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Obituary: Alice Marie Flores

Alice Marie Flores died February 13 at her home in Montclair, surrounded by her family.

She was born on February 27, 1934 in Watalula, Arkansas to German Methodist father Charles Nathaniel Mitten of Oklahoma and immigrant Mexican Catholic mother Maria Dolores de la Torre of Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico.

Alice grew up in Fontana, and graduated from Chaffey High School. Her father did not allow her to practice her generational Mexican Catholic faith. But on December 12, 1952, (the Mexican Catholic indigenous feast day of the Blessed Virgin Mary of Guadalupe), while visiting relatives in Tijuana, Mexico, she made a conscious spiritual decision to embrace the Catholic faith of her maternal ancestors.

She was baptized and made her First Communion in the morning in the presence of Mexican infants and children. Later in the afternoon, she received the sacrament of confirmation by the Mexican Catholic bishop of Tijuana, making all three Catholic sacraments in one day.

In 1952 and fresh out of high school, she was drawn to Claremont’s historic Padua Hills Theater, and sought employment after Herman and Bess Garner expressed an interest to hire a young, beautiful Mexican girl to perform there.

After being interviewed by the Garners, they hired her on the spot. She had no driver’s license and no mode of transportation from Fontana to Claremont, so she was placed in the Padua Hills Mexican Players white columned “dormitory for unmarried women” on the southwest corner of Indian Hill Boulevard and Harrison Avenue, now home to the colonial building at 428 Harrison Avenue. 

Casilda Amador, the dance teacher for all Mexican Players, took Ms. Flores under her wing and taught her all the steps that were performed by the internationally acclaimed artists at the Padua Hills Theater from 1932 to its closing in 1974.

Ms. Flores performed from 1953 to 1957, becoming one of the most skilled, classy and elegant dancers among the Mexican Players. At Padua Hills she met the love of her life, Gilbert Flores, who had begun working there after being honorably discharged from the US Marines following a stint in Germany during the Korean War.

During a 2017 Claremont Heritage film interview with Arbol Verde Preservation Committee Chairperson Al Villanueva, Ms. Flores said, “It was love at first sight. I fell in love with Gilbert’s baritone velvet voice and his creative ability to play his guitar like an angelic harp from heaven.”

At the time she fell in love with Mr. Flores, she had received five proposals for marriage, but dropped them all in preference for him. They were married on Sunday, December 26, 1954 at Our Lady of the Assumption Catholic Church in Claremont. The young couple asked Pastor Charles Strange if Benedictine Priest Vincent Martin could marry them, and he said yes.

Father Martin had arrived at OLA from China, where he was doing missionary work, just two days before his scheduled execution by the communist Chinese government. The Flores’ were the first couple Father Martin married. The priest later went on to buy property in Valyermo, California and establish the St. Andrew’s Abbey Benedictine monastery.

Both Mr. and Ms. Flores became crowd favorites during their time with the Padua Hills Mexican Players. Ms. Flores, whose birth surname was “Mitten,” changed her stage name to her mother’s maiden name, “de la Torre,” because all the other Mexican Players, the majority who whom were living in Claremont’s historic Mexican-American Arbol Verde neighborhood, had Spanish surnames.

As Ms. Flores said in the 2017 documentary interview, “Working at Padua Hills did not seem like work. It was effortless and sacred fun. We just lived and expressed our Catholic faith and Mexican indigenous culture through the idiom of the Spanish language. The Anglo audiences didn’t understand the language, but related to the dance, song and interfaith understanding of Mexican religious cultural events like ‘Las Posadas,’ the Mexican Christmas ritual of Joseph and Mary seeking lodging for baby Jesus. Las Posadas is now an accepted American cultural norm that is practiced by Christian families irrespective of their ethnicity.”

Ms. Flores’ quote reflects Herman and Bess Garner’s mission of establishing a theatrical art form that would bridge intercultural understanding between Anglos and Mexicans during a period of time in Claremont where de facto segregation and racially restrictive covenants existed, a historical fact that many Claremonters do not know even today, Mr. Villanueva said.

“At Padua Hills, we were a family,” Ms. Flores said in the interview, “We all became close friends. Marriages were consummated and families were started there. We became ‘Paduanos.’ The play I enjoyed acting and dancing in the most was Midsummer Night Dreams, a romantic play depicting early Californio history.”

After she started her family in 1957 with the birth of her first child, Maria Elena, Ms. Flores retired from Padua Hills Theater and dedicated the rest of her life to the role of mother, grandmother, homemaker and beloved wife.

She did, however, continue her association with the Padua Hills Paduanos and Claremont Heritage, becoming close friends with Ginger Elliot and the late Mary Ann Barkley. She helped organize and produce “Las Posadas” performance reunions in 1989 and 1998 before the historic Padua Hills Theater renovation by Jerry Tessier’s ARTECO group in 2009. 

After her retirement from Padua Hills in 1957, Mr. and Ms. Flores continued to engage with local Catholic communities. Mr. Flores was a main principal in the building of the first Catholic Church in Montclair, Our Lady of Lourdes.

He also led the Claremont historic procession with his voice and guitar alongside the late OLA icon and former pastor Monsignor William Barry in 1967, when Arbol Verde residents transferred the Sacred Heart of Jesus statue from the east barrio Sacred Heart Church (Claremont’s first Catholic church) to Our Lady of the Assumption Church on Berkeley Avenue. The statue now rests in the sacred vestibule of the recently renovated OLA.

Nellie Villanueva, Claremont native and former Paduano, was taught to dance by Ms. Flores.

“Alice told me in 2017 that I was her closest friend. She was my comadre. She baptized my youngest son, Steven. We both retired from Padua Hills in 1957, after she became pregnant with her first child, Maria Elena, and I became pregnant with my last child, Steven. She will always be in my heart. She was the nicest person I ever knew, and she was a very humble and spiritual woman.”

Ms. Flores’ daughters, Maria Elena and Terry, shared, “Everybody loved our mother. She welcomed anyone into our home. She fed everybody. She was a very giving and compassionate person. Although she walked with humility, she was a strong person. She loved dancing and taught us all the Mexican dances. She took pride in her family. She was creative and enjoyed doing arts and crafts. She lived out the Mexican Christian value of ‘mi casa es su casa.’”

She was preceded in death in 2015 by her husband, Gilbert R. Flores.

She is survived by her children, Maria, Terry (Robb), Danny, David and Carmela (John); grandchildren, Jessica, Seth, Brandi, Kiani (Manny), Christopher, Lance and Joshua; and great-grandchildren Emily and Amaya.

Services and a reception were held February 21 at Our Lady of the Lourdes Catholic Church in Montclair.

The family humbly requests that memorial donations in honor of Alice Flores be made to Claremont Heritage for funding to finish a documentary about her and her fellow Padua Hills Mexican Players. Contributions may be made at www.claremontheritage.org, or by check to PO Box 742, Claremont CA, 91711.

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