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    Posted January 23, 2014 by
    Chicago, Illinois
    This iReport is part of an assignment:
    First Person: Your essays

    Extraordinary People We Lost in 2013: Teresa Cuevas - Matriarch and Musician

    Teresa Cuevas died on December 12, 2013. She was 93 years old. She was a trailblazer in the Mariachi community who found joy in sharing her humanity. For me, her grandson, she was an imaginative immeasurable force!

    She is one of the extraordinary people we lost on this planet in 2013.

    She was born in Topeka, KS in 1920. Her parents had fled to Kansas during the Mexican Revolution. As a child, she studied classical violin. She was a member of the Topeka community for her entire life and attended our Lady of Guadalupe Church. She married Ignacio Cuevas Sr. on January 12, 1940. They later divorced and after her divorce she predominantly raised her 4 sons and one daughter. She was born into a male dominated Latin culture, however, as she evolved, her ideals of what it means to be a woman changed. She redefined who she was and what she thought she was capable of doing and achieving. She began to imagine not what was, but what could be!

    She founded one of the first all-female Mariachi groups in the United States, Mariachi Estrella de Topeka. Connie “Chae” Alcala, Dolores “Lola” Carmona, Dolores “Lola” Galvan, Rachel Galvan Sangalang, Isabel “Bole” Gonzalez , Linda Scurlock and my grandmother who began as church musicians at Topeka’s Our Lady of Guadalupe Church became a fixture in the Mariachi community and were at the height of their popularity in 1980 and 1981. The group performed throughout the Kansas community and beyond. Tragically, 4 members of the group were killed in July 17, 1981 when skywalks collapsed at a function that was taking place at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Kansas City, MO. 114 people were killed and 200 individuals were injured. She was among the injured. “We were all going to perform for the Fuller Brush Company. We were going to a room to put our outfits on, and when we were walking across the skywalk, all of a sudden it felt like you were falling as the floor gave way beneath us. It was a horrific experience. When I woke up I was down underneath a lot of rocks and heavy rubble. Beside me was a big, heavy man. He kept saying, ‘What happened? What happened?’ and he was moaning. The only thing I could move was my left hand. I said, ‘Well, I guess I’m going to die.’ I made my peace with God. But then I thought, ‘I don’t want to die here.’ All of a sudden I began yelling in Spanish, ‘God help me! God help me!’ And someone heard me. He said, ‘We have a live one.’ I told him, ‘Don’t leave me here.’ He said he had to get people to get the rocks off of me. I laid there for hours. The man who was lying near me became silent after a while. He did not survive.” Her body healed and she formed other groups though none were ever to be all-female groups again. Tragedy struck a second time on May 11, 1996 when her granddaughter, Marlo Cuevas-Balandran, was killed when ValuJet Flight 592 crashed into the Florida Everglades. 110 people were on board and there were no survivors. Marlo had been inspired by her grandmother and was pursuing a career in Mexican music when she died. Teresa would have traded places with Marlo if she could have. It was a loss that impacted Teresa and Marlo’s picture was never far away.

    She had a love of music that was contagious and she inspired countless women and men through her violin playing and the performances she and her group gave throughout the Kansas community. Teresa and her group often played at the annual Mexican Fiesta that takes places every year in July at Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in Topeka, KS. They would serenade attendees as they enjoyed authentic Mexican fare. It was one of Teresa’s favorite times of the year! Moreover, age did not slow her down as she continued to play her violin well into her 80s. It was not uncommon for my grandmother to give impromptu musical performances at family gatherings with her grandchildren as accompaniment.

    However, the roles that inspired her most were as mother and grandmother. She always wanted the best for her family and imagined lives for them that were better than her own. Her true bliss was when organizing and overseeing family gatherings. She loved having family around her and treasured those moments when everyone had sat down to eat and were enjoying each other’s company. She often could be heard saying to my Aunt or whoever was near, “Did everyone have enough to eat? Do you think everyone had a good time?” She would be so thankful to the women and men that served food at the luncheon that took place at the Marlo Cuevas-Balandran Activity Center after her funeral. In my mind, I can hear her asking me “Nachito, wasn’t everything so good?!” My reply to her, “Yes, grandma, it was. “

    I know that her legacy will continue to be a touchstone to the past as well as a guide for future generations. For instance, I know that when I hear Mariachi music being played at festivals or celebrations, I know that there are very few degrees of separation between the music being played and where it began - with Teresa Cuevas, my grandmother.

    Also, I know that somewhere out there beyond my reach, I imagine that my grandmother and my late sister are together. My grandmother is holding her violin, drawing the bow across its strings as music floats through the air. My sister is standing alongside, smiling while belting out glorious songs. My late grandfather and late uncle, Olin Mentzer, are in attendance.

    They are together and they are happy. Yes, that is what I imagine!

    Ignacio Cuevas

    You can learn more about my grandmother at the Kansas Historical Society website at www.kshs.org
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