When counselors at the teen recovery center in Blaine instructed cook Celia Garcia to give each child just one helping of soup, she waited until their backs were turned, then quietly scooped more into the teens' bowls. She did it again and again for 15 years.
"They were hungry. And she never wanted anyone to suffer. That would really hurt her," said Celia's son Ramiro Garcia. "Her thing was to cook, to feed her family and feed everyone around as much as she could. She really touched other people, just out of love." Celia, who passed away from liver cancer on Christmas morning at the age of 64, housed, fed and cared for so many people that she became "Mama Celia" to friends and family alike.
Along with her husband, Fernando, the mother of seven and grandmother of 18 regularly took in friends, nephews and other family and made sure they had food and warmth. It wasn't uncommon for the five-bedroom house they found in Blaine 30 years ago to shelter two or three families at a time. Sometimes it "was chaos, but there was always love there. She was really an amazing woman," Ramiro said.
Celia became a master at chili con carne, pork posole, pepper and hominy soup, tacos and other dishes she could stretch. "My kids would bring all their friends here and my wife used to feed them all the time. So after awhile my house was full of kids," Fernando said. "I used to joke that I would make them eat hot peppers. But my wife was always so friendly, and very happy to have them," he said, chuckling through tears. "Our life was so good. I am going to miss her a lot."
Celia, the middle of 10 siblings, learned to love people and cooking while growing up in San Diego, and while visiting aunts in Poncitlan, a suburb of Guadalajara, Mexico. It was in Poncitlan 48 years ago that a 17-year-old Fernando first spotted the 16-year old Celia in flowered pants and sweater outside his father's fabric store. When he left the shop to say hello, she fibbed, and said her name was Nancy. It wasn't until he proposed months later that she told him her real name. Against their parents' wishes, they eloped. "I always joked that I had hopped on my horse and swept her away like Valentino. We never were single. We were always together," Fernando said.
The newlyweds settled in Guadalajara, had daughters Eva and Teresa, before taking a bus to Tijuana and working at a dry cleaners. In 1977 they decided to join her brother in Minneapolis, where wages were higher. Their car stalled and froze on a highway in Iowa. "It was so cold. I said, 'I want to go back,' " Fernando recalled.
A policeman helped get the car to a garage and soon they were on their way to Minneapolis. Fernando found work in manufacturing — first at 3M's tape plant in St. Paul and later at Honeywell's thermometer and metal plating plants in Minneapolis and Golden Valley. As crime rose in their Minneapolis neighborhood, the growing family moved to Blaine in 1986.
There, Celia was thrilled to watch her seven kids safely ride bikes and play from her dining room window. She watched "novellas," scary movies and laughed hard when Fernando scared their children Eva, Teresa, Celia, Fernando, Mauricio, Ramiro and Angelica with a motion-sensing Chucky doll that screeched "I see you!" when someone sneaked home after curfew. The teens hid the doll. But the parents took raucous delight in finding and putting Chucky back into business. "She laughed and laughed. But eventually they threw the doll away, and we never saw Chucky again," Fernando said.
For 15 years, Celia walked 2 miles each day to the Anthony Louis Center, where she cooked nutritious meals for the youths. She made less than $12 an hour, but squirreled away enough so her family could drive to Mexico each year to visit relatives and her beloved beaches. "We had a van and were packed like sardines," Fernando said. "But, oh my goodness, we had fun."
Services have been held.