Everyone Knows Her, But Not Everyone Knows Her Well. First Person with Erlinda Portillo

Most of us know Erlinda Puentes-Portillo as a mover, a shaker and event planner extraordinaire. We know her as an energetic, workaholic that has retired more than once and is still going strong, making big things happen in our community. She has an uncanny way of planning, organizing and delegating duties like no other. However, after many intimate conversations, I’ve come to realize that there is so much more to Erlinda than meets the eye. Like the fact that she has had tribulations in her life that, perhaps, are partially responsible for the woman she is today. Yet, in spite of those struggles she has an amazingly positive outlook on life and is one of the most dependable, strong women I have ever met.

Tu: Where is your family originally from?

EP: My father and mother migrated from Mexico in the early 1900’s. They were deported twice and finally the third time, they were lucky to have been here during an amnesty. One of my brothers and two sisters were born in Mexico during this back and forth process (crossing the Rio Grande). The other seven brothers and sisters were born in the U.S. I was born and raised in Santa Rita, New Mexico. It was a small mining town that doesn’t exist anymore, I belong to the Born in Space club.

Tu: Your positive attitude doesn’t give a hint that you have ever encountered personal trials and tribulations. What has been one of the most difficult struggles you’ve faced and how did you overcome it?

EP: I would say that my most difficult struggle and challenge was growing up without either parent. I was only three years old when my father died and shortly thereafter, when I was nine, my mother died. Both were under 50 years old when they passed. This was tragic for me as I was the youngest girl; one brother was younger than me. I have always wondered what my life would be like if both parents had lived. We basically raised ourselves.

I believe I eventually overcame the fact that I was orphaned when I realized how lucky I was to have nine brothers and sisters that looked after each other and that their strength was transferred to me. When I look back now, I know I missed so many mother/daughter experiences, but I had so many more brother/sister experiences that made up for it. After that traumatic time in my life, I think that any other challenge that came my way was nothing compared to losing my parents. Our community petitioned the courts so that we would not be fostered out and we could stay together.

Tu: Some people know you as Erlinda Portillo and others as Erlinda Puentes. You were obviously married at one point. What is the story behind your marriage?

EP: Puentes is my maiden name and Portillo my married name. I got married at age 16! Then, I became a mother at 19 and again at 24. I was diagnosed with uterine cancer right after my second child; so consequently, I only have two beautiful daughters. When the kids were in their teens, my marriage was shaky and unstable. I went through many hard decisions about dissolving my marriage. I struggled with having my children grow up with only one parent. There was addiction involved and that caused many secondary problems. I struggled to keep the family together. I tried different ways to adjust and I survived many challenges, but eventually the addiction won and I divorced in 1981. I have been single since.

Tu: What is the one word that you feel best describes you?

EP: Survivor! Obviously, being orphaned, dissolving a marriage, raising one daughter (the other was married) as a single parent, finding myself again and creating a pathway where I could support myself and my daughter, putting her through school, getting my education, working; I survived all of that. Through the years I found that I am resilient, resourceful, positive, focused, determined and so very thankful for my health!

Tu: Tell us a little about your family and kids and what the significance of family is to you?

EP: I have two beautiful daughters, five grandchildren and five great-grandchildren. In addition, my extended family numbers over 250 immediate members! We get together every two years at our bi-annual reunions. Our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren are extensions of ourselves. We need to leave them our legacy of how important family is and how we should love, care and support one another no matter what. I, as a grandmother and great-grandmother, have made it a point to emphasize the importance of our culture, traditions, history and language in my family. I feel very strongly about that. 

Tu: The teachings of our parents/grandparents form a big part of who we become as adults. How do you feel your parents/grandparents influenced who you are today?

EP: As I mentioned before, after our parents died, we raised ourselves. I mean we worked. All the things mothers and fathers do for their children, we did for each other. My mother taught me how important religion is in family life. She taught me how to sew, embroider, crochet, and the love of music. She would play the guitar and sing to us in the evening. I love music to this day. I love to listen to it, dance to it and sing to it. My two daughters inherited that from me too! My grandmother would come from Juarez every three months and “mother” us for a while and then she would have to go back. She is the one that advised me to learn English and learn it well because I was going to live here the rest of my life. I took her advice to heart and found two close Caucasian friends and stuck to them like glue until I learned the language well. I didn’t learn English until the 4th grade. By the 8th grade I was competing as an alternate at the Scripps Howard Spelling Bee in El Paso. When I took the college entrance exam, I tested out of two English classes, which was a huge accomplishment for me. My grandmother, in her wisdom, also said, “Don’t forget your Spanish because Spanish is your culture, it is who you are.” To this day I thank her because I am fully bilingual in English and Spanish and so are my daughters and my older grandchildren. 

Tu: Are there any other people besides your parents and grandparents who have influenced your life?

EP: Yes, most definitely. The two high school teachers who, after I dropped out of school, would take homework to my home and expected me to continue to turn in assignments. One was my English teacher and the other was my shorthand teacher. These two academic courses were my lifesavers when I was trying to get a job without having graduated from high school! Most recently in my adult life, a huge influence was J. Paul Taylor. I will forever be thankful to him for his confidence in me and his advice and support as I struggled through some of my challenges.

Tu: You have accomplished many things in your life. You are a mother, grandmother, great-grandmother, a professional, a friend to many and a motivator to others. What accomplishment are you most proud of?

EP: Well, first, raising two beautiful daughters who are educated and amazing mothers themselves to their children and grandchildren. I am proud to be a Mexican-American –the best of two cultures– and have strived to educate others about our culture and traditions through my work and actions. I was a founding member of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, a part of the founding group for the Las Cruces Mariachi Conference, a member of the Task Force For Character Counts and other similar projects. I think this is the best way to get rid of racial prejudices and misconceptions and share who we are with other cultures.

Tu: You are a very influential person in this community. So, when women read this article what would you like for them to take from it?

EP: I would tell them that we, as women, can be strong in conviction, determined in our character, focused on our goals, accomplished through our successes –large or small– and can survive the challenges we face along the way. It is all in the choices we make and how we handle the wrong choices we may make on our journey. I have been blessed in my journey!

Fall 2014

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