For the past 26 years, Jovita Castaneda has been working on what was once the Calderwood Hotel on Main Street. Located on the northeast corner of Main Street and Putnam Avenue, the once 40-room hotel built in 1858 has been transformed into several Roman-inspired luxury apartments, complete with a gold-colored stairway, high ceilings painted blue with drifting white clouds in the entry ways, numerous chandeliers and gold-colored wall accents.
But what is just as impressive as the final product, is the woman who's making it possible, said her best friend, Martin Cuevas.
“I’m super proud of her. I’ve seen what she’s gone through,” Cuevas said. “She has a love for work and is always helping people. She has so much motivation and such a love for this building.”
Castaneda was born in Guatemala and moved to Los Angeles as a young woman.
In Guatemala, Castaneda said, she owned a few houses and frequently helped farmers by offering agriculture loans that were not payed back until they sold their crops.
“I came to the United States without a plan,” she said. “But I found my way. I started babysitting and cleaning houses. Eventually I started cleaning Pan Am large aircraft.”
And that's when her life took off. Robert Baker, a supervisor who worked his way up to vice chairman of one of the largest airlines in the world, saw how dedicated she was to her work, but also noticed she never attended the fancy dinners and parties for the staff. He asked her why and was impressed at how humble she was — and that's when he gave her the gift of unlimited travel to anywhere she wanted to go, Castaneda said. But she wasn't documented at the time and had to turn it down. Upon learning of her immigration status, he helped her through the process of becoming a documented citizen. He also asked her what she wanted to do in life and helped her through the red tape and program-enrollment process of becoming a real estate agent.
“I started buying and selling houses in Los Angeles and I was ready to retire by age 46.”
She had never heard of Porterville but moved to the small town in 1989 after a friend invited her for a visit.
“I loved it right away,” Castaneda said. “My father was a rancher and had a cattle crew. There were also many orange trees where I came from. I saw the orange trees here and I saw the area and it was like being back home again. I felt like I was home.”
Once in Porterville, Castaneda established herself as a tax preparer. She also started helping people buy their first home.
“They go to work at 3 a.m. and work and live in tiny rooms or shared houses,” Castaneda said. “I had to help them.”
One day, she took a client to a small loan office located on the ground floor of the building she now owns.
“I went with him to help him but while I was there, I mentioned that I too was interested in a loan,” Castaneda said. “I was looking for a loan to purchase a five-acre pistachio place in Terra Bella.”
The officer noticed her excellent credit and told her the building they were in was also for sale.
And after walking through it and seeing it, she knew she wanted it.
“The upstairs was full of trash and junk but I liked it,” she said. “It had a lot of potential. When I was preparing taxes, all the money I made went towards the building.”
She started by clearing everything out of the upstairs, but before she could start working on the building, she had to let all her downstairs tenants go because the City’s regulations didn't permit her to work on the upstairs if she had tenants on the first level.
“’Fun Zone’ was down there. My tenants had to close. Everything is new — the walls, the 2 by 4s, the electricity, the paneling. I am the interior designer. I’ve been to a lot of places in Europe and I kept saying ‘I want this someday’ and ‘I’m going to do this one day,’” she said. “When we removed the original flooring, we found a lot of newspapers from the 1920s. They used newspaper as padding under the carpeting.”
But there was so much to do, there were times she would ask God to give her a sign of whether to stop or keep going. There were always roadblocks or bumps along the way, but she never gave up on her dream project.
“From the beginning, there was always something. That’s why it took so many years,” she said. “I physically did a lot of the work. With my workers, we worked on the ceiling, the roof, and I put in two street lamp lights.”
The process was lengthy, she said. They had to remove the existing sidewalk, place two tall street light posts, and redo the sidewalk — all according to extreme specifications.
“I’m a woman, I’m single and I’m from Guatemala. But I never gave up,” she said. “Nothing will stop me.”
Castaneda called her worker Victor Gutierrez, and her architect Mark Hillman, “angels” sent by God.
“I am blessed. I am very blessed. God has put people in my (path),” Castaneda said. “My mom always said to give first to God. It’s a blessing. God is first in my life. I’ve been blessed all my life. I always pray, ‘God, please help me.’”
Cuevas described Castaneda as humble, preferring to drive her old “little blue car” instead of her BMW vehicle, always ready to work alongside Gutierrez and his crew, whether it was working on a roof leak, breaking down the old sidewalk or laying cement down for the new one.
“This place has been 100 percent renovated, not just the rooms, but the structure too,” Cuevas said. “She has persevered through all her struggles. God’s put a lot of good people in Jovita’s life.”
And she’s a great role-model for students, Cuevas said.
“She’s talked to kids at school and used to have a television program for the community.”
“De Todo un Poco con Jovita Castaneda” ran on Spanish television for 12 years. Each program had a different community guest speaker, from pastors to city council members and mayors, to the city manager and even the Mexico Consulate. She currently also lends a downstairs room for the distribution of food for the community.
Hillman, president of Hillman Building Designs, said he met Castaneda more than 20 years ago.
“She’s the angel. She did the work little by little,” Hillman said. “She’s always trying to do things to better herself. Always doing things for the community. She took this building on and because she couldn’t get it financed, she had to pay for it herself. It’s great to finally see it come to fruition. It’s beautiful.”
Her background, Hillman said, is testimony on its own.
“I’m duly impressed. I’ve enjoyed the privilege of working with her. She’s always trying to do things, always trying to better the community — that’s a fact.”
Now the building has four smaller apartments with one or two bathrooms each, and one personal large apartment which will be hers, she said. Castaneda plans on renting the other furnished apartments, either as an Air BNB or to traveling nurses.
For now she continues with the little things still needed in the building, named “La Casa de Jovita,” and is planning an inauguration of a lifelong project — a dream come true. The event is formal and by invitation only. It will include a ceremony, a tour and a reception on June 19.
“My life is a miracle. It’s unusual to find someone to give unlimited travel. I didn’t speak English and yet I went on and sold real estate,” Castenada said. “I am blessed. That’s why I love to help people.”