FEEDING THE COMMUNITY
In Depression era Flagstaff, there existed a small restaurant called The Flagstaff Cafe, a small place with wood-slatted walls on South San Francisco Street. On its menu, food prepared by sisters Maria “Nina” Vergara and Procora “Coya” Vergara Martinez. As the worst of the great depression hit, putting thousands out of food and shelter, Coya and Nina fed their hungry neighbors. Paying customers entered through the front door, those who could not afford a meal came to the back. Decades after the café closed, the sisters received checks from people paying them back for their meal from all those years ago.
According to Vergara Martinez’s obituary, published in the Arizona Daily Sun in February 2003, friends and family members remember her food being prepared with love and the keen hand of a practiced cook.
Procora “Coya” Vergara Martinez is one of 21 women and non-binary people featured in Resilience: Women in Flagstaff’s Past and Present. Born in Mexico in 1907, Vergara Martinez left the country during the Mexican revolution. The uprising, which swept Mexico in waves of change, also resulted in temporary political crises and left refugees in its wake.
From the beginning of her time in the United States, Vergara Martinez helped the community; food was her way of doing so. She first cooked at railroad camps across northern Arizona, then in her sister’s restaurant and finally in her own kitchen, where she fed friends and family well into her 80s.
“[Coya] woke at dawn to knead tortillas and prepare chorizo and eggs for breakfast visitors,” her obituary reads.
A great deal of the information about Vergara Martinez came from oral histories conducted by another woman featured in the Resilience exhibit, Delia Ceballos Muñoz. Through her several years long Recuerdos del Barrio project, Muñoz chronicled the lives of Flagstaff’s Spanish, Latino, black and Chinese-American communities in an effort to keep their histories alive and documented.
"[Procora] was kind, very soft-spoken and when you asked her a question, she really thought about it," Muñoz remembered of her interview with Vergara Martinez.
According to the Resilience exhibit, Vergara Martinez and her husband Vincente had seven children. She died surrounded by four generations of her family, having left an imprint on the town several people continue to be bear witness to.
In history, the stories of women like Vergara Martinez teeter at risk of being forgotten. Often the lives of immigrants and people of color have been pushed to the sidelines of history books and cultural institutions, museums especially are reckoning with the trend.
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Flagstaff’s Arizona Historical Society Pioneer Museum underwent its own shift in understanding when a young Latina student asked curator Bill Peterson if he had anything about her at the museum. He didn’t. But out of that lack sprung the Todos Unidos exhibit, which sought to showcase the lives of Flagstaff’s Spanish and Latino population, one that, according to the Resilience exhibit, “…has been in Flagstaff for as long as Anglo residents.”
Crucial to Todos Unidos was the very real data, stories that is, collected by Muñoz and others through her oral history project, Recuerdos del Barrio. Thanks to Muñoz, Flagstaff’s Cline Library Special Collections now has thousands of hours worth of interviews with more than 75 residents who may not have otherwise made the proverbial cannon.
"[Delia's] whole goal was to highlight the resilience of her community, she became a pillar in it and was able to be their voice when their voice wasn't being heard. Her resilience is not only how she told her own story and how she made herself present in the community but how she was also a vehicle for delivering other people's stories as well," Hana Lipke said.
Lipke, along with friend and fellow 2018 NAU graduate Rachel Lauver helped to interview Muñoz for the exhibit.
In 1998 Muñoz also helped to found Nuestras Raices, a nonprofit dedicated to keeping Latino culture alive through various events. One of those is the Celebraciones de la Gente. Held every year at the Museum of Northern Arizona, it is filled with stories, presentations, dance, sugar skulls and other Día de los Muertos traditions.
Muñoz still lives in Flagstaff, and is known by many throughout the community. Part of that is indebted to a far-reaching web of trust that she built with community members over the years. In fact, several of Muñoz’s interviewees were hesitant to speak with her at the beginning, until she began using her maiden name Ceballos, one that was recognized because of how far back into Flagstaff history it traced.
"They knew my family, and knowing my family and how long we’d been here, that was the beginning of opening that trust," she said.
For Muñoz, being approached to be included in Resilience was a pleasant surprise, she says, but also one that had value for more than just herself.
"Reason one why Recuerdos being included in the [Resilience] exhibit is important is these were silent people. It was very overdue, letting people know that they existed here and they have voices as well," Muñoz said. "The people that I interviewed were people I grew up with, neighbors, my mom or dad’s coworkers, neighborhood people."
Muñoz worked as a librarian at NAU’s Cline Library for 30 years, spearheading a project that would have impacts that still reach into present day. Because of Muñoz, who is herself remembered in the exhibit, there exists a permanent record of people not lost to the annals of history.
"I've always thanked the community that they were so willing to share their story," Muñoz said.