LIVING HISTORY: A centenarian in San Miguel de Allende
What would you say to someone born the year that WWI came to an end, the year the Spanish flu swept across the world? A time before sound movies, television, commercial aviation, or even something as simple as sliced bread? I had the opportunity to visit Diana Dominguez who just celebrated her 103rd birthday. Diana was born on November 5, 1918 in Merida, the youngest of six children. She never went beyond elementary school and worked at menial jobs her entire life, just as her parents had. Her older brothers moved to Mexico City because of better employment opportunities and she eventually followed them.
Diana now lives in ALMA—a home for the elderly who have no means, run by a non-profit organization. My visits to nursing homes in the US have never been positive. What always struck me in those homes for the elderly were the smells—the stifling air of a poorly ventilated facility, the faint smells of old food, and the stench of urine. I braced myself for the same. But at ALMA, the moment the door opened and I walked in, I was greeted by open spaces, high ceilings, corridors leading toward gardens, and no unwelcome scents of any sort. A few residents sat watching a large television set on the wall; behind it was a courtyard with trees and flowers. I was led to a portico where Diana sat in a wheelchair in quiet conversation with a man sitting at her side. His name was Gerardo, her loyal friend.
Gerardo politely ceded his chair to me and I sat next to Diana for our long conversation. She knew I was a reporter coming to interview her and apologized for not meeting with me two days prior when I had first come. She was feeling down that day because her family was not calling, I was told. On this day, though, she was ready to talk. We began at the beginning, and she shared that her mother married at 16, had three sons, and then lost her husband to a lung disease. Her mother remarried and had three girls, with Diana the last of the sisters.
Talking to a 103 year old is not easy. Diana still has most of her wits about her, but her mental capacity is definitely diminished. She repeated certain things many, many times and seemed to be stuck in one period of life. It took much prodding and guidance for her to move on in her narrative. Often my question would not be addressed, she simply took her story to whatever she wished to talk about.
I asked if she remembered any major events in her childhood. She told me that one day when she was a little girls everyone was excited, running out of their homes, and pointing to the sky. She ran too to see what was happening and witnessed an airplane flying overhead making strange circles and zooming up and down. The people were shouting “Lindbergh! Lindbergh!” and she was excited too although she wasn’t sure why. The event she was describing was most likely Lindbergh’s trip to the Yucatan in 1929 when he was attempting to spot old Mayan ruins in the jungle by flying low in his aircraft.
When I asked Diana what she likes most about ALMA, her answer was quick and emphatic: “La limpieza!” (The cleanliness). She also likes the gardens and enjoys watching the sun pass through it during the day. What about the food? She shrugged and said it was just fine. Do you have friends? I asked. Yes, she said, I have a good friend who takes me to the meals and we talk all the time. When I asked his name she hesitated, deep in thought, then said she couldn’t remember at the moment. I knew she was referring to Gerardo, the one sitting next to her when I first arrived. I told her the name and she nodded, then repeated it under her breath.
From her accounts, Diana’s life has been inconsequential; with the usual ups and downs, but no major tragedies or successes. There is a common saying that wishing someone “an interesting life” is a curse, the opposite of living in peace and tranquility. Perhaps that’s the reason for Diana’s longevity—a life without great upheavals may be something to be wished for. We ended our conversation and I touched her arm in farewell knowing I was touching a relic—a living piece of history. Then I asked for someone to come and a staff member called Gerardo who showed up, smiled, and took the seat I had vacated. I took a photo of the two of them and left them still chatting softly with each other.