The bishop came to the Barona Indian Reservation when Roxann Argazzi was nine or 10 years old. She and the other children arrived at the reservation’s pint-sized Catholic church to receive the sacrament of Confirmation. It was a big event. The bishop only visited every few years.
But Roxann noticed two girls missing. She spotted them in the crowd, clearly underdressed. They could not be confirmed, they told her, because they didn’t have clothes for the ceremony.
Roxann confronted her older sister Barbara with the girls’ dilemma, and an idea. They could rush the two girls back to Roxann’s house, clean them up and dress them in the two new school outfits her mother had just bought her.
Was she sure she wanted to give away her new clothes? Barbara asked. She was. The four girls scurried home and made it back to the church in time for the mass, the two newly outfitted sisters joining Roxann’s side for the ceremony.
“She was proud as a peacock,” Barbara Turner said of her sister. “She did that sort of thing her whole life.”
The bells on the little church where Roxann Argazzi received her first communion and confirmation as a girl announced her death to her tribe late on the night of Jan. 9.
Argazzi, 53, died in her sleep, at home on the reservation where she lived her entire life. As news of the death made its way that night through Argazzi’s sprawling family, relatives arrived at her house.
Someone drove down the two-lane road from Argazzi’s house and sounded the church bells atop the Blessed Kateri Tekakwitha Parish, the reservation’s oldest structure. Those who heard it came out of their homes to find out who they’d lost.
The news spread further the next day, after Father Michael Tran, the reservation’s Catholic priest, announced Argazzi’s death during Sunday morning mass. There were gasps from the pews.
“It really put the whole reservation into shock,” Turner said. “It was just out of the blue.”
Argazzi’s death reverberated across the tribe, whose members came out to mourn the woman who stood 4 feet, 11 inches and was known for her generosity but also her unflinching straight talk. Her nieces and nephews called her Auntie Shrew, after a mouse in the children’s book “Mrs. Frisby and Rats of NIMH” who, though shrewish, takes responsibility for the welfare of others.
“My aunt would never hesitate to give you her stern opinion,” said Steven Banegas, her nephew, “but when she was done, she would always ask you if you had eaten and invite you to dinner.”
“She had a big, fake front,” said Herman Osuna, her nephew. “She pretended like she was mean and stoic, but she was just a lover.”
Roxann Banegas was born April 6, 1956, the youngest of William and Mona Banegas’ 14 children. She was born premature, weighing only three pounds. When her mother brought her home to the family’s small house, already bursting with children, the older girls pulled open a dresser drawer, emptied it, lined it with blankets and placed her inside.
Her father, who died 12 years ago, used to proudly say of his children’s strict upbringing that he hadn’t raised any girls. “I raised all boys,” he used to say. She chopped wood and did other heavy work for the family, and her family called her Rockie.
“She was as tough as a corn cob,” Turner said.
As the smallest in her family, she wore tiny shoes. Her sisters teased her about them, but she retorted by suggesting their feet were more fitting for shoe boxes.
After quitting high school, she took odd jobs off the reservation, including a job as an egg sorter at a local dairy company. She stood over a lighted conveyor belt that shone through the eggs and revealed the bad ones, which she threw out. In the 1970s, she worked for Sony until Barona opened its first bingo hall the following decade, where she worked as an assistant manager. When the casino came, she worked in its mail department until retiring three years ago.
There, she met Timothy Argazzi, a slot technician, whom she married.
She gave birth to her son, Alex, when she was 30. Her large, extended family always lived within walking distance of each other on the reservation, where children knew her as the candied apple lady, because she gave them out at Halloween. She took in the ragtag stray dogs that turned up on her doorstep, but insisted they were not hers. “I just feed them,” she would always say. Dog hair always clung to her clothes.
She loved coffee, a trait she shared with her sisters. She had a pot of it that she always refreshed before it reached the bottom, in case she had visitors.
On the third day following her death, as is custom when someone dies on the Barona Reservation, her friends and family came to her home to witness the burning ceremony. The men dug a tremendous ditch in front of her house. Argazzi’s family hurled nearly all of her worldly possessions — her clothes, her perfume, her trinkets — into it. Then they set them ablaze.
For an hour-and-a-half, tribal bird singers chanted, the lyrics of their song building a bridge that helped Argazzi reach the other side. Their song was punctuated with quick grunts to scare off coyotes. One of Argazzi’s nieces performed a dance beside the flaming pit and the billowing smoke. She wore one of her aunt’s blouses to protect her against the mountain chill. But when the burning ceremony ended, that too was thrown into the fire, so her aunt could take it with her as a gift for the relatives she would meet.
Argazzi’s husband and the other long-haired men in her family sheared off their ponytails out of respect. Her family began a year of mourning, and on Saturday, they buried her in the small cemetery behind the church where she was confirmed, the mound above her grave covered in flowers.
Please contact Adrian Florido directly at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adrianflorido.