Thursday, February 12, 2015

María Elvera Albert Córdova
(1906 – 2007)
 Elvera Albert Cordova died on Sunday, November 25, 2007 at the age of 101 at the Walsenburg Care Center.  She was a daughter of explorers and early settlers who gathered near the Huerfano and Cucharas Rivers before this prairie county had a name.  Huerfano County was her life-long home. 
 Maria Elvira Albert, later known as Elvera, was born on January 24, 1906 in Pryor, Colorado.  Her parents were Juan Nepomuceño Albert, a carpenter, and Genoveva Espinosa, a homemaker.  Her known brothers and sisters were John David, Thomas, Frances, Dolores, Theodora, Rose, and Tila .
Elvera always remembered from where she came and proudly told her children and grandchildren about her  heritage.  However, in her latter years, she could not remember all of the stories she told them when she was younger.  She said ¡Tantos anos!  Indeed, all oral histories can soon be forgotten if not written down.  Her own life intersected the days of both horse-and-buggy and high-tech electronics.  She was a child when she first heard an airplane.  She was terrified.  Over eighty years later, when shown a picture of her great grandpa, John David Albert, on the internet, she was fascinated by what she called Karen’s Little TV.
The Juan Nepomuceño Albert family home had a dirt floor which was kept from getting dusty by sprinkling water on it.  They owned a covered wagon in which she remembered taking rides.  The Alberts later moved to a farm in Cucharas where Elvera remembered playing with many cousins.  A favorite game was pretending that rocks were building blocks.  One of her household chores was throwing beans in the air (threshing). 
The greatest tragedy of Elvera’s life was the death of her mother, Genoveva, during the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918.   Her grandmother and sister also died the same week.  Those deaths seared Elvera’s heart, burning January into her memory as the loneliest month of the year throughout her life.  She was just a girl of twelve when La Grippe stole her mother and left her as the eldest female in the home.  She was suddenly responsible for maintaining the household. Though she ached to learn, she was only able to go to school through third grade.  However, lack of an extended formal education didn’t stop her innate curiosity and intelligence from growing, helping her to persevere.  Elvera loved to work, and especially liked to cook and garden.
For a time the teenaged Elvera worked as a cook in the nine-room boarding house on Third Street built by Mrs. Gilligan. It was here that she met Jacobo Jake Cordova whom she subsequently married.  She became a miner’s wife, suffering hardship with an iron resolve cushioned by her faith.  When the mines closed, she had their mining camp house moved to its present location on East 7th Street.  She, her husband and their eldest son, Moses, dug the basement by hand.   Elvera bore five children including Moses who now lives in Tustin, California with his wife Rachel.  Floyd and his wife, Marge, live in Parachute, Colorado.  Donald Red lives in the Walsenburg family home.  Jacob Jr. died when he was two weeks old.  Adrian died when he was five months.  The family knew poverty, but Elvera squeezed from it all that she could.  From this she developed character.  She did not waste even a few celery leaves many years later.  The dried leaves could be used for a future soup when there might be no fresh celery in the house.
Elvera’s garden thrived in neat rows and furrows under her care.  Fruit trees provided shade during the day as well as ingredients for luscious pies for evening dessert.  When the weather and times were generous and bright, the household table was blessed by the garden’s bounty and Elvera’s thoughtful and surprisingly sophisticated cooking skills.  However, her youth and young married life were spent in the isolated pioneer era when Colorado winters lacked modern conveniences and sinfully harsh mining conditions lacked conscience.  There was little food and even less opportunity, but adversity never stopped her from trying to make the best of what she had.  Elvera said she was taught about the use of medicinal herbs by a visitor from Mexico.  She went to the mountains and prairies and picked the herbs herself.  From these she made salves and teas to treat a variety of ailments.
