Soledad Gomez, 1962 to 2012

11/08/2012

Soledad Gomez, a mother of three who personified the resolve of many Latino immigrants struggling to balance low-paying jobs with raising a family, died on October 10 at her home in Oakland. She was 50 years old.

Word of her death has rippled across Point Reyes Station and other parts of West Marin, where Soledad was widely seen as a social mainstay whose warm persona was said to have strengthened ties between Latino and Anglo communities.

She cleaned local homes and businesses for nearly 20 years as a housekeeper, but Soledad’s success largely was seen in her efforts to influence a region that watched her emerge from the challenge of assimilating to a new culture as a fixture for many families in Shoreline Unified School District.

Her roots were in the Sacred Heart Church in Olema, where she regularly organized rosary rallies and helped with worship services as a lector. She was the face of an annual bake sale that drew parishioners to a celebration of the Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe every November 12, before which she would prepare hundreds, sometimes thousands of tamales to try to raise proceeds to cover the cost of a mariachi band.

She also taught catechism lessons to youth at the church. Her poise and patience as a teacher was noticed by the Reverend Jack O’Neil, a former pastor at Sacred Heart, who recalled peering into her classroom some days to find her students attentive, engaged in lessons about Catholicism—a contrast to the atmosphere of other classrooms, he noted, which sometimes would clamor with restless students.
“She was the same in March as she was in December,” said Rev. O’Neil, who described Soledad as a “quintessential teacher” who “did ordinary things well, with the same attitude.”

Her upbringing in a traditional Mexican household helped shape her values, remnants of which still are found in her home on a ranch on Point Reyes, where her family continues to gather to recite rosaries that Soledad tried to organize every night.

“It’s one thing to be a popular community person,” the Rev. O’Neil said, “it’s another thing to be a popular community person of great character.”

Her temperament typified a culture of people who “don’t let difficulties knock them down,” he added, saying he sees Soledad as “my former pastor.”

That character was admired by many whom Soledad met through her work as a housekeeper, which she viewed partly as a social outlet.

Among the businesses she would help clean was Point Reyes Books, which she attended to each morning with Kate Levinson, who owns the store with her husband, Steve Costa.

Conversations between the two often would develop into “deep, intimate” discussions about spirituality and family life, Ms. Levinson, a psychologist who has a practice in Oakland, recalled.

“She was the kind of person that you could talk with about your life,” Ms. Levinson remarked, adding that Soledad, known by friends as Chole, over the years had built an impressive “social capital” with certain sensibilities she revealed in many long, personal conversations.  “She made all of us feel very close to her.”

One of her closest friends was Dolores Gonzales, a teacher’s aide at West Marin-Inverness School who spent years working with Soledad as a catechism teacher at Sacred Heart.  
Ms. Gonzales acknowledged Soledad’s compassion, but in an interview dwelled on her work ethic, which she said was defined by her juggling of English lessons and, after working all day, her attendance of school district meetings as a way to ease her concerns about whether her children were receiving proper education.

“She worked very hard,” Ms. Gonzales, who accompanied Soledad to chemotherapy treatments at Marin General Hospital after Soledad was diagnosed with liver cancer about a year ago, said.

Like several other Latinos in West Marin, Ms. Gonzales emigrated in the 1970s from Jalostotitlan, Jalisco in south-central Mexico, about an hour and a half northeast of Guadalajara. It was also the hometown of Soledad, who immigrated in the 1980s to Turlock, about two hours east of San Jose, shortly after marrying Jose Gomez, who also grew up in Jalostotitlan.

Mr. Gomez, attempting to woo his soon-to-be wife, regularly wrote letters to Soledad from a dairy pasture in Windsor, where he worked to save money to visit her occasionally in Mexico.

He sought approval from Soldedad’s family before making a proposal,  part of a custom her family translated as “asking for the hand,” which still is practiced widely in Mexico.

The couple went on to have three children—Jaciel, Liset and Rocio—amid years of changing addresses and working menial jobs to support the growing family. They settled at a ranch on Point Reyes in 1994.

Soledad’s efforts to raise a family in West Marin sometimes were burdened with anxiety about preserving her children’s heritage and culture outside of their home country, family and friends said.

She sometimes sought advice from Socorro Romo, another childhood friend who immigrated to the area in the early 1980s, on ways to step outside of her role as a homemaker, which she struggled sometimes to accept, Ms. Romo said.

“Life in California wasn’t what she thought it’d be,” Ms. Romo said, recounting conversations with Soledad about her aspirations to have a hand in shaping a community that was housing a growing population of Latinos.

“You leave part of your life behind,” she explained.  Soledad also talked with Ms. Romo about her plans to return to Mexico to care for her mother after her children left for college.

“The first couple years are very difficult for everybody,” Ms. Romo said.

But steady doses of encouragement helped keep Soledad in West Marin, where she eventually watched her three children graduate from Tomales High School.  She served as president of a bilingual advisory committee for Shoreline Unified, a role familiy and friends said she viewed as a platform to help Latino students overcome the same language barriers Soledad faced after immigrating to West Marin.

“She was happy at the end with being in this country,” Ms. Romo said.

Central to her credo was the ability of her children to have a path to higher education.

With only a sixth-grade education, Soledad left school to work at a store owned by her grandfather. With her own children, Soledad stressed the importance of school, dedicating most nights to aiding them with their homework.

Her devotion to her children’s education extended to the entire district. She was known to offer suggestions to administrators about ways to tailor the district’s curriculum for English learners at the regular board meetings she attended.

“She would fight for us,” recalled Rocio, 18, who graduated this year from Tomales High School and now plans to resume her education at Sacramento State University. “She wanted us to have stuff that she didn’t have.”

To highlight the importance of education, Soledad sometimes would take her children with her to work to illustrate that “if you don’t have an education, this is the kind of job you’ll be doing,” recalled Liset, 25, who recently earned a business degree from Saint Mary’s College of California. She now works as an administrator with the National Park Service at Point Reyes National Seashore.

Among the many qualities Jaciel admired in his mother was her faith, which he said appeared unwavering even when she was faced with cancer. He remembers that Soledad, after learning her diagnosis of liver cancer was terminal, said, “Hijo, don’t worry about it—I’m in God’s hands.”

“She left a print in us,” Jaciel, 28, who earned a degree in water treatment from Santa Rosa Junior College and also works at the seashore, added. “Hopefully we can follow in her footsteps.”
 

  Soledad Gomez was buried in Jalostotitlan on October 21.  Several family members and friends through the night recited prayers, including the rosary, as part a Mexican tradition honoring the departed.  
  She is survived by her husband, Jose Gonzales, who lives and works in Point Reyes, and her three children, Jaciel, Liset and Rocio, all of whom live in Point Reyes. Soledad has six siblings in Mexico and two in the United States, Socorro Gomez of Berkeley and Maria Guadalupe Perez of Turlock. — Jacob Flannick

The Gomez family expressed their gratitude to friends of Soledad in West Marin and beyond, whose donations to funds set up by Sacred Heart Church and nonprofit West Marin Community Services helped the family return her body to Mexico, where she now is at rest.