There's big news in the Little house: Eric Little and his family made a brief court appearance in January, answered a few questions for Commissioner Alan Slaughter, and emerged with a new name.
They are now Eric and Debbie Santana, and their children Stevi, Alicia, Desi, Nee and Eric, II.
As Eric Little, he's known throughout the Rim country as the man to see at Farm Bureau Insurance after you've had a mishap. He's also president of Payson Youth Football, president of the Rim Country Rotary Club, and one of the organizers of the Payson First Assembly of God's annual Christmas show.
The road that led the Littles to that court appearance was bumpy and filled with detours, a journey that began with the slip of the tongue and ended with the discovery of a family Eric had never known.
Growing up Little
Eric William Little was born in August 1959 to William and Yvonne Little, several months after his separated parents decided to give their marriage another try.
"I guess he was very abusive," Eric said of his father. "He used to kick me while I was on the floor, and I mean really kick me. Then, my mom would go after him, and he would end up beating her."
The Littles divorced shortly after Eric was born, he said, when his mother had finally had enough of her husband's abuse. She took Eric and his two older brothers and tried to rebuild a life for her children.
Despite being the only child with a swarthy complexion and dark eyes, Eric grew up alongside his five tow-headed brothers and sisters, believing as they did that Bill Little was his father.
In the late 1960s, Yvonne met and married John White, the man Eric now recalls as the closest thing to a father-figure he would ever know.
A year after marrying Yvonne, John White moved his new family to Lake Havasu City, where Eric and his siblings spent the remainder of their childhood.
A turning point in Eric's life occurred at a carnival in Lake Havasu --an incident that would cast a shadow on his heart and set the wheels in motion for a startling revelation.
Twenty-year-old Eric, his brother Bart and his sister's boyfriend went to the carnival looking for a guy Eric had had an earlier confrontation with.
"We went there looking for trouble, obviously," he said. Instead of finding the guy they were looking for, the three ended up brawling with carnival workers.
"The carnies were made up of Hispanic people and gypsies," he said. "About 20 of them jumped on me, about 20 of them jumped on Bart, and about 20 jumped on Ed.
"The last thing I remember, I was laying on the ground. They were kicking me and kicking me, and one of them finally asked, 'Is he dead?' Another one kicked me in the head and I moved, so he says, 'No, he's not dead,' and they laid into me some more.
"They attempted to kill me."
From that moment, Eric said he had a bitterness bordering on hatred for Hispanic people.
A secret revealed
Now a young man, Eric and his high school sweetheart Debbie Beard moved to California for a couple of years, then returned to Arizona and were married in 1983 by the Pine justice of the peace.
After their first daughter was born, Debbie decided to address her husband's prejudice.
"She asked me, 'Eric, what do we tell our kids?'" he said. "I said, 'What are you talking about?' Debbie says, 'What do we tell our kids about you being half-Hispanic?' That's when she knew -- I had no idea."
Debbie told Eric that years earlier, she was with his brothers, who were drinking, and they let it slip that Bill Little was not his real father.
Up until the moment she confronted him, Eric had no reason to ever question what he believed to be reality.
"It never hit me. You grow up through life and you never think about it. You think, 'These are my brothers, and I just tan well,'" he said.
Eric said he confronted his mother about his discovery and she admitted that his father was actually Mario Santana, a Southern California restaurateur.
Armed with his father's name, and only sketchy biographical information, Eric and Debbie set out in 1984 to find Mario Santana.
"We got turned on to this place called Search Triad in Phoenix, and were referred to the LaCasa Adoption Search Agency, in California," Eric said. Within moments, LaCasa had come up with a telephone number for a Mario Santana. Eric called, but was told that Mario was not at home.
Fifteen minutes later, the telephone rang, Eric said, and it was LaCasa, telling him not to call, that his father had died in 1980.
"Here I thought I had found him that day, and then find out he had passed away," he said. "That hurt a lot, probably a lot more than I let on."
Debbie later contacted Mario's widow, Irene, and met with a chilly reception. Mrs. Santana insisted there were no other children than the ones she and Mario had together.
The Littles then received a letter from Mrs. Santana's attorney, revealing the details of Mario's death --a tragic automobile accident in Mexico --and that there were four children living in the Santana household.
"We decided to honor her wish not to be bothered, and would wait until the children were grown to contact them," he said. "That was in 1984."
Two years later, Eric and Debbie began their monumental quest to find the other children of Mario Santana.
The Littles spent the next dozen years calling every California telephone number they could get their hands on for Yolanda, Mario Jr., Alejandro or Leticia Santana --the names given by LaCasa.
Undaunted by more than a decade of dead-ends, Debbie contacted the California Department of Motor Vehicles last year. Debbie was told that if she could supply a name and date of birth, with a letter to the person, DMV would pass it on.
In the meantime, Mario Santana Jr., an undercover police officer, had put a block on any of his DMV records.
"He received a letter from DMV telling him that his block had expired, and that he could renew his block by sending in the enclosed form," Eric said. Mario didn't return the form right away, and without the block, Eric's letter was forwarded to him.
Mario read the letter and in disbelief, contacted his brother Alejandro.
"On Aug. 29, 1998 --the evening of my 39th birthday --Mario called me," Eric said. Still cautious, Mario listened to Eric's story, asked a lot of questions, and agreed it sounded like they could be brothers.
After a few more phone calls, Mario agreed to meet Eric at Fiesta Mall in Mesa.
The morning of Dec. 19, Eric, Debbie and their five children made the trip to the Valley to meet Mario, his fianc Alejandro and his wife.
Eric's journey to find his roots was nearing the end.
An emotion-filled first meeting led to an afternoon spent in a motor home at the mall, as both families began blending into one with laughter, tears, and one final surprise: Eric's new family doesn't just stop with the two brothers and two sisters. Mario Santana Sr. and his wife actually had eight children, and on New Year's Day, the Littles traveled to California to meet all of the Santana clan.
"It's very hard to express how I felt," Eric said. "It couldn't have gone better. They are a great family, and they've accepted me and my family completely. It's almost like a fairy-tale ending."
What's in a name
At journey's end, Eric returned to Payson with his wife and children, sure of one thing: It was time to drop the name of the father he never cared for, and adopt the name of his real father.
A family meeting in the Little house resulted in the unanimous decision to legally become Santanas. His mother and his siblings on the Little side also gave their approval to the change.
There was just one more blessing to seek.
"I called Mario and asked him how he felt about it, and he said he was honored, but that I didn't need his permission to change my name," Eric said. "After he approved, I asked, 'Do you mind if I change my middle name to Mario?' He laughed and said, 'Don't push your luck.'"
So with the stroke of the pen by a judge, Eric William Little ceased to exist Jan. 19, 1999 --the day he legally became Eric Mario Santana.