My earliest memories as a child are with my grandfather. One of the first pictures I have is of him holding me at my baptism. Another memory is when he and I went to the LA sports arena to watch the WWF in 1988. I was about four; it was probably the first time I ever saw such a spectacle. I not only left with those memories, but also a replica WWF Championship Belt. Being who he was, a mechanic/tinkerer/inventor, he replaced the foam with leather, added a metal belt, and screwed in the “gold” plated plastic at the center, making this replica a reality. This belt has lasted 27 years.
A few months back, a returned the belt back to him. At this point the cancer was winning the battle and I knew I’d only enjoy a few more weeks with him. I told him, you are a fighter, a champion, you’ll win this match. It was a way to reconnect, to go full circle from being a young boy to a growing adult, still in inspired by the person my grandfather is and was. I say he was a tinkerer, because most days when I would visit he would be in his garage. Creating a new device to pull avocados from a 50 foot tree, fixing people’s broken electronics, and even repair people’s shoes. The last few years, he had spent his time in the garage building small “robots” from spare parts; blender motors, metal pipes, oil caps, ball bearings, etc. After a few years he had created over eight of these robots and put them on display within a plexiglass case, with the American flag in the background. He then had the idea to make them dance using magnets underneath the display case. I was always amazed with the cool thinks he thought up. In his ability to turn ideas into realities.
The last few months have been tough. They’ve been a slow goodbye. A realization that I’d lose my grandfather to cancer. Up until last week, these memories were real: the hugs, the stories, and the laughter. He was the patriarch; he was well respected by family and friends, always addressed as “Don Raul.” He is the reason why my family is in the United States; the first to risk his life and provided a better one for us. He’d tell me stories about his migration from Guatemala to Chicago back in the early 1970s. How after working for a while there, he connected with relatives in California and began to settle down in Anaheim. One by one, he would bring my grandma, uncles, and of course my mother.
He was a story teller, give him a topic and you’d have hours of history lessons, political discourse, and of course laughter. A few weeks before his passing, I knew I had to record this history; to capture his life and story. This interview, unlike the research ones I’ve conduct, was the hardest. This was late January. His doctors were ending any cancer treatment and transitioning to pain management. We talked for hours that day, about his health, his wishes after he passed, and his life both here and in Guatemala. I’m fortunate to have been able to record his life and have those conversations, just like the ones we shared over the last thirty years.
In our final recorded conversation, he said, “I’m going to get better, I’ll walk again, and take a final trip back to Guatemala.” So then we talked about how he would get there. As a bus driver, there was no other route than the roads for him; traveling from Anaheim, through Mexico, and into Guatemala. We spoke of every city and site we’d stop between here and there. He talked about making it all the way to Esquipulas. Esquipulas is a city in Guatemala, close to the El Salvador border. Famous as a religious site, it is a place where Central Americans and many others of the Catholic faith pilgrimage to the Basilica. Part of this story, we recapped his years as bus driver both for the public transit system and las Carmelitas Descalzos de Centroamérica. My grandfather talked about Esquipulas with fondness and the times he would take students, sisters, and other religious leaders from Guatemala City to Esquipulas for this pilgrimage.
I share this particularly story because it reminds me to never give up, that even when facing cancer and inevitably death, my grandfather still tried and hoped to defeat his illness and visit Esquipulas one more time. It’s a reminder of his strength, but also his journey from Guatemala to the United States. To remember the legacy of Don Raul and the opportunities afforded to me and my family through his sacrifice and foresight. As much as it pains me to know he has passed, and as the tears flow in writing this, I am happy. I rejoice in his memory, the lessons shared, and the character he instilled in me. My grandfather’s spirit lives with me and my family. The strength he shared is something I strive for. The dedication to family is something I’ll work towards. The ability to endure and improve opportunities for others is something I learned from him.
Although his story ends, I will always be thankful that mine began with his. As I say goodbye to my Grandfather, I embrace him and say, “Nos Vemos en Esquipulas.”