San Pasqual Reservation- When Amelia” Melie “Contrera Villalobos Duenas was born on the San Pasqual Reservation in North County San Diego on March 29, 1914, life could be difficult, especially for Native Americans. Perhaps that is why she and her children did not learn of their Indian heritage until they were adults.
As Melie Duenas celebrated her 100th birthday on March 29, 2014, daughter Josie Villalobos summed up her family’s life and livelihood, saying, “My dad picked oranges. My mom packed oranges.”
Josie relates, “My parents had six kids: three boys and three girls. They pulled me out of school in the eighth grade so I could help my older sister, who is now 80 (I’m turning 76) take care of our younger siblings. We lived in Escondido and it was a hard life for us financially. I ended up taking classes later, here and there, learning to spell and read and write.”
She reveals, “We had no idea we were Native until the late 1950s when a lady named Mrs. Wolfe told us we were and that we should enroll to receive certain benefits. That’s when we learned we were from the San Pasqual Band of Mission Indians. My mother was born on San Pasqual, but moved to Escondido as a child. My mom’s mother had never mentioned anything about being Indian but after my mother found out, she did a lot of research and discovered she had many full-blooded San Pasqual ancestors. We all began learning about our Native culture.”
After Melie and her first husband and father of her children, Joe Villalobos, divorced, she married Hector Duenas. Both men are now deceased.
Native Resilience and a Strong Spirit
Despite, or possibly because of her hard early life, which forged a spirit of resilience in her, Melie is hale and hearty for her age. Josie says, “She has an enlarged heart, but other than that, her health is perfect!”
Melie continues to live in a home on the reservation where she has resided since the early 1970s. She has a caregiver on weekdays. Josie stays with her mother on weekends and takes her to her healthcare appointments at Indian Health Council’s Rincon clinic and elsewhere.
A few days before her birthday, Melie’s daughter, Josie, brought her to Indian Health Council so the staff could surprise her with a birthday cake and some spring flowers. According to Medical Assistant Gwendolyne Jenkins, “We had the pleasure of watching her walk (yes, walk!) into our breakroom where her Medical team broke out singing Happy Birthday. It was a great surprise. “
The stories of elders such as Melie Duenas comprise important threads of the fabric of life in Indian Country San Diego and the entire United States. People such as her carry the past, present and future of Native Americans within themselves. Their resilience is an example to us all.
Happy 100th birthday, Melie Duenas!