On Sunday afternoons in the early 1950s, young people from the Bay Area's Mexican community headed to Sweet's Ballroom in Oakland.
On one of those afternoons, a handsome bullfighter visiting from Mexico spotted a pretty young dental nursing student from San Jose and asked her to dance.
"I really didn't think much of it," says Lily Tenes.
Sweet's was known for bands that played the latest swing and Latin music. Lily liked to dance and noticed the man, Rudy Tenes, did, too. But that, and the fact he spoke little English, was about all she noticed before she and her friend left to go home.
A short time later, she and her friend spotted Rudy with his friend on the train crossing the Bay Bridge back into San Francisco. She saw how they also caught the bus that was taking Lily to the home of friends where she was staying while going to nursing school.
"They followed us," Lily says. "They asked us our names, and we made up stories. My friend, whose name was Esther, said she was Esther Williams. I said I was Elizabeth Taylor. That was it."
Or so she thought. Lily saw Rudy at another dance at Sweet's Ballroom.
Rudy returned to Mexico, but not before he and Lily exchanged addresses. Rudy sent letters containing tender and beautiful poetry. Because the letters were in Spanish, which Lily didn't speak, she had to ask her mother, who was from Mexico, to translate. Fortunately, Lily says, there was nothing objectionable in them: "He was a gentleman."
Rudy returned to the Bay Area two years later, where he found work in a bakery. The two began dating, and Rudy finally told her he had been a bullfighter.
They dated seriously as they started to learn each other's language. They also talked marriage. But Lily got cold feet and decided to follow an old dream of becoming a nun.
That inclination didn't last too long, and Lily tried to get Rudy to take her back. She called his boardinghouse. He told the elderly women who owned the house that he didn't want to talk to her, but they adored Rudy and believed Lily was key to his happiness. They urged him to get on the phone. "Then he heard my voice and he melted," Lily says.
They married in November 1955 at San Jose's Cathedral Basilica of St. Joseph. After a honeymoon at Lake Tahoe, they returned to San Jose, where Rudy eventually became the owner of a jewelry store and Lily became a teacher in their local parish. Together, they raised five children.
Over the years, he became a regular churchgoer and developed a liking for opera. She became a fan of bullfighting with the two traveling over the years to attend bull fights in the Central Valley, Mexico and Spain.
"It's interesting," she says. "I've learned a lot about things I didn't know anything about. When you get married, you learn to like each other's things."
-- Martha Ross, Staff
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