As a seamstress with a special spot in her heart for the traditional Chilean cueca dresses, Maria Teresa Toro Valenzuela knows how to modify and improve on a good pattern. Having been ‘born of goodly parents,’ Maria Teresa joined the church as a young mother. Threads of love of family, country and the gospel now run through the life that she has tailored for herself by prayerfully and enthusiastically combining the best of her country’s traditions with the teachings of the gospel. (This interview was conducted in Spanish. Haz clic aquí para leer la entrevista original en español.)
What was growing up in Chile like?
I just want to say the same words as Nephi did: “I was born of goodly parents”. They were simple people, they were married. I am the third of four children. Our family was pretty normal—my father was in the military and a dentist, my mother was a nurse. They were Catholic and we grew up within Catholic principles. I believed that there was a relationship, a connection with God and I believed that the family was very important.
Is family important in the Chilean culture?
Yes, we have unity in our families. We are always together; we have meetings together as a family with the grandparents, the nieces and the nephews, with all the family members. We are a loving family, a lot of kisses and hugs. The grandparents are friends of their grandchildren. The children grow up with a special feeling for their grandparents. I see my grandchildren every day. I go daily to my younger grandson’s house. When he comes home from school I take care of him, I cook for him. He is five years old, and my oldest grandchild is 25 years old. They come over every day. I am in touch with them in a regular basis.
How did you meet the missionaries and the Church?
It was early in our marriage. The girls were very young. My husband and I felt that something lacked in our family. We didn’t find a suitable (spiritually speaking) place for us. We saw ourselves in that way. Suddenly, my husband invited me to go to a church. There were a lot of churches around our house. However, we used to say that we were “looking for God.“ That’s why one day we went to a Mormon church. It was the day they were having a stake conference. My husband told me that people often called that church the “Mormon Church,” but its real name was “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.” I didn’t know anything about that church. Nothing. We came into the building and I told my husband gingerly: “It seems they are very rich people. They are really well dressed and clean.“ I felt a little bit uncomfortable there. I thought they were just very rich people. It was a stake conference in San Bernardo and it was full of people. We got in, anyway. We listened to the talks of some missionaries that came from other countries and from the United States and we ended up spiritually full. We came back home and my husband said to me: ”When you see those missionaries in suit and tie with a tag name, ask them to come visit us at a time when I am home so that we can learn more about their Gospel.”
But weren’t you afraid that the members were rich?
No, after we heard the talks in that meeting we changed our minds because we felt something different. Now I know that it was the Holy Ghost. The following Tuesday the missionaries came to our house. I was extremely surprised. I asked them: “Who has sent you here?” It had to be the Lord. One of those missionaries was Argentinean and the other was from the United States, Elder Galván and Elder Willmore. Our discussion was a little bit weird. I was very surprised because of the fact that we wanted to meet them and they came so soon. I asked them to come back when my husband was at home and then we had the first discussion about the Gospel. My daughters hid from them. They didn´t want to hear them. They were reluctant because of the changes we were going through. The missionaries asked them if they noticed the change their parents had had. They accepted that it was something different and good. Then they started listening to them too.
What did you hear and feel in those meetings that you had not felt before?
I felt that I had found a focus, something like guidance. I felt balance and stability in our lives, a firm foundation. From that moment we have never stepped away from the church. Never. We have been members of the Church 30 years now. The day of our baptism our relatives came over to have lunch with us. I told them that we were going to be baptized on that afternoon. They wanted to go with us, so my parents and other members of the family were there. My daughters were baptized in November, some months later.
Do you talk about the Church with others?
Yes, I do it every time that I have the opportunity. For example, the other day my neighbor didn’t have her keys. I invited her to wait in my house. While I was working at my sewing machine, she was looking through all of her things. Then she asked me, “What do you do on Sundays that you always go out very well dressed and very beautiful?” We started talking about the Church. Months later we invited her to participate in one Family Home Evening and later they were baptized too.
How did you start working as a dressmaker?
