AND SUDDEN DEATH: And so the immigrant family is homeward bound to Oaxaca, their dreams for a better life having ended with sudden death in Santa Barbara.
Leon Leonel, 23, and his wife, Lorena Guadalupe-Tellez Pacheco, 27, struggled, as immigrants to the New World have for thousands of years, starting with those who crossed the Bering Straits from Asia.
Following 1492, a mass exodus from Europe to America began, and the immigrants have kept on coming ever since. My ancestors from England, my wife’s from Italy and Canada, my former wife’s from Spain and Panama.
Bodies of Leon, Lorena, and her eight-year-old son, Jaciel, killed when a brakeless gravel truck crushed their modest cottage behind the Hope Ranch Inn on August 24, are on their way back to be buried in one of Mexico’s southernmost and poorest regions, Oaxaca.
What hardships they endured during their trek here, no one that I talked to in the family would spell out. “It’s a life-or-death situation to come here,” said John Paul Guizar, one of the inn managers. “It’s an ugly, risky journey.” You risk robbery and murder on your way north to the border and death in the broiling deserts on this side. Leon’s 20-year-old brother, Juventino, who had left the house earlier that morning, said only, “It’s the way Mexicans come here. Through hardship.”
Poverty and hopelessness back home drove them on despite the risks. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Living for a time in Los Angeles, they decided to push on: “Looking for better opportunities, a better life in Santa Barbara,” Juventino told me.
This meant sharing a cramped Eastside house — then a wonderful opportunity came along, a cottage of their own behind the Hope Ranch Inn and benevolent landlords, managers Nancy Schliemann and her husband, John Paul.
“They came with nothing,” Nancy said. “They made it beautiful.” Prior tenants, locals with college degrees, had turned it into, in Nancy’s words, “a pig-sty.” Nancy and John Paul provided a bed, couch, and other necessities. The family paid the rent on time, every month. “They wanted a white picket fence, and we had one made,” John Paul told me. “One thing they had: togetherness.”
Santa Barbara also meant the warm arms of Franklin School, where Jaciel was loved. Jaciel, who started third grade the day before, was crazy for computers. Lorena made sure he got to school every day, and she never missed a field trip. That same morning she was to start a new job as a nanny. Leon and Juventino worked in a popular downtown restaurant.
Even as the Hope Ranch Inn was sponsoring a benefit BBQ last Friday to raise funds to send the bodies home, some not present were sneering: “Mexicans. Illegals. Why don’t they work in their own country?” There is no work, of course.
True, they were doubtlessly without immigration papers. I am not in favor of illegal immigration. But there’s particular resentment against immigrants without papers who arrive from south of the border, less toward those from Asia and Europe. And the immigration issue has been taken up by politicians using it as a convenient issue without offering a workable solution. In the eyes of some, the father, mother, and child buried in gravel when the big rig slammed into their home were nothing more than “Mexican illegals.”
Nancy sees it differently, with compassion. “They just wanted a better life for their boy, a little boy with big eyes, eager to learn. It was the American dream. They were very humble people. She was a devoted mother.” It’s a new heartache for Nancy, memories returning of her own young son killed in an accident a few years ago. The prejudice she hears is painful. “You can’t judge people by the color of their skin.” But she was heartened by the line of people awaiting their turn to donate. “The community has come out in force. Santa Barbara cares.”
Not everyone is anxious for an end to people from Mexico and Central America crossing the border and providing low-wage workers. Some years ago, when a crackdown at the California border temporarily slowed the flow, San Joaquin ranchers complained in the Los Angeles Times that they weren’t getting their “fair share” of illegal field workers.
People at the barbecue lined up patiently for dinners of chicken, tri-tip, beans, bread, and dessert. For many, the five-dollar price was all they could afford. Others stuffed $100 bills into the jar. Albertsons markets, where Nancy works, donated all the food, the Elks Club donated the grill, Rudy’s restaurant provided paper plates and other items, and State Street Hospitality, owner of the inn, allowed the victims’ family to stay there without charge.
South Coast Albertsons store managers manned the food preparation table, including area vice president Jacque Morris. Also busy helping with dinners was Erasmo Zapien, who’d leaped for his life when the truck came roaring down.
Newly elected DA Joyce Dudley was there and told me that her office was making a careful investigation of the tragedy.
A shrine of flowers rested against the fence in front of the ruined house, crushed like a family’s shattered dreams.