Woman becomes successful business owner without knowing how to read or write

Nov. 8, 2010 at 5:08 a.m.

Victoria resident Julia Cantu proved a mother's desire to provide a better life for her children can overcome many obstacles, including an inability to read or write.

Cantu, 80, passed away Friday, after raising seven children and making a name for herself in the Victoria business community, all while being illiterate.

"She thought she had accomplished a lot and she had brought all her children up right," said Cantu's daughter, Lydia Rodriguez.

Born and raised in Victoria, Cantu was the oldest of 15 children.

Because of the large number of children, Cantu had no choice but to stay at home and help care for her siblings alongside her mother, while her father, a construction worker, spent his days trying to financially support the family.

Rodriguez said her mother often lamented about the fact that she missed out on going to school and getting a formal education.

"She would tell us she often regretted that," Rodriguez said.

At the age of 17, Cantu married her husband, Pete.

The two started their own family soon afterward.

Following in her mother's footsteps, Cantu was a stay-at-home mom to her seven children.

Despite her husband's wishes, however, Cantu had a growing desire to join the workforce, even going as far as getting a secret job at a laundromat while her children were at school and her husband was at work.

"She always wanted to go to work to provide a college education for all of us," said Rodriguez about her mother's motivation to earn extra income for her family. "She also wanted to keep a cute house."

After receiving an injury from the Laundromat press machine and dealing with ongoing disagreements with her husband about working, Cantu returned to full-time homemaking for the next few years.

But in the late 1960s, Cantu's desire to work and provide for family was reignited.

She began working as an apprentice at the now defunct Wedemeier Florist shop in Victoria.

Soon afterward, with her husband's blessing, she opened her own flower shop at the family's home at 2002 Southwest Ben Jordan Street.

Cantu's first customers were mainly funeral homes, for which she would provide flowers for homegoing services.

John Artero, owner of Artero Funeral Home and Memorial Chapels, did business with Cantu countless times over the years.

"I have many find memories of the Cantu family. Mr. and Mrs. Cantu were wonderful people to work with. Julia and Pete were dear friends," Artero said. "They were a very charitable and loving couple who worked hard side-by-side to meet everyone's needs."

Cantu's business was a family affair, involving her husband and children and sometimes other relatives.

Later in her 30-year business career, Cantu expanded into the bridal business, which included sewing the gowns and tuxedos as well as designing invitations and wedding planning.

She renamed her business Cantu's Bridal and Floral with the motto, "We provide everything for the wedding except for the groom."

"She never had formal training, but she had a great eye for design," said Rodriguez, who said her mother taught herself how to sew when Rodriguez was a child. "She'd go to the store, look at dresses and then come home and copy them."

She added, "She was always doing creative things."

Although her mother's illiteracy did affect her ability to help her children out with schoolwork, Rodriguez said it never affected her business in any way.

"Most people never knew she could not read or write. She carried herself well and she was very well-spoken," said Rodriguez, who said Cantu had enrolled in a few adult literacy classes, but she never stuck with them. "She could tell you numbers, colors and swatches all from memory."

She added, "I always said it was special gift God had given her."

In fact, Cantu's Bridal and Floral flourished so well that Cantu was forced to hire extra employees to help out with the large workload that expanded past Victoria into Edna and Goliad and often included eight to 10 weddings a weekend.

Rodriguez recalled her mother being so busy that on Rodriguez's wedding day, Cantu busied herself overseeing three other weddings the same day.

"At first, I was upset," said Rodriguez, who said her mother had originally promised to only concentrate on her wedding that day. "Then I realized that's how my Mom was. She was a businesswoman."

Rodriguez credited her mother's success in life to her perfectionism and her positive go-getter attitude.

"If you told her she couldn't do it, she said, 'Yes, I can,'"

Cantu was not selfish with the knowledge she had acquired from starting her own business, often sharing her expertise with other prospective entrepreneurs.

In the end, Cantu met her goal of providing money for all six of her children to attend college, many of whom attained degrees.

Cantu sold the business in 2003, but she continued to sew and put together floral arrangements until her health got too bad.

"She felt like her mind worked, but her hands didn't."

Cantu's sister-in-law, Blanca Jimenez, who moved into Cantu's house after she moved to San Marcos in 2008, said Cantu's legacy in Victoria remains alive because of their home's recognition among Victorians.

"Everyone knows our house used to be Julia's bridal shop," said Blanca Jimenez. "We live in a famous home."



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