The Tehachapi area lost a unique and distinguished member of our community on Nov. 29 with the passing of Virginia Gonzalez Sanchez, 82, following a lengthy struggle with the effects of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease.
Longtime Tehachapi residents recall Virginia's lengthy service at the Tehachapi Post Office, where she was a model of helpful efficiency for more than 25 years. Working the front counter at a post office can be stressful and intense, but Virginia was unfailingly polite and competent and this dignified lady made a trip to the post office into a pleasant experience. She also had second career teaching English as a Second Language students in the Tehachapi Unified School District.
Virginia was born at home on "F" Street in Tehachapi on June 23, 1931, the daughter of Lupe Cortez and Augustin Gonzalez, and was brought into the world by her grandmother, Benito's wife Cipriana Cortez. Virginia's family has deep roots in California, since her ancestors lived here before California was a state, or was even part of the U.S. — they were originally Californios when the territory was still part of Mexico, prior to 1848. Her grandfather Benito Cortez came to the Tehachapi Mountains in 1921 to work at the cement plant in Monolith, and Virginia has many relatives in Tehachapi, including members of the Cortez, Cervantez and Martinez families.
Virginia and her younger sister, Grace, were both raised by their grandparents, Benito and Cipriana, their "Papa" and "Mama Grande" at the family home on F Street. Cipriana was well-versed in the ways of traditional medicine.
"I never went to the doctor when I was growing up," Virginia told me. "My grandmother made wonderful poultices and tonics, and if I wasn't feeling well she'd ask me what was wrong, and then make something herself — I never had medication that came from the drugstore. I didn't ever see a doctor until I was grown and pregnant with my first child."
Virginia went to Wells Elementary School from kindergarten through 8th grade (there was no junior high or middle school in Tehachapi at that time) and then went to Tehachapi High, where she graduated in 1949 with just 36 other seniors. She clearly remembered the years of World War II in Tehachapi.
"It was a hard time because so many of the men were gone and many items were rationed, but it was also a happy time because the war brought people close together," Virginia said. "People didn't lock their houses, and as kids we could walk around town with our friends, though we had to be home by the 11 p.m. curfew. Tehachapi was a nice place to grow up."
Virginia learned swing dancing and other styles when she was only 12 years old because her first cousin, Art Cortez — who was like a brother to Virginia and raised with her in the same house — and his friends would practice their dance moves with Virginia.
Even in more remote areas like the small sleepy town of Tehachapi, the war had an impact: Art Cortez took part in the invasion at Normandy, and another of Virginia's Tehachapi cousins, Ben Martinez, was killed in the war and is remembered on the veterans memorial at Phil Marx Central Park. With the shortage of men, many women went to work in industry, and Virginia's mother Lupe worked as an oiler at Monolith. "After the war when the men came home, all the women lost their jobs, but many of them looked for new ones — they had learned how to work outside the home and they liked getting a paycheck and having their own money," Virginia said.
An older neighbor of Virginia's liked opera music, and the young Tehachapi girl liked to come over and listen to the songs in Italian, German and other languages. Virginia enjoyed them so much that the neighbor gave her the record player and the albums, and Virginia would sing along with them and learn the songs. Another neighbor gave voice instruction, so Virginia traded babysitting for voice lessons. She auditioned with music from "Madame Butterfly" for a training scholarship from New York's Metropolitan Opera, which had a West Coast branch, and with her beautiful voice she was granted the scholarship, but her old-school grandfather would not permit her to accept it.
"He said that I had already completed high school, and he thought that I'd had enough schooling and should get married and start having children," Virginia said. She wasn't deterred from continuing to sing, however, and she sang in the choir at St. Malachy's Catholic Church on Mill Street for 65 years, and served as the longtime choir director.
After she graduated from THS in 1949, Virginia moved down to LA to live with her mother for a time. In 1952, she married Pascual Sanchez, another native Tehachapian, who was born in 1925 in Antelope Canyon at the Summit Limestone Company camp, in the mountains south of Highline Road near Tehachapi Mountain Park.
To help support the family, Virginia got hired at Spencer California, a Tehachapi garment factory that was located on "C" Street (the building is now being turned into the new home of the Tehachapi Police Department). Not only was she good at sewing, but Virginia was also very responsible and had good organizational skills, so she occasionally filled in as a supervisor when the regular boss had a day off. She later began her longstanding job at the Tehachapi Post Office.
So Virginia worked at the Post Office and Pascual worked at Monolith, and they eventually raised six children: Cecilia, Daniel, Lydia, David, Sandy and Ed. Virginia acted in the Tehachapi Community Theater, and local theater luminary Zella Young encouraged her to develop a program featuring traditional Mexican folk dancing. So Virginia formed a dance troupe, and she would travel to Bakersfield to take a class on folklórico dancing on Wednesdays, and on Thursdays she'd teach her own children and other kids what she had learned. Virginia and her mother Lupe sewed all the girls' elaborate three-tiered skirts and made the boys' outfits as well. The dance troupe gave local performances even participated in demonstrations on Costume Day down at Olvera Street in Los Angeles.
Virginia retired from the Post Office in August of 1991 so she could help care for her eldest daughter Cecilia, who became ill through a tainted blood transfusion. Cecilia was married to Art Gaeta and had a family, but despite extensive medical treatment she passed away. Virginia then was hired by the TUSD to help with their ESLanguage kids, and she worked there from 1995 to 2011. Virginia worked not just with Hispanic kids, but also Farsi and Tagalog speakers, and children from Denmark and Portugual. With her love for children and natural gift for language — she spoke both Spanish and English beautifully, and was very articulate — Virginia was very well-suited for her ESL teaching job.
Pascual, a longtime smoker, died of lung cancer in 1998. Though she was not a smoker, Virginia suffered from COPD and had to use oxygen so her activities were restricted, but she remained as intelligent and detail oriented as ever, and shared a home with her daughter Lydia. Virginia Sanchez was a Tehachapi original, a fine and community-minded person who used her many talents to make the world a better place. I am proud of her, and honored to have been a fellow Tehachapi citizen and a friend to this remarkable lady.
Have a good week.
Jon Hammond has written for the Tehachapi News for over 30 years. Send email to: firstname.lastname@example.org