It was at an Esperanza Peace & Justice Center event more than a decade ago when I first noticed Isabel and Enrique Sanchez, looking very much in love and dancing cheek-to-cheek. You know the cheek-to-check dance, right? Slow and dreamy – breathing juntos, como solitos at the baile. Here’s your playlist as you read their story: Los Panchos and Glenn Miller.
On Aug. 21, Enrique and Isabel will celebrate 67 years of dancing cheek-to-cheek.
PURO WESTSIDE LOVE
Before urban renewal separated San Antonio’s Westside from downtown, there was a seamless connection between San Antonio’s Chicano heart and its city center. In the post-Chili Queen era, an IH-35 transportation arrow cut through the city’s Mexican-American culture and disenfranchised a community who, for generations, have called San Antonio home.
It was around this time when Isabel met Enrique at his mother’s home on Sabinas Street.
“The lady on my right is my wife,” Enrique said, muy chistoso, as we start the interview at La Casa de Cuentos, a Westside home saved and renovated by the Esperanza. Their daughter, Graciela, is the organization’s executive director.
During our discussion, they were being filmed and photographed. At times, Enrique played to the camera; at other moments, he offered his full attention to Isabel.
“I am Isabel Sanchez. I turned 93 on July 1. There was one reason I did not want to marry him: he is younger than I am.”
Isabel is five years older than Enrique.
“You robbed the cradle,” Enrique joked.
“I loved everything about him,” Isabel said. “Especially his manners. He said, ‘No estoy pidiendo que se case conmigo por los años que tiene. Yo la quiero por los años que vamos a estar juntos.’ I was willing to marry him because I liked his manners, his way of thinking.”
Enrique and Isabel have family history in San Antonio’s Westside that spans more than 100 years.
Isabel was born on Vera Cruz Street and still lives on that street.
“I will probably die on Vera Cruz,” she said.
Enrique remembered a time before the Westside was separated from downtown by highways and slow trains: “The true center of the Westside was the corner of Commerce and Santa Rosa. That was where all the businesses were located. The Red Light District was on Frio. I didn’t know about that. I was still muy inocente. I liked Frio Street because the Boy’s Club had a swimming pool.”
The couple’s Westside blood runs deep, and so does their history of community activism. Doña Panchita, Isabel’s mom, gathered signatures from her neighbors to campaign for the right to public services.
After Isabel graduated from Lanier High School in 1942, she became an advocate for neighborhood youth. She continues this work today through her work with the Fuentes/Sanchez Lanier Scholarship Fund Baile, held once a year in the spring at the Esperanza. She raises $10,000 each year and 100% of the funds directly benefit Lanier seniors attending college. Homemade food is for sale and a DJ plays salsa, merengue, and boleros.
Like the life of Enrique and Isabel, dancing is at the heart of the event.
“We want the community to help with this effort,” Isabel said. “We need to help the young generation.”
A new direction for their community activism is aimed at saving Brackenridge Park.
“The park was a place where we would go and gather pecans for Christmas cookies,” Enrique said. “My kids didn’t always like that. When there were no pecans on the ground, I would climb the branches. Then the pecans would rain on them. To me, it would be a disaster if they decide to close streets and charge for parking. The park belongs to the people.”
The Sanchez family includes six children that helped pick pecans: Xavier (b. Nov. 27, 1952); Bernard (b. March 20, 1954); Fernando (b. Sept. 29, 1955); Gustavo (b. Feb. 19, 1958); Graciela (b. April 24, 1960); and Leticia (b. July 20, 1962).
Isabel had three brothers in the service. She was still at Lanier when the war started: “One Saturday, the service came to register people at school. I was one of those who helped translate.”
Enrique did not finish high school. He joined the Navy: “In that era, there was a lot of patriotism, so much propaganda. We went to Guam and stopped by Pearl Harbor. The ships that were sunk by the Japanese were still there. I saw that. We traveled around the islands. There were lots of Japanese who did not know the war had ended.”
