, I was taking care of my sister Emma. Well, when she fell asleep, I decided to go over and visit my very best girlfriend who had the smallpox. Not knowing better, I climbed into bed with her so that we could be close together. A week or so later, I was in school, and I remember all the children sitting in a circle around the teacher. We were all taking turns reading our loud, and I was feeling quite sick and was so anxious for my turn to come. Well, when I got up, I fainted and fell to the floor. My mother said two girls carried me home. I was sick with the smallpox for almost a month. Later when I was feeling a little better, I used to sit on the doorstep and watch the kids play. I was still too weak to join them.
Then one day my girlfriend’s little cat died, and all the children were taking it up on the hill to bury it. My two friends took me by the hand and helped me walk up to watch. On the way up the hill, there lived a blind man, and kids, being kids used to always tease him and throw rocks at him. So, on this particular day, he became very angry, and t reached down for something to throw in the direction of where he thought the kids were. I was sitting not too far from his and didn’t realize how much the kids had teased him with words, etc. I didn’t know it, but he reached for a bottle, and threw it, and it hit me right on the forehead. I started to get up and passed out and just rolled down the hill. Finally I rolled into a large shrub and that stopped me. Come to find out, it wasn’t a bottle, but a handful of broken glass, and anyway, I was bleeding all over, and again two girls had to take me home. Since I was still so weak from the smallpox, this made me weaker, and I had to remain in bed quite a while longer.
Charlotte, I remember another chore I had to do every day for quite a while when my mother was sick. My sister Emma was just a baby, and every day I had to take her way across town to be nursed by a woman who also had a small baby, twice a day! I really never had “free time” to play or anything like that.
As I said before, my dad and two brothers usually were away working so, about a month before we left Spain, my mother and we four girls went to visit Papaieto and Mamaieta, who were my grandparents. They lived in Campanilla.
My grandfather was foreman of his large vineyard, where my dad and two brothers worked. The owners usually lived in their home in Málaga. They never liked children around their place, so anyhow we knew they would be gone for quite a spell, so we went to spend a whole month with my grandparents.
This is when I got to know and love my grandparents very much. I was sad to think that I probably would never see them again.
- INT: Noni, when did your family decide to move to Hawaii?
- MP: At that time the United States was in desperate need of laborers over in the Hawaiian Islands, so a representative came to Spain to see if he could recruit some families to go over and work. The families selected had to qualify by not having any sickness or any bad records and no sons could be over 15 years of age. The Spanish government wouldn’t allow boys that age to leave because they were needed for the army.
Well, my oldest brother was 15. It took a little doing for our family to qualify, that is, for all of us to be able to go together. It so happened that my uncle was the mayor of Benagalbon, and he was very friendly with the priest of our town. So they arranged a new baptismal certificate showing that Pepe was 14 instead of 15! So anyway, our family did qualify and would be able to all go together. This was in 1907. We understood that we’d get free passage to Hawaii and also would have to stay there for at least seven years and work in the sugar cane fields.
When my grandparents found out that we were going to go to America, they were heartsick, because they knew they’d never get to see us again. (These grandparents were on my mother’s side.) They lived in Campanilla, which was about ten miles from where we lived. We didn’t get to see them too often because we had no transportation. There was an old lady near us that had a donkey, and she used to go to Málaga to buy materials and thread and things like that, that we didn’t have in Benagalbon. So once in a while when my mother wanted to visit Mamaieta, she would get in touch with this lady and ask her if on a certain day she could take us. She always said “sure.” She would put three of us on the donkey and we used to take turns riding the donkey. From Benagalbon, we went to Málaga and then from there we took un coche…like a wagon with a fringe on top, and it was pulled by a horse. That took us to El Lugar del Toto. That was the name of the small village where my grandfather worked as caretaker. It was this trip when we were to spend a month with my grandparents.
They were the nicest grandparents anyone could have. Papaieto, my grandfather, was bald, completely bald, and had all his teeth. Mamaieta, my grandmother, had lots of black hair, and no teeth. My grandfather didn’t want anyone to see his bald head… Never. He’d go to bed with a red kerchief tied around his head. Once when he was sitting by the fire before going to bed, I sat on his lap and said, “Papaieto, I’m going to take the handkerchief off.” And he said, “No, no me lo qui ete!” (“No, no—don’t take it off!”) But I did! And he said, “You have accomplished what none of my children have done to me.” Oh, he was wonderful.
