My mother Norberta Gómez left this world at 92 in a spring day of 2017 but just as well she left a plethora of memories in people she touched with her simple ways. I remember she told me this one time she stopped and got out of her car to help a young man that was pushing his car in a rainy day of all things. She got next to the guy who was obviously surprised to get help from a semi-invalid old woman. As he protested, Mom insisted he get in the car to guide assuring him she knew what she was doing. Long story-short, as soon as people saw a senior woman pushing, more people than was needed stopped to lend a hand and got the young man on his way. Once she saw her plan worked she got back in her car and drove away without looking back.
I have been very fortunate to make part of my life’s journey with people who like mom, gave much of themselves to make this world a little better. Thus as I turn 75 this week I find it not only proper but just, to honor the memory of people close to me who have in many ways made my life richer.
Like Jaime Martinez, a San Antonio Union and civil rights activist and protégée of Cesar Chavez. Jaime was among other things responsible for the city’s Cesar Chavez Avenue along with the annual March for Justice and founder of the Cesar Chavez Center out of which he led many local and national crusades. He left us in 2017.
My Compadre Rogelio Guerrero, who retired from General Motors one of the auto plants in Lansing, Michigan. A genuine caring individual and one of the original founders of Spanish language radio programming in WKAR at Michigan State University. Thanks to the work of a small group of visionaries he was part of, I got a job to run a Barrio radio production workshop that eventually led me to get recruited by Cesar Chavez to develop KUFW. He left us in 2016.
Jose Montes de Oca who was a Social worker, cultural advocate and community activist in San Jose. He was one of the founders of the Alumn Rock Counseling center, cofounder of the Calendario Chicano and volunteered as the General Manager at KKUP, a community radio station where we collaborated in special program productions. He left us in 2015.
Lupe Rivera, a trail blazer whose civic background was combined with his great culinary skills. While some leaders inspired Raza with speeches Lupe gave us a deeper sense of community through his Mexican food. He would manage to cook out of his small apartment kitchen in Muscatine, Iowa to which we would drive up in weekends to pick up our orders of Barbacoa or Menudo. Memories of the long lines back then of cars picking up food orders by his doorsteps going all around the block, make me think of an early version of today’s drive-thru establishments. He left us in 2015. And Lupe’s brother, Leo. One of the most eloquent and charismatic Chicanos I’ve met who was the director of the Midwest Council of La Raza out of Notre Dame University in the late 70’s He left us in the early 1990’s
Joseph (Joe) Spielberg Benitez, a professor of Anthropology at Michigan State University. One of the first Chicanos to earn a Ph.D. in that discipline, published extensively on economic anthropology issues and on the social organization of Mexican American communities. Joe was instrumental in the development of the Julian Samora Research Institute and Acting Director in 1993. He served as Chairman of the Governor’s Agricultural Labor Commission and was a recipient of Fulbright-Hays Lecture/Research Fellowships to the University of Costa Rica and the University of Cusco in Peru. His field work was conducted in peasant and urban communities throughout Mexico and Guatemala. He left us in 2010.
Roberto Maestas, a Seattle civil rights activist and co-founder of El Centro de la Raza community center. Originally from New Mexico, he was a fierce advocate who often appeared at Seattle City Council public hearings and many other public venues speaking for the under-represented. He left us in 2010. And Paul Vargas, also member of El Centro de la Raza who offered me shelter when I was homeless while sharing a beer in El Gato Negro bar on a winter Friday night.
Alejandro Alvarez, a cultural and social justice activist whom I met in a cross border solidarity project for a group of auto workers in the Cuautitlan Ford plant in Mexico City. A singer and songwriter of Nueva Trova originally from Michoacan, he was a mentor for a new generation of musicians, a proud USW union member and constant supporter of Labor education through the University of Michigan Latino Workers Leadership Institute. He left us in 2005.
María de Jesús (Jessie) Corona was a kind soul with whom I shared love, life and dreams in the mid eighties. She was a beautiful person inside and out, a Chicano theatre activist from California and puppet performer. She earned an MA in education at Colorado State and spent her last years teaching elementary education in Houston.
I used to tell her she was such a great teacher because deep down she was a kid herself. She left us in the early 2000’s.
One of my mentors Domingo (Nick) Reyes, media activist and pioneer who pushed me to get my MA in Telecommunication Arts while at the University of Michigan. Nick was a Chicano pioneer in radio and television broadcasting, social activist, author and a political and business consultant. He left us in 1996.
Eleazar (Joe) Reyna, originally from Kingsville, Texas who was responsible for my ending up in the Midwest. Joe was a real cool guy. He was a man’s man, the one we always called on when we needed help out of a bind and a women’s magnet just the same. A natural born leader, gifted with great personality and charisma, rose from a foundry and construction laborer to an active social and civic affairs figure in the Quad Cities. He left us in the late 1980’s.
Most residents in this Pantheon of memories valued life, actions and good deeds, and just like you and me they were not short of flaws. Most were seasoned activists with very few exceptions that checked out early like Alejandro and Jessie along with Nieves Gonzalez and Josias Hernandez two talented musicians from Lansing. There was also a small number who succumbed to alcohol, or substance abuse and, or Diabetes like Israel (Cookie) Castillo and Ermelinda Ortega whom I worked with in the Illinois Migrant Council in the late 80’s. In most cases cancer or heart failure was the culprit such as in the case of Brother Abe Herevia, UAW union activist who left us in 2012. He was a founder and support pillar of the UM Latino Leadership Institute through which he mentored and inspired hundreds of minority union rank and filers.
I suppose sometimes it’s not easy to reconcile our quality of life with the way it may come to an end unless there is a way to steer destiny. Cesar Chavez used to say he’d prefer getting killed by the KKK, in a riot, by a racist cop or grower and not by a drunk driver, meaning there’s no glory for a hell raiser being killed by accident.
My wise friend Ted Warmbrand, a cultural and political activist from Tucson tells me “Life wants to live and we make our journey as much unplanned as planned” – in a final analysis – “the major cause of death is life…”