FAITH AND HARD WORK IN AN ERA OF UPHEAVAL

(part of a series from the “Shipwrecked Project”)

Photo: Julie Dermansky https://www.jsdart.com/

There are many definitions of a hard childhood. By any definition Mario had a hard childhood. A childhood shaped by deprivation and struggle.

Mario did not have a complete understanding of the reasons his father abandoned his children and his wife. Though his father at one time served as part of the Nicaraguan President’s guard, his sense of obligation to his children was washed away by his alcoholism, along with his favored political position. Not long after his father left, Mario’s mother abandoned her children as well. Mario saw it as good fortune that he and his four siblings were taken in by his maternal grandmother.

Mario’s grandmother was a woman hardened by struggle. She said to Mario, “If you want your younger brothers and sisters to eat, you must bring in the money.” Mario quit school and hit the streets in Managua, Nicaragua. As a thirteen-year-old he found he could hustle work as a courier and newspaper boy, but it was not enough. So, he convinced city bus drivers to pay him to monitor the back bus door to keep people from sneaking on the bus. He brought his money to his grandmother to help feed his brothers and sisters. Sometimes, there was only enough for them and not him.

Hard work fostered a sense of pride and independence. When Mario’s dad saw him walking on the street one day, he offered Mario a ride which Mario accepted. Mario was hungry and the food on the seat of his father’s car made his stomach growl. But his Dad did not offer, and Mario refused to ask. He thanked him for the ride and went back to work. “I had my pride. I wanted nothing from him.” Despite this fraught relationship when Mario gave advice he taught “honor your parents.”

No matter how hard he worked, his hustle was not enough to stay out of the civil conflict in Nicaragua. Violence increased daily in the streets, and protesters began burning the buses he worked on. Young people were “recruited” for a war they barely understood. Neutrality was not an option. By the late 1970’s threats in Managua escalated daily. Mario, now in his twenties, began making plans to flee Nicaragua for the United States. His mother reentered his life, coming to his rescue, offering a bus ticket and help securing a visa to escape Nicaragua. Whatever her shortcomings, when it came time for him to leave, she rode the bus forty-six hours with him to Laredo, Texas and said goodbye to her son as he crossed the border into the United States.

FINDING LOVE IN THE GOLDEN TRIANGLE

Herenia was raised in Matagalpa, Nicaragua. Like Mario, her father abandoned his family. But her mother, known as Mita, was very resourceful — “the greenest thumb ever” says Herenia. They always had enough to eat. Mita believed in education and found a way to earn a high school diploma at age fifty. While Mita served in the Nicaraguan military, her service necessary for survival, she wanted something different for her daughter Herenia. Young women like Herenia were pressured to leave school for the military, and when Herenia turned fifteen the threat of conscription intensified. Once in the military, girls were sent to teach people in rural mountain areas to read and write or assigned duties to cook and clean for soldiers. Mita said to her daughter, “Honey, you won’t be able to study or learn anything here. You must leave to finish your education”.

Herenia began making plans to flee. A long and complicated journey followed, leaving with her mother’s blessing and over her father’s strenuous objections. When her father declared her a runaway, she found herself embroiled in a legally complicated immigration struggle. A teenager, yet independent and determined, she was finally allowed to stay with a family member she barely knew in Texas.

When Herenia made it to the Golden Triangle in the Southeast corner of Texas, she was not short of male attention. Lots of young men “hung around”, but it was Mario that caught her eye. Others were lazy and “pushy” with her, where Mario was determined about work and gentler. Having made his way to the United States, Mario, in his words, “stayed focused on why I came here.” But he was also in love with Herenia. And he won her over with his persistence.

Mario and Herenia, two people strengthened but not hardened by struggle, made a strong and loving partnership.

WHY?

You may be thinking there are many stories like Mario and Herenia’s. People fleeing for a better life. People surviving hardship in childhood and finding a sort of refuge. Maybe your story is similar — a story of struggle and escape. For millions of people, life has been the story of upheaval, hardship, and displacement. War or weather, loss of wealth or health send people scrambling for higher ground in a furious effort to scratch a new life from the remnants of an old one. Crafting a way forward in a new world where there is barely a path.

If we follow Mario and Herenia — we see what we all need to understand; we are living in an era of upheaval. Those of us who have enjoyed safety, predictability and routine are the lucky minority. And we see something else important. One set of hardships does not insure you against another. And another. How do we remain afloat, when the things we wish to rely upon are so easily washed away? Well, there is more to this story:

LIFE ON THE TEXAS GULF COAST IN AN ERA OF UPHEAVAL

For almost twenty years, Mario worked for Sabine Offshore, working the oil rigs, petrochemical plants, and warehouses, until he injured his back in a work accident. When you work the rigs, the food is good, the pay is fair, but the air is bad. Years later he would pay the price for years of breathing asbestos.

After he hurt his back, Mario tried several businesses before he began his construction contracting business. From the beginning, Mario built his business with the same hard hustle that allowed him to survive the streets of Managua. He grew it by hiring hard working people and doing good work and by being good to his workers. He helped his children. He bought houses, fixed them up and rented them out. He kept improving his own home, adding to it as his family grew.

In September of 2005, a month after Katrina, Hurricane Rita hit the Golden Triangle hard. Water rose. Trees came down. The addition Mario built to his home flooded. In 2008, Hurricane Ike brought down a pecan tree across the corner of Mario and Herenia’s home. In 2017, Hurricane Harvey again washed water into the addition, the dining room and bedroom, despite the house being on piers. Between Ike and Harvey repeated floods threatened their home. Then in September 2019, Hurricane Imelda flooded the house again.

