Hun­dreds mourn 2 chil­dren and a mom who brought Guatemala to Char­lotte

The Charlotte Observer - - Front Page - BY CRISTINA BOLLING

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They came by the hun­dreds Wednesday night, with wan faces and sleep­ing tod­dlers, to Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church to say good­bye to Ana Sánchez, the woman who was their gate­way to a taste of home, and her two chil­dren who lay in cas­kets along­side her.

Sánchez, 30, died Saturday, three days af­ter the Jan. 2 fire that tore through the fam­ily’s small east Char­lotte home. Her 9-year-old son, Leonel Alexan­der Vil­la­grez Sánchez, died Jan. 2. Her 2-year-old daugh­ter, Aranza San­taMén­dez Sánchez, died Jan. 3.

Sánchez’ two sur­viv­ing chil­dren re­main hos­pi­tal­ized, fam­ily mem­bers said Wednesday evening. Three-month-old Axel Camilo Men­dez Sánchez is in a coma af­ter suffering smoke in­hala­tion. Ab­ner Fran­cisco Vil­la­grez Sánchez, age 7, is steadily im­prov­ing.

For the 10,000 es­ti­mated Gu­atemalan na­tives in the Char­lotte re­gion, the loss of Sánchez is pro­found be­cause of the role she played in keep­ing the com­mu­nity’s cul­ture alive.

She and hus­band Cle­mentino Mén­dez Domingo ran a small shop on East­way Drive called Las Mar­avil­las (“the won­ders,” in English), a place packed with Gu­atemalan cloth­ing, spices, food and house­hold goods that mem­bers of the Gu­atemalan com­mu­nity say are im­pos­si­ble to find else­where in Char­lotte.

Sánchez ar­rived in the United States 15 years ago at age 15 and had Leonel and Ab­ner with her first hus­band, then mar­ried Mén­dez Domingo and gave birth to Aranza and Axel.

Mén­dez Domingo was at his night job clean­ing of­fice build­ings in Wax­haw when the fire broke out. Fire of­fi­cials have said it was likely caused by a lit can­dle.

Sánchez was from a town in south­west Guatemala called Con­cep­ción Chiquirichapa, and spoke both Span­ish and the Mayan lan­guage Mam. So deep was her pride in her na­tive coun­try that she was a first stop for com­mu­nity or­ga­niz­ers look­ing for the vi­brantly col­ored Gu­atemalan cloth­ing for folk­loric dances and other typ­i­cal Gu­atemalan goods to fea­ture at cultural events around Char­lotte.

Nora Guerra, co-owner of the Gu­ate-Linda restau­rant on The Plaza and Panade­ria El Quet­zal bak­ery on East­way Drive – both gath­er­ing places for lo­cal Gu­atemalans – said Sánchez had a love of­mak­ing new­com­ers feel wel­come in a new land.

“Peo­ple would come to the restau­rant and say, ‘Where can I find some­thing typ­i­cal of Guatemala?’ and I would send them there,” Guerra said. “She had a lit­tle of ev­ery­thing.”

On Wednesday night, el­e­men­tary school teach­ers choked back tears as they greeted their stu­dents who had come to bid farewell to Leonel, who was in third grade at Bri­ar­wood El­e­men­tary. Kia Ed­wards, who was Leonel’s teacher in kinder­garten and sec­ond grade, wiped away tears as she re­mem­bered the lit­tle boy who en­tered school not speak­ing any English, but wound up sur­pass­ing his grade level in read­ing.

“He was one with-it kid,” Ed­wards said.

Af­ter a fu­neral Mass, the cas­kets of Sanchez and her chil­dren were opened and mourn­ers formed a line that stretched around the large sanc­tu­ary. Friends held do­na­tion boxes by the cas­kets. (A gofundme ac­count has been set up to help with fu­neral ex­penses.)

Vol­un­teers set up a food sta­tion at the en­trance to the church and handed out hot chu­chi­tos (sim­i­lar to Mex­i­can ta­males), pas­tries and cof­fee.

Next week, the bod­ies of Sanchez and her chil­dren will be flown to Guatemala for burial.

Cristina Bolling: 704- 607-9931

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