Columbia Valley Origins: Maximina Polnik

·9 min read

When Maximina Polnik (née León Cervantes) was ten years old, a gypsy woman read her hand. “She said to me: you’re going to live an adventurous life and travel the world.” To Maxi, it was a peculiar, unforgettable experience. “I remember thinking: who, me? Really? I thought it was so strange she would say that!”

At the time, Maxi was living with her family in Tlalchapa, Guerrero – a rural town on the eastern slope of Mexico’s Sierra Madre del Sur mountains. She was born there, along with her seven sisters and one brother. Her father Andres and mother Luisa owned a ten-acre farm and raised their children in a strict Catholic household. The family grew sesame seeds, peanuts, corn and beans. They had pigs and chickens. There was never much money.

Hometown: Tlalchapa, Guerrero, Mexico

Age: 65

Columbia Valley Arrival: 1975

Occupation: Semi-retired; Longest serving employee of Parks Canada Radium Hot Springs (39 seasons)

In the summer months, Maxi’s family would visit aunties living in the coastal port city of Acapulco – a half day’s drive to the southeast. “We would go there to help them with their sewing business. They trained us.” From those visits, Andres saw that sewing bathing suits for tourists could be more lucrative than farming. So much so that in 1971, when Maxi was fifteen, Andres announced to his family. “He said to us: we are going to get in the business of making bathing suits.” With that, the family of eleven moved to the ocean.

The business was set up in the family house. “We had five sewing machines in the corridor and we’d work from dawn to two in the morning some nights.” When Andres made his deliveries to the wholesalers – who would then sell to the beach vendors, Maxi, Luisa and the older siblings went straight back to work. “There was never an end to sewing. Everyone in the family had a job. I had the biggest callus on my left ring finger from the fabric scissors.”

1970s Acapulco had its share of glamour. “People came to see the divers or go look at movie star’s houses along the coast.” It was less busy then. “Yes, it was busy with tourists, but far less so than it is now,” Maxi recalled. “Locals would go lay on the beach, but when the holidays came, that’s when all the Europeans, Americans and Canadians would arrive.” Americans and their backpacks. Open one up and you may find yourself a bag of Acapulco Gold.

Going to school while working the family business meant there was scarcely any free time for Maxi. “I had no boyfriends,” she said, laughing. It didn’t help that Andres also worked as a part-time bodyguard for Filiberto Lázaro, the governor of Guerrero. “Filiberto and my dad grew up together in Tlalchapa. As part of his duties, he carried a handgun and that scared all the boys away!”

In November 1974, Maxi’s love life was about to change in a big way. “One of my sisters worked as an executive secretary at a bus line near the beach. One day she came home and told my father that two gringos asked for permission to see our bathing suit merchandise.” Andres agreed.

Soon after, an American and a Canadian showed up. The Canadian’s name was William Warwaruk, age forty-five. For years, Bill had spent his winters in Acapulco. In the summer months, he owned and operated with his family several motels in a faraway place called Radium Hot Springs. In the 1950s, the Warwaruk’s had moved from Edmonton to Radium to be in the Rocky Mountain tourism business.

“From then on, twice a day Bill would come to our house to visit,” Maxi said. “I didn’t know this at first, but not long after meeting me, Bill told my dad that he’d never been married, nor had he ever had the desire. But he told him he would like to date one of his daughters.” He was referring to Maxi, age eighteen, with hair down to her bum, wearing a black dress with white polka-dots. “He said to my dad: I want to give your daughter the moon.”

Day after day, Bill would visit. Finally, he worked up the courage to ask Andres if he could take Maxi on a date to the beach. Andres gave Bill his permission. When Bill showed up, to Maxi’s horror, Andres made sure his entire family got in Bill’s van.

“Bill asked if I could sit up front with him. Dad said sure, but he stayed in the front seat, so there I was sandwiched in between my father and Bill. In English, Bill said to me: Are we bringing the pig too?” On another date, Bill asked Andres permission to take Maxi to Sanborn’s, Acapulco’s finest coffee house. Andres said yes as long as two of Maxi’s siblings also joined. “I found out later my dad got in a taxi and followed us!”