- INT: What was your grandmother like?
- MP: She was short with wavy hair and she was the nicest person. We called her Mamaieta. When we were there, and she had to go shopping in the little town, she always wanted me to go with her. In front of my mother she would never cry or show signs of anything, but as soon as we started walking down the road, she would start crying all the way to the store and back, I’ll always remember that, she was wonderful.
On March 10, 1907, the big boat was in port, and we were ready to leave. It was a very big boat, and it did not come right to the wharf because it would have to pay too much. So they sent little boats out to pick the families up. My grandfather and Uncle Loreano brought us to the wharf, and when it was time for our family to et in the small boat, he just disappeared… He couldn’t say that last goodbye. The name of the boat was Heliopolis.
After we set sail, it didn’t take long for all in our family except my brother Joaquin and I to be very seasick. So we had to take care as best we could of all of them. I had to do all the washing on the ship. My brother Joaquin would bring the seawater and I would do the best I could without soap or a washboard. The diapers alone for my baby sister Emma [Amalia] was a real chore.
A lot of people died on the trip, and during one stop for supplies, many people jumped from the boat to get away as they had been so sick and were so frightened of the ocean.
The next time we had to stop for supplies at Point Areana, the boat stayed way out at sea and the captain had his men take the small boats and go to shore for whatever they needed. There was a lot of supplies to buy, as there were five hundred passengers on the boat. It was not a luxury boat by any means. Each family was given a section in this huge space and there was no privacy whatsoever. The food, too, was very poor. We heard that the Hawaiian Islands had given lots of money so that good food could be provided, but…the owners of the boat kept most of it and fed us very poorly. I can’t exactly remember what we ate except for those hard round crackers that was our bread for the whole trip.
The route we took was from Port Málaga through Gibraltar and then southwest down along South American, through the Straits of Magellan and around the Cape and on up to Hawaii. It took us 56 sailing days, and finally to see land and set foot on it was wonderful.
We landed in Hawaii on April 17 [actually the 26th—etg], 1907. We were in quarantine for a week because my Uncle Francisco (who came with us) had very red eyes, and they thought he had some sort of a disease. They soon found out it was nothing, so they let us go when the week was up.
Four families, including us, were taken to the big island of Hawaii to a very small town called Pauillo, near Hilo. I remember well the first days in Pauillo… We four families were housed in an old hospital. We al were in one large room with a tin roof. We had to stay there for two weeks until the other individual houses were finished. These were wooden almost shacks that were high up off the ground as it rained there so much. I went to school very little there… When I had completed the third grade, that was it! Again, I was needed at home. There were no stores to speak of. We had to make all of our clothes, bake all of our bread every three days…and if it happened that I was in school, I’d have to knead the bread before I left for school. As I said, my parents felt I was needed more at home to help with the washing, housework, and working in the sugar cane fields.
I remember too, that I was a great one to pull teeth out with a string if it was badly decayed, or if it just hurt… there were no dentists there!
I remember too that I would be asked to kill chickens for our dinners, in fact even our neighbors would ask me to kill theirs! They were too soft-hearted, I guess, and couldn’t do it. Of course, the men were always out working in the fields, so the women had to do these things. I especially remember a rooster we had that was as large as a turkey…anyway… we’d try to save all the blood for sausages, etc., so, anyway, I got hold of this big one and was doing great, and when I thought it was dead, I went in the house to get some hot water to feather it. But when I came out… it was gone! It must have passed out and [I] thought it to be dead, so left it. We didn’t know what to do. We lived very close to a sugar cane plantation and we imagined it went there to hide. Anyway, about a month later I looked down the road, and sure enough, here came this poor old rooster looking like a skeleton, but still alive. I felt so bad that I never killed another chicken in that manner.
