This series has featured Muscatine women born prior to 1920 when women won the right to vote. All along, we hoped to find and profile a woman leader among the immigrants who started arriving from Mexico during the first decade of the century.
The 1900 census shows twenty-nine Mexican immigrants in all of Iowa, and none in Muscatine. The 1910 census lists six single men here, plus—apparently—our first and only family household: John and Anna Sanchez and their three children. Anna and her thirteen-year-old daughter are the only Mexican females listed in the entire city in 1910.
In late 1906 the Journal had reported 300 Mexican rail workers arriving from Colorado, housed in “boarding cars” and moved up and down the line where needed. The Muscatine News-Tribune told of the Rock Island Railroad’s experiment in replacing Italian laborers with Mexicans.
Those earliest migrants who came to build and maintain railroads were glad to escape the violence, chaos, and economic upheaval of the times leading to the Mexican Revolution (1910-1921). They usually left their wives and families behind.
Anna and John were an anomaly because they came as a family so early.
Happily for Muscatine readers, Anna told her life story to one of her granddaughters who wrote it down.
Born to Apache parents in the Chiricahua Mountains (now Arizona) on January 20, 1875, she never knows her birth name, but family members call her Rose Little Heart.
When she is a young girl, her father leaves to fight and defend their tribal lands. As he leaves, he tells her she must go to the mission if he does not return. That’s what happens.
A Spanish couple adopts Rose Little Heart. On her eighth birthday she is baptized Sebastiana Gonzales Baldanado. When she is sixteen, her adopted mother dies of influenza. The grieving widower lets his wife’s brother adopt Anna, so she becomes Sebastiana Baldanado Moreno.
The young woman marries Maximo Mora, and they have two children, Estafania (1898) and José (1901-2). Her husband dies in 1901, and she finds lodging and work at a monastery.
One day in 1906 she answers the monastery door to a deserter from the Mexican Army. Juan Tomas Contreras Sanchez is tired of constant fighting and wants to enter the United States at the Rio Grande border.
When he is ready to leave the monastery, Juan kidnaps Sebastiana as she is walking to the school to pick up her daughter. He “grabbed her up and rode off with her,” her granddaughter writes. Riding north for hours, he tells her he intends to have her—marriage or not.
Now known as John and Anna, they were married in May 1906. Benjamin was born Feb. 13, 1907, somewhere in what is now Arizona.
For years Anna pleaded with John to let her get her children, but he refused out of fear she would not return. Somehow they are reunited because they show up together in the 1910 Muscatine census.
The Sanchezes are reported living on Front Street (Mississippi Drive) in a boxcar. John and six Mexican male boarders aged between nineteen and thirty are listed as railroad laborers.
The census lists Anna’s work as “none.”
Can you imagine cooking, cleaning, and washing for three children (and several more to follow) plus seven railroad men? And without electricity or running water! She spoke only Spanish so probably had no female friends.
In November 1909, the Muscatine Journal tells of young boys harassing a Mexican woman who does her laundry in the river every Monday and hangs it near the bank to dry, per her native custom. The boys are dragging the clean laundry in the dirt and mud and tying it in knots while she is absent. Life was not easy.
The 1920 census shows the Mexican population growing. Muscatine had one family with children, three other married couples, six households where a Mexican man married a U.S. woman, and five single male boarders. Other households appear in Fruitland, Grandview, Sweetland, West Liberty, and other communities along the railroad. By then the Sanchez family had grown to a dozen and moved to Medora, Kansas—still on the Rock Island Line.
When families immigrate, it is the women who often form the backbone of the family unit and of the tight-knit ethnic neighborhoods. In the past it was usually the women working behind the scenes as volunteers who kept churches, schools, and community betterment projects going.
So this final article for 2020 is dedicated to Anna Sanchez and all the hard-working mothers who persistently work to improve the lives of their families and our community but receive very little recognition. The mothers and homemakers of this country are unsung women of inspiration.
The Women of Influence and Inspiration articles were researched and written throughout 2020 by a group of Muscatine women as a project of “Hard Won, Not Done,” the centennial celebration of women’s right to vote. When we started we didn’t know the COVID-19 pandemic would make our research and collaboration more challenging. We chose women born between 1840 and 1916 who made a large impact on our community—some well-known and others obscure. We plan to write about more of them in the year ahead.