Phill Casaus: A queen for a year, royalty for a lifetime

Sep. 3—Toby Pacheco doesn't want his wife to know he's calling the newspaper.

I'm thinking he's going to blow the lid off something big — State government? City government? Brown water? Mysterious closures at Starbucks? — but instead Pacheco starts talking about a Santa Fe that deserves remembering, and through that, his bride of 59 years, Antonia.

Or as she's better known around town, Toni.

It was something in Toby Pacheco's voice.

"I want to do this for my wife," he said, "because I love her."

I agreed to listen.

Toni was the queen of the Santa Fe Fiesta 60 years ago, Pacheco said; a beautiful woman who put off marriage in order to serve in the role. She would later work as a public school librarian for many, many years, become the mother of five children, volunteer for her church. All in all, a beautiful life, a wonderful wife, an incredible mom.

That's the ending of the story. For the next 24 paragraphs, travel back to the beginning of it.

Head back to 1962.

Toby Pacheco and Toni Lucero had been dating for awhile, ever since he sat down next to her at a dance at Santa Fe High's Seth Hall, with Fats Domino playing over the loudspeaker. They couldn't dance because she'd sprained her ankle, but they talked and there was the click that matters most.

Incredibly, though, Toby didn't get Toni's phone number that night. He had to call every Lucero in the Santa Fe phone book to track her down.

Once he did, he never let her go.

By '62, marriage was in the cards, a certainty. But the timing went off the rails the day Toni's mother, Eloida Lucero, informed her daughter she'd nominated her for Fiesta queen, La Reina.

"Mom, you didn't ask me," Toni chided.

"I don't have to ask you, hita," her mother responded. "It's an honor."

Such was the power of the Fiesta and the role of the queen in those days. Toni willingly, if a bit warily, submitted to the rules that went with running for the position — writing a speech and reciting it before judges in Spanish, and agreeing to remain single through the length of the term if she were selected.

In those days, there was far more than a handful of young women who wanted the position in heavily Hispanic and Catholic Santa Fe; a pool of two dozen or more young women (or their moms) regularly signed up to compete for the role. In '62, the favorite was a girl named Genoveva Chávez, later a well-known singer and the woman for whom a gorgeous south-side recreational complex was named.

Some of the women, including Toni, thought the game was over as soon as the popular, talented Chávez put her name in the hat. But at that point, all they could do was their best.

Toni's best was good enough. When she was announced as queen for the '62 Fiesta, with a term lasting through the next year, she could not get out of her chair. That's how great the pressure — or maybe, relief — was at the time.

Her appointment was big news in town. The next day, her boss at a downtown store called Hubbard's placed a red carpet on the stairway to honor her. He then led her to the shoe department, where she was presented with red roses.

The rest of the year was almost as dreamy: After the Fiesta, Toni Lucero represented Santa Fe throughout the region as its queen. She was there at the Sun Bowl. She was featured at the Rodeo de Santa Fe, at the New Mexico State Fair, at fiestas and events in places like Los Alamos, Taos, Las Vegas, Albuquerque.

And Toby? Well, he waited. A member of the New Mexico National Guard, he had to serve six months on active duty and figured this was the best time to do so — cooling his heels for Uncle Sam as his girl did her duty back home. He was shipped to Fort Ord, Calif.

Through it all, they stayed in touch, though Toni deserves most of the credit. She'd mail him a $1 bill so he could buy an occasional beer.

If that's not love, what is?

"We didn't have any funds to splurge," Toby said with a chuckle.

Promising not to reveal who tipped me off, I called Toni Pacheco. For nearly an hour, the memories flowed easily, happily.

"It was a very sweet time," she says — both of the year she spent as queen of Santa Fe and all the years that came afterward.

"There were trying times, sometimes," she acknowledged. "But I married a patient, wonderful man. And he just put up with it. When I went to El Paso [to represent the city at the Sun Bowl], I asked my dad if Toby could escort me. He said yes, as long as he wasn't staying in the same hotel I was in."

For the record, Toby stayed with his brother, who lived in El Paso.

With a new queen named for the '63 Fiesta, Toni and Toby were finally allowed to take their vows. They were wed Aug. 10, 1963, at the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church.

A queen and her king, together at last — in a town where royalty, tradition, patience, persistence paid dividends for a lifetime.

Some stories have a happy beginning, too.

Phill Casaus is editor of The New Mexican.