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 drive.
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, though.
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 worthwhile stay.
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 quite fit.
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 there.
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 chocolate milk.
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 this group.
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 waved through.
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
Copyright 2002-2011 Tim Walker
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