Arsenia Estevez put herself through college, married, raised six kids and became a devoted reading teacher.
SEMINOLE HEIGHTS - For Arsenia Estevez, life was all about family, faith and friends. But probably more than anything else, it was about kids.
"My mother was dedicated to children," said her son, Robert Estevez. "Our house was where all the neighborhood kids came to eat. There was sort of an open-door policy."
It seems Mrs. Estevez, who died Saturday at age 75 after a long battle with complications from diabetes, was around kids almost every minute of her life.
She was born Arsenia Marquinez in Ybor City in 1927. Along with seven brothers and sisters, she grew up in the apartment above her family's grocery store on Nebraska Avenue.
Her parents expected their children to get jobs as soon as they finished high school. But young Arsenia Marquinez had other ideas.
"She was the oldest of eight children, and she just left," said her daughter, A. Lisa Estevez-Canto. "She ran away to college. In those days you didn't have a lot of women working their way through college, but that's what she did."
She got a job in the school cafeteria at Florida State. She earned her bachelor's degree, and then continued on to get her master's in modern languages. There were no scholarships, no money from home. She paid for it all with her cafeteria wages.
The whole time, she maintained what would now be called a "long-distance relationship" with a young man from Ybor City. Robert Estevez would regularly drive hundreds of miles, mostly on dirt roads, to see his future wife.
After they married, Robert and Arsenia Estevez settled in Seminole Heights. He worked as a printer. She took care of the family and taught in public schools - first at Hillsborough High School, her own alma mater, and later at Chamberlain and Jefferson. Mostly she taught remedial reading to students getting ready for their state evaluation tests, which they had to pass before they graduated.
"She worked really hard to make the Hillsborough County schools better," her son, Robert, said. "But you can tell she didn't have total faith in the public school system. Her kids all went to Catholic schools."
"My father worked and worked and worked to put his six kids through Catholic schools," said Estevez-Canto, the youngest of Mrs. Estevez's six children. "And my mother would get up every day at 6 a.m. to do laundry before she went off to work."
Her two youngest children transferred from Tampa Catholic to Chamberlain while Mrs. Estevez taught there. She was such a popular teacher that her kids enjoyed a certain status among their peers.
"My friends were all like, "Oh, your mother's Mrs. Estevez? She's so nice,"' Estevez-Canto said.
As if tending to her own six children, all her students and an endless stream of neighborhood kids wasn't enough, Mrs. Estevez was involved with a group that sponsored two Guatemalan children and paid for their schooling. She traveled to Guatemala to speak at their high school graduation and rewarded them by bringing them to Tampa for a vacation.
As a mother, Mrs. Estevez always tried to emphasize the importance of discipline, family and religion. Every Sunday included a family ritual of attending Mass and visiting Mrs. Estevez's parents.
Mrs. Estevez always valued friendship, and at the time of her death she was still close to people she knew from first grade. She was married more than a half-century ago, but her bridesmaids traveled to Tampa to be at her side in the weeks before her death.
In recent years, her health had been declining, and the death of her husband in 2000 crushed her spirit.
Sometimes she seemed ready to die.
"She would say, "Why is it taking so long?"' her son said.
But something made her keep fighting, and Robert Estevez said he thinks he knows what that was.
"Her kids, I think that was what kept her going," he said. "Her children, her grandchildren and her great-grandchildren. She worried about us. There was always somebody who was going to need help, and she wanted to be there to help them."