When Christmas came, Bill proposed to Maxi. “He said: I talked to your dad and I want you to marry me. I want to give you what you deserve. For whatever reason, I trusted him.” After Maxi told Luisa about Bill’s proposal, Luisa began preparations for Bill’s catechism. But Bill refused. He told Maxi that if she trusted him, they didn’t have to go through with that. When Luisa found out about Bill’s refusal, she fainted. Andres and Luisa wouldn’t allow their daughter to be married outside of the church.

“When I told Bill, he thought I said I didn’t want to marry him and he stormed off.” A month later, Maxi went to her mother to tell her she missed seeing Bill. “I told her I believed in him.” Maxi offered her mother a deal. If she finished her gruelling share of bathing suit work early one day, would she join her on the bus to visit Bill at his condo? To Maxi’s surprise and delight, Luisa agreed.

Off Maxi and Luisa went on the bus. “But when it was time for us to get off, she said she couldn’t go through with the plan.” Maxi protested. She started walking to the back of the bus. “I pulled the chord for the bus to stop. I got out.” Luisa followed. Together they walked to Bill’s. When they got there, no one answered the front door. “My mother crossed herself,” Maxi recalls, laughing. “She said: Thank you, Good Lord he’s not home!”

As they began to walk away, they heard a loud whistle from above. It was Bill standing on a friend’s patio. Unbeknownst to Maxi, Bill had the best of news to share. Earlier that day when Maxi and Luisa were at the beach, Bill had gone to visit Andres. It was then Andres gave his blessing for Bill to marry his daughter at the courthouse. “So I asked him, okay when do you want to get married?” Bill replied: “Tomorrow!”

It was a scramble to get ready for the wedding. Bill didn’t want to let another day go by before Andres changed his mind. Without a proper wedding dress, Maxi planned to wear the mauve high school graduation dress she had made herself. Bill wouldn’t have it. He wanted his bride in white. So Bill flew to Mexico City to buy for his bride a white dress. He also had to stop at the Mexican embassy to ask for permission to marry a woman, age eighteen. Bill bought a new dress, got permission and returned to Acapulco all on the same day. Nothing’s far when one wants to get there.

The wedding was held the next day at an Acapulco bungalow among palm trees, banana trees, mango trees. Bill hired a band to play with seventy people in attendance. Andres and Luisa smiled.

By the end of February, Maximina León de Warwaruk’s Canadian immigration papers were approved. But since Bill had driven to Mexico from Canada, there was one last hurdle: obtaining for Maxi an American visa. The application for which, an awful experience. Bill asked the Americans for a four-day visa to drive through states. On a handwritten note, they gave the newlyweds three and half days.

“Leaving with Bill was a leap of faith,” Maxi said. “I didn’t know where this man could’ve been taking me.” When they overnighted in Nevada, Maxi woke up to see a fresh layer of snow draped over black rocks outside their motel. “I had to ask Bill: what is that stuff?” Along with the one hundred pesos in her pocket – the equivalent then of eight American dollars, all Maxi had with her was a few miniskirts, a shawl which she still has to this day (see above photo), and a new husband.

When they finally made it to the Kingsgate border crossing. Hola! said one of the border guards. “That was when reality hit me,” Maxi said. “Canadians were immediately so kind to me. The attitude was so different compared to the Americans. I became so grateful not to have to be scared. They treated me with respect and kindness. It melted me and it meant the world to me.” It was the little things that convinced Maxi Canada was her rightful new home. “I could drink water from a garden hose and there was toilet paper in public restrooms!”

For the next fourteen years, she remained married to Bill. They had two sons and one daughter together. Another daughter arrived with Maxi’s next partner. Today, she has four healthy grandchildren. In 1980, Maxi began working for Parks Canada at the Redstreak campground.

“Coming to Canada with Bill was the best chance I ever took,” Maxi said. “In my forty-six years here, not once have I heard a racist comment toward me. I am so grateful, and I have no regrets.” And yes, through her life, Maxi has gone on adventures around the world. Just like the Tlalchapa gypsy said she would.

James Rose, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer

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