The call came at 6 am, Sunday morning.
"That was Irma" my wife, Martha, said. "My uncle just passed
away, and my dad wants to go to see him."
Those very words struck a whirlwind of thoughts through my head.
You see, Martha's uncle lived in San Quintin, and we live in Los
Angeles. Knowing how most Latin America countries work, the
funeral would be not be too far behind the death. If we were to
go to San Quintin, we'd have to leave soon. "When do you want
to leave?" I asked. "Right now" Martha replied.
We got ready quickly and left to pick up Martha's dad at his
home in East Los Angeles, about 10 minutes from our Huntington
Park apartment. Along the way, we picked up Mary, Martha's
sister, who wanted to come along with us to Mexico. We arrived
at my father-in-laws house to find three more of Martha's
siblings there already - her sister Lulu, and two brothers,
Martin and Pedro. After a brief breakfast of menudo and a bit
of conversation, we were on our way. I tried to reach my boss
by phone at his house, but I was not able to get through. I
left a message for him at work, letting him know I wouldn't be
in on Monday and maybe not Tuesday, either. Knowing how lenient
my work is with me, I figured I'd be OK.
We crossed the border at roughly 10:45 am, after a stop to buy
insurance and top off the gas tank. The hour or so drive to
Ensenada was as expected. Tolls ran .20 each, and the fog had
barely lifted along the coast. Still, it was a very beautiful
Lunch was on our mind as we stopped in town at Bahia Ensenada, a
mariscos restaurant just off of Av. Lopez Mateos. The food, as
always, was excellent.
After leaving Ensenada, we drove quickly though the hills to the
south, before reaching Santo Tomas. Just as we reached the
hills between Santo Tomas and San Vicente, Martha's dad began to
cough and wheeze. Then, all of a sudden, his lunch came out of
his stomach, and onto his pants and the passenger seat of my
truck. I had a bit of luck as I found a small piece of dirt to
pull onto, off the road. As he continued to get sick, I
searched in our luggage for the two spare towels that Martha
brought for the trip. The cleanup went well, and being the
strong man that he is, Martha's dad exclaimed that he was fine,
and a bit "embarrassed" by what had happened. He claimed the
menudo made him sick, but we really believe he was just nervous
about what was to come in San Quintin. He won't admit that,
The drive continued, and we reached our first checkpoint just
out of the hills south of Santo Tomas. We were waved through
without even being approached. The rest of the drive was
uneventful. I drastically reduced my speed, realizing that the
faster I twisted and turned through the winding roads, the more
likely Martha's dad was to have a relapse.
We reached Col. Vicente Guerrero just before 4 pm. However, I
missed our hotel, and continued on the drive until I realized I
had gone too far. We turned back, and found Motel Chavez on the
west side of Hwy. 1. The lights in the room were dim, the
showerhead was missing, and the two beds were a bit lumpy, but
hot water, a clean room, and only a night made this a
After checking in and briefly cleaning up, we drove the next 5
miles or so south to Ejido Padre Kino, where Martha's uncle had
his farm. Apparently, Sr. Jesus Arevalo was a man of great
importance at some time in this area. Martha's dad told us that
he was instrumental in building up San Quintin, Col. Guerrero,
and even Camalu. He either opened or was involved in the
opening of one of the biggest canning facilities in the area,
bringing agriculture to the forefront of this region. He also
served as 'mayor' of one of the areas. Of course, all of this
happened many, many years ago, and because of my poor Spanish
and even worse translating, I may have some of the facts mixed
up. Either way, he was someone who was adored in this region.
We arrived at our uncle's rancho, and were greeted with many sad
faces. It's hard enough to attend a funeral or viewing for
someone you barely have known, but to do so, and then meet with
many strangers and try to comfort them is nearly impossible.
You never get a real feel for what the deceased meant to that
one particular person - was he a relative? A friend? What do
you say to this person? Somehow, a "lo siento" doesn't seem to
Sr. Arevalo had been placed in a room with only candlelight.
