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Center of Their Universe

Mary Ortiz is the 73-Year-Old Matriarch of a Boyle Heights Family That Numbers Close to 100 and Spans Five Generations

August 04, 1996|Michael Quintanilla | Quintanilla is a staff writer in Life & Style

Mary Ortiz sits calmly at her dining table, the vortex of a whirlwind of great-grandchildren: a clamorous human hurricane with sticky fingers, runny noses and an appetite for the sweet mountain of pan dulce on the table.

"Oh, how I love my family," says the 73-year-old matriarch. "I just couldn't stand being alone."

Mary's door stands open to whoever of the five generations of her family needs a home. Or just un abrazo. Currently her two-bedroom Boyle Heights apartment is shared by six people: Mary's daughter Darlene Ortiz, 30, who has lived with her mother nearly all her life, as have Darlene's two children, Isaac Rodriguez, 13, and Justine Sergio, 6; and two other grandchildren, brothers Sonny, 31, and Tommy Velasco, 29, who moved in in 1994.

Many in the Ortiz clan--at last count seven daughters, one son (another died two years ago), 40 grandchildren, more than 50 great-grandchildren and one great-great-grandchild--live nearby and visit almost daily, one reason Mary will never move. They drop by seeking abuela's wisdom over a cup of coffee or to gab on the front porch about new boyfriends, marriages, how to roll out masa for tortillas or just to get some loving.

As a child, Mary says, her family was just as close. The youngest of eight siblings, she was born after her Mexican parents immigrated to California in 1915. She quit school in the fourth grade so her mother could work. "I had a house to run," she says.

She still does. Sometimes the compact living quarters percolate with tension, to which is added fear of the neighborhood gangs; her children's resentment when Mary takes the side of the grandchildren; Mary's obsession with keeping a clean house. What holds them together is Mary's patience.

And her rules, which she lays down with an iron fist, especially to her grandchildren. "When I was a girl, we kids never thought of talking back to our parents or taking off like that," Mary says. "That never would have happened. Sometimes I think families today are weaker. The parents let the kids do what they want because the parents don't want to be bothered, they're real busy with work."

Mary says if she were a teenager today, "I would want to finish school and get a good job." Kids today "have opportunity, and when I see them throw it away I get mad. Sometimes I have to put my foot down with them." She uses her own children as examples. Darlene, she boasts, has a good job as a receptionist for a Glendale car dealership.

In the queen-size bed she shares with Darlene and Justine, they often talk about the day's work. Or reminisce about family. Darlene discusses love and men, Mary talks about her work selling candles in the gift shop at Santa Isabel Catholic parish. And when Justine falls asleep, sometimes Mary talks about death, especially on days when her diabetes--a condition she has had for 20 years--gets her down. She worries what will happen to Darlene when she's gone.

"To sleep with your daughter and grandchild is like sleeping with angels," says Mary, widowed 23 years ago after 17 years of marriage to Carlos Ortiz Sr.

She glances at her chiffonier, its top covered with figures of saints and framed art of Jesus Christ. A candle flickers. At this spot, on the bed's edge, Mary prays for her family every morning before anyone is awake. In her prayers no one is excluded--not the two grandsons in prison or the unwed granddaughter trying to raise a baby.

"Oh, Lord," she says clasping her hands as if in prayer, "I just wish I had a big house, a huge house, and everyone could come stay with me. All of us under one roof." She pauses, rubs a wooden crucifix around her neck, and then reveals with a smile that she shouldn't be so greedy, "because I already have a place everyone calls home."

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