ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Juanita Caballero worked her last shift at the MnDOT Cafeteria Friday, ending a 30-year run ringing up customers' tabs around the State Capitol complex.
State workers, lawmakers and family members celebrated Juanita's retirement and thanked her for always lifting their spirits with smiles and laughter.
"Juanita does something very simple, but it's very profound; she makes you feel good," veteran Twin Cities broadcast journalist Eric Eskola remarked.
"You always feel better after you've seen Juanita than before you saw her."
Movers and shakers, policy makers and everyday people have been meeting Juanita and her cash register at the end of the cafeteria line for decades. She often didn't know she was talking to a legislator, Supreme Court Justice or big-time politician until someone told her.
But it wouldn't have mattered because Juanita had a smile for everyone she rang up at her register.
"There was never a day she was down," Rep. Alice Hausman told KARE.
"She always had a smile. She always had a greeting. We all have darker days, and she probably did as well, but she never showed it."
Juanita and her husband Francisco Caballero came to Minnesota from Mexico in 1969, never imagining they'd stay long enough to raise a family here, let alone see grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
"It was very hard because I didn't speak the language, and I didn't know anybody," Juanita recalled. "There weren't many Spanish speakers here. And the TV channels were all in English too."
She said she'd watch Sesame Street on public TV and the ABC soap opera All My Children even though she couldn't understand the words yet.
Her cafeteria marathon began in 1982 at the Capitol Square office building in downtown St. Paul. She moved to the State Capitol Rathskeller Cafe in 1987, and eventually to the MnDOT Cafeteria.
She often was the high point of the day for the harried, stressed out journalists, lobbyists and legislators who came through her line.
"It can get crazy around here at times, and she was a day brightener from the first time we ever met," Eskola explained. "She’s one of my all-time favorites."
Rep. Hausman agreed.
"I wonder if she understands how much she means to us?"
Juanita worked for five different companies along the way, as different food service contractors took over the operations. But Juanita remained the one constant.
In fact, she was such an institution that the St. Paul Pioneer Press and Minneapolis Star Tribune did articles about Juanita in the early 2000's, describing how she had become and enduring, endearing legend.
Her most recent employer, Taher, Inc. wanted to make sure Juanita received a fitting farewell. During the party company president Shawn Taher read a special proclamation from the Minnesota House of Representatives marking Juanita's retirement, and presented her with a framed copy.
The party turned into a hug fest, because Juanita was no longer on the other side of a wide counter with her hands on the keyboard of the cash register.
She was standing in the middle of the cafeteria trying her best to hold back tears, as dozens of people lined up to embrace her and pose for snapshots with her.
When asked how she kept such a cheerful demeanor all these years, Juanita said that's just the way she's wired.
"I have my moments! Just ask my children!" Juanita laughed. "But I just don't let the little things worry me and keep me down. I forget things quickly. That's good for marriage and that's good for business!"
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