His coffin was quite nice, better than I expected. The top
portion was opened, with a glass partition separating the
deceased from the viewers. I assume they did this for a couple
of reasons - one is to keep the body fresher and the smell out
of the air, considering that no embalming or other preservation
is done. Another reason could be the many insects in the area,
which would have taken to a dead body quickly. That is an
assumption on my part, but I'm just glad that the glass was
As darkness began to fall, more visitors arrived, and the body
was moved outside on the rear patio, to accommodate the sudden
mass of people. Martha, Mary, their dad and I retired to the
kitchen, where we sat and ate hot, homemade chicken soup with
flour tortillas bought from a nearby tortillaria. Though it
seemed like a simple meal, I'm sure the work involved was
massive. It was well appreciated by all.
The rest of the night was spent in the kitchen, talking to many
of the people there. Cousins, second cousins, and other people
were introduced to me - some for the first time, others to
reacquaint ourselves. The conversations were almost entirely in
Spanish, but I did catch a few words in English with some of the
American relatives who, like us, had made the drive south. A
couple of Sr. Arevalo's daughters talked to us with the typical
family questions - how were we doing, how were Martha's
siblings, the other members of the family, etc. I was amazed at
the courage each person showed in the face of the tragedy.
Although they were hurting terribly inside, each person made us
feel welcome, and showed great appreciation for us having come
all that way just to show our respects.
There is something different about Mexico. The difference is
not something tangible, but rather it's the feeling one gets
from being around its people. The term "mi casa, es su casa" is
taken to an extreme here. There is nothing but respect for
others, regardless of who you are, where you're from, or how
much money you make. Everyone at the ranch was there for one
reason - to pay his or her respects. It didn't matter if they
saw Sr. Arevalo everyday, or only met him just once before (as
in my case). Everyone was treated equally. The daughters made
sure everyone had eaten. They made sure the coffee pot was kept
filled and warm. It was as if they were hosting a fiesta
instead of a wake.
By the time 10 pm rolled around, I was dead on my feet. The
drive had taken more out of me than I expected, so I went to the
car to rest. I waited only 30 minutes or so before the other 3
in our group arrived, and we drove off to the hotel. Sleep was
not a problem, and came very quickly for me.
We all awoke early the next morning. Martha's dad walked to the
tortillaria across the street and bought freshly made flour
tortillas. Then, the four of us drove a short distance to Super
Mercado Don Jose, a small market right on Hwy. 1, where we
purchased the meat, margarine, chiles, milk, and other
necessities for breakfast.
We arrived back at the ranch at around 8:30 am, and started the
cooking. A pot of birria de pollo was already boiling when we
arrive, and we decided to make the carne, too. While I heated
the tortillas and toasted the tomatoes, Martha's dad started to
cook the meat. Meanwhile, Mary cut up the chiles, and Martha
used a bar of Mexican chocolate found in a cupboard to make hot
The first group of about 15 people ate, and everyone seemed to
enjoy their breakfast. About an hour later, more people came,
and someone brought a pot of fresh white menudo. I didn't try
it, but everyone seemed to like it. We began to cook again for
Around 10:30 am, more people showed up, this time bringing
several small lobster tails. They grilled them up, and I
enjoyed one with a flour tortilla and butter. Very delicious!
Throughout the day, more and more people passed through to pay
their respects. At one time, a school bus full of children came
by. A couple of Sr. Arevalo's daughters are schoolteachers in
the area, and the children wanted to show support for them.
The services were set - the mass was to be at 2:00 pm on the
back patio of the ranch, where Sr. Arevalo's body lay in state.
The burial was set for 3:00 pm. The cemetery is right behind
the ranch, on a hill. If you're driving on Hwy 1, look to the
east just south of the ABC bus station, as you arrive in Ej.
Padre Kino. You will see a big white cross on the top of the
hill - the cemetery is a couple hundred yards south of there.
The mass was a complete Catholic affair - and entirely in
Spanish. Since the mass I normally attend here in Los Angeles
is bilingual, I did not feel too out of place. In fact, I
pretty much understood everything that was being said. The one
difference I did see was the presence of mariachis. They played
most of the standard mass songs, as well as a couple of songs
that, I assumed, are played at most Mexican funerals.
