Trainer Dale Romans describes Cristina Bahena's position in his bustling operation as “barn mother,” and that is only fitting. Her willingness to walk three days across a Mexico desert in 1991 with two children in search of a better life in the United States surely reflects the strength of a mother's love.
Bahena, then a single parent, initially left Mexico in 1988 because she saw no future there for herself or her daughters, Thania and Norma. Her children remained in the care of a relative while she soon found employment with the Romans family at Churchill Downs.
She was 22 years old or, as Romans put it, “She was just a child with two children.” She knew nothing of horses and spoke no English. She broke in as a hotwalker and soon graduated to a groom. She was eager to learn and was willing to work as many hours as were available.
As she sees it, she simply did what had to be done.
“I had a lot of courage because I needed to move forward. I needed to move on,” she said during a recent phone interview, speaking through an interpreter.
It helped that she quickly fell in love with Baldemar Bahena, another employee in the Romans barn, who would become her husband. But she felt an emptiness he could not fill, and she often cried. There was no comforting her.
“I was missing my children so much,” she said. “It was so hard for me.”
She returned to Mexico and began a journey so remarkable that Romans named what turned into a good horse after her. Cristina's Journey won the Grade 2 Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs on Sept. 6, 2014.
Stories abound concerning those who die while trying to slip into the United States undetected. Those weighed on Bahena with every step she and her children, both under the age of five, took.
“It wasn't physically so hard for me,” she said. “But knowing I had responsibility for two children, that was very difficult.”
Thania, now 34, remembers only snippets of their three-day trek. They withstood blazing heat by day, frigid temperatures at night.
“I do recall walking,” Thania said, “being held by the hand to make sure I didn't fall behind.” She also noted her mother enlisted the services of a “coyote,” someone paid for expertise involving how best to enter the United States without being detected.
Bahena said of her passage across the border, “There was no other way because I was afraid immigration would find out. Everything was hidden.”
Bahena became a United States citizen five years ago. “That was the happiest I've seen anyone in my life,” Romans said.
Thania has worked for the last 18 years for the United Parcel Service, where she's employed as an administrative assistant. Norma, 32, lives in Indiana as a stay-at-home mother to five children.
Romans views Bahena as indispensable. “She takes care of everything and everybody. That's the best way to describe her. She can do anything around a horse,” he said. “She is vital to the operation and vital as a friend.”
Bahena's care for her children extends to co-workers and the horses in the barn. No task is too small.
“She'll stop in if anyone needs help,” said Tammy, Romans' partner. “She grooms horses. She walks horses. She's the total package of what you want in the barn area.”
Romans traces part of his success to his ability to retain staff and maintain a positive work environment. Bahena embodies that can-do attitude.
“She's never had a disagreement with anyone. Everyone respects her,” Tammy said. “You need someone at the barn to keep things in control, and she brings that to the table.”
She brings rare strength to daily life, the kind that can only come from enduring extreme adversity at a tender age.
“She is an amazing woman to actually have the courage to do that,” Thania said of her mother's life-changing actions. “It takes a lot of heart. It's hard to put into words.
“Mom was taking a chance with her life and, with us, she was taking a chance for our lives. It was more like a leap of faith that she was going to have a better future for her and her two daughters. If she made it across, we were going to be good. If she didn't, we could have been dead.”
If Thania ever questioned the decision, its wisdom was reinforced when she visited relatives in her hometown of Cuernavaca Morelos in 2010.
“It's very poor, very corrupted, and I didn't feel safe,” she said. She has not returned.
Bahena never looked back. She thoroughly enjoys her relationship with the Romans family. She constantly works to repay them for the opportunity given her three decades ago. Although she is far from wealthy, she appreciates what she has.
“I am so grateful to be in the United States,” she said. “It is like a dream come true.”
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