Hello from Cuernavaca – Getting to know my B&B hostess Marta Elena – a true riches to rags story

After my arrival in Cuernavaca and the lovely dinner at Vanessa’s aunt’s place the whole family took me to my temporary home for the next couple of days: Villa San Marcos is a bed and breakfast located in a historic mansion in an area just south of downtown Cuernavaca. The B&B has five beautifully decorated guest bedrooms, all with private bath, and a wonderful totally private garden with tropical plants, flowers and fruit trees. Free Internet access is available as well.

The owner, Marta Elena De La Fuente, greeted me warmly and right away I was invited to join in a small private birthday celebration. After a little while I didn’t even feel like a guest, I felt just like a family friend as I was included in the conversation and the festivities. (Marta Elena, an avid and very talented cook, had made this totally amazing mango birthday cake, it was absolutely delicious and would just melt in your mouth). What a great start to my stay in Cuernavaca!

Marta Elena and one of her darlings

During my travels I often run into interesting people, and Marta Elena, as I found out tonight, is one of those. She grew up in a very wealthy family in Torreón in northern Mexico and listening to Marta Elena’s childhood stories brings to mind images of the glamorous 1950s and 1960s, a time of jet-setting and entertainment among the very wealthy.

Even the story surrounding her infancy is very unusual: Marta Elena was adopted and her biological father was actually the nephew of her adoptive father. In her own words, she was one of the luckiest children as her father loved her so much to adopt her. At 7 years of age she finally found out about her adoption through a young friend. Everyone around her knew about it but her. Her mother denied that this adoption story was true, but her father admitted it and explained to her that she was wanted so much that she became part of his family.

The wonderful tropical backyard retreat at Villa San Marcos

To illustrate her privileged upbringing, Marta Elena recounts an interesting story set against the backdrop of the Cuban Missile crisis: while she was studying at an upscale boarding school in Paris as a teenager, all the foreign students received phone calls from their parents to return home due to the political insecurity. Marta Elena didn’t and decided that the world was going to end, so she figured she might as well go shopping. She had about $10,000 in a bank account and by the time she had finished her shopping spree, which included Christian Dior lingerie, designer shoes and pearls, there were only $500 left.

Finally she got the much desired phone call from her parents and told them she was so sad since she was the only girl that didn’t receive a concerned phone call from her parents. Her father explained that phone lines had been down and reassured her that politics would improve and asked her what she wanted to do now. So Marta Elena said she wanted to go to Rome to study Italian. Would he let her? He said yes and sent her to the Opus Dei Residence in Rome. He told her to call him so he would wire her some money upon her arrival in Rome. Of the $500 she had left she had to buy a $250 trunk to carry all the new merchandise she had bought, as a result she only had enough money for a 2nd class train ticket. So she ended up sitting on her trunk for the whole trip from Paris to Rome in a 2nd class train. The irony of her youthful priorities isn’t lost on her and she now laughs about this incident.

My beautiful bedroom at Villa San Marcos

Marta Elena loved Rome and had contact with many young people in Rome, mainly from upper-class families. She met many of her friends at a party at the Brazilian embassy. One of her friends had a boutique and this friend asked her to wear her clothes and translate for potential clients in the languages she knew: Spanish, Italian, French and English. The clothes were her reward for her effort.

Marta Elena’s father was a highly respected doctor and ran a medical clinic in Torreón. She says she had a very sheltered and privileged childhood and grew up in a household of 3 people who had 7 servants. She went to high school in Monterrey at a nun’s school. Then as a teenager she was sent to a nun’s school in Burbank, California, and completed that school in 2 years. To this day she speaks English amazingly well with barely an accent.

A beautiful pink pineapple at Marta Elena’s house

Her father gave her many opportunities, among others he sent her to European boarding schools. At 16 years of age she went to Paris to study at a very well-known boarding school called ‘l’Assomption”. Together with her friends, other girls from well-to-do Mexican families, they would go on different excursions around Paris on weekends and they would also explore neighbouring countries.

Of her time in Paris Marta Elena says that she learned a lot, in particular from some of the older teachers, who had come from wealthy families, but had lost it all during the 2nd World War. They taught her that all the wealth you might have doesn’t make you. They said “It’s the culture and your outlook on life who make you what you are”. This message has stayed with her her entire life.

Her time in Italy made her very self-assured, she became an independent young woman and was able to do and discover many things that had not been possible for her in her sheltered life in Mexico. When she returned from Europe at 19 she felt restricted and suffocated. In Mexico City she went on a blind date, and fell in love with the young man. The two young lovers were married shortly before her 21st birthday. Marta Elena has 3 children from this marriage: her oldest – a daughter, and two sons, all of whom she is very proud of. She says she wanted to be the best mother she could be.

The entrance to the beautiful mansion

Once the family came, the international travelling stopped, but the family did visit her father’s ranch near Torreón every summer. When her youngest son started going to school, she started volunteering in a hospital – the so-called ABC Hospital, the American British Cowdry, or as the Mexican’s called it: “El Hospital Inglés”. Every Thursday she volunteered for 9 years between 9 am and 1:30 pm in different functions, including helping out with administrative duties in the operating room.

She also took up gardening and cooking and took many classes in both fields and has become a real expert in these endeavours.

After her divorce, Marta Elena moved back to her home town Torreón as Mexico City had become very dangerous. Her daughter was married in Torreón and her older son was going to university there. After her divorce, her daughter moved to Cuernavaca, and requested her mother to move close to her. To be closer to her daughter, Marta Elena gave in and moved to Cuernavaca 2.5 years ago. She purchased the B&B from a previous owner who was an American expatriate.

Without any trace of self pity Marta Elena refers to her life as a “from riches to rags” story. After her father’s death in the mid 1970s her mother managed the finances and many of the family’s assets were sold off right around the time of the devaluation of the Mexican peso, leaving the family with barely a fraction of their worth.

Beautiful flowers in Marta Elena’s backyard

As a result, Marta Elena, who had never worked in her life, started to go to work at age 60 and has been running her bed and breakfast for about two and a half years now. She is one of the few people in Cuernavaca who run a bed and breakfast without the daily support of a maid or a gardener. As a matter of fact, Marta Elena runs her bed and breakfast with 5 bedrooms and a large tropical garden all by herself, without any regular help from anyone.

The amazing thing that struck me so completely is that Marta Elena, who had been so used to a privileged lifestyle lived only by the upper classes, who had never held a paid job during the first 60 years of her life, has adapted so well to her new role as the owner of this beautiful bed and breakfast, working hard every day from early morning to late at night. Her smile just radiates optimism and she is one of those precious bed and breakfast owners who truly enjoys the company of her guests. Marta Elena managed to turn something that might have derailed another human being into a new challenge and an opportunity. Now she works hard every day, yet she has adapted so well to her new role, it shows in everything that she does.

Marta Elena is definitely a unique and interesting individual who knows how to make her guests feel at home and I am looking forward to hearing more of her interesting stories.

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