Guest posting contributed by Jill Breitbarth in memory of Juana Maria Martinez. Jill says: “I hope others who knew her will see this and add their own memories.”
When I was six-years-old until seven months beyond my twelfth birthday, Juanita Martinez was my other mother, my confidante, and my mentor. Her mothering was not tied up in a complex family legacy of guilt, projection, and survival at all costs: she loved me as clearly as the Caribbean water in the shallows near our home. She showed me how, even with firm tones, guidance could be a kind offering. Juanita also showed me how laughter and sympathy go hand-in-hand; how the very poor people in the barrios created communities tight and whole; and how important it is to respect one another. The love she gave me was total.
Juanita grew up in Guigue, where, I can imagine, she cared deeply for those around her and yet looked beyond the town toward a bigger world. She came to work “for” us in Valencia as part of her journey up and out. Juanita turned her work into a communal offering as she touched each one of us and became a part or our family. We were brought closer through Juanita’s presence, even as she urged us to be and relish our separate selves. My sister, my mother, my father, and I loved her without hesitation. We all felt lucky that she wanted to be with us when we moved from Venezuela to Connecticut.
After two years, Juanita had a good hold on the United States. She enjoyed many new friends, learned English in a more rigorous way, and found someone to marry. For the first time since she had left, this very bright, funny, affianced, loving, and serious woman was returning to Venezuela to be with her family on Christmas. I watched her pack her suitcase with clothes and gifts to take to her Guigue home. I already missed her when she tickled me and reminded me to wash my hands before every meal. I was a melancholy girl who sensed the poignant very early on. That night-before moment turned out to be the one that didn’t flow into others. It is stuck in my memory, always, just this way.
When Juanita was killed on Pan Am flight 217, something stopped inside of me for many years but something also began. Her gift to me was a steadiness of love I could fully feel and pass on to others. After 44 years, “passing on” has taken a whole new meaning almost entirely because of Juanita. To this day, I sense her and hold onto her: my other mother, my mentor, and my guiding friend.