My cousin was a friend of mine, and now he’s gone

MY COUSIN DIED this week.

His name was José Rubén López, but we called him Pache (PAH-cheh). I have no idea how he got that name, but that’s how we knew him, although in school he was for a while called Joe Ruben (just as I was called John).

Pache was a year older than I, but we were in the same grade and, even though we grew up in the same town, less than a mile from each other, we didn’t attend the same school until we were in junior high. That was because Pache’s family was one of the few Crystal City Mexican families who didn’t go “up north” every summer to work in sugar beet/cucumber/ tomato/potato/onion fields of the Midwest.

His father, also named José Rubén, had a year-round job, first as a waiter and then as manager of what was perhaps the best restaurant in town, a place patronized primarily by the town’s Anglos (in later years he became the owner). His mother, Carmela, also had a year-round job as a receptionist for the local eye doctor. Because the López family did not go up north, Pache and his sister Sylvia were able to start school each year at the beginning of the school term, unlike the rest of us, who started school whenever our families returned from the north, sometimes as late as October or November.

That meant they were assured admittance to the town’s more prestigious elementary school, the Grammar School. Students, like me, who enrolled after the classes had filled up, were automatically sent to “El Campo,” the other elementary school way out on the other side of town, in a dilapidated barracks-like building that had been part of the U.S. government’s World War II Japanese/German/Italian internment camp.

Because of this, during those first few years, I rarely saw Pache outside family visits, like the time he and his mother came to our house and his mother, Tía Carmela, sought to get him to behave by bragging about what a good boy he was. Hearing this, Pache just had to prove her right. “Haber, háceme, Mami,” he told her. He wanted her to tell him to be a good boy so he could comply.

We did get together to play every once in a while and he invited me to spend the night at his house a couple of times. Going to their house was always an experience. They lived in a much nicer (if smaller) house that had an indoor bathroom and air-conditioning (evaporative coolers at first). It was at their house that I first saw a TV.

Unlike some of the other non-migrant Mexican kids in our community, Pache never gave the impression that he thought he was better than the rest of us. If we didn’t become close friends, it was because I was very much a loner as a kid and resisted any efforts by him and others to make me a more social person. Several times he invited me to boy-girl parties and tried mightily to get me to dance and to at least talk to the girls. And he had no qualms about inviting me to join him when an extremely good-looking, popular and suave out-of-town friend was in town.

I LEARNED A lot from him. It was from Pache that I first heard of the strange Halloween custom called Trick or Treat (although by then I was already in junior high and too old to do it more than that one time). It was Pache who taught me how to play pool. Or rather, he taught me the mechanics of pool; I never really learned how to make those damn balls go where I want them to go. He taught me how to play a pinball machine. He tried to teach me how to drink and smoke but I was always too scared to do any of that.

Once we got to high school, we saw less of each other outside school. Around my sophomore year, I had finally emerged from my shell and started hanging out with other guys, but they were boys who were not part of Pache’s circle. They were very much into fixing up cars and racing them out on the country roads and talking about cars. Even though I didn’t own a car and had no idea what a tappet or a “brocha” or a distributor did (I could barely fix a flat tire) and was scared shitless of speeding cars, I fit right in with that crowd. (I was the quiet one, and because I was quiet, I was deemed to have more wisdom and thus was constantly called upon to settle arguments.)

Eventually, when this group of boys discovered that girls were more fun than cars and when I moved on to junior college and they stayed in high school, I became part of another group, classmates at the college. They too were not part of Pache’s social circle. But throughout, Pache and I remained, if not close, then definitely connected. He never abused our friendship and he was always kind and always generous. There was a bond between us, even if we were polar opposites. While I was the quiet, studious one, Pache was the gregarious, funny one. The guys liked him, the girls loved him and the teachers envied him and only pretended to be bothered by his antics. He was never elected class president but he was definitely the leader.

He was loud. He was boisterous and he was funny. There was a time, for instance, when he got into demanding of girls that they not “be soflami” – his shorthand for “soflamera,” which means easily excitable. Most of the girls had no idea what he was saying, but they would swear, to his delight, that, “I’m not being flami!”

And he was confident.

I remember once when our English teacher assigned us to write a “theme” – an essay – he proudly showed me how he was ending his, with a variation of Tennyson’s “Ours is not to reason why; ours is but to do or die.” No citation; no attribution. I was impressed, but then I looked at the rest of his essay. There was absolutely nothing in there that supported or led to such a closing sentence. It had just come into his head and he thought it was neat and so he used it, with no regard as to whether it fit or not. I tried to explain that to him but he wouldn’t listen. He turned the paper in to Mrs. Lunz, who returned it with a big red X through the sentence. Pache could never figure out why she did that, but he knew she was wrong. That’s how sure he was of his instincts.

Pache and I continued to be classmates through junior college but then I moved to San Marcos to finish my college work and he joined the Army. He served in Vietnam, came back and married his high school girlfriend. They moved to Central Texas and, after their divorce, he moved to New Orleans where, I heard, he was highly successful in business. I think we saw each other maybe once or twice after he came back from Vietnam. I didn’t go to his mother’s funeral and he didn’t attend the recent celebration of his father’s 90th birthday. I tried to contact him several times when I went to New Orleans on business, but I was never successful.

Earlier this year I learned that he’d fallen into hard times and that that his health was failing him. Sylvia convinced him to move to San Antonio, where she lives, to seek medical care at the VA hospital. But it was too late. It was only a matter of time before his vital organs would stop functioning. And that’s what they did this week, and Pache is now gone.

I DIDN’T VISIT him, for the same reasons I’ve avoided visiting friends and relatives in similar situations in the past: because I’m a coward and I don’t deal well with death and the dying.

I don’t know what I would have said to Pache if I had gone to see him, nor what he would have said to me. I don’t know if he would have appreciated my visit and my feeble attempts to provide comfort or consolation. But that doesn’t matter: he was more than a cousin; he was a friend and I should have been as generous to him as he was to me.

About juanzqui7

Former Texas reporter, columnist and editorial writer.
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5 Responses to My cousin was a friend of mine, and now he’s gone

  1. Magda Palomo Romero says:

    Great life story. I have a neighbor who taught me much and I wish I could find her to tell her.

  2. nazie says:

    I am so sorry for your loss, dear Juan, and so grateful for the opportunity to read this story. Please don’t be so hard on yourself. We all say goodbye in our own way. Big hugs.

  3. Georgina Lujan says:

    I’m sorry for your loss Uncle. Another wonderful story that brought tears to my eyes. I love you more than you know.

  4. Hecto Garza Jr. says:

    That story is moving And from the heart Mumu, I am sorry that he is gone.

  5. Lily Phoenix says:

    Pache was very important to me in high school and after, as he was to so many because of his generous and confident and friendly nature — I looked up to him so much. He also helped right a wrong that had been done to me when, on his own, he figured out the truth about it, and he was the only person who helped me in that situation, which had made my time in Crystal City HS a misery. I also spent a lot of time with other members of his family and have always felt Pache and his family were like “angels” in my life. Our paths parted for good while he was in the military and I went off to college and never came back, and since the internet began, I’ve from time to time looked for him without success, not even knowing if he made it through Vietnam. I’m sad to learn he has died. But I’ll always remember him and be glad he was there. This is the only mention I’ve found of him, his life or death. Thank you for posting it.

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