Saturday, August 28, 2010

A Phone Call From Deep in the Heart of Mexico

Jaìme called my cell phone on the eve of my birthday to wish me feliz cumpleaños. At least I think that is why he called. As usual, he was speaking Spanish so rapidly that I only caught every fourth word. We got cut off after only a minute or so. My phone said “unknown number” so I couldn’t return the call. He never called back. Most likely he lost reception in the tiny village of Paso del Correo — which means post office — deep in the interior of the Mexican state of Veracruz, where he owns a small farm below the pyramids of El Tajin — a pre-Columbian archaeological site more than 2,000 years old. Someday I wish to visit Jaìme and see the site. Someday I will.

I was greatly relieved to hear from Jaìme, however briefly, since it is the first word I have gotten in 15 months that he made it home safely from East Texas, driving the 1997 Ford Ranger he bought the last year he lived in the United States. Until that purchase, I would pick him up at the rundown trailer park where he lived with three other men without air-conditioning, each paying $50 a week for the privilege.
My Spanglish — the Tex-Mex Spanish I learned largely while working with him — has gotten rusty since Jaìme returned to his home in Mexico after more than a decade of working in East Texas and sending money back home to support his wife and two children. For more than nine years, Jaìme worked for me on weekends — painting, doing yard work, building fences, hanging Christmas lights, whatever needed done. We spent hundreds of hours together over those years, discussing politics, sports, music and immigration reform. He called me his patròn. I called him my compadre.

Jaìme is now 50, a round little fellow with a full head of black hair and a matching moustache. He is always smiling, no matter how unpleasant the job. He possessed a Rain Man ability to remember dates that always floored me.

“Meester Gary, the shuttle blew up four years ago today,” he would say, recalling that horrific morning when pieces of Columbia rained down on Nacogdoches and East Texas, where we both lived at the time — and I ran the newspaper. Or even more mundane items, such as “Two years ago, we painted that rent house of yours.”

Jaìme only has an eighth-grade education but is as an addicted news junkie as I have known. He only learned enough English to get by, so most of his news came from the Spanish-language television networks and newspapers. We talked politics all the time. Jaìme will talk the bark off a tree, whether one understands what he is saying or not. As I once wrote, Jaìme apparently believes that if he speaks Spanish long enough the person to whom he is talking will learn it by osmosis. I actually did learn quite a bit of Spanish hanging around with him for nearly a decade. My most-common expression with Jaìme: Habla despacio, por favor, which means, speak slowly, please.

My favorite and oft-told story stems from several years ago, when I introduced him to two junior-high Japanese exchange students. Of course, Jaìme began speaking rapidly to them in Spanish.

“Jaìme,” I protested. “These girls are from Japan. They don’t know Spanish.” He replied rather haughtily, “Well, I can’t speak Japanese,” and continued his machine-gun patter en Español.

Jaìme was much in demand as a handyman in East Texas. He was an excellent painter, decent carpenter and plumber, and knew how to string barbed wire. Most importantly, he is the hardest, most honest worker I know, someone you could leave alone for eight hours and know that he if finished his appointed tasks he would find something else to do. That work ethic is a rarity these days, sad to say.

Jaìme proudly showed me photos of his home over the years. With the money he made working in East Texas, seven days a week for a circle of people doing whatever needed to be done, it was transformed over the years from a squat cinderblock structure to a story-and-a-half adobe-surfaced house, with a gleaming cedar door, ceramic-tiled floors and marble counters in the bathroom. And air-conditioning.

I hope Jaìme and his family are doing well and that he calls back soon. I didn’t get to ask about them, in that brief minute we connected. As usual, I could barely get a word in edgewise with my compadre. He doesn’t even know I live in Kansas now. I was trying to explain that to him when the phone went dead. I’m sure he’ll have a lot to say about that.

Originally published in the Junction City (Kansas) Daily Union, August 28, 2010.


  1. Gary,

    What a moving and funny story -- it makes me want to know him. I especially like the part where he said, "Well, I can't speak Japanese!"

  2. I miss Jaime. I'm so delighted you heard from him! What a thoughtful surprise.