Dina Rampelotto was born in a little community on the Santa Cruz River, a green oasis in the high desert grasslands of Sonora.
The village sat just a few miles south of the United States-Mexico line.
Dina recalled a happy childhood, complete with a family donkey, devoted parents, three brothers, and a big sister named Vilma who would always be Dina’s counterbalance.
In Santa Cruz, as Dina grew up, she became known as “La Gallina Clueca,” which is Spanish for “ The Mother Hen.”
Dina didn’t earn the nickname because she looked or sounded like a hen – she was a tall, blue-eyed girl who laughed easily and had many friends. She earned the nickname because neighbor children thought she was so cool they waited to walk to school with her. By the time she arrived at the school house, she’d be trailed by a scatter of children, just as a mother hen is trailed by her little chicks.
Those children understood the generosity and kindness of Dina’s soul, a generosity and kindness that would shape and define her life.
It was a life shaped also by Dina’s own DNA, which carried a rich immigrant tradition of sacrifice and bravery, of risk-taking and courage, of great loss and great achievement.
Europe was in a state of chaos after World War I. Countries had been conquered, occupied, ripped apart. Borders were erased and redrawn.
Italy, Germany and Austria were among the hardest-hit nations.Some World War I refugees, including Dina’s future parents, made their way to the coal mines of Belgium. Here, they struggled to earn enough to buy boat tickets to America.
Palmira Angela Forrer was a young widow with Bavarian and Austrian roots. Her dead husband, the father of her child, had been German.
Jose Rampelotto was Austrian-Italian. His country was descending into the madness that would lead to the future rule of dictator Benito Mussolini.
Separately, Palmira and Jose immigrated to Mexico, leaving behind the building terror that would lead to the unspeakable horrors of the Third Reich and World War II.
Palmira and Jose met up again in Mexico, and eventually married.
Adolfo, Palmira’s son from her first marriage, soon had four siblings – Gino, William, Vilma and Dina.
Dina was a blonde Mexican child who spoke a Spanish imbued with a slight Austrian-Italian accent.
She made many close friends as a child and would cherish these friends her whole life.
As she grew up, she drew suitors who were smitten by her beauty inside and out.
As a young woman, Dina wanted to work in Mexico – maybe in a shop or bank or phone company.
She wanted to wear pretty outfits.
She wanted to enjoy her many friends.
She wanted to find and marry Mr. Right.
But her parents had other plans for her.
Recognizing that Mexico was less stabile than the United States, these immigrant parents from a war-ravaged continent encouraged their own daughters to also become immigrants – to the United States.
The job was far from glamorous.
Dina and Vilma would be servants on an isolated cattle ranch in Arizona.
But while the job lacked glamor, it guaranteed legal and safe passage into the United States. It guaranteed a future.
Dina begged her parents not to send her away.
She never wanted to be a servant, to dress in a dull uniform, to clean the house of rich people and answer the call of their dining-room bell.
But Dina ceded to her parents will.
The year was 1953. Dina was 19. Vilma was 22.
Dina and Vilma lived and worked on the ORO Ranch for about six years.
I was 4 years old when Dina and Vilma came to my parents’ house on the ORO Ranch.
They were like big-sisters-second-mothers to me.
I have always been deeply grateful to these two young sisters for giving so much time to a pesky, socially awkward, overly inquisitive and lonely little kid.
On the flip side, I think I was a pretty interesting kid, and I like to think I broke the monotony.
Vilma and I carried on long conversations, and translated cookbooks as well as newspapers like La Opinion and The New York Times.
Vilma taught me to make chocolate chip cookies and German jelly doughnuts and empanadas. She taught me how to hang clothes on the line when she could have put them up more easily herself.
Dina taught me to belt out heart-wrenching songs like the one about the little dove that went cu-cu-ru-cu-cu.
Dina let me iron dishtowels as she ironed my father’s white shirts. She taught me embroidery. She took me on walks to the creek, where we’d wade or dig craters into the sand. Sometimes, we’d poke around Indian ruins. Sometimes, we’d go hang out with the horses.
Like the kids in Santa Cruz, I tagged along behind Dina, drawn by her kindness, patience and love.
I knew, of course, that she wasn’t happy on the ranch.
After Vilma married Angel Delgadillo and moved to Seligman, Dina eventually settled in Cananea, Sonora.
She found her Mr. Right and married Ricardo Matus in 1966.
That summer, I visited Dina in Cananea.
To her own surprise, I think, she was no longer happy in Mexico.
She wanted to move back to the United States and raise a family. She wanted her children to be born as Americans.
With her reluctant husband in tow, she returned to the ORO ranch in 1966. Thanks to this sacrifice, Vilma, Ricardo and Gino were born Americans.
The Matus family eventually settled in Seligman in the early 1970s.
Dina devoted herself to her children.
They were among the most loved children on this earth.
Dina’s life did not turn out as she had planned it as a young girl, she often told me, but she had no regrets because in the end it gave her Vilma, Ricardo and Gino.
And, eventually, those children gave her grandchildren that she prized and loved.
And Gracias a Dios they are all Americans, she would say.
Dina Rampelotto Matus sacrificed willingly.
She lived a strong and kind life.
When she died last week, La Gallina Clueca had no regrets.
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Bio: Journalist Terry Greene Sterling has lived in Arizona most of her life, and has reported on the political brawls and human tragedies that have long made Arizona the focus of national news. She was raised on an Arizona cattle ranch, and learned to speak Spanish at the same time she learned English. The author of Illegal, Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone, Sterling has been honored with more than 50 national and regional journalism awards. She was named Virg Hill Journalist of the Year, Arizona’s highest journalism honor, three times. She was a staff writer for Phoenix New Times for 14 years before branching out on her own. She is a contributor for The Daily Beast, and Writer-in-Residence at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. Her work has also appeared in The Washington Post, Newsweek.com, Salon.com, Rollingstone.com, The Nieman Narrative Digest, Phoenix Magazine, The Arizona Republic, Arizona Highways, High Country News, and Preservation Magazine. She tweets @tgsterling and blogs about immigration in Arizona at terrygreenesterling.com.