After mass, the cars lined up behind the makeshift hearse
(actually, an old station wagon) and took the short drive to the
cemetery. There was no religious service at the gravesite. A
couple of people did speak, again entirely in Spanish. One man
spoke, saying that Sr. Arevalo was "twice the man that Emiliano
Zapata was". He spoke of the things that Sr. Arevalo did for
the San Quintin/Vicente Guerrero area. Although I didn't
understand exactly what was said, I realized just how important
Martha's uncle was to this region.
After the speech, a couple of teenagers played taps while the
coffin was lowered into the ground. In Mexico, everyone sees
the deceased become buried. It is something you don't see very
often in the United States, and it is very, very emotional.
After taps, the mariachis began again, playing Sr. Arevalo's
favorite songs back to back. Tears flowed from almost everyone
in attendance. I fought back the tears until I watched Sr.
Arevalo's daughter sing along to the songs while crying for her
father, and holding her husband. This got to me, and I began to
weep freely for the man I barely knew.
Once the funeral was over, it was time to go home. It was close
to 5 pm before we took to the road, with a long drive still
ahead of us. Our first stop came at about 6:30 pm, in the town
of San Vicente. We drove to a small store off Hwy. 1 and
purchased a couple of sodas and cookies for the road. Our next
stop wasn't until the checkpoint near Santo Tomas. We were
questioned, but not searched.
We stopped again in Ensenada, at the Calimax just as you enter
the main part of town. There, we bought several groceries to
take home, including more cookies for us and tequila to take
home to Martha's sister, Irma.
We were surprised to see an army checkpoint located just before
the toll road/free road split north of Ensenada. It appeared
that they were looking for someone. The guard asked where we
going, shined his light on all of our faces, and let us continue
on our way.
We were stopped again at another checkpoint, just after the 2nd
toll booth. Again, we were asked our destination before being
Our final stop was in Tijuana. We were all hungry, so we
decided to buy some "tacos al vapor" from a stand on Av.
Revolucion. After eating our fill, Martha's dad bought 40 tacos
to take home to everyone. The tacos are 80 cents each, and are
very, very good.
We approached the border and were in line at 10:30 pm. Being
that this was a Monday night, there were very few cars ahead of
us. It took only 15 minutes to reach the gate. However, we
were in for a long stay. The border guard asked our citizenship
and Martha's dad proceeded to show his immigration documents.
Martha's father is a Mexican citizen, but has legal US
residency. Unfortunately, he never renewed his green card to
the version released a few years ago. He apparently paid for
it, but never received it. He has receipts to prove he did
this. However, the guard was not impressed, and sent us to
secondary to get his status resolved.
The guard followed us to secondary, and took the paperwork to
her boss in the offices. She came back 15 minutes later, to say
that we had two options. Option number 1 was for Martha's dad
to receive a waiver, which would cost .00, cash only.
Option number 2 was to send him back to Mexico. Obviously, we
didn't have much of a choice. Luckily, we had the money on us,
and Martha's dad went to the offices to pay the 'fine' and
receive the waiver. All of this took over an hour. We didn't
leave the border until 11:55 pm.
Being very tired, and realizing I had to work the next morning,
I desperately needed a pick-me-up. Everyone else had dozed off,
so I stopped at the first rest stop off of the 5 freeway at Camp
Pendleton. There, I purchased a bottle of Coke, to get a
caffeine fix. It worked, as I was able to drive the rest of the
way without feeling too tired.
I dropped off Martha's dad first, reaching his house in East LA
at 2:10 am. Mary was next, then Martha and I finally arrived
home at 2:40 am on Tuesday morning. For the second straight
night, sleep was not a problem.
I learned a lot about Martha's side of the family on this trip.
I am only sorry that I didn't get to know Sr. Arevalo more
before his passing. His family is kind and courteous, and I
hope I get to visit them again under better circumstances. I
used to believe that the San Quintin area was not a great place
for people, especially gringos, to visit. However, I discovered
that there are a lot of good things about this region - first
and foremost being the people who live there.
Tim Walker (email@example.com)
Contributed December, 2002