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Fonseca blazed trails

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Posted: Thursday, May 17, 2007 12:00 am

SAN BENITO — In her own way, Evangelina “Evita” Fonseca was a revolutionary.

She didn’t carry a gun, like her father when he fought for Pancho Villa. Nor did she march down the street shouting slogans.

Instead, it was in the way she lived.

She owned several businesses and was very successful.

During a time of open racism and segregation, Evita had friends of every skin color and economic situation.

Even though there were only a handful of Hispanics in her 1936 graduating class, Evita was popular enough to be elected queen of San Benito High School.

When many of her contemporaries were not allowed to drive, Evita not only drove, she owned her own car.

Although it was common for Hispanic women to marry as teenagers in those days, Evita waited until she was in her 30s and defied her parents by marrying for love.

“She was quite a pioneer,” said her only child, Sonny Fonseca. Then he added with a smile and a shake of his head, “She just wouldn’t do what she was told.”

Evangelina Cantu Fonseca was born April 7, 1913, to Noriberto and Manuelita Fonseca. Her father was a barber.

When Manuelita was pregnant with their first child, Noriberto bought a wagon and team of horses and took her to stay with her mother. On his way back to Texas, he was stopped by Pancho Villa’s men.

They wanted the wagon and horses for the revolution. Noriberto knew that once he stepped down from that wagon he was a dead man.

He told them that the horses would obey only him and that he couldn’t wait to join the revolution and fight for Villa.

“It was six months before he could get away,” Sonny said. “Meanwhile, his son had been born.”

“The whole family thought he was dead,” said Julie Fonseca, Sonny’s wife.

It wasn’t to be the last time that Villa affected the family.

In 1916, when Evita was 3, the family was visiting Mexico when Villa and his men showed up.

“One of Pancho Villa’s wives couldn’t have children and she took a liking to my mother,” Sonny said.

“What a beautiful child,” Villa said as he picked up Evita.

Sonny said his grandmother came running out of the house and cried and pleaded with Villa not to take her child. Villa relented and set the child back down.

Evita’s father doted on her and she always called him “Daddy,” even when she was in her 90s.

Evita was known for her beauty and always loved to pose for pictures. Her father even bought her a horse so she could ride in parades.

“They were both very good dancers,” Sonny said. “My grandfather used to go to dances with her and people would watch them dance.”

It wasn’t that easy for anybody else to dance with Evita. She had several large and protective brothers who also went to the events.

“Nobody wanted to mess with those guys,” Sonny said.

With Evita being the last child left at home, her mother was not to anxious to see her married. This was fine with Evita, who had too many plans in life to need or want a steady boyfriend.

“She got plenty of marriage proposals, but turned them all down,” Julie said.

After high school, she took some college classes to prepare her for business.

“All of the Cantus were very business-oriented,” Sonny said. “They all ended up very successful in their business.”

Evita opened a small grocery store called La Campana in the San Benito neighborhood of El Jardin.

Her brother Abel became her partner and eventually took the business over. Evita then opened the Pleasing Food Store in the new La Palma neighborhood.

In 1940, she was encouraged to become a notary public. With war on the horizon, many young men would need a notary’s services for their enlistment papers. Evita became the first Hispanic notary in San Benito.

“She never charged those boys for her notary work,” Sonny said. “She figured that if they were going off to fight for our country, it wouldn’t be right to charge them.”

She helped the owner of La Palma Subdivision sell lots and bought 15 of them as investments.

Besides the grocery store and the notary work, Evita kept the books for several businesses. On Sundays, she and her mother went to local farms and sold clothes and pan dulce to the workers.

“She also did people’s taxes and some of them were rich white people,” Sonny said. “That was unheard of back then for a woman. Her parents were sure the whole family would end up in jail if she made a mistake.”

During the war, one of the many clubs that Evita belonged to, the Leticia Club, started a letter-writing campaign to local servicemen. Each member was assigned certain names and they wrote to them about local news.

Some of the servicemen took the letters very seriously and proposed to the girls.

One of the three marriage proposals that Evita received was from a soldier named Tony. Educated, good-looking and from a wealthy family, he was just what Evita’s mother was looking for in a son-in-law. She was even more sure when he sent Evita $100 to buy herself an engagement ring.

One night, Evita and a friend went to Raymondville to hand out invitations to a welcome-home dance for servicemen. Standing outside the Owl Drug Store was Pete Fonseca, just back from the war.

Pete and his brother owned the drug store. As part of Patton’s Third Army, Pete had operated an anti-tank gun.

“That’s the boy I’m going to marry,” Evita said.

“Estas loca, how about Tony?” asked her friend.

“You can have him,” Evita said. She gave back the ring and introduced her friend to Tony. They ended up married together for the rest of their lives.

Less happy was Evita’s mother.

“She couldn’t stand Pete,” Sonny said. “He was dark-skinned and from a poor family.”

Once he proposed, Evita’s mother stopped speaking to her.

But Evita married him anyway. The members of the Leticia Club helped put together the wedding and served as bridesmaids.

Unfortunately, many of his family couldn’t get from Raymondville to San Benito for the ceremony and Pete’s mother had fallen and was unable to travel. On their way to a honeymoon in San Antonio, the happy couple stopped to see Pete’s relatives. The Fonsecas threw them a huge party welcoming Evita to the family.

Within three months, Evita’s mother got to know Pete and changed her mind about him completely.

“She loved my father,” Sonny said. “Whenever she was in the hospital and somebody needed to stay with her, she wanted it to be Pete. If she needed to go somewhere, she wanted Pete to take her.”

Pete moved the Owl Drug Store next to Evita’s store.

Local farmers such as Oscar Williams would bring in grocery lists for their workers or bring braceros to the store by the truckload.

“That’s how she made a lot of money,” Sonny said. “They might call ahead and say ‘Have 300 sandwiches ready. We’ll be by at such and such a time.’ And, sure enough, all of the sandwiches would be gone.”

Evita got pregnant the month after she and Pete married, but she lost the baby three months later.

She became pregnant again and spent the last six months in bed. After 24 hours of labor and no anesthesia, she had Abel Padro Fonseca by Caesarian section. A popular song of the time was “Sonny Boy” and Evita began calling him Sonny.

The Fonsecas soon had a reputation all over town for ice cream floats, cones and, especially, for their banana splits.

Sonny still remembers how to make banana splits, including the technique for applying the whipped cream.

“I used to make them all of the time as a kid,” he said.

Evita’s became the first neighborhood store to sell beer.

“A lot of women thought she was evil, doing the work of the devil, for selling beer,” Sonny said.

Evita just said, “Either I sell it to them or they go buy it at Piggly Wiggly.”

Pete served in local politics and so popular that people gave up running against him.

If people needed help or a loan, Evita and Pete were always there.

Evita sold her store when she and Pete retired in 1969.

“After they retired, she loved to travel,” Sonny said. “Especially to Vegas.”

“She loved those one-armed bandits,” Julie said.

Sonny said his mother never gambled large amounts.

“But she always came home with money,” he said.

Julie said Evita always changed with times. Whereas many people who reach their 90s are very rigid in their beliefs, Evita was always evolving.

”She was the type of person who you had deep respect for, yet you could talk to her about almost anything,” Julie said.

Evita passed away peacefully April 27 at her home. She was 94.

“She was a woman ahead of her times,” Sonny said.

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