This is the story of my parents Rudy and Lily Tenes when they met in the 1950s.
The Bullfighting season in Baja California generally begins in early to late spring and concludes in the Fall by the end of September. Following in his stepfather Matador Jesus Tenes’ and older brother Luis’s footsteps, Rudy Tenes began bullfighting at El Toreo de Tijuana, the main bullring in downtown Tijuana, which at that time was still a territory of Mexico.
In 1951 after the season had ended he decided to visit his sister for two weeks who was now living in Daly City just outside of San Francisco. Staying with another relative in San Francisco he stopped by a local restaurant and struck up a conversation with some young gents from Zacatecas who were living in San Francisco. He said he was looking for something fun to do while in town and they invited him to go with them to Sweet’s Ballroom the next day.
Sweet’s Ballroom was the go-to venue in downtown Oakland during the Big Band era of WWII. William Sweet opened the nightclub in 1920, and it became enormously successful with performances by such performers as Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Sinatra.
In the 1950s Guadalupe “Jess” Carlos was organizing Sunday afternoon dances called Tardeadas for the Mexican and Latino community bringing in many famous Mexican artists like Pedro Infante, Jorge Negrete, Maria Victoria,Tin Tan, Tona La Negra, Cantinflas, Lalo Guerrero, and Afro Cuban performers like Perez Prado, Xavier Cugat, Mongo Santamaria Willie Bobo, Cal Tjader, Benny More and Tito Puente. Local musicians like Coke and Pete Escovedo, Benny Velarde and Las Hermanas Montoyas got their start performing at Sweet’s Ballroom.
Rudy arrived at Sweet’s with his two new friends and quickly spotted some pretty Mexican-American girls, noticing one in particular named Lily Sanchez. Lily had just graduated from Notre Dame High School in San Jose and was attending the Dental Nurses Training School in San Francisco while commuting back to San Jose each night.
They danced all afternoon and when it was time to leave decided to ride the train together across the bridge to San Francisco. His friend had his eye on Lily, but Rudy was taken with her beauty and she reciprocated. He made sure to see her while he was visiting in town, then prior to leaving they exchanged information and parted ways.
Rudy returned to Mexico to continue bullfighting and began sending beautiful poetry and love letters to Lily in Spanish. The only problem was she couldn’t read or write in Spanish. Her mother Luz, who was born in Durango, Mexico began to look forward to receiving the letters and reading them to her daughter. They say they both fell in love with him at the same time.
After a few years had passed Rudy gave up his bullfighting career to move to San Francisco to be by his love and get engaged. He became a driver for Continental Baking Company and knew it was important to learn English in this new country he was going to call home. He decided not to live in the Mission district where Spanish is commonly spoken but wanted to make a concerted effort to learn to read and write in English and move somewhere where he would be forced to speak the language of the land.
He struck gold in the City by the Bay when he rented a room from an elderly lady, Mrs. Phillips in a boarding house in a district referred to as “The Avenues”. One of the tenants, Mrs. Rosemarie Burnham was the private tutor for the Zellerbach children, a well-known philanthropic family in San Francisco. She and the other ladies took this young “Ricardo Montalban-like” man under their wings teaching him English and etiquette lessons.
Meanwhile growing up in Catholic schools and especially being influenced by the Notre Dame nuns, Lily felt that she was being called to join the convent and broke off the engagement to become a nun. She broke the news to Rudy who was shocked and devastated.
Lily’s mother, who loved Rudy dearly, was very upset and refused to speak with her daughter for two weeks. The woman from the boarding house were encouraging him to try to win her back but he replied, “How can I compete with God?” Rudy decided to quit his job, move back to Mexico and begin bullfighting again.
As he was packing up his belongings and placing them in the car the phone rang. Mrs. Phillips picked up the phone and heard Lily’s voice on the line asking to speak with Rudy before he left. She called out to Rudy who was packing his car on the street, but he refused to speak with her. She put down the corded phone then she and the ladies went outside to practically drag him back inside insisting that he just speak to her. He finally relented and she asked to see him before he left. Lily realized she had made a mistake and took the first train to San Francisco to meet him.
Rudy says, “All she had to do was bat her eyelashes at me and it was all over.” They exchanged vows on November 5, 1955 at Saint Joseph Church (now Cathedral) in San Jose, California and 60+ years later are still in love.