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The woman who gave me life and shaped me to be the person that I am passed away on March 5th.
My mother Irma was a strong woman – a really strong woman. She was the matriarch of our family. I joke that the rest of us were just part of her supporting cast. Mom was married to my dad for 60 years – not nearly enough, according to him. Growing up, my kids spent almost as much time at their grandma’s house as they did at ours, not only because she adored them, but because my wife, Kathy, and I wanted it that way. Kathy used to say that she wanted our kids to be raised the way I was raised – the ultimate compliment from a daughter-in-law.
My mother could have been anything. She had the intellect and leadership skills to be a politician or run a law firm, but careers weren’t really available to women, especially Latina women in the 60s and 70s. My mom chose a career in organized real estate, running the Montebello Board of Realtors® for 43 years. She was a woman of uncompromising integrity who respected everyone but had the most admiration for what she described as intelligent, kind, and “classy” people. We all tried to live up to that. She was not only a powerful force in our family’s lives, but she was also a force in the lives of almost everyone who knew her. Ask anyone who knew her.
My mother was born in Southwest Texas and was the daughter of Tomasita Saenz Cantu, a homemaker and prayer warrior, and Benjamin Cantu, a prominent pastor, bishop, and former national president of the Apostolic Assembly Christian Church. She had three older sisters, Stella, Emma, and Dalia. In 1950, my grandfather’s work with the church prompted him to move his family from Texas to Los Angeles, California. My mom attended Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Boyle Heights area of Los Angeles. At Roosevelt, my mom was known for her brains and beauty – my dad, who also attended Roosevelt, brags that he dated the best-looking girl at Roosevelt. They were classic high school sweethearts. We have a few photos of my mom and dad from high school and I swear they looked like a couple of young movie stars from the 60s. Picture Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass. Soon after graduation, my mom attended Stockton Bible College in Stockton, California, but after one semester my mom and dad missed each other too much and they got married in June of 1962 when my mom was just 17 years old and my dad was 19. She and my dad started a family right away. They had three children, me and my two younger sisters, Yvette and Daliah.
At her memorial, I marveled at how competent and nurturing my mother was at such a young age. Mom was only 18 years old when I was born, yet she seemed to always know what to do. My kids always thought it was sweet that I still phoned my mom for the most important things, especially when I was feeling down. She always knew what to say. The thing my mom may have been best at was making the people around her better. I have often said that every good parent tells their kids they can accomplish whatever they want in life, but only a few actually convince their kids of that. My mom convinced me. I’m not sure exactly how she was able to do that, but that is what made her so unique. She did the same for lots of other people. My mother was a devoted wife, a nurturing mom, a doting grandmother, and a powerhouse businesswoman. Although it will take a long time to fill the void in our lives, my dad fights his tears by repeating how lucky he was to be married to her. My sisters and I feel sad but grateful to have had the extraordinary, brilliant, beloved mom we had. At NAHREP’s conference last week in DC, I said to a sold-out audience that I have always hated it when people say they made it on their own. Nobody makes it on their own – whether it was a parent, mentor, friend, or teacher, somebody made your success possible. For me, it was my mother. Good night, mom – see you soon!