“Coming back, the Captain decided to stop and take a look at the aftermath of the atomic bomb. We didn’t know about the radioactivity still there. It looked like a cemetery of ships that were not sunk, but were enveloped in radiation. Since we were in the service, we weren’t supposed to ask questions or criticize anything. 9376367. That was my serial number.”
“He had just come out of the service when I went to see his mother. She said, ‘Andale, Chavela. Ya llego Enrique, mijo.’ I walked in and she introduced us. Enrique immediately got up and took my hand: ‘Mucho gusto en conocerla,’ he said. Very polite. He went to tell my mother he wanted to take me to the dance.”
“No, I didn’t tell,” Enrique said. “I asked for permission to take you to the dance.”
(Cue a Glenn Miller song. Preferred choice: “In The Mood.”)
Enrique and Isabel met at the dance. Enrique wore his crisp white Navy uniform: “My other outfit was just a pair of pants and a shirt. And it was a good thing I wore the uniform, because all the girls were looking!”
“I was waiting with my friends, and I didn’t want to tell them he was coming because I thought, what if he doesn’t. Sure enough, he came,” Isabel said. “From the very first dance we shared, I could follow him.”
Enrique enveloped Isabel’s hands in his, took a deep breath, then began: “I met this girl in the Autumn of 1947. I was 19 when I first laid eyes on Isabel. I haven’t let go of her since then. I am not bragging, but it was love at first sight.”
“I didn’t like to cook. When I was going to marry you, what did my mother tell you?” Isabel asked Enrique.
“I remember Doña Panchita said, ‘She doesn’t know how to cook.’ I told her, ‘Como quiera, yo la quiero.’ Doña Panchita made the most beautiful caldo de res. She was a great cook.”
“My mother didn’t want anyone in the kitchen,” Isabel said.
“One day I noticed tears were coming down her face. I kept my mouth shut and finished my caldo. Later I asked Isabel, ‘How come your mom was crying?’ She said, ‘It was the amount of hot peppers she was eating.’”
Enrique and Isabel spent two years together in Chicago. Like many other Mexican-American families of the time, they followed industrial jobs.
“We were newly married when Panchita gave us un molcajete. We were in Chicago. I was making a dollar or two (a day). But Isabel was good with money, a good keeper of budgets. I was different. If I have a coin, I spend it right away. A pocket with a hole. We went to China Town, or to get her favorite meal: a hamburger, french fries, and a coke. She still loves that. They were 25 cents.”
Isabel reminisced, too.
“We went into a shop in China Town,” she said. “I knew he only had 50 cents in his pocket.”
“I had enough for a cup of tea. Isabel had a long coat. We were walking one day. On the opposite side of the street was a lady shouting. She wanted me to put her letter in the mailbox. After I crossed, Isabel extended her arms and the wind took her.”
“I was like Mary Poppins!” she exclaimed.
Even after 67 years of marriage, Enrique and Isabel have their disagreements.
Enrique, el Mexicano, prefers corn tortillas. Isabel, la Tejana, favors flour. He grew up in Tampico with black beans; she grew up in San Antonio with pinto beans.
“The difference is where you where born,” Enrique explained. “I arrived in San Antonio and we still ate tortillas de maiz versus tortillas de harina.”
Isabel confessed: “We have six kids. When I started making them tortillas, me salieron como el mapa de Tejas.”
“My father was born in San Antonio in 1900. In the 20s, during the Depression, a lot of men went to Mexico; the eastern coast had oil. My dad went in that direction. He always feared he would be deported from Mexico into the United States,” Enrique said. “He was 41 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He decided to come to the United States, but needed to fix the paperwork. I didn’t know I was a U.S. citizen. ‘You were born from an American man, so you are American,’ my Father told me.”
“We waited in Nuevo Laredo for the paperwork to come when we would be able to cross. I was shining shoes in the Mexican side. Summer months were hell in Nuevo Laredo. One day, I took off my clothing and just got into the water. That felt good. That’s where I learned how to swim, el Rio Bravo del Norte. I was in Nuevo Laredo from ’42 until ’43. The War was going. I was shoe-shining because there were a lot of military crossing back and forth. I preferred guys with long boots. The air-born guys. I got 25 cents for polishing those. The others with shorter boots gave me a dime, which I converted into a lot of Mexican money. I would charge los Mexicanos un diez, ten cents, which a lot of guys wouldn’t even pay.”
“I couldn’t even speak the language when I came to San Antonio,” Enrique said. “I was 15 in the sixth grade at Johnson Elementary, on Laredo Street before you cross the tracks. The boys at Johnson called me “Mexico.” Amazingly, I learned English pretty fast. Pronunciation was the hard part. I was on the Navy ship and I had the messenger watch. It was a Saturday, so there was a personal inspection. They gave me a message to give to the officer whose last name, Burrows, I could not pronounce. I pronounced it: Burros.”
“When you delivered the message, what did you say?” asked Isabel, as if it was the first time she had heard this story.
Enrique reenacted a military salute: “’Lieutenant Commander Burros.’ I never forget my roots. I am Mexicano, even though I have been away from Mexico for so long. Nowadays I dare not go over there, even though I have childhood friends in Tampico, where I was born.”
DANCING ES VIDA
(Up next on your playlist: Los Panchos’ “Traigo un Amor”)
Isabel and Enrique surround themselves in music. Music keeps them moving.
“My dad danced redoba, chotis, polka. My mom was a danzonera. I have both of them in me,” Enrique said.
“I grew up with music, too, because my grandfather was a musician. A trumpet player,” Isabel said. “He went to El Conservatorio de Mexico. He died when I was eight years old. He played in the symphony downtown.”
For Enrique, “music is life.” He knows how to salsa and merengue, but his preference “would be dancing a bolero with Isabel. Any time there is music, I want to dance,” he said. “Lately, we’ve been going to El Flor de Chiapas on Tuesdays and Thursdays and the Mariachi Bar at Mi Tierra on Sundays.”
The couple also frequents Esperanza events. They are a fan of Noche Azul de Esperanza, a monthly musical performance by Azul Barrientos.
“When Azul’s mother, Cuca, comes, we talk with her,” Isabel said. “We all went out to eat and both of them sang, Enrique y Cuca. When we said goodbye, Cuca said being here, with us, is the only place that she gets to feel the joy of a child when she sings.”
Sometimes, Enrique sings for Isabel.
“I don’t like to sing in the public,” he said, “but here you go.”
Traigo un amor, y lo traigo tan adentro
Que hay momentos que no siento, donde traigo el corazón
Traigo un querer, tan adentro está de mi alma
Que he perdido hasta la calma, por querer a esa mujer
A esa mujer, yo la quiero, como quieren
Como quieren esos hombres, que son puro corazón
A esa mujer, yo la quiero, hasta la muerte
Y para mi buena suerte, soy el dueño de su amor
“Traigo un Amor” was written by Osvaldo Farrés and is a popular bolero even today.
“If we humans concentrate more on music this would be a better world,” Enrique said after he finished singing. “I see little babies, when there is a lively song, they start moving. Music creates peace.”
UN ABRAZO DE PALABRAS
(Final song on your playlist: “Toda Una Vida” by Los Panchos, of course.)
Enrique and Isabel dance like no one is watching.
Toda una vida
(En una vida así)
Me estaría contigo
No me importa en que forma
Ni donde, ni como pero junto a ti
“Thank you for loving me. I always felt I was not good looking,” Isabel confessed to Enrique. She looked radiant in love. So did he.
“Try as I may to decipher the way a woman thinks,” Enrique said. “Ella piensa con el corazón. La sal y la pimienta de la vida. Pero lo que está abajo, piensamiento de nuestra vida, es el amor. Los niños son regalos. Ellos viven sus vidas. Nosotros nos metemos en sus vidas. Porque comenzamos ella y yo…”
La Familia Sanchez baila en dos idiomas – English y Español. No translation needed for love.
Top image: Isabel and Enrique Sanchez stand in front of Casa de Cuentos, one of the Esperanza’s many properties dedicated for community gatherings. Photo by Kathryn Boyd-Batstone.