After each storm, Mario diligently repaired his home. Though Herenia smiles as she says it perhaps took longer for their home to get repaired than it did for some of Mario’s customers. In Port Arthur, Texas, the water has never really receded. Port Arthur is sinking and the estimate to raise the house to a “safe” height is more than $50,000. Why not move? Mario says, “Well, I’ve built my house just the way I like it.”

On November 28, 2019, the day before Thanksgiving, two explosions at the TPC plant in Port Neches forced the evacuation of every home within a four-mile radius, which included Mario and Herenia’s home in nearby Port Arthur. Of the thirty thousand people evacuated that day, many of them still recovering from Hurricane Harvey, Mario most needed to leave. His COPD damaged lungs did not need another assault from air filled with butadiene. His daughter convinced him to stay with her in Kingwood until the air “cleared”.

In early 2020, after decades of marriage and four kids later, Mario talked about his life in the Golden Triangle. The home he bought and added to over time. How determination to “see the positive in everything” kept him going. And his faith. Every morning at 5:00am Mario was at church. Come hell or high water.

When Mario was asked about all this hardship, he said it was really nothing compared to his childhood. And anyway — “you have to know to never give up and I learned that early”. More importantly, his life goal was to make sure his children never had to suffer what he did. What about the house? “Things are not important. I invested all my money in my children”. “You know”, he says, “The bank doesn’t pay very good interest. Children are a much better investment.” When his three daughters and son come to dinner with their spouses and children, it is the best of times. Mario says, “I feel like I am the President of the United Nations.” Why? Three sons-in-law. One Black. One Vietnamese. One Mexican. One Mexican American daughter-in-law and their children. Blends and swirls. Texas mixes.

Mario fathered out of his own imagination, becoming the father he dreamed of, the one he wished for. Loving, faithful, dependable, warm, and affectionate. His three daughters and his son are devoted to their parents and to one another. His daughters live near one another and when hard times hit, they pitch in and help. Sharing the care of the grandkids and occasionally paying a bill for one another when need be. When the first cruel COVID-19 wave rolled through Texas, they were all especially careful. The whole family came together but stayed away from other people. Taking turns taking care of the kids so parents could have some peace and get some work done. Making themselves into a ‘safe’ pod so they could help one another and not endanger Mario and Herenia.

Then in September of 2020, many Texas schools reopened, and children were required to return. Within a couple of weeks, one of Mario’s grandchildren was exposed to a COVID-19 positive child via a sports team. Over the next couple of weeks, family members fell ill one by one. Mario and Herenia were last to get sick but when COVID-19 caught them it became very serious. They dreaded asking for help. Fought the idea of leaving their home but when breathing became a struggle they gave in. Mario and Herenia ended up at different hospitals because when you can no longer breathe, you go where the ambulance takes you.

To Mario’s oldest daughter, Angela, COVID-19 felt like an elephant was sitting on her chest and just getting from bed to bathroom was exhausting. Angela’s sister Veronica felt as if her lungs were being squeezed in a vise. Angela’s kids had mild symptoms, and fortunately her husband had none. Angela and Veronica would call each often at bedtime since COVID-19 seemed to attack more at night. They talked late into the night, scared they would fall asleep and not wake up. Scared to wake up to bad news. Mario and Herenia, separated from one another for the first time in their marriage, their children praying and calling on God to stop what they could not, to save what they could not.

Herenia came home after six days in the hospital, weak and confused. Her kids decided to not to tell her right away that her husband was on life support. His lungs, weakened by COPD, were no match for COVID-19.

Mario died alone two weeks later in an ICU COVID-19 unit.

On his way to the hospital Mario expressed his fear of dying alone to his daughter Angela. Now, that conversation haunts her. She cried for days thinking no one deserves to die alone but least of all her loving and kind father.

Since Mario’s death the stories are coming out — the stories of the rent he stopped collecting from the man and woman who lost their child, and the money he sent every two weeks to the woman whose husband had been deported. All the food and meals he bought for people who were hungry. The warmth of his hugs. His devotion to his children. His unshakable faith.

His daughter Angela says, “against all odds, he became the father he wished he’d had, a model of the husband he wanted for his daughters, the grandfather all children’s books are written about, and the friend everyone could count on.”

HOW WE GO ON WITH LOSS — AND WITH LESS. March 2021 update.

Herenia lives with her daughter Angela now. Shortly after Mario’s death she learned she was not old enough to receive his social security. So, she sold their furniture, put their house up for sale and moved in with her daughter and grandchildren. COVID-19 compromised her lungs and she still must rely on oxygen at night. During the recent Texas freeze, they all lost power and water, rendering her breathing machine inoperable. Angela is still not sleeping well and wakes every day with a sense of dread. She recently fought a battle with the hospital that treated Mario. Though hospitals are reimbursed for COVID-19 related care they still tried to collect over $70,000 from the family.

COVID-19 has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. Most of them were people like Mario. People who were good for the world. Important in their communities and beloved by their families. I would have wanted Mario to have a few more years. The opportunity to see his first grandson graduate high school. A chance for another “United Nations” family dinner. Perhaps a bit of retirement and another family vacation. He deserved more.

We are all vulnerable creatures on a shared journey. This ain’t heaven. It’s earth. And upheaval, loss and struggle are a part of our journey. Mario accepted struggle, building his life and a legacy on faith and hard work.

(This story was begun in 2019 and completed March 2021. Mario’s story is written with permission from his family and with the assistance of his daughter Angela Parks who lives near Houston Texas. Mario and Herenia were interviewed together a few months prior to Mario’s death before they became ill.)

Out to Change the World. Born for Storms. Senior Fellow Watson Institute Brown University President Emerita BakerRipley @cajunangela AngelaBlanchard.com

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