I also remember once when my mother had to have an operation, and again I was the head of the house. Well, during this time, a neighbor just down a few houses from us died. And in those days, all night wakes were held. So, another lady that lived a ways away, came to pay her respects and knew she would be unable to sit up all night…and being a friend of our family, asked if she could spend the night with us. My dad said sure, so h instructed me to make room for her. We only had two bedrooms…in one my parents stayed, and in the other, we six kids. Well, at this time it was really raining quite a lot and we had a hen setting on some eggs and I remember my mother saying that it wasn’t good to leave the hen outside where she would get wet…So I brought her and the box she was in into our bedroom where she would be dry. Well, my dad told me about this woman coming to spend the night with us, so I got one of the mattresses and placed it on the floor next to the chicken box. I noticed that when this woman finally came to bed, she spent a very restless night and come morning, she discovered that she was completely covered with lice from the hen! It didn’t bother any of us children, but anyway, she left immediately in the morning without saying thank you or good-bye or anything. From that day on, she never spoke to me.
As I said, my mother had an operation and was gone for a month. We got word that she was coming home the second day of the week, so I really wanted to surprise my mother so badly that early that morning I took all the mattresses out to air. Our beds were made of lumber with springs, and in that humid climate, there were a lot of bedbugs! So I boiled a bunch of water and poured it all over the frame to kill the bedbugs. Everything was upside-down with boiling water on the floors too so I could scrub later. We didn’t have linoleum or anything…just wooden floors. I had soap and a brush to do the floors. Well, instead of coming two days later, my mother came two days earlier. When she saw all the mattresses outside, rooms full of water, she felt terrible, besides not feeling well. A neighbor had to take her in for a few days. I never felt so disappointed in my life, because I really wanted to surprise my mother and show her that I was a good housekeeper. My Aunt Antonia came and helped me get the house back in order and I just cried and cried.
In 1911, another six or seven families came from Spain and also settled in Pauillo. The Ponce family was one of them. I was about 15 years old then, and that’s when I met Francisco Ponce. They lived in the same plantation as we did…only three or four houses down. They stayed only a year, and then came to California, settling in Santa Clara. With three boys, they felt they could make more money in California.
In March of 1913 we left Hawaii for California too, and settled in Santa Clara. After we were here two or three months, I went to work as a housekeeper for a family of six. Their names were Mr. and Mrs. Mentzel. My chores included cooking and cleaning. I would have to be there by six in the morning, and I wouldn’t leave until I had done the dinner dishes. I only worked for them during the winter months, as my parents wanted me to work in the apricots, prunes, and tomatoes where I’d make more money in the summertime. The Mentzels begged my parents to let my stay all year, but my parents refused. So each winter, they would rehire me. They were very pleased with my work, and I stayed for three winters making all of $20 per month. I was about 15 going on 16 years old.
It was about this time that Francisco started courting me. It really wasn’t much of a courtship. He could only come over three evenings a week, and by 9 o’clock, he had to be out. In the summertime, gee, 9 o’clock was still daylight. And we would sit in the living room and the rest of my family was right there tool. WE didn’t get to talk much. We didn’t go anywhere alone. We would get to go to the show once in a while simply because my father liked Charlie Chaplin, even though he could not understand him. In those days, it cost only a nickel to go to the show, so the whole family was with us. Once in a while Francisco would hold my hand, but that was all. So you see, it wasn’t much of a courtship.
We were married in 1916 at the Santa Clara University Church, which no longer exists, as it burned down. My maid of honor was Emma Anaya, and the best man was Manuel Ponce. Ten months after that, our first daughter, Mary, was born. By that time between my in-laws and us, we were able to put a small payment down on a small ranch in Cupertino. The ranch had cherries and apricots. We were living at the ranch and soon was expecting again. I remember that it was May, and we had some women from Santa Clara helping us to pack the cherries, and each day I would take the horse and wagon and go to pick these ladies up, and then after work take them back. Well, on a trip back it was raining, and getting dark, and I knew I was in labor, so I kept hitting the horses so that they run faster and get me home. I went to my mother’s house in Santa Clara because she wanted me closer to my doctor. Our second daughter was born, Carmelita, 19 months after Mary. Then the next year Consuelo was born, and the following year Madeline was born. I had four girls in a short time and was mighty busy. I had no washing machine…just a big washtub with a board under a cherry tree. I would first have to heat the water outside for my washing…what fun!
Due to her health, we stopped taping at this point, hoping to continue at a later date. She passed away September 18, 1973, and will remain forever in our hearts.