At the dawn of 1962, Paula Vallejo wanted to open a restaurant. She was 60 and had given birth to 12 children, eight boys and four girls. A full life, for sure, and her family urged her to slow down as she neared retirement.
Paula declined to listen. She yearned to cook Mexican food at 111 S. Corona St.
Lydia Martinez is Paula’s daughter. Tuesday, she turned 85 years old. She sits and laughs in a corner booth of the restaurant she and her mother turned into a Colorado Springs institution. She is, of course, wearing a mask.
Vallejo’s, despite all challenges, remains open during our strange coronavirus spring, with Lydia cooking and serving curbside meals 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday. She plans to remain open until 2022, when she will celebrate the restaurant’s 60th anniversary.
She laughs as she recalls a birthday conversation with her nephew.
The nephew said he worried for her. She worked too diligently, he said. She needed to slow down.
Lydia gently changed the course of the conversation.
“I feel 47 years old!” she told her nephew. The normal among us increase in age on birthdays. Lydia is convinced she decreases. She grows younger, not older.
She’s not just talking. Lydia is a senior citizen on a mission. For 58 years, she’s been joyfully obsessed by a small restaurant on the northeast corner of downtown.
The coronavirus forced her to close the restaurant for several weeks. If you know Lydia, you know these were unhappy days.
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“Let me tell you,” she says, her hands moving fast, “I was not doing anything at home. I had so much anxiety. I was going crazy. Oh, my God, I was going crazy. Just going out of my mind.”
As she stressed at home, she yearned to return to her true home, the restaurant.
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But seniors have their own diversity and walk through life in all levels of health. Lydia declines to discuss the coronavirus despite several attempts by me to linger on the subject. For decades, she either swam each morning or walked around Prospect Lake. She felt healthy and strong then. She feels the same vigor today.
She refuses to worry about The Virus.
She believes, strongly, in the power and value of work. Paula lived and thrived 28 years after opening Vallejo’s. She died, age 88, in 1990. Lydia remembers arriving alongside Paula at the restaurant at 8 a.m., and departing exhausted and satisfied at 10 p.m. This wasn’t mere work. This was their crusade.
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Relentlessly pushing yourself, Lydia believes, fuels a healthy and delightful march into old age.
“I love working,” Lydia says. “That’s what keeps me going. And I believe really deeply in God. He’s my leader, my shepherd. He’s the one who keeps me going.”
For a few weeks at the dawn of 2020, Lydia considered closing Vallejo’s. She wanted to travel to Alaska to visit relatives. She wanted to explore Mexico. She wanted a break from the 60-plus hours spent each week at the restaurant. Or at least that’s what she thought she wanted.
The forced closing of Vallejo’s forced her to examine what she really needed. She thought of how much she enjoyed cooking. She believes, deeply, in the power of good food to bring joy to those who eat it.
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Sitting at the booth, she remembers a strange, wondrous story from 20 years ago. She arrived at Vallejo’s late in the morning with a friend. Lydia was busy with supplies and asked her friend to unlock the glass front door.
The friend rushed back to Lydia. The friend had seen a shadowy figure in the back of the restaurant. The friend described the figure in detail.
Lydia just laughed. She knew it was the spirit of her late mother. Paula was still looking over her creation. Of course, she was.
“Don’t worry about it,” Lydia told her friend. “It’s mother, and she’s mad at me because I’m coming in late.”