Don Toñito Mendez, Presente

Growing up poor, I was predisposed to believe in revolution. Don Toñito only confirmed me in this.

When I was 21, I moved to LA because I had finally found work fighting the immigration fight, finally gotten a job at CARECEN. I started work the day I flew in, a horrible, brown, smoggy day — we arrived downtown before I could properly see it. My heart hurt.

I missed home. I kept missing it for years, but those first six months were the hardest months of my life I think. Those first six months when I slept on the floor and cooked with only one saucepan. Starting in a city like that, no money, no friends or family, no car, no hard city face to keep men away.

Don Toñito was one of the people who helped me through it. Kindness radiated from him, a huge smile always, one that filled a room. I towered over him, because my own childhood poverty still came with good nutrition, proper protein, vaccinations. I couldn’t understand him very well at first, was still getting attuned to the sounds of El Salvador so different from Mexico, but it didn’t really matter.

He took the pictures that people needed to renew their work permits, apply for residency and citizenship. He sold beautiful crafts — downstairs I still hang my keys from the enameled wood of a Salvadoran village and a Dios Protege Este Lugar. But best of all, he sold books. Spanish books, radical books, with cheap covers and thin paper. Marta Harnecker, Radio Venceremos, Liberation Theology, Roque Dalton, Manlio Argueta. I saved up for them.

It is all foggy now, too distant. He told me stories of San Salvador streets from when he was a kid, and best of all, the FMLN, the struggle. Mostly stories about close shaves, like the time the soldiers were searching for him and Violeta Menjívar, some of them walking down the streets, others along the roof. He loaned me an old cassette of songs about Che Guevara, told me about Victor Jara, showed me footage on battered old VHS  of the FMLN entering San Salvador after the war was over. Told me jokes I didn’t always understand, but couldn’t help laughing with him.

I would sit and write people’s stories about death and destruction, rape and torture. They still fill me those stories. When it was too much I would go say hello to Don Toñito and he would make me feel better, make me instinctively feel the love and hope for the future that was the foundation for the FMLN’s fight. The need in that place and at that time to fight to change the world. This could not redeem such suffering, such brokenness, but help situate it, help to bear it.

Because I was only holding the reflection of it in my heart after all, not the actual shattering grief.

Don Toñito held this grief, transformed it into a radiating kindness and humour and hope. I was so proud to be his friend, and there is no one I would trust more to help transform this world into a better one. He lives on in the way I see things, the way I struggle for change, and hopefully, in a piece of my smile.

Compañero Don Toñito, presente.

5 thoughts on “Don Toñito Mendez, Presente”

  1. I am beyond thankful and honored that someone with your background, and life experience, can express the most beautiful and inspirational words about my Dad. I will forever cherish these very heart-felt thoughts and sentiment you’ve expressed about him. Indeed, my Father was such an inspiration and dear friend to many! His country’s life struggle…. Became his own! I admired him in every way possible a daughter could admire one’s father. At the same time, learned to admire him as a humanitarian and caring individual! My Dad knew no boundaries in race, socio-economic class, religion, language, or even sexual orientation! He loved all mankind! …and everyone that came in contact with him, learned to love and admire him equally!!!!

    I have no way of thanking you, Dr. Andrea Gibbons, for the love and respect you’ve demonstrated to my Dad, and his legacy….he was one of a kind!!! I have no words to describe my loss… I’m just happy he’s resting in a much better place!!! Today I celebrated a Mass with Mariachis playing in his honor, in commemoration of his 40 days of passing. I know my Dad would feel joyous to know how his long-time friends kindly remembered him !!!

    Respectfully,

    Carla

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