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West Side mother’s legacy thrives in Thanksgiving lunch for family of 700

November 28, 2018

When West Side resident Jaime Argona realized he wouldn’t be able to make his own traditional Thanksgiving dinner, he hopped on a Via bus with the idea of getting to the famous Raul Jimenez event across town.

But the bus driver told the visually impaired San Antonian he didn’t have to go that far; there was a luncheon with turkey and all the trimmings available much closer to home at St. Jude Catholic Church.

“I can’t see that well and he told me ‘Hey, they are doing it here,’” recalled Argona, 53, whose right eye is blind. “And he read the sign for me: ‘Everybody is welcome. Anybody and everybody.’”

That luncheon, started by the family of the late Angie Martinez, may not be well known citywide, but it’s a popular neighborhood event that now attracts more than 700 people.

Martinez grew up on the West Side and was an active parishioner at St. Jude, 130 S San Augustine Ave., near West Commerce and Gen. McMullen. She distributed 100 turkeys every Thanksgiving for 14 years, until she passed away in June 2010. One word is constantly used by family and friends to describe Martinez: giving.

“My Mom was giving. You could never say you like anything because she would give it to you,” said her daughter, Michelle Rivera, 35. “If someone we knew who was less fortunate would come up and say ‘I’m hungry,’ my Mom would say, ‘Can I get you something to eat?’”

Martinez’s legacy still nourishes her community.

Her five children — Cynthia Ybarra, Rebecca “Becky” Salinas, Lisa and Art Martinez as well as Rivera — honor her life with an annual Thanksgiving Day luncheon that feeds hundreds of people on the West Side. Last year they fed 700 people and this year’s numbers are still being tallied.

“My mother always told us, ‘if you have a little more, you give a little more,’” Salinas said. “We feel it’s our obligation as a family to help others. Obligation is a strong word to use, but we feel it’s our obligation.”

As hundreds of folks walked inside the St. Jude Community Center last Thursday, they were greeted by volunteers, Tejano music and a large picture of Martinez. The plates were filled with turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, stuffing, a roll, pie and tea. Guests had the option to take their food to go so they could eat it in the comfort in their own home or stay at the church hall for companionship.

You don’t have to be needy to enjoy the dinner, just hungry. As the sign said, everyone is welcome.

Families, homeless individuals and senior citizens alike held lively conversations in Spanish, English and Spanglish at the tables covered in yellow tablecloths and decorated with fall leaves and other holiday decor.

The Martinez children fund the luncheon out of their own pockets and spend two days prepping — Tuesday for the turkeys and veggies; Wednesday for cutting the pies and setting up the hall. They credit the 60 or so volunteers who help every year for the luncheon’s success.

With the luncheon reaching its 10-year mark, Rivera said, she and her siblings are focused on their mother’s goals, including influencing young folks to serve their communities and have compassion for the people living around them.

Richard “Richey” Gomez, 15, has been a volunteer for the luncheon since he was 7 years old. Richey’s mother encouraged him to give back because she always believed he had a big heart. He volunteered for years without knowing the Martinez family story, but was inspired when his mother fully explained it.

“I was like, wow, this would be a great legacy to continue, we need more volunteers so it could resonate with the people and they will want to help, too,” Richey said. “Just hearing that story made me want give back hope in the community as a whole, so we can continue growing as one.”

Richey wasn’t the only young face moved by the luncheon. Gabi, 11, and Alex, 8, were eating at Thursday’s event with their grandparents Lucy, 56, and Freddy Ortiz, 60. Gabi and Alex knew some people at the luncheon were homeless and they shared their gratitude because “we have a house and all of this food.” Gabi and Alex said helping others is good and they intend to do it when they grow older.

“These people are giving people food for free. It’s very nice of them to come over here and be with other people,” Gabi said, and Alex added, “everybody could come and enjoy food with their family.”

Rivera believes the luncheon can provide an extended family for people who might otherwise spend the holidays alone, even if it’s for just a couple of hours.

Freddy Cerna, 52, was the first of 40 people in line before St. Jude opened its doors for the annual Thanksgiving event. It was Cerna’s fourth luncheon, but with his sister’s recent passing, it was his first alone. Cerna plans to return for a fifth next year and said the welcoming environment helps him during the holidays.

“And looking at the families walk in together helps, too,” Cerna said, smiling.

Richey believes the luncheon will continue to grow and serve more but doesn’t want it to leave the West Side.

“There is much culture here and so much love here, that if you put it anywhere else it won’t have the same impact,” Richey said. “People know exactly where this place (St. Jude) is, even if you don’t have the right transportation, you know where it is. You can always come here, you will be always welcome. It’s all one big happy family here.”

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