When I was a girl my customers were my little neighbors because they wanted me to dress their dolls, either by machine or by my own hands. My parents wanted me to be a nurse like my mom. However, I didn’t feel good about it. I asked them: “Why can’t I be a dressmaker if I love sewing, sewing and sewing? After that I went to a professional school for women to learn it. For me, my work is more than having a job; it is my vocation. I pray every time before I start. Sometimes you can’t touch the fabric or the scissors without being confident and sure. That’s why I pray and then the inspiration comes. I like the people very much. I like talking to the people. They have to trust me as well because on many occasions they give me very expensive fabrics. I have to have empathy with them, I have to be patient. I have to understand them so that I can feel their feelings and know what they are thinking.
What you are saying has to do with the Gospel and the family, doesn’t it?
Yes. The skills of communication, patience, really listening to the people are the skills that the missionaries have to develop. You have to treat the people with love. No matter what they may be like. When, for example, one of your customers wants a model that doesn’t fit him or her, you have to explain the fact with love and kindness, with no offenses. Give them your advice with kindness and love.
Tell me about the traditional costumes you make.
Those traditional costumes have their own history. On September 18th, our country was independent. Before that, we were a country possessed by Spain. Now we had freedom, we were an independent country and all of us were happy. The people of the upper class in that time had robes of plain colors, not flowers. The people who lived in the countryside were the ones who wore the most colorful clothes and flowers. The colored fabric was cheaper. Now, during the celebrations, you can see these cheerful colors in the dresses everywhere. And you can see shoes with high heels, comfortable leather and handkerchiefs to dance “The Cueca,” a traditional dance of Chile.
Do they still use those dresses for the traditional celebrations?
Yes. They use them to celebrate that specific date. We celebrate September 18th in the Church as well. We join together all day long and we eat barbecue. Many of them start the celebration in the morning. The flag is raised with the national anthem, and then we have breakfast, we have lunch, a barbecue. We are all dressed in typical clothes. We sing traditional songs (try looking up “La Consentida”), and we all dance.
How do you feel as a Mormon, Chilean woman? I heard you are proud of being Chilean.
I think it is more than pride. It is joy. The feeling is love. Love for your country because it is the place where you were born. Chile, geographically speaking, is a long, thin straw that the hymn says is “bathed by the sea,” and there is the mountain range that is like a standard. When one becomes a member of the Church and manages to understand the teachings a little, step by step, many traditions are perhaps left behind. Sometimes there are traditions that are against what the Father wants, such as ”Machismo,” which is when only the man makes all the decisions in the family.
We immediately found our identity in the church and we know what the Savior wants us to be. We learned to be very happy with what we have to live, and we are very satisfied and also are seeking for excellence in everything we do. It is what we often want to tell our friends and all the people around us. They ask us, “Why are you always happy? Today is not a good day to be happy.” Or, “You have a lot of problems. Why are you smiling?” We have hope and we are sure that as long as we live the principles and commandments, we will always have the light and we will have blessing from our Heavenly Father. Little by little in this small period of probation, taking into account all the blessings that He gives us, we are very grateful for the gospel. We can be happy even with the pains and with the difficult things we have to go through. We have tremors and earthquakes all the time but we know that this is our country. We get up, and we support the people a lot.
Have you found traditions according to the principles of the Church?
Yes, you can create new traditions in your life. You can make your own traditions. Some of them are very strong, for example, the family and the relationship with your relatives. They may not go to the church, but they live correct principles. We knew that these principles were good before we joined the Church, but we did not identify them as “divine principles.” Nowadays the family is being destroyed in the whole world. The Church strengthens that relationship, that Chilean tradition.
What do you want to say to your sisters who are not members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saint?
First of all, I want them to know the Church is true. They can know it by themselves whenever they want. The doors of the Church are always open for them. Only by attending the Church will they be able to have a testimony. They will find good influences there for their children.
When we joined the Church our daughters were teenagers. I felt I didn’t have experience at all. The Church has helped me a lot. In the Relief Society we learn how to be self reliant. It gives us tools to live. To the sisters that are members of the Church: please don´t go away from it. To those women that know the Church only by its name I invite them to join.
At A Glance
Name : Maria Teresa Toro Valenzuela
Age: 73 years old
Location: Santiago, Chile
Marital History: Married to Alfonso Miranda from 1970-2014, now a widow
Children: Three grown daughters
Convert to Church: August, 26 1988
Schools Attended: Maria Auxiliadora Catholics school in Chile
Language Spoken at Home: Spanish
Favorite Hymn: Praise to the Man
Interview Produced by Jenny Willmore, with assistance from Noelia Lobo