The Footprints We Leave Behind…Remembering My Cousin Chila

With my cousin Chila at the Zuniga Family reunion in Denver, Colorado - July 2013

With my cousin Chila at the Zuniga Family reunion in Denver, Colorado – July 2013

My cousin, Orcilia “Chila” Zuniga Forbes, passed away on Friday, August 28, 2015.  Here are some of my memories of this remarkable woman. 

My cousin Chila passed away two weeks ago.  It came as a shock to our family and we still can’t believe it most days.  She was truly remarkable.  Quite a number of stories have been published about her over the past two weeks, discussing her education, career, non-profit work and accomplishments.  I’m sure more will be shared over time and I look forward to hearing them.  She leaves quite a legacy and quite a few footprints…

Cousin Chila at the 2013 Zuniga Family Reunion - wearing her running shoes...

Cousin Chila at the 2013 Zuniga Family Reunion – wearing her running shoes…

One story I particularly love tells of how Chila was always so “neatly coifed, perfectly made up, stylishly and professionally dressed, stockings, running shoes.  Yes, running shoes.” The story goes on to say that she was always quite literally “on the move.”  Those shoes probably helped in some small way, but I know there was more her success than the shoes.  

I’ve been considering all the footprints Chila left behind with those running shoes.  At 77 years of age – that is just too young.  I remember her as the picture of health…calm, collected, striking in appearance and always having marvelous experiences with her sister – Wiro – and brother-in-law, Chuck.  It was always a joy to spend time with her at family reunions – she was so interesting and I loved the conversations we had together.

Chila - the oldest of 8 children of Lorenzo and Anita Zuniga - here with her brother Lorenzo Jr. (Boy), sisters Boogie and Wiro (Hortencia) and sister-in-law, Maria Varela.

Chila – the oldest of 8 children of Lorenzo and Anita Zuniga – here with her brother Lorenzo Jr. (Boy), sisters Boogie (Ophelia) and Wiro (Hortencia) and sister-in-law, Maria Varela.

One very inspiring conversation we had goes back to 2002 when I went to Portland, Oregon for a conference.  This was the year after my dad died.  A few days before I flew out, my mother reminded me I had a cousin in Portland.  I quickly typed an email to Chila and hoped for a reply.   To my delight, Chila immediately contacted me and outlined times she was available to meet and offered to include me in plans she already had in the works if I was available.  I was thrilled!  Spending time with a Zuniga cousin was so important to me since my dad had died.  I needed that connection to my Mexican family. 

Chila and her husband Richard picked me up at my hotel.  I had never met Richard so this was an added bonus.  I loved watching Chila and Richard together during that trip.  They were like two pieces of a puzzle that fit perfectly together. They seemed so happy together.

Chila said she was taking me to a wine dinner that night and we would be sitting with the winemaker who was a friend of hers.  What a treat!  Richard dropped us off downtown and would return to pick us up afterward.  We were early so we decided to walk around the block and found a bench where we sat and talked.  The conversation quickly turned to my dad.  He has passed away June 1, 2001 and Chila began telling me a story I had never heard before.  She said after my dad – her Tio Chito –  left Carlsbad, New Mexico and got out of the Air Force, he went to Catholic University in Washington DC.  This part I knew, of course.  What she said next has stayed with me all this time.  She told me “your dad was the reason I went to college.”  She added that until the time my dad left Carlsbad, they (she and her siblings) didn’t know they could also leave or get an education.  Chila definitely took this encouragement to heart, first getting a nursing degree followed by two masters degrees and a doctorate.  Landing at both the University of New Mexico and Oregon State University, I can only image the footprints she left in both places.  She didn’t keep this story about my dad to herself either.  She shared it with so many people and even spoke about this encouragement in a video I found called Destination Success (in Spanish). Such a treasure to find this video and hear her words! 

Chila and Boogie sing with the Mariachi at our Zuniga family reunion dinner in 2013.

Chila and Boogie sing with the Mariachi at our Zuniga family reunion dinner in 2013. This is one of my favorite photos from that reunion…

Last year, I was doing some research on Day of the Dead/Dia de los Muertos and I bookmarked a website that spoke of “footprints” and the passing of a loved one.  The author writes, “the Mexican definition of soul, is the footprint we leave behind for others to connect to, in that we are present, still after death, in how others remember us. Even the person who passed away can change and grow within the stories we hold of them.” 

I know I was lead to rediscover this bookmark last week.  I had already been going through pictures from past Zuniga family reunions when I found one of Chila from 2013.  She was  neatly coifed (as the story goes) from her head down to her running shoes.  That photo made me stop in my tracks and smile.   Chila left 77 years of footprints and they have taught me quite a few things.  They have propelled me closer to my Zuniga family roots beginning with that story about my father.  They have encouraged me to see what changes I can make to do more to help others.  They have inspired me to continue to educate myself and encourage others to seek education….just like my dad encouraged his niece so many years ago.  

Some people come into our lives and quickly go.  Some stay for awhile and leave footprints on our hearts.  And we are never, ever the same. – Unknown

Chila and her sister Wiro sing with the mariachi at our family reunion - Denver, CO - 2015.

Chila and her sister Wiro sing with the mariachi at our family reunion – Denver, CO – 2015.

With Chila, her brother Nino (Orlando), son-in-law Hal and daughter Eryn - at our family reunion in Albuquerque, NM 2011.

With Chila, her brother Nino (Orlando), son-in-law Hal and daughter Eryn – at our family reunion in Albuquerque, NM 2011.

La Familia Zuniga at our 2003 family reunion in Albuquerque, NM...

La Familia Zuniga at our 2003 family reunion in Albuquerque, NM…

While singing with her sister Wiro with the mariachi, Chila stops to give me a smile... Wiro's husband Chuck stands by to take photos - Zuniga Reunion 2013.

While singing with her sister Wiro with the mariachi, Chila stops to give me a smile… Wiro’s husband Chuck stands by to take photos – Zuniga Reunion 2013.

Me with Chila at our reunion in 2003.

Me with Chila at our reunion in 2003.

Chila chats with my little sister, Kanista at our family reunion in 2003.

Chila chats with my little sister, Kanista at our family reunion in 2003. Cousin Chuck is on the laptop.

Chila with her little brother, Ricardo Zuniga.

Chila with her little brother, Ricardo (Googs) Zuniga. (2003)

My mother, Barbara Zuniga with her niece, Chila. Zuniga family reunion 2013 in Denver, CO.

My mother, Barbara Zuniga with her niece, Chila. Zuniga family reunion 2013 in Denver, CO.

Chila with her brothers and sisters...

Chila with her brothers and sisters…from left to right – Googs (Ricardo), Wiro (Hortencia), Boogie (Ophelia), Chila (Orcelia), Lala (Oralia) and Boy (Lorenzo, Jr.) – missing from this picture – Eddie and Nino (Orlando).- Family Reunion 2003 – Albuquerque, NM

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