Surrounded by family and friends, Raquel Paez (right) cuts her red velvet cake with her son Fabian during her 100th birthday party hosted by Saint Monica's Catholic Church at the Church's auditorium on Friday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

For some people, age is just a number. For Raquel Paez, it’s a pretty big one.

The 16-year resident of Santa Monica turns 100 this month, and remains a marvel of independence despite her advanced years.

Friday, amid well-wishing banners and a large plate of red velvet cake served at the Senior Luncheon at St. Monica’s Catholic Church, Raquel sat peacefully, and reflected on her day.

“I’m very happy,” she said in thickly-accented English. “I have a long life and good health. God is good to me.”

That long life also has great breadth, spanning two continents, two languages and a lot of history.

Raquel Paez was born and raised in Quito, the agrarian capital of Ecuador, in March 1911, where she lived with her husband and six children until 1963.

It was a trying time for the small South American country. A series of military-backed populist leaders came and went, including five-time president Jose Maria Velasco Ibarra, who was eventually ousted from power in a 1961 coup.

Raquel worked in a government office in the capital while her husband, an engineer, completed projects across the country and was often away from home.

The shaky political climate was one of many reasons several of the Paezs made the difficult decision to leave Ecuador, acknowledged her son, Fabian Paez.

“Those times, we had a very unstable government,” Fabian said. “Of course, in addition, we’d always heard that the United States is the best country in the world. Life is different, better.”

Ximena Paez, one of three girls in the family, was the first of the Paezs’ to be drawn out of Ecuador for the promise of a new life in America.

While vacationing in Southern California in the early 1960s, Ximena met a young Hungarian man, who she then married in 1962.

Most of the family flew out to attend the wedding, including Fabian, who just graduated from college in Quito.

“I thought it sounded like a great idea to stay,” Fabian said. “She gave me the papers to become legal, and I came here. Mother, my two sisters and brother also came in 1963.”

It wasn’t an easy transition for the 52-year-old Raquel. Her husband had just died while still in Ecuador, and she moved in with her adult children in Hollywood.

By age 62, Raquel became a fully naturalized citizen.

She took a job caring for the elderly for a number of years, all the while taking night classes in an attempt to learn English. The language was her biggest stumbling block, but Raquel is nothing if not tenacious, Fabian said.

She continued taking those classes, later through the Senior Center, until she was well into her 80s, and still attends some English-Spanish courses.

That stubbornness and desire to succeed embodies her never-say-die nature, which pushes her to try and complete English-language word puzzles as well as maintain a near-fully independent life style.

Raquel lives by herself in the same fifth floor apartment she has occupied for the past decade. She tends to a number of potted plants that she keeps on a balcony, and arranges to spend time with others at the Senior Center game nights or on group trips.

Family members stop by at least once a week to help her with grocery shopping, but she loves her freedom, Fabian said.

“Nothing is impossible for her,” Fabian said. “She’s a person who says, ‘Oh don’t worry about it,’ even though I know she doesn’t have the expertise or a good amount of the language. Nevertheless, if she would be younger she would do it. She has great will power.”

The Senior Center party is the first of three this month to wish Raquel a very-happy 100 years. On March 19, just days before her actual birthday on the 22nd, nearly all of Raquel’s children, 16 grand children and 15 great-grand children will come from various parts of California and Ecuador to see their matriarch on her special day.

It’s a big deal for the family members, many of whom haven’t seen Raquel since her last trip to Ecuador, said Raquel’s granddaughter Catrina Paez, who attended the birthday lunch.

In all, 60 people are expected to attend.

“We’re really excited to be able to see a lot of the family all together,” Catrina said. “We have a lot coming down from Ecuador, and there are a couple of cousins we’ve never met.”

The chance to involve Raquel in her great grandchildren’s lives is monumental, said Jenny Paez, whose two children, Zach and Audrey, bopped and bumped around the lunch table.

“My children get to meet their great grandmother, and she gets to be a part of that,” Jenny said.

Raquel’s life and faith are an inspiration to all around her, said Msgr. Lloyd Torgerson, of St. Monica’s Church.

“To be in a place like that in life, it’s wonderful to see for people my age,” Torgerson said. “To be healthy and in good cheer, and surrounded by family.”

ashley@www.smdp.com

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