A Hero Died the Other Day
I count 24 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren of a hardworking, honorable man
Patrisia Gonzales and Roberto Rodriguez
(EDITOR'S NOTE: This is a first-person column by Roberto Rodriguez.)
Published on LatinoLA: December 13, 2004
"Te pareces a tu papa" -- "You look like your father" -- a gray-haired woman tells me at the Guzman family home in Topeka, Kan.
Dozens of family members are gathered here after the funeral of my Tio Sigfredo Guzman, 81, who died in a tragic car accident. Everyone is swapping stories. I'm momentarily taken aback by the matriarch (whom everyone has shown great deference to the past two days) because I vaguely know her.
"Me llamo Faustina Guzman," she says. "I knew you when you were a baby."
Then it hits me. "You're the reason my Tio Sigfredo got married to my Tia Aurea (my mom's sister)."
"Yes," she responds. "During the Depression, I was sent to Aguascalientes, Mexico. As a result, my brother Sigfredo visited me every year for more than 30 years before I came back."
"So that's how he met my Tia Aurea?"
"Yes. He visited me right after serving in World War II. The minute he laid eyes on her, they fell in love. He romanced her for five years before marrying her and taking her back to Lytle, Texas. Soon, on their way to Wisconsin, their car broke down in Topeka. They had gone north, but not to do farm work. He had a job lined up at a box company."
That's how the Guzmans settled in Topeka more than 50 years ago, and how my uncle eventually became a railroad man. My tio had actually told me this story half-jokingly some 35 summers ago (when my sister and I lived in Topeka) -- about how many Mexican families had settled in the
Midwest under similar circumstances.
Talking to Faustina, I remembered a recent conversation with my Tio Ricardo (on my father's side) in Aguascalientes. Their family is virtually a mirror of ours in California. He said he knew that he and my father (both in their early 80s) would soon go, and that his wish was that I reunite the separated families (a common story among migrant families).
"De hecho." I gave him my word.
A couple of months later and his words are prophetic, except they involve the Guzman family (our other mirror). Again, I give my word to my cousin Margie.
As I speak to Faustina, I am recalling the summer my sister and I spent in this mythic, historical town -- the site of the school that led to the legendary 1954 Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka
desegregation case. We had planned to finish high school here, but our mom would hear nothing of it. I remember my tio would pick me up every day after work and I would ask him about the era of segregation and the war. Like me, he was dark brown, yet he didn't talk much about that. But
he would tell me about getting to see the Kansas City Monarchs of the old Negro Baseball Leagues.
At the funeral, he is buried in a flag-draped coffin, with full military honors. Margie receives the cross. My cousin, Junior, a veteran, receives the flag.
Earlier, my cousin Rudy, speaking for the family, delivers a stirring eulogy at the Guadalupe Church, with an image of Quetzalcoatl and a ship with a Christian cross on its sail at the entrance. He speaks
of my tio's bravery and heroism at Normandy and of raising an upstanding family. I now know the meaning of "Soldado Razo" (brave soldier).
Also, a poem by my tio's grandson Jason is read:
"I am refried beans, rice and tacos ... I am from 'You're a Mexican, not a Mexican't.'" Yes. Like soldiers from that greatest generation, my tio was the antithesis of a Mexican't.
Tears flow freely. I notice my little niece Aurea's eyes are red and swollen from taking part as an altar girl in her grandpa Bito's last rites. Time freezes. As "Amor Eterno" ("Eternal Love") plays in the
background, tears finally stream down my face. I don't wipe them off.
Back home, Margie gathers the family. I remember her as a wirykid. Now, the veteran teacher has the reins of the family. She prays. They pray. We pray ... At the cemetery, I play my tio and tia an honor song from my Teponaxtli drum.
My last memories of my tio are of him taking me to the Topeka Capital-Journal. My tio proudly told the editor that I write a syndicated column ... and that I once worked in Topeka.
"What did you do?" the editor asked.
I looked proudly at my tio and beamed with a smile: "I counted tortillas."
At the house, I continue the count: I count 24 grandchildren and two great-grandchildren of a hardworking, honorable man.
They are maize.
COPYRIGHT 2004 UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE
Patrisia Gonzales and Roberto Rodriguez:
The writers can be reached at XColumn@aol.com