After Edith’s death in 1939, Albert moved forward with his life. He had told my mom that he dated Lupe Velez once. She was an actress who had been married to Johnny Weismuller. He said she was crazy, so they didn’t go out again. Being a handsome man, it wouldn’t be long until he could heal his broken heart.
As a matter of fact, it did happen. And quickly. He met a young woman who had come to Hollywood to become famous. Manuela later said she had been encouraged to go because she was pretty. “But, there are many pretty men and women in this world.” So her stay in Los Angeles was brief, but she came home with her first husband. This blog entry will be longer and fuller than others, as Manuela Ismael is my grandmother.
Manuela’s story begins with her mother. Maria de Jesus Corral was the eldest daughter of J. Jesus Corral and Florencia Alvarado. She was called “Mama Chu,” which was to differentiate her from “Mama Florencia.” Mama Chu had been a young woman in love in Hermosillo, Sonora. But when the man she was in love with chose another woman, Maria de Jesus Corral married an older man, Jose Ismael. Jose had been born in Turkey. His parents were Ismael Ale and Maria Juliana de Ale. Jose and Mama Chu had three children: Maria Dolores Ismael, Jose Ismael, Jr., and Manuela Ismael.
Legend has it that Jose Ismael was not Catholic. Some have heard he was Muslim, one heard he was Jewish. It didn’t matter to Mama Chu. Her babies were baptised Catholic. My extensive procrastination in writing this particular piece paid off again as I just recently found the below baptism record. I also found Dolores’ baptism record. In that one, their father isn’t mentioned at all.
My poor grandmother didn’t get the long, Spanish-style name with three or four names. She was simply named Manuela Ismael.
You can’t see Manuela’s face, but here she is on the lap of her young aunt, Rita Corral. Life in Hermosillo was fine for a while. But then Mama Chu left her husband. The story was that Jose was shot dead in a card game. Tia Lola said that later she saw her father again but wanted nothing to do with him. Either way, the marriage was over. Mama Chu left her older children at her mother’s house in Hermosillo while she took Manuela (Nela) with her to Arizona to start a new life.
Mama Chu started working as a cook on several ranches. She would visit her mom and children back in Hermosillo. She would get gold and bring it back over the border. It was dangerous travelling at that time so she would hide the money in Nela’s diaper or sew the coins into the hem of her own skirts.
Writer’s Note: Here in present day, we are encouraged to share our feelings. Social media keeps us abreast of what we ate for lunch with a picture on Instagram. I am truly amazed how much was not shared about the past of those family members before us. But I am getting better at investigating every day.The next few years were bumpy for Mama Chu and her children. While I don’t have the definitive What’s and Why’s, I have the basics.
According to some travel itineraries, Mama Chu met, and married, a man named Vicente Guerrero. They did not have any children together. Vicente was an older relative of Lalo Guerrero, “the Father of Chicano Music.” She worked at a ranch in Patagonia, AZ.
Mama Chu’s life was busy but not quite calm. She wasn’t long with Vicente either. So short was this marriage, that none of her grandchildren knew of it’s existence. Working as a cook on a ranch, she saw, and fell in love with, a cowboy named Teodoro Vega. He fell in love with her too when he saw her after a hair washing day. She sat on her porch, brushing out her long dark hair. Apparently, that did the trick. By the time the time the 1930 US Census came around, they had married and settled in Tucson; Vega, Mama Chu, and her three children.
Nela was a fun woman. In the pictures we have of her she is always smiling and being dramatic. She had a wonderful sense of humor. She passed this down her female line, if I do say so myself.
Speed forward to late 1939 or early 1940. 20 year-old Nela wanders over Los Angeles to become an actress. She goes out with friends, where she meets a handsome older man tending bar. My grandfather Albert, newly widowed, was the man. Whirlwind, whirlwind, whirlwind. They fall in love, get married (in Nogales, Sonora) and move to Tucson. Tia Oralia said that when the family first met Tony, they thought he was a gangster. He was very well manicured, dressed and meticulous in all aspects of his appearance. He had already seen and done so much, the 12-year age difference was noticeable.
This census report was filled out on April 11, 1940. It states that Tony is working as an attendant at a gas station. He really was a jack of all trades. They settled into married life. They had their first of two daughters in late 1940, the second in 1942.
Eventually, World War II starts. Due to his busted ear-drums from so many years of fighting, Tony is unable to serve in the military although he did try to register. He worked at Davis-Monthan Army Airfield. I believe he worked on planes, but this photo was taken for a brochure. He could have been a model.
Tony and Nela saved up money to buy land and build their own home. It’s still standing on S. Grande Ave, Tucson. I’m almost certain that it’s 216. (You can still see it via Google maps.) My Tio Fernando’s wife, Tia Alicia, thought they had dirt floors in this house, but that wasn’t true. Tony colored the cement a red and waxed it. So much so, that my aunt still bears a scar after she slipped and fell on the shiny, slippery surface. He was so ahead of his time as cement staining is big business right now.
Soon the family had some money saved. This little group would go and visit Tony’s family in Imperial Valley and Mexicali. Tony’s youngest brother, Fernando, returned from his naval service back to Calexico, California, with saved up money also in hand. The two brothers decided to go into business together. Tony and Nela sold their home in Tucson, using its profits to invest in Escalante’s Bar. They lived in Calexico for a short time before great changes developed. Tony re-met a woman named Sara Higuera, with whom he had always been infatuated. The marriage between Tony and Nela slowly fell apart. Nela returned to Tucson to be with her family.
But being as lovely as she was, Nela wasn’t alone for long. She too met someone new. Frank Leon was a musician. The two fell for each other. My mom and aunt went to live with Tony and Sara in Calexico. Nela married Frank in 1946. Their daughter, Natalia Christina Leon, was born in 1947.
The above picture is from her travel itinerary. She looks fabulous. My ID pictures never come out that good. They travelled together all the time going from show to show. However, being on the road was difficult and took a toll on their relationship. Nela and Frank divorced before his early death in 1956.
She stayed single for a while. My aunt left Calexico to live with Nela and Mama Chu, and got married from that house. This might be around the time where my grandmother officially changed her name. She and her siblings had already changed the spelling of their last name. They collectively became Ysmael, from Ismael. She never liked the name Manuela so she shortened it to Nela.
Then Nela met a younger man who was in the service. Peter R. Gonzales worked at the air base. She kept telling him to find a younger woman. Get out. Go away. But he was unwaivering in his love for her.
She became the older person in this relationship. He had been born in 1932 or 33. She was 13 years his senior, but it was a good solid marriage.
They had a lovely life together. My mom lived with them for a year. She liked Pete and his kindness toward Nela.
The early 1970s were hard on the whole family. Vega died Apr. 9, 1971. Mama Chu died in August, 1974. And then my mom got a call from Pete. Nela was sick. He recommended that we all come as soon as possible. [In the recent good-old-days, husbands were told a diagnosis while the wife was kept out of the loop. Nela had colon cancer.] Our families made the journey to Tucson from California to say good-bye.
Nela never knew, even when she was in the hospital at the end, that she was dying. The whole event came so quickly. On her Death Certificate, the doctor states that he treated her starting Dec. 14, 1974. Nela passed away on February 7, 1975.
I’ve not been able to go as far back in this part of my family tree as I would like. My mom and I did our DNA analysis. We found our mitochondrial DNA walked over the Bering Straight somewhere into Mexico to Mama Florencia, Mama Chu, and Nela. I am almost certain I got my good hair from her dad. And we all got our sense of humor from Nela herself. I wish I had been able to know her better. Luckily for me, this little hobby of mine allows me to do just that.