Celebrating our Local Women's History
Stories from Women Living in the Southeast Valley as told by CGCC Students in partnership with Gilbert Historical Museum
Oral History of Mary Helen Olgin Valenzuela

Interview of Mary Helen Valenzuela taken March 6, 2008
Written by Cassie Otero with contributions from Marlene Busani

Before shopping centers and movie theatres filled every street corner, there were small towns where everyone knew their neighbor. Mary Helen Olgin was raised in a town very much like this, known as Gilbert, Arizona. She was born in Mesa in the South Side hospital, which she believes was the only one in the area at that time.. Her wonderful experience of seeing a town change and grow has made her the woman she is today. Lighthearted and independent is the best way to describe Mary Helen. Though she often misses the way things used to be, she enjoys telling her grandchildren stories from the past.

Mary was the eldest of the two children born to Gilberto & Tomasa Olgin. Her grandfather on her dad's side was born in Solomonville, Arizona but later moved to Tuscon where his son Gilberto was born. Gilberto eventually settled with his parents in Gilbert where he met his future wife. Once Gilberto married, he started a hauling business that transported alfalfa and a number of other things. Mary mentions that Gilbert was the alfalfa capital of the world at that point. Her father's business grew and turned into a good sized trucking business with six or seven trucks. They mainly hauled barley, hay, wheat, cotton, and anything they could make a living from. Mary remembers her father always had the best looking hay stacks on the trucks; "it was something to take pride in." She recalls going out into the fields and helping her dad load the products throughout her childhood.

Her mother, Tomasa Marquez, came to Chandler legally with her family during the Mexican Revolution of 1912. The Marquez owned a small grocery store where they made their living. Once Tomasa married, she created her own business of owning and managing rental houses in both Chandler and Gilbert. Mary remembers Tomasa as being her own person, who did all of her own work on the houses including repairs. "Yet she was still home in time to make dinner. I really gave her a lot of credit for that; she was my mentor. I knew I could do all of that because my mother had done it," says Mary. Tomasa was a very well-rounded person who could sing, sew, cook, and play the piano. Mary Helen explained that she cannot sing at all. That is one thing that she does not have in common with her mother.

As a young child one of Mary's fondest memories was laying on the beds of her father's semi-trucks listening to stories. "History was handed down by telling stories" says Mary. The whole family would lie out on the trucks and gaze at the stars trying to identify them. She remembers living in Sonora Town and looking at the twinkling lights of Gilbert off in the distance. "I always felt that the Gilbert people always looked down on the Sonora Town people, but it didn't really bother me." The town of Gilbert decided that the Sonora children didn't need a ride to school on the bus, so she had to walk everyday. She didn't mind because she mostly stayed in Sonora Town with her friends and family.

When Mary started school, it was still segregated at the time so she had to attend the Mexican school. Mary attended school where the Gilbert Historical Museum now stands. She was thrown into a class where they were not allowed to speak Spanish "which was 'whoa,' talk about a shock!" The only words she knew in English at the time were "please" and "thank you." "The first couple of days weren't terrifying, but pretty close to i,t" she recalls. Although she had to learn how to speak English for school, life at home was another story. Her parent's would not allow anything but Spanish spoken in the home; it was considered rude to speak in English.

"I remember nothing but good times in Gilbert," says Mary. Her family spent a lot of time traveling together, going to church on Sunday, and going on picnics. She recalls that they were the last family in Sonora Town to get a TV because her father didn't believe in them. He also would never let her go trick or treating, because he didn't think it was proper for a girl. Mary's father did a lot of hauling when she was young so she was able to travel all around Arizona. "I was driving a truck when I was eleven," says Mary. Summers for Mary were not something to look forward to. While other children were at the swimming pool, she was working with her father's trucks. When she did have free time, she would go to the drive-in movies right behind the local barber shop. People in Sonora Town also used the canal as their swimming pool, or went to a local hot spot called Sander's Pond where fresh water was always flowing; "it was the place to be." Another fun activity Mary remembers is water skiing on the canal, but instead of being pulled by a boat, they were pulled by a pick-up truck!

When Mary started the second grade, the segregated system ended and she was put in Mrs. Kirby's class. Somehow Mary ended up being the only Hispanic in the class and was forced to make new friends. Her classes were divided into three sections: A, B, and C. Mary was always put in the "A" class when all the other Sonora children were in the "C" class; she never did figure out why. Later in the year she was eventually joined by one other Hispanic girl. She remembers walking home from school at the end of each year hoping she would be put in the class with the other Mexican children. It wasn't until the sixth grade she was put in a class with her Hispanic friends. Some years later Mary would attend Seaton Catholic High School in Chandler where she graduated.

Eventually Mary got a job at Maricopa County Hospital, and married her husband Mr. Anos Valenzuela and had children of her own. She never had any problems with gender issues when trying to find a job because of the way she was raised. When she was young her mother would take her along when they had to take care of things with the business that usually only a man would do. Mary was used to working hard by this time and doing many things on her own. She already gained a strong sense of independence from her mother, which would stay with her as grew into a woman and a mother.

"It doesn't feel like home anymore," says Mary referring to Gilbert. She misses the old Gilbert where you knew everybody and went to church on Sunday and saw friends. "Things have just changed…" Mary says. Although the times have changed, Mary still remains living in Gilbert, within a mile of the house she grew up in. She will always have her memories, and those will last throughout time. She says she was born here, raised here, and will most likely die here.

Photos courtesy of the family.

Back to Community History Home

Mary Helen as a child

Mary Helen's mother

Anos Valenzuela, Mary Helen's husband

Mary Helen standing by the family truck

Olgin Truck

Her father's perfect stacks

Loading the trucks

The men working in the fields