It is difficult to settle on the two most significant arcs in the of life of Aztec, New Mexico, resident Lilliosa Padilla. But family and education stand out. Padilla, who just marked her ninetieth birthday, is also the unofficial keeper of her family’s history, one whose roots run deep in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico.
Padilla was born in Pagosa Junction, Colorado, in 1930, to Felix and Ophelia Gomez. But long before that the Gomez name was already well known in the area. Jose Eugenio Gomez was a successful merchant in Pagosa Junction and Lumberton, New Mexico. He also homesteaded in Dulce, New Mexico, in the late 19th century.
‘Junction,’ as it is known by locals, is today nearly a ghost town. But there was a time when it hummed with ranching, railroad, and lumber. Sheep were the ‘cash cow’ of the region, and the Gomez family, including his mother, Ruben, and three brothers, ran an estimated 50,000 animals.
“We had a two-room schoolhouse at Junction,” said Padilla. “It went to the eighth grade.” To get there, she, her two sisters and a brother, would follow the railroad tracks. “There were always paths, too, when the snow fell,” said Padilla. “I really enjoyed school at Pagosa Junction,” she said, “because it just seemed like the teachers really took an interest.”
While formal education stopped at the eighth grade for most of the Junction kids, it was a springboard for the Gomez four. Older brother Felix, who spent a career in the U.S. Air Force reaching the rank of Colonel, left Junction for “the Christian Brothers School in Santa Fe,” said Padilla. He would later graduate from Colorado A & M, today CSU. Sister Ophilia went on to finish high school and college at Denver’s Loretto Heights. Sister Maria left Junction for Cañon City’s Saint Scholastica, later graduating from then Adams State College, now ASU, in Alamosa. Both worked as teachers and, later, social workers.
Padilla also left Junction for Saint Scholastica where she graduated with honors. But unlike her sisters, she delayed college to work at the family’s store in Junction. “I wasn’t really thinking about college,” she said. The impetus for college came later from a former Saint Scholastica friend. “Why don’t you go with me,” the friend suggested. “We can be roommates. You would enjoy college.” So, Padilla packed her things and in Fall 1949, was suddenly a college freshman and, what she thought at the time, on her way to a career as a secretary.
College and learning came naturally. On her first day, “everyone was required to take a general math test.” She passed and “was excused from taking the class.” She jumped almost immediately to the most advanced math offered at the school. But just a year after arriving, she began thinking that she wasn’t challenging herself. “Why not take some of these courses everybody else was taking,” she thought. Suddenly she was on track for a degree in education.
In the early fifties, the Adams State student body was also populated with returning veterans attending on the GI Bill, including one Amos Padilla, a young man and veteran she knew through friends back in Pagosa Springs. They would both graduate---as teachers---marry and settle down back in New Mexico, both as teachers. First stop, Gobernador, a tiny northern New Mexico town. They were also anomalies in the fifties. Married Latinos each with a college degree.
He would soon leave teaching to work in energy, natural gas. She would take an extended break---a dozen years---from teaching to raise their four children, Carla, Raymond, Joan and Angela, before returning as a first-grade teacher, a job she would have for the next 22 years. After retiring, she and Amos returned to Junction. He died in 1993. She later moved back to Aztec.
Switching from a secretarial path to education, she said, was one of the best choices she ever made. Teaching first grade was confirmation. In Aztec, Padilla still runs into former students. “Some,” early students, “even call me Miss Gomez,” she said with a laugh, though most remember her as Mrs. Padilla. “It was so rewarding,” she said, touching so many young lives. The work each year was the same. But the return on investment never got old.
Padilla modestly describes her teaching style as ‘thorough.’ “I had a job to do; to teach. I was friendly enough,” adding, “but you need some discipline, too. If you lose that, nobody can learn anything.”