Crystal City, Texas | November 28, 2015
A STRONG COLD front blew in from the northwest last night, pushing away the suffocatingly humid warm air that had settled over the region for days, and I woke up this chilly rainy morning to news that the home of Antonio Rivera, a retired medical doctor, and his wife, Gloria, a retired college administrator, had burned down in the pre-dawn hours. It is – or was – just south of town, on their small farm.
Apparently a faulty heater started the fire and it spread so quickly that they didn’t even have time to retrieve their cars’ keys, ensuring that the vehicles met the same fate as their house.
There are no radio or TV stations with news operations here, but the