Though poor and uneducated, Elvera was curious, intelligent, and determined.  Her son, Moses, often told his family, We were poor, but I didn’t know we were poor.  Moses absorbed his mother’s example.  He used his tenacious work ethic to plant his own garden, often admonishing his children and grandchildren to plant seeds if they want something to grow.  His garden is his company, one of the top 500 Hispanic businesses in the United States.  Moses never went to college.  He learned his lessons from the nuns at St. Mary’s, the U.S. Navy, and especially from his mother who used her garden and kitchen as laboratory for learning about life.  Food for the family was material for her art.  Indeed, no restaurant in Santa Fe makes better chile, calavacitas, tortillas or empanaditas.  Her homemade wine always received an appreciative nod or smile from those fortunate to have tasted its potent sweetness.  Six of her seven grandchildren have many memories focused around her table. Donald’s children—June, D.J. and Sandy, who died on November 7, 2007—were the main recipients because they live in Walsenburg.  Moses’s children—Karen, Mark and Matthew—all lived in California as children and could not visit often.  Nevertheless, all were deeply impressed by their grandmother’s culinary skills.  Eduardo is still a young boy and wasn’t yet born when his grandma would spend the day churning butter, baking bread, and making tamales.
Before her final decade, Elvera was involved with clubs, church activities, and crafts.  She had many friends.  Her niece, Rose Ann Vigil, was devoted to her.  Rose Ann and her husband, Dave, are thanked for all they did to help the woman they called Aunt, though Elvera was really Rose Ann’s first cousin.  However, they mixed fun with devotion, experiencing first hand Elvera’s luck playing Bingo and skill handling a poker hand.  Their families were so close that Rose Ann’s parents, Celestina Sally and Joe Martinez, are buried next to Elvera and Jake.
Elvera’s husband, Jake, died on January 11, 1990 when Elvera was ninety years old.  She did not do without in her last years, but often said about her difficult past, Those were not the good old days.  These are the good old days.  In fact, she was self sufficient until her late nineties.  Elvera continued to regularly visit the old people in the nursing home on West 7th Street, often bringing packages of home-cooked food as gifts.  She was a regular attendee—and winner—at local Bingo games.  She looked forward to visits from her grandchildren and twelve great-grandchildren: Elizabeth Rivard (Karen); Mark-Thomas and Crystal Cordova (Mark); Emily, Matthew Moses and Jacob Cordova (Matthew); Dylan and Derrick Tenorio (June); Jesse and Michael Martinez (Sandy); and Deliah and Trinity Cordova (D.J.).  Sometimes she was asked, Grandma, why do you think you’ve lived so long? One immediate answer was, I never stop moving.
In 2005 Elvera became part of the Walsenburg Care Center community.  Many, not only her own grandchildren, then began to call her Grandma out of sincere affection. Grandma often expressed the desire to live to be 100 years old.  On January 24, 2006 a party, including a band and dance, was thrown to honor her centurarian achievement.  During the birthday celebration week, she met her five-month-old great-great grandchild, Jacqueline Rivard (Elizabeth), who lives in Irvine, California.  Grandma did her best to retain her sense of humor and good manners until the last week of her life.  Through extremely frail and ill, she sometimes thanked the nurses for turning her while in bed so she could be more comfortable.  On the day of her death, she laughed with Stephanie Baca on their ride from the hospital to the nursing home.
Grandma cherished her faith until her last days.  During a serious illness in 2005 when hospital staff informed family she was at death’s door and Abuelita herself said, Vamos a la Luz, a great lesson was learned about hope and never giving up.  Elvera lived for 2-1/2 additional years.  God wanted her to stay with us a little longer before finally going to the Light last week.
 Fern Sandoval, Bryan Ortiz and the entire staff of the nursing home are thanked, not only for the excellent physical care they gave our mother and grandmother, but also for their extraordinary warmth and kindness towards her.  One of Elvera’s nieces, Stephanie Baca, works for the Walsenburg Care Center provided an almost daily, loving family presence.  The family also appreciates Dr. Neece for the care he gave Grandma during her last years.  We also thank the doctors, especially Dr. Cluff, nurses and staff at Spanish Peaks Regional Health Center. 
Elvera Albert Cordova had a rich heritage that also needs to be shared since it concerns the history of Walsenburg.  Her great-grandfather was the mountain man and Colorado pioneer, John David Albert. Written family records state that John was a guide for Kit Carson.  John was also the sole survivor of the Taos Massacre at Turley’s Mill in Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico during the War of 1847.  An act of arson destroyed the distillery. Tom Tobin did ride nearby and see the fire, but John David was actually in the mill during the conflagration.  John refused to submissively die.  He broke through a wall in the burning building and somehow evaded blasting bullets, intending not only to live, but to also warn others of the exploding war. With resolve beyond what most people would think a human being could muster, he made his way to Pueblo, Colorado in five harsh winter days.  Of course, luck played a part, but luck would not have joined the high stakes game without John’s indomitable action and intention. He protected himself from a cold January death by killing a deer, covering himself with the carcass, and eating the raw flesh.  People who saw him with the dead animal’s antlered head atop his own were terrified and fled, thinking him the devil incarnate rather than a freezing man.  John moved his family from Arroyo Hondo, New Mexico to southern Colorado.  His ranch in San Pedro is still owned by descendants. 
