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 Valenzuela

Oral History of Mary Helen Valenzuela

Written by: Marlenne Busani

 Mary Helen Olguin (Mary Helen Valenzuela her maiden name) was born in Mesa, Arizona, in South Side Hospital. She believes that at the time this was the only hospital in Mesa. Her life story is very interesting and in it, she tells a lot of stories about her childhood. From her story one can gather that she is not negative about the bad and tough things that she went through in her life. The reason why she is not negative about them is because that is what made her the person she now is. However, not all was sour for her because she mentions that she would have liked that some things from her childhood would have stayed the same.

Mary Helen was the first-born child of her family and following her came her brother John. John was born in a Medical Center in Tempe, Arizona. Mary Helen's father Gilberto Olguin came from Tucson Arizona and her grandfather came from Salomon Ville, Arizona. Her mother Tomasa Marquez came as a revolutionate 1912 legally she emphasizes it with her parents and settled in Chandler, Arizona. Her mother's side of the family owned a grocery store. Gilberto and Tomasa eventually met and got married. "I am a product of the marriage" she says, and of course her brother John was too. Her dad did some hauling in order to give his family living. As a result of this occupation, the grocery eventually turned into a trucking business. Mary Helen's mom and dad were both business people. 

Her family lived in Sonora Town and her father Gilberto Olguin made a living by hauling: barley, wheat, hay, cotton, watermelons, oat, alfalfa and several more. He hauled a lot of fields and like mentioned above, this was his field of expertise. The Olguin family owned up to 6 trucks, which most of them were used for the farming. Gilberto, Mary Helen's dad had very well stacked hay, which they did manually. As mentioned by Mary Helen, her mother (Tomasa Marques) "was her own person" because she ran her own business by renting houses and acquiring them. She was on her own, she did not have any help at all from her husband, and she was on her own. Mary Helen also mentioned that she was a good cook, she also sang, played the piano. Although her mother was good singer, she did not pass this gift onto her daughter. Mary Helen has mentioned that unlike her mother, she is not a very good singer.  

Schooling was still segregated when she was attending school; she actually was in the Mexican school in Sonora town. However, she was suddenly thrown in to English speaking school and the only things she could say were "please and thank you." She attended what is now the Museum. She was not allowed to speak Spanish at all in this school. She mentioned that it was close to terrifying. To top it off they were not allowed to speak English at her house out of common courtesy. When she went into the second grade segregation actually ended, now they were allowed to mix, which she was the only Hispanic in Mrs. Kirby's classroom, which is now the conference room of the Museum. Her classes were divided into three sections, A, B, C, and she was in the A section. Her friends from Sonora town were in the C section.  Although she was separated from her Sonora Town friends, she managed to make new friends. She mentioned that the last day of school she was walking home from school hoping that she could be moved with her Mexican friends. However, this did not happen until the 6th grade. At this time, Sonora town kids were not entitled to ride the bus.  

As Mary Helen remembers her memories as a child, she mentions that she has a lot of stories. However, one of her favorite memories from her child hood was listening to stories. All of her family (children and adults) would lie on a semi-truck and they listen to the stories, at that time story telling was common. Basically it was the thing to do, listen to the stories and identify the stars. These stories were about the history, "that's how history was handed down by telling stories", Mary Helen says. She mentioned that she remembers mostly good times when she lived in the Gilbert area back when she was a child. Mary Helen says that as a family they were very close, traveled a lot and on a lot of picnics. Mary Helen's father did not believe in televisions, and therefore, they were the last family in Sonora Town to get a television.  

What did summers meant for Mary Helen and her brother John? Not much because they had to work with their dad on the fields. Let us say that she did not look forward to the summer vacations. Sonora town was quite small, few of the facts mentioned were, there were two small stores close to where she lived. One of them, a relative owned and the other one was "Don Pancho's tiendita" (thrift store). However, this was before her time and it closed in the late 40's. Mary Helen states that there was a pool hall and things like that for entertainment also used to go to an outside theatre. One disadvantage that she had was that she was not allowed to go trick or treating, her dad thought that that was not proper for a young female to go out and trick or treat. Another one of her stories was that they used a canal (a consolidated canal) as a swimming pool. She also mentions that they would water ski on the canal, but instead of a boat they used a pick up truck, either or they actually made it work.  

No matter what their situation was like they always managed to have a great time, therefore, she was happy to mention only good memories, either, parties, working etc, she did not like being bored. Mentioning about having a good time and parties, there were parties organized by the church. She says that those "fiestas" were fun, they had activities such as dancing, and they also did fund raisers. Sonora town girls made tortillas, tamales, refried beans and all sorts of Mexican food. One of many activities they did were raffles, and all of the money gathered was for the church. She mentions that it would have been nice to retain some of the stuff that was back then.   

One of the things that she actually did not like back then was that Gilbert looked down at Sonora Town people. She was not discriminated against for being women, "no gender role situations" she also says that she was very young when that was happening back then. Even though she did not suffer from gender discrimination, she was discriminated against for being Hispanic, but she dealt with that, and that is one factor that made her the women that she is now. She felt this discrimination at her work, which was Maricopa County, but as I mentioned she dealt with it. She retired from Maricopa County after working 40 years there. "It does not feel like home anymore…" she says, also "you don't know your neighbors anymore." She also says that things have changed.            

When Mary Helen got married she moved to Mesa with her husband, but one year later she moved back to Gilbert and she now leaves about a mile away from where she was raised. Of course this would be Sonora Town, but that town is basically no longer part of Gilbert, it is only Gilbert, Arizona. Even though things have changed in Gilbert, she will always remember Sonora Town no matter what. Sonora Town might be gone, but her memories are still with her and will always be.




Photos courtesy of the family.

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Mary Helen-Olgin-Valenzuela

Mary Helen's mother

Olgin family farming

Olguin Trucks



Olgin (farming)

Anos Valenzuela Mary Helen's husband