He taught us to love films and music. Big band swing, salsa, merengue, anything you can dance to, he really enjoyed that. I have a memory of him driving me and my siblings to the movies. I must have been seven or eight. I don’t remember the movie, but I remember him and us five kids, eating popcorn, excited that we were going to the theater.
He didn’t really talk about serving in the military. My mom had a photo of him in his uniform. He joined because, like a lot of us, he wanted to leave home to go make something of himself. After he died, my mom told me that when he was leaving for active duty, he gave the picture to her in case he never came back. “If anything happens to me, I want you to be the one who takes charge,” he said to her. “I want you to make sure that my body goes back to Mexico and is buried next to our mom.”
When I think back on my time with Hector, the memories that will always come forward with him are family gatherings. I don’t know that I have one story. I think that it’s a repeated story. The music he shared with us and the joy that he brought. He was always present, always smiling, always joking, always had the best music to play. It would have been a very boring party if he wasn’t there. He loved to cook. He went to school to get a culinary certificate. At family parties, he always got there early to help my mom with the tamales and the atole. In my mind, he and my mom were rivals to see who could make the mole that was closest to my grandmother’s.
Education was very important to my family. Hector and my mom would remind us that education is the one thing no one can take away from you. Hector would tell us “You need to go to school so that you don’t end up having to fight as hard as we had to to make a living.” When I would come home from kindergarten my mom would say “Let’s get working on your homework!” and would sit down with me to make sure I was doing it right. What I didn’t realize until later was that that’s how she learned English. I remember my uncle saying that I didn’t belong anywhere, because in the U.S. I’ll be seen as Mexican, but if I go to Mexico I won’t be seen as such because I was not born there nor have I learned the language fluently. Maybe he was right, maybe he wasn’t, I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out the answer to that. Regardless of these questions I have, I still think I probably had an easier time than my uncle or my mom or any of her siblings had when they came here as immigrants.
The biggest regret that I have is that I never got a chance to call my uncle while he was in the hospital. He went in because he had a very high blood sugar, and then it turned out that he tested positive for Covid, so he was stuck in the hospital. He was still his normal self. He was still joking around. He was still talking and just trying to be positive. It was a very quick change. It was like a light switch.
Unless you’re facing this situation where someone you know and care about is dealing with Covid at a personal level, it is just data, it is just numbers. Until all of a sudden, you get a phone call saying someone you love has died, and you realize it’s no longer just data. It’s people behind those numbers. It’s human beings, it’s spirit, it’s passion, it’s love. The hardest part is that you can’t be there. My mom told me her last conversation with Hector was through an iPad held by a nurse, and he had an oxygen mask and he couldn’t speak. You can’t be in the room. You can’t hold their hand. And then they’re not there.
I desperately wish my uncle was still here. But the most important thing for me is to continue remembering the things he taught us, the love that he had for us. I’m grateful for these experiences. Why do they stop when we’re kids? Why don’t they continue as we get older? Why do we forget the joy of going to that first movie, or that joy of hearing a song for the first time, or that joy of just being in the kitchen together, and telling stories, and learning, and seeing the love and the passion that ignite the connection we build with our own families?
My uncle Hector was always Mexican at heart. He definitely had a love for the United States, obviously, the country where he naturalized, where he served. But his home, his heart, was always in Mexico. That’s where his spirit really lay. “I made a promise to him the day he gave me that photo, and I’m going to fulfill that promise,” my mom said. We’ve already tried to get all the paperwork in motion, and as soon as COVID allows us to travel again, she will take his ashes to Mexico and have them buried there, next to my grandmother.
I wish I could have asked Hector, “What is a life worth living?” The words he undoubtedly would have used are—“What kind of question is that? You only have one life! So live it!” And he did, even though it was never an easy life’
Juan’s story was produced by Esteban Touma and is part of Love Wisconsin’s Covid-19 series. Through this series, we are featuring shorter stories to offer a time capsule into life in Wisconsin during this extraordinary time.