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Life Story / Obituary
A devoted wife, mother, grandmother, and friend, Zenaida Castillo Mendoza lived a life devoted to faith and family. Hardworking, independent, and determined, Zenaida possessed a loving no-nonsense attitude. She had high expectations of herself and her loved ones and never shied away from working towards excellence. She never hesitated to share what was on her mind and that everything she did, she did for her family. A strict parent, she softened with her younger children and even more so with her grandchildren. As she grew older, she mellowed, and each time her family gathered, her eyes beamed with pride. An inspiring role model, Zenaida was cherished by all who were blessed to know her.
Hope sprang eternal in Matehuala, Mexico, as Tibursio and Gregoria (Alvarez) Castillo welcomed their daughter Zenaida into their hearts and home on June 5, 1927. The third of the nine Castillo children, Zenaida grew up in La Presa, San Luis Potosi, Mexico, on her parents’ farm. While her father worked all over the United States as an immigrant worker, her mother tended to the children and the family’s farm.
After attending school through the fifth grade, Zenaida was old enough to do housework, make tortillas, and become a primary caretaker of her younger siblings. In the early mornings, she and her brothers, Fransico and Taurino were sent to work the corn. Working side by side, she and her brothers planted the seeds of close, lifelong friendships with one another. Though all her brothers could be a handful and constantly teased her, Taurino had a gift for provoking her until she would chase him and the rest of the kids. No matter how many times she chased them around the house and cacti, she was never able to catch them, which inspired much laughter amongst the kids. One time, while she was chasing them, a pig stepped in her path, and she tripped over it. Her fall instantly became a family story that was told for many, many years and inspired a lot of laughter.
Zenaida always remembered her childhood neighborhood’s Easter time tradition. As the adults gathered around to watch, the children would compete. They would swing as high as they could from the tree branches to grab the vines that grew overhead. She hated the game because she was afraid of heights, and the boys were always better at it, but she always gave in to the peer pressure to at least try. As a young girl, she also played baseball with her siblings and the other kids in the area. From a very young age, she loved to dance. She participated in school festival dancing, and as she grew older, she wanted to go to school dances, but her parents were too strict to allow it.
One evening, when Zenaida was 17 and finally old enough to be allowed to attend a dance at a local ranch, she met the love of her life, 20-year-old Cresenciano “Cray” Mendoza. The two shared a dance and an instant connection. Soon, Zenaida shared with Cray that she was preparing to travel around the country with her father and several other migrant workers to cook and clean for all the male workers. With the threat of being separated, she and Cray came up with a different plan; eight days after their first dance, they eloped. They were married by the Justice of the Peace in Edinberg, Texas and a month later celebrated their marriage with a traditional wedding in a Catholic church.
For many years, the happy couple traveled together and worked as migrant workers throughout the United States. They danced as often as possible, and in time, were blessed to welcome nine children to their family, eight of whom lived into adulthood. Deeply saddened by the death of their beloved Rosa Maria when she was only one year old, Primitiva, Felicitas, Carlos, Maria, Antonio, Norma, Rosa, and Eduardo were the centers of Zenaida and Cray’s world.
After working in Florida, Montana, Ohio, Michigan, Oklahoma, and Texas, in 1963, the couple decided to settle down in Lawton, Michigan. In 1969, they purchased the first of their two grape farms. Zenaida worked the farm in addition to tending to the home, the children, and jobs at Murches, Smuckers, and Coca-Cola, where everyone called her “Mama Mendoza.” Zenaida loved to work in the fields, ensuring the crop would bring a bountiful harvest and her children would learn excellent work ethics. She also enjoyed needlepoint, crocheting and sewing. When her children were young, she made their clothes. Norma and Rosa especially remember the special frou-frou Easter dresses she made for them. The girls looked like twins, but Rosa, a tomboy, was uncomfortable in her fancy dress.
Zenaida was a gifted cook whose specialties included seasoned pork, chicken mole, and her grandchildren’s favorite, Spanish rice. Her tamales were unrivaled and the center of Christmas dinner. Each year the day before Christmas Eve, all the daughters and granddaughters would gather to make tamales for the family’s Christmas dinner. Zenaida served as supervisor, teaching them how to make them just right. Though many of the women tried, daughter Mary is the only one whose cooking is even close to Zenaida’s, thus earning the family’s fond nickname, “Mini-Zenaida.”
Holidays were fun, loud, crowded family events spent at the farm. It was rare when a summer weekend did not include a spontaneous cookout. Not a consumer of alcohol, Zenaida loved Coke, the real thing. Her girls could talk her into an occasional piña colada during special occasions, and once, one of her daughters put some wine in a Coke bottle. Unknowingly, Zenaida began drinking it. By the time she realized her mistake, it was too late, and she had to lay down. Her family will long remember her love of Spanish soap operas. She enjoyed the romance and hated the villains, often expressing how she would “like to get her hands on them!”
Zenaida retired in 1992 and enjoyed nothing more than spending time with her loved ones and being surrounded by her collection of treasures gifted to her by the family over the years. Her grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren were her heart’s delight. With great love and strength, Zenaida created a home that no one seemed to want to wander too far away from. Though she worried about having to be both a mother and father to her family after suffering the heartbreak of losing her husband of nearly 63 years, she need not have done so. She led her family with unwavering faith and an indomitable spirit, keeping them together and celebrating every moment they were given.
Without a doubt, the world feels less certain in the absence of Zenaida’s steadfast presence. And while we will miss her terribly, we will find comfort in knowing that she has been reunited with her beloved husband, son and daughter. We will also find comfort in carrying her beautiful legacy forward. With each challenge we confidently meet and every moment we gather to share a meal, tend to the farm, or honor a special event, we celebrate the many ways Zenaida gifted our lives. In so doing, we keep her spirit alive and inspiring others as she so inspired us.
Zenaida Castillo Mendoza, age 93, of Lawton, passed away on February 14, 2021. Zenaida was preceded in death by her beloved husband Cray and infant daughter Rosa Maria and son Carlos. Proudly carrying her legacy forward are her seven children; Primitiva (Margarito) Guerra of Lawton, Felicitas (Ramon) Veraza of Lawton, Maria Delia (Rogelio) Salinas of Lawton, Antonio (Jana) Mendoza of Lawton, Norma (Gilberto) Benavides of Decatur, Rosa (James) Dietz of Lawrence, Eduardo Mendoza of Lawton; and her treasured seventeen grandchildren, eleven great-grandchildren, and four great-great-grandchildren.