John David Albert’s first wife, known as Maria Juliana Leon, was Elvera’s great grandmother.  Maria Juliana was raised as the daughter of Don Miguel Antonio Leon.  Plaza de Los Leones was named after him.  However, Juliana, daughter of Maria Ysidora Vigil, was born with her mother’s last name.  Ysidora was both Spanish and Picuris Pueblo Indian.  Maria Ysidora later married Miguel.  Some believe Juliana was adopted by Miguel Leon and that her biological father was the explorer and mountain man, William Pope.  Pope settled in Northern California after living in Taos.  Pope Valley, near the famous Napa Valley, was named after him.  To this day, some descendants of Juliana and John David still call Juliana Popé.  Her padrino was William Workman, a famous early English settler of Southern California. The family was also close to John Rowland and Tom Tobin. Juliana was English, Spanish and Native American—a true child of the three cultures that co-existed in Nuevo Mexico during the nineteenth century.  Grandma corrected others who called her great grandma, Juliana.  She’d insist they call her Julianita.  Maria Juliana clearly must have been a tiny woman like Elvera.
John David Albert moved from northern New Mexico to the San Luis Valley.  He lived in the Culebra District and was a judge in the 1861 Colorado Territorial Election.  Maria Juliana died and was buried at the church of Saints Peter and Paul.  John David re-married, moved to Huerfano County and had additional children.  Historical accounts disagree about how many wives and children he had.  Whether he had two wives or three; twenty-one, twenty-six or another number of children, he certainly had a full house.
John built the fort at Plaza de los Leones at the intersection of the banks of the Cucharas River and what is now Main Street in Walsenburg.  He had a home there, and was also one of the first settlers in Cucharas where he had a farm and was the first postmaster.
Elvera often talked to her family about her mountain man great-grandfather.  She said, He was a German. Her ancestors, in fact, were one of the first German families to settle in the United States in the oldest part of Philadelphia called Germantown.  They came to the new world with Francis Pastorious seeking religious freedom.  They risked their lives for the hope of living in a democracy.  Their hope grew roots.  Their story is a part of the story of the beginning of the United States of America.  Johnnie Albert’s own father died in the Battle of New Orleans during the War of 1812, the war memorialized by The Star Spangled Banner by Francis Scott Key.  Other ancestors, along with sons of William Penn, were original settlers of Reading, Pennsylvania.
Elvera’s maternal line included the family of Teodoro Espinosa who came from the Mora Valley in New Mexico to live in the new village of Cucharas.  That family also descended from several who walked from Zacatecas in 1598 with Don Juan de Oñate as part of the first permanent European settlement in what is now the United States, 22 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock.  Further in the past, Elvera’s Spanish New Mexican ancestry can be traced to the 14th century with direct ties to the noble Spanish Serna and Italian Spinola families.
 And so the arms of Elvera Cordova, a 4’10” woman who weighed less than 63 pounds at the time of her death, were strong and wide enough to both mother her own the best she could, and also to reach out beyond their lives.  With her stories and embodied character, it is as if she stretched her left hand into the past of her ancestors and, with her right hand, held tight onto ours.  Her actions and stories are legacy.  By telling amazing accounts of long-dead people, she brought them, for a moment, back to life.  The stories were examples of how the strong of spirit lived in the wild west, in the land that once was a province of Spain.  If closely heard, one could use those tales as tools to emulate and benefit both oneself and others.  She spoke of grit and courage beyond what some might think a human being could enact and endure.  She spoke of perseverance, pursuit of the creative, kindness, love and delicious home-made food. Her stories will reach beyond our own great grandchildren’s future.   
Funeral mass was held at St. Mary’s Church on November 29 followed by burial at St. Mary’s Cemetery North.
© 2007 Karen S. Córdova
Originally published in December 2007 in the Huerfano World Newspaper, Walsenburg, CO.