July 15, 2013 Updated: July 15, 2013 at 8:15 am
At 103 years old, Ventura Velasquez Ruiz gets to share memories with five generations of her family in Colorado Springs, many of whom gathered Sunday to celebrate her birthday, confident she will be around for many more.
"Her health is top-notch," her daughter, Carmen Grande, said. "She's got a great sense of humor."
Born in 1910, the year the Mexican Revolution exploded, Ruiz and her family traveled north into the United States, looking for peace and a shot at prosperity.
"My grandfather told them to go north and he'd catch up to them," Grande said. "Unfortunately, that never happened."
Speaking only Spanish, Ruiz was 13 when she, five brothers and her mother arrived in Colorado Springs. She taught herself English by frequenting the library at St. Mary's Cathedral and pouring through books until she became proficient in English and French.
After graduating from Colorado Springs High School, Ruiz's musical talents earned the attention and patronage of Julie and Spencer Penrose, who gave her the opportunity to earn local fame and a living by performing at The Broadmoor in the late 1920s and into the 1930s.
"She used to play the guitar and sing so beautifully," Henry Ruiz Jr., her son, said. "A lot of people found her looks and talent a really exotic mix and she was so charming, Mrs. Penrose really took her under her wing and exposed her to the community."
Putting her connections to good use, Ruiz and her husband, Henry Ruiz Sr., opened Henri's Pick-a-Rib Barbeque in 1946 - which they credit as the first Mexican restaurant in Colorado Springs. She cultivated recipes handed down to her from her mother and grandmother in Mexico, introducing the rich cultural fare to the community to great acclaim.
"One of her most popular recipes were her 'chiles rellenos,' the sauce she served them with was unique," Grande said.
The restaurant became too popular for its original location and in 1951 it moved to 2427 W. Colorado Ave., where it still stands, under new management since 2001.
Grande said her grandmother taught Ruiz how to cook and keep an herb garden, using natural remedies for headaches, muscle pains, stomach ailments and more.
"That's what she owes her long life and health to, because she's always been in touch with her roots," Grande said.
Today Ruiz's life is quiet and calm, but her children still describe her as a loving mother who cherishes art, museums, the symphony and lavish dinners.
"She has a very dry sense of humor," Grande said. "She's always been so clever and quick-witted."
Ruiz watched quietly as her family gathered around her and sang "Happy Birthday," softly smiling, ready to get some rest.
She asked to be taken back to her room right after cake.
But not before demanding that they save her a big piece.