By Judith Costello
He comes to the door slowly, his body forming a 90-degree angle.
Benjamin Perea, from Estancia, suffers from a condition that was caused when muscles in his stomach were accidentally cut in an operation several years ago. He now needs to stay close to doctors. But none of this keeps him from being positive about life.
In fact, he is an 85-year-old with a lot to say, and he can say it in a lot of languages.
“I went to UNM and studied foreign languages,” Perea explained. “My heart and soul is Spanish. I love my country so English is my second language. I served in Korea and in Germany so my language as a vet is German. I learned some French while traveling. And I appreciate Morse Code as an international language. I like to talk to people in their own language.” He would like to learn Vietnamese next.
His family says, “Who needs so many languages?” But Perea has pursued what he is naturally good at. Perhaps this interest began when he was 5 years old. In 1935 his family moved from Torreón to Estancia and Benjamin only spoke Spanish, which left him feeling different.
His family can trace their Spanish heritage back to the 1600s and they had always lived on the family land grant until farming became too difficult. Young Benjamin was eager to learn some English each day as his sister arrived home from the Estancia Elementary School.
Growing up, Perea thought he’d like to get away from his small town. But when he was in Europe during the Korean War, he found himself longing to be back home. Being away helped him appreciate what he had.
“My Air Force days were a total blessing from God,” he said. “I saw so much of the world.”
He was roommates with a fellow who was also a radio code interceptor. The fellow was a smart and decent guy. They kept each other company traveling across Europe. One time they arrived late to Paris and needed a room.
“I was thinking that Spanish and French were a bit similar so I tried speaking in Spanish to ask for a room with two beds. There was only one bed in that room,” Perea said. “It was another time when I wanted to better learn the language of the people.”
After he was discharged in 1954, Perea reconnected with a girl who was three years younger. He had thought of Celeste Gallegos only as a giggly freshman while he was a senior on the high school basketball team, and he voted for someone else when Celeste became the homecoming queen that year. But after he returned from the service, Benjamin took notice of the pretty girl who was working at a local restaurant. They started dating and he left college to get married and start a family.
The couple settled in Estancia to spend many years running the Ranch Bar. “You meet all kinds of people at a bar. One time a lady came in. I could see from her face there was trouble,” Perea said. “She pulled out a gun and I got my thumb underneath that trigger when she cocked it, so it wouldn’t shoot. But I couldn’t seem to wrestle it away from her. She said she came to shoot her husband who’d been cheating. I guess I’m lucky to be alive.”
Running the bar was a challenge as the Perea’s three children grew older. He sold the bar and bought a gas station; later he raised cattle. “It’s been a good life, even being handicapped,” he said, straightening his back by pushing himself into the chair.
He remembers many things about his beloved Estancia. The house down from the fairgrounds has garnered attention over the years. And Perea remembered, “It was owned by a lawyer when I got out of the service. And then a doctor owned it and he flew a plane from there. In 1980 there was a grass fire that burned up trees and tractors. Everyone thought for sure that house would burn up, but it didn’t. After that it seemed that people thought of it as a haunted house.”
His wife Celeste has always been at his side, with her own stories to tell. “I worked as a teacher for APS for 20 years and left to work at AIMS, a charter school for Math and Science,” she said. At age 82, she still works as a regular substitute teacher.
“I remember when I was homecoming queen and a fellow from Mountainair drove me around the field in his car,” she said as the couple reminisced.
“Which fellow was it?” her husband asked. They settle on a name. “Ah. Now I know who to hate!”
When Perea is asked for advice by his grandchildren he says, “Pray. Go to church. And get an education. I pray all the time,” he said. “Every day I thank God in all the languages I know: in German and French, Spanish, English and Morse Code.”
He says that prayer has always been important to him and that’s what keeps him going.