They came by the hundreds Wednesday night, with wan faces and sleeping toddlers, to Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church to say goodbye to Ana Sánchez, the woman who was their gateway to a taste of home, and her two children who lay in caskets alongside her.
Sánchez, 30, died Saturday, three days after the Jan. 2 fire that tore through the family’s small east Charlotte home. Her 9-year-old son, Leonel Alexander Villagrez Sánchez, died Jan. 2. Her 2-year-old daughter, Aranza Santa Méndez Sánchez, died Jan. 3.
Sánchez’ two surviving children remain hospitalized, family members said Wednesday evening. Three-month-old Axel Camilo Mendez Sánchez is in a coma after suffering smoke inhalation. Abner Francisco Villagrez Sánchez, age 7, is steadily improving.
For the 10,000 estimated Guatemalan natives in the Charlotte region, the loss of Sánchez is profound because of the role she played in keeping the community’s culture alive.
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She and husband Clementino Méndez Domingo ran a small shop on Eastway Drive called Las Maravillas (“the wonders,” in English), a place packed with Guatemalan clothing, spices, food and household goods that members of the Guatemalan community say are impossible to find elsewhere in Charlotte.
Sánchez arrived in the United States 15 years ago at age 15 and had Leonel and Abner with her first husband, then married Méndez Domingo and gave birth to Aranza and Axel.
Méndez Domingo was at his night job cleaning office buildings in Waxhaw when the fire broke out. Fire officials have said it was likely caused by a lit candle.
Sánchez was from a town in southwest Guatemala called Concepción Chiquirichapa, and spoke both Spanish and the Mayan language Mam. So deep was her pride in her native country that she was a first stop for community organizers looking for the vibrantly colored Guatemalan clothing for folkloric dances and other typical Guatemalan goods to feature at cultural events around Charlotte.
Nora Guerra, co-owner of the Guate-Linda restaurant on The Plaza and Panaderia El Quetzal bakery on Eastway Drive – both gathering places for local Guatemalans – said Sánchez had a love of making newcomers feel welcome in a new land.
“People would come to the restaurant and say, ‘Where can I find something typical of Guatemala?’ and I would send them there,” Guerra said. “She had a little of everything.”
On Wednesday night, elementary school teachers choked back tears as they greeted their students who had come to bid farewell to Leonel, who was in third grade at Briarwood Elementary. Kia Edwards, who was Leonel’s teacher in kindergarten and second grade, wiped away tears as she remembered the little boy who entered school not speaking any English, but wound up surpassing his grade level in reading.
“He was one with-it kid,” Edwards said.
After a funeral Mass, the caskets of Sanchez and her children were opened and mourners formed a line that stretched around the large sanctuary. Friends held donation boxes by the caskets. (A gofundme account has been set up to help with funeral expenses.)
Volunteers set up a food station at the entrance to the church and handed out hot chuchitos (similar to Mexican tamales), pastries and coffee. Some gatherers planned to stay all night, watching over the bodies until 9 a.m. Thursday.
Next week, the bodies of Sanchez and her children will be flown to Guatemala for burial.