Romeo Guzmán

Feb 2011


The space between a story and a memory is small. This one particular story has been told so many times, by some many tias y tios, and over so many years that I am uncertain if it constitutes one of my first memories or if it has meticulously sneaked its way into the large pool of memories. I often doubted it ever took place. I could not fathom el abuelo allowing such an irreverent gesture. He was a reserved and serious man, often disengaged from members of the family. It was common for el abuelo to arrive at a barbeque on the beach or to a tia’s house and retreat to his small trailer after a very brief stay. His expansive frame, large callous hands, and stories of his time working on the railroad in the 1950s only added to his austere, almost statue like presence. As a child I imagined him lifting and swinging a 30 pound hammer over and over as the sun slowly set over some arid piece of land somewhere in the US southwest. Distant, strong, and strangely heroic is how I viewed el abuelo.

According to his children, one night in the early 1980s he was drinking with Don Ramon (el otro abuelo) in the backyard of la casa in La Colonia Santa Margarita, Guadalajara. As one beer became many, el abuelo slowly swung his beer bottle from right to left and told Don Ramon, “no te aguites vale yo te hago el paro.” The following day, with a coke in hand, his four-year-old grandchild repeated the phrase as often and to as many people as possible.

While I’ve heard this story many times, it is only when cancer was taking el abuelo that I slowly moved away from understanding it as a comical encounter between a playful grandchild and stoic abuelo. As my sis, Don Ramon, and I drove away from the gray, black, populated skies and into fresh, crisp, and blueness that gently flows along the pacific ocean, Don Ramon narrated the mischief, adventures, and pain they encountered upon migrating and laboring in the United States. Once, el abuelo broke down in tears as he told Don Ramon’s daughter that he spent six long months alone on a Pennsylvania farm caring for animals. He experienced a loneliness whose depths he was unable to put into words and that I would hate to encounter. “Yo te hago el paro,” was not a promise, but a fact, a recollection, an understood verbal, yet silent confirmation of shared pain and solidarity.  In the future retelling of the playful antics of a mocoso I hope we remember that los abuelos came to the United States in their late teens to work, to labor, for their families. It was this initial move that eventually created opportunities for the sons and daughter to migrate and eventually the grandsons to be born in the US. In “Yo te hago el paro” lies the cost of our privilege and a posthumous lens to try and understand el abuelo.

Two days before he passed I called him. Fearing the proximity of the inevitable and on the opposite coast I wanted to communicate to Don Chema the importance of his life to my trajectory. I wanted him to know who the four-year-old child had become. I badly needed affirmation and sought the most unlikely person to grant it (el abuelo). I imagined receiving a verbal equivalent of a heavy opened handed slap on the back. A very Jalisco way of expressing love, affection, agreement, almost like a “no te aguites vale, yo te hago el paro.” I needed and wanted a silent little something to get through a cold and lonely New York winter. As could be expected he gave no advice, no declaration of love, no acclamations (neither did I). He slowly and with some trouble uttered, “Como estas,” then “donde estas” and finally “echate una cerveza por mi.”

As I drank a cold beer on an even colder New York City night, the snow reminded me of the white ceiling and floor of the Pomona Valley Hospital. Just a few months before el abuelo was diagnosed and dying with “el cancer” my father lay weak, skinny, surrounded with machines that beeped and measured “things.” As I hugged my siblings and mom, looking above and below the bed helped me pretend to be strong and optimistic. Yet, I didn’t want to be strong. I was tired of being strong. I wanted el abuelo, some other, older male to provide confidence and optimism. What we (my father) got was a phone call. A brief one in which el abuelo said something like “son that is serious” and “if I could take the cancer from you and put it in my body I would.” I (we) wanted more. 

Five months after my father’s successful surgery, el abuelo lay on a hospital bed in Lompoc surrounded by his children, their spouses, and many nephews. As I looked over the trees, past the Hudson River, and at the New Jersey shore my phone vibrated, each vibration slowly and steadily instilling more pain.

“Doesn’t look so good primo.”

“I’m sorry cus, but I think he’s going.”

“Be strong mijo.”

Then what would become the last photograph of el abuelo on this planet arrived: the muscle and fat from his face, arms, and legs met at his stomach to form a round and large bulge. This image ruthlessly and without regard demolished my vision of him swinging a hammer from sunrise to sunset in some nameless desert in the US southwest. Yet, where I saw weakness and defeat my father saw strength:  “mijo, tu abuelo sigue fuerte.”

Jose Maria Guzmán Castaneda’s soul painfully separated from his body on the 5th of May, 2010. For a man whose life was consumed with hard and unappreciated labor (none of the grandkids-including the doctoral student in history-really knew much about his life or time in the United States), whom solitude followed like a shadow and peace and tranquility evaded him, his death was fitting: he faced both with strength and a form of heroism. I don’t propose that we learn from his life. I propose we do something much more honorable: to acknowledge that it was his migration and labor, his ability to endure being far from home, that shaped all of our life’s (and his) in profound ways. His labor (like his way of being) is a form of love: silent, invisible, always present, often unappreciated, many times unsatisfying. As I drink in Don Chema’s honor I’ll be contemplating the ways he loved and communicated, I only hope I am finally able to listen.

A Posthumous Search for El Abuelo

Romeo Guzmán was born in Goleta, California to immigrant working class parents from Mexico. After years at Mount San Antonio Community College he transferred to and received his BA in Art History and History from UCLA. He is currently a doctoral student at Columbia University in Latin American History and helping found a center for binational thought in Mexico City. For more on his academic research, projects, writing, and being a pocho in Greater Mexico visit