Journey to a New Life

By Deborah Zamaria

Recently, I had the pleasure of spending an hour or so with Mary Rangel and her sister Mona Valdivia, two of nine siblings from the Silva family. Born in Canutillo, Texas and La Union, New Mexico, respectively, they have lived in Martinez for over seventy years and contributed to the rich history of our city. 

Their parents, Fermin Silva and Petra Varela, were both born in Zacatecas, Mexico in the late 1800s. They worked on a ranch owned by wealthy Spaniards who raised fighting bulls. Being raised in the relatively small town, the families knew each other and the two young people married when they were quite young. Fermin was approximately nineteen years old and Petra was sixteen. 

However, in 1910 the Mexican Revolution disrupted their lives and they fled Zacatecas, fearing that because of their employment with the Spaniards, the revolutionaries, led by Pancho Villa, would target them. They took a train to Juarez, Mexico and paid a “coyote” fifty cents to cross the border into El Paso, Texas.rangels gray

Fermin and Petra needed work so they went to Oklahoma for a while and worked for the railroad in the winter, living in the housing provided for the workers and returning to Canutillo, Texas in the summer months to farm. Maria de Jesus Silva (Mary), was born on one of these migrations to Oklahoma, in the winter of 1921. Although she has since applied for and received a birth certificate, there was no certificate marking her birth at the time, so her baptismal certificate was used as the official record.

Fermin built an adobe in La Union, New Mexico and it was here that Mona was born, in 1928. He had saved enough money to purchase a two-and-a-half-acre farm, and the two women have many fond memories of their time in this adobe. There was a potbelly stove, but no electricity. Gas lanterns provided the light by which the family would gather around the large table and sing at the end of the day after supper.

Mary came to California by herself in 1934 when she was about thirteen years old. Her older sister Soledad had married and traveled to California with her husband, Gonzalo Silva, and was working in a boarding house for railroad workers in Port Costa. Soledad was lonely and she needed assistance with her work, so Mary was chosen for this job. The train ride was very traumatic for Mary, as she had never been away from her family, but she remembers two young women, students at UC Berkeley at the time, who took her under their wings and made the trip less arduous.

Eventually, Mary returned to her parents and family in La Union and then, around 1935, Fermin sold the farm and the entire family made a very difficult trip in a truck with an attached trailer, loaded with all of their belongings. They were headed to Port Costa, where a cousin was living in the Southern Pacific railroad housing. Both sisters describe this trip as something out of the Steinbeck novel The Grapes of Wrath. Every night they had to unload and set up camp. They faced unbearable heat and flooding as well, but arrived at their destination intact after many months of traveling. 

Mary had attended a one-room schoolhouse in La Union, but Mona was not old enough to attend school until she arrived in California. Her schooling took place in Port Costa and then, eventually, she attended school in a small brick building on Pacheco Boulevard. Mr. Spade was principal when she attended Martinez Junior High School.

With Cappy Ricks serving as their realtor, Fermin eventually bought two acres for $2,000 near Arthur Road in Martinez and built a home. It was here that he and Petra raised their family, with the Digardis and other vintners as their neighbors.

Mona was still attending Alhambra High School, but would take the ferry to the Benicia Arsenal and work in the mailroom when she wasn’t at school. In 1942, Mary, being older, spent her entire days at the Arsenal working alongside Germans and Italians, and has many interesting insights about this time.

Mary met her husband, Salvador Rangel, on one of these ferry rides to the Benicia Arsenal. He was an Air Force gunner during WWII. They married at St. Catherine’s on August 14, 1948 and a reception followed at the Arthur Road house. They raised three girls and a boy and all of their children attended parochial schools in Martinez. Three of them went on to graduate from UC Berkeley. 

Both Mona and Mary, in addition to raising families, contributed a great deal to Martinez. Mary worked at John Muir School, as well as the Patchin School. Mona was quite active in the Martinez Travel Agency, providing guided tours to Mexico. She also served as a Spanish interpreter in the courts. 

Mary has shared a recipe for Sopita, which helped nourish her family in their formative years. Mona shared a recipe for Green Chile Stew that reminds her of her mom’s stew.




7 oz. fideo (pasta)

1 T. (approx.) veg. oil

Chop 1 stalk celery, 3 entire green onions, 3 cloves garlic

1 8-oz. can tomato sauce

2 cups water

Optional frozen carrots/peas

Season with 1 tsp. (approx.) Knorr chicken broth



Heat oil and brown fideo until golden.

Add veggies and stir.

Add tomato sauce and 2 cups water (for “soupy” consistency add more water).

Bring to boil and cover and simmer 10 minutes.


Green Chile Stew


1½ lb. lean stew meat (approx. ¾-inch cubes)

½ medium onion, chopped

3 cups water

3 to 4 cloves garlic, minced

8 to 10 roasted, peeled, and diced New Mexico green chiles

2 to 3 potatoes, diced

Salt to taste

¼ tsp. cumin (optional)



Sear stew meat in large skillet, adding onions during last five minutes. Add water and garlic and simmer until meat is tender. Additional water may be added, if necessary. Add New Mexico green chiles, potatoes, salt and cumin, and simmer until potatoes are tender.



Martinez Historical Society

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