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Salute to Santos Merendon A Most Unlikely American

The call came yesterday; my padrino Santos had passed away after a valiant battle with cancer.  This very proud, quiet and dignified man had come to the end of his road and I was saying good-bye to the first entrepreneur I had ever known, a distinction I don’t think he quit understood.  You see he never spoke English, not Spanglish not even barrio banter – just español.  This fact had never hindered him or even seemed to faze him.  He had owned several businesses; the most well known being Ciro’s, a banquet hall, on 19th and Blue Island, in the heart of Pilsen for many decades.  Ciro’s was where my baptismal celebration was held, my cousin’s weddings, everyone’s quinceañera and many other panchangas.  The banquet hall, in the Mexican-American neighborhoods, is where you come to celebrate all milestones and in many ways is an indoor version of a Mexican plaza and my padrino was the proud owner of such a place. 

I always found Santos’ life perplexing and he the most unlikely of American’s, in that he lived a very Mexican existence within the United States.  You know the type – the type vilified as un-American, not assimilated, too foreign for comfort.  Santos was born in Ballinger, Texas of Mexican parents, easily and often moving back and forth between his parents’ birthplace in Coahuila, Mexico and the U.S., when the label “security risk” hadn’t even been conjured up.  In 1940, at the age of 17, the U.S. drafted him for service in World War II in spite of being illiterate and speaking no English.  The U.S. at that time didn’t care he was Mexican in his soul and only American by birth. 

After the Army, Santos came to Pilsen which is one of the largest enclaves of Mexican immigrants and Mexican-Americans in Chicago and never really left - not even when his children and grandchildren came to be part of the American landscape in the most American of jobs:  Social Security Administrator, TWA flight attendant, Chicago cop, CTA bus driver and union electrician.  He never left when success allowed him a ticket out; even when gang graffiti shined brighter than his Ciro’s neon sign.  When he retired he finally left and I assumed it was to go to Florida.  Isn’t that where successful American’s always go? 

No, instead he went to Eagle Pass, Texas, with a 94% Hispanic population, and as close to Coahulia as you can get without leaving the United States.  Here he could always gaze across the Rio Grande at his beloved Mexico never opting to live there even in his waning days.  ¿POR QUE?  In his 88 years living on U.S. soil why hadn’t he become more American, I often asked?  Is there such a thing as more American or an acceptable degree of American ness?  Why did you never assimilate, acculturate, Americanize?  Why didn’t you go back to Mexico, choosing only to keep it close at hand and deep in your heart?  You remained Mexican in spirit and soul but very American in ambition and success.   

I assumed his final resting place to be Coahuila, for his body to connect to the soil that had always owned and possessed him.  Therefore, I was shocked to hear his final wish was to be buried at the San Antonio National Cemetery for veterans.  It was clearly a right he had earned but not a privilege I thought he would want.  Most of his compañeros were being sent back in pine boxes to Mexico to live for eternity amongst the nopales, warmed by el sol and calmed by their cielito lindo.  A tranquility denied most of them while living here, as a result of Mexico’s neglect of its most precious resource, its people. 

Was it because Mexico had failed Santos like it had failed the millions of others who had also sought economic refuge here?  Was it because Mexico continued to disappoint every generation after his?  Did Padrino Santos painfully realize that a man such as he, who was self-taught, driven, determined, owned multiple successful businesses through depressions and recessions could and should have been one of Mexico’s best and brightest?  Instead America claimed him, mostly when it needed him, at times forgot him but never, ever starved him.  He lived to see in 2008, what for many in Eagle Pass was unfathomable, the surrender of over 200 acres to the U.S. government for a border fence after an impressive legal battle.  At that moment was he even more Mexican than imaginable, and truly un-American or just an unlikely American? 

Is it because in 2010 when Mexico celebrates the 100th anniversary of its Revolution, it still does not know who it will become and how to shape a destiny for and with the millions of people no longer living within its borders?  Is it because on the eve of Mexico’s 100th anniversary for its fight for Independence it remains dependent and occasionally an appendage of some super power?  Was it because Mexico had fed Padrino’s soul never leaving him in those quiet reflective hours as he was shutting the lights at Ciro’s night after night, but abandoned him when he needed them most: when he was hungry, destitute, in search of an education and trying to feed a family? 

Why else choose to be buried in one of the most American of places, a U.S. veteran cemetery, when you lived the most Mexican of lives.  His rank never rose above private, the only endeavor he accomplished moderate success in.  ¿POR QUE PADRINO? Are you that Hispanic that no one can define; that no one wants to recognize? Are you the one no one wants now?  You are legal on paper, yet illegal for your Mexican ness?  Do we want your hard work, your ambition, your service but not your kind?  Did you never feel welcomed enough to live amongst them, to speak their language but yet wanted to belong to them in death for an eternity?  What did the United States of America do for you, as a very unlikely American, that Mexico never did?

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