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By Abe Villarreal

I remember once my Nana told me to sit up straight. Actually, she said it tons of times. I could hear her voice now – “enderezate.” She always sat up straight. It meant something to her.

There’s something interesting about growing up poor. You don’t have much, so you focus on what you do have. When you’re poor, it isn’t the material things that matter. Instead, you focus on the things you can afford. The free things like sitting up straight.

Nana Rafaela was born in the town of Cumpas, Sonora, Mexico. Like most places where poor people are born, it was an agricultural community in 1925. She was one of five kids, and her parents were born at the turn of the century.

I’m not sure how she ended up in the border town of Douglas, Arizona, but I’m glad she made it there. It’s where I was born and spent many summers at her home while both my parents worked.

Nana and Tata picked us up after school and always had the chores ready. They made us clean the furniture, or the muebles as she called them. Nana’s sight wasn’t so good, and sometimes the muebles looked just as shiny as the day before, but we did it anyway.

I loved many things about Nana, and on the top of the list is how often she said “enderezate.” It meant something to her. When you are too poor to buy fancy gifts, you pass along essential virtues – like sitting up straight.

About a year before her death at the age of 89, I visited Nana Rafaela at an old folks' home. She was sitting in a wheelchair, holding a doll, and just as I approached her, she began to cry.

I hadn’t seen her in months, and after a couple of strokes, she was deteriorating, not able to feed herself or recognize anyone around her. I was in shock, and I began to cry. I cried more than I had ever cried before.

Later on, I realized why it hit me so hard. She couldn’t do for herself what she had been asking us to do all her life. She couldn’t sit up straight. The nearly 90-year-old woman, once an active, talkative, and passionate woman, was a person I didn't recognize.

Life can be so unfair. Looking back at my summers and after-school visits, I think of Nana Rafaela is the matriarch of our family. She prayed for us constantly and gave us advice. She made caldo de queso and always had cookies somewhere stashed away just for the right moment.

She introduced us to many of our tias (aunts), who I’m not sure were really our tias, but to her everyone seemed like family. She took us to visit others, had us help her on her Wal-Mart runs, and always made us sit up straight.

I wouldn’t trade another enderezate moment for anything, and every time I catch myself slouching, I think of her.

What a wonderful gift she left me.

Abe Villarreal writes about life and culture in southern New Mexico. He can be reached at abevillarreal@hotmail.com.

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