Martha Aceves: A Life Loved In Two Cultures
By M.A. Porter
When Martha Lule de Aceves smiles at you, a flower blooms. She and husband Alfredo live in the prettiest house on our Ajijic street, built five years ago in an elegant design that captures both the glory of Mexican tradition and the best of modernity.
Martha’s home is her metaphor: As a girl, she enjoyed an idyllic life in a Mexican village. Then in 1962, at age 15, she was plopped into the modern world when her family moved to Chicago.
Before that, Martha’s mother Mercedes ran the central tienda in her hometown of Juanacatlan, across the river from El Salto. Her father Augustin worked in the nearby denim factory, but as Martha says, “My mother had the business sense in the family, so she ruled.” Her parents had three children – two daughters and a son – and then 10 years later came little Martha, who delighted in the bustling tienda. The only negative was, “I don’t think my mother ever made a tortilla!” Martha exclaims. “And homemade tortillas are at the heart of who we Mexicans are!”
Mercedes’ only son reached adulthood and found himself wishing to be part of the USA. So she sold the tienda, packed up Augustin and Martha, and followed her son to Chicago.
It was tough at first. Martha didn’t speak a word of English and couldn’t attend high school. Worse, the family lived in a cramped third-floor apartment on the north side, quite different from their expansive Mexican life. While father and son worked, Mercedes was forced to become a housewife, so things were grim. Nevertheless, picnics in Chicago’s parks elevated their mood, and mother and daughter decided to get busy.
Martha enrolled in night school so she could learn English and continue her studies, and she began sewing for two aging Mexican sisters who lived in their building. The sisters – Spanish descendents – had fled to Chicago in the 1920s after the Mexican Revolution. They treated Martha like a servant. “So one day, I said, ‘Listen here! You are no longer on the hacienda!’ They were a lot nicer after that.” Her face beams at the memory.
Mercedes opened a grocery store called Abarrotes Jalisco in their culturally diverse neighborhood. Soon they had a roaring trade and the family worked 18 hours a day, so they needed more help. This is how Martha met Alfredo, who, in addition to his fulltime job at Chicago’s Merchandise Mart, began working at the store. “He was a life-saver,” she says.
Smitten with Martha, Alfredo proposed when she was 17. “I flashed my engagement ring around the store, so proud of it, but the customers said, ‘Martha, how come you marry so young?’ No one was happy for me. So even though Alfredo had spent a lot of money for our marriage, it made me think, ‘maybe I should wait.’ I kind of wanted to go to the dances. I had not been able to go because I worked all the time.” She explained her feelings to her mother, who responded, “Alfredo is a good man. You are wild. He has spent money. So you will get married!” And so, she did.
“It was the right decision, for two reasons,” Martha says. The marriage has lasted 47 years. “And I finally had freedom. Alfredo and I were always going to the movies, to dances – we had so much fun! Even after the kids were born.” The couple had a set of twins – a boy and a girl – and another son two years later.
Abarrotes Jalisco expanded into a larger location and Martha’s parents returned to Mexico, so she and Alfredo ran the business and then sold it to buy a flower shop in an affluent part of Chicago. It disappointed – the owner from whom they were to buy the business reneged on the deal and treated them like hired help. Still, they sallied on. They opened a restaurant and their growing children began the Burrito Buggy, which had several kiosk locations.
Martha also began selling Jafra cosmetics. She chuckles, “A funny thing about Latinas – they might not have money for bread, but they always have money for face cream.” She was so successful that she became the Latin Market Sales Manager for the parent company, Gillette. Eventually, the couple bought real estate and commercial leases in Chicago, “For pennies, and we sold them for dollars,” Martha says proudly.
As they reached retirement age, Martha and Alfredo were drawn back to Mexico. Today, they are landlords for several Ajijic rentals and Martha has become a talented quilter. “I make my art every day,” she says, fingering her handiwork, a beautiful cubist quilt, the colors perfectly situated against each other.
Kind of like her life – with all available colors, in designs old and new, she’s pieced together something brilliant.