Eagle County woman celebrates her 100th birthday on Mother’s Day
RED CLIFF — Like all mothers, Cordelia Leyba-Lovato has been many things in her long life. She has just been doing them longer than most.
“Cordy,” to her friends and family, turns 100 years old on Mother’s Day.
She has lived without electricity, running water, indoor plumbing, heat and money. She always had love: eight children — four sons and four daughters — 18 grandchildren, 45 great-grandchildren, and 27 great-great-grandchildren … so far. One husband, Vergilio Lovato, nicknamed “Red” because of his flaming red hair. Son Raynaldo Lovato survived Vietnam with the U.S. Army’s Special Forces only to die in an auto accident on April 28, 1972, shortly after his honorable discharge. He was 24. Son Jessie was born June 7, 1953, and died the same day.
People treat Cordy special.
“I am special!” she said, flashing her million-watt smile.
Love’s power and grace
She’d make no big changes in her life. She’s not interested in traveling. Her life has been adventure enough, although she said she’d walk in the mountains more, one of her favorite things to do. She’d regularly grab grandchildren to pick raspberries.
“We’d look around and ask each other, ‘Where’s grandma?’” said Tomasita Bustos, one of her 18 grandchildren. “Then we’d spot her way up high on a mountain.”
“I know where the good raspberries are,” Cordy said smiling.
The grandchildren gathered at their small Red Cliff house before and after school. The school bus stop was right out the front door. Grandaughters Georgetta Sandoval-Stevens and Bustos said they never came home to an empty house. They’d walk into Cordy’s house to be welcomed by the aroma of homemade tortillas, roasted potatoes and her world-famous green chili. She’d make massive batches of green chili and never eat any.
“It was for them,” Cordy said.
There’s more than power and grace in love like that, there’s personality. Her grandchildren said they experienced and embraced her dedication to them, and embraced her in return.
“The love that she showed us grandkids is immeasurable,” some of her grandchildren said.
Cordy’s kind of love is given without expecting anything in return, they said, but their grandmother received it anyway — partly because they love her so much, and partly because there are so many of them.
“She taught many of us what true love really was by a grandparent,” they said.
Now that she’s 100 and needs some help, her children and grandchildren are lining up to provide it. You don’t plan that, they said. That’s what happens when love becomes an action verb.
“She showed us grandkids how to share and appreciate all that we had as she had done with all her children. She taught us the meaning of family first,” some of her grandchildren said.
American before America
People like Cordy will make us rethink what it means to be “local.” Born May 10, 1920, the youngest of five sisters and one brother, she is the 11th generation of the Leyba lineage.
Her son, Harvey, traced the Leyba family to the 1540s, 19 years after Hernan Cortes conquered the Aztec. On the Leyba side of the family is the 22nd Viceroy of Spain appointed by King Charles V of Spain. Two of her ancestors, two brothers, settled and established in northern New Mexico before the United States was formed in 1776.
Cordy was raised on a small farm along the Santa Barbara River, in Llano Largo, Taos County, New Mexico — part of the Santa Barbara Land Grant of 1796. Her father Ismael farmed with horse-drawn plows, as his Spanish ancestors did when they first arrived in New Spain. Ismael took Cordy to school two miles away on horseback, until she could make the daily trip by herself.
In 1938 she was 18 years old and joined the Civilian Conservation Corps, working at a camp for men 75 miles west of Roswell, New Mexico. Among many other skills, she learned to weave wool to make blankets for U.S. soldiers.
Two years later, on Nov. 14, 1940, she married Vergilio in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He migrated to Gilman, Colorado, where he found work painting the brand new bridge on Highway 24 near Red Cliff. It was silver when they started. It was green when they finished. In those days painting a bridge meant hanging on rope seats about 300-feet above the Eagle River. The New Jersey Zinc Company soon hired him in their Gilman mine.
The growing family lived in a part of Gilman called “Ranchitos” where many of the Spanish miners and their families from Northern New Mexico lived after migrating to Colorado looking for jobs after the Great Depression, including many of Cordy’s family and childhood friends.
“There was no work in New Mexico. Here there were all kinds of jobs,” Cordy said.
The families scoured the mine scrap piles for building materials, creating simple one- and two-room shacks with discarded timbers. No plumbing, only outhouses. Heat was wood stoves fueled by scrap wood dumped at the mine.
A few shacks had electricity. No one had running water. Harvey recalls that the company installed a pump in the center of Ranchitos that froze in the winter. Residents hauled water from Rock Creek until the pump thawed.
Around 1950 the mining company bulldozed all but three company houses to build water and sewer lines and new rental houses. Cordy and Vergilio considered themselves lucky; they and their now-six children lived in one of those three houses. The other families moved to Red Cliff, Minturn and Eagle.
The company leased the new homes to employees based on seniority and family need. Vergilio had been with the company for years, and they had a half dozen children. That pushed them to the top of the list and they got the first available house — two bedrooms with a bathroom, with hot and cold running water, kerosene heat and electricity.
“These houses were like a dream come true, a mansion on top of Battle Mountain for my mother and her growing family,” Harvey said.
They finally bought their own home, a log house built in the 1880s. Their children grew, Vergilio retired after 30 years in the mine, and 52-year-old Cordy decided to get a job. Mountain Haus in Vail had the good fortune to hire her.
“I saw all those other ladies working, and I decided to try it. I had no more kids at home, so I thought I’d go into the world,” Cordy said.
She worked there 20 years, retiring at 72.
She took care of Vergilio after his stroke. He died on June 20, 2001. She lived by herself for several years, but finally sold her house. She’s living in Red Cliff with her granddaughter Georgetta, who says Cordy raised her from infancy.
A century flies by, Cordy said, and her life is full. She says she’ll stay in Red Cliff until she dies and is buried next to Vergilio in Greenwood Cemetery.
“I’m healthy and I have people to help me,” she said. “I love it.”
Harvey Lovato along with some of Cordelia’s other children and grandchildren provided the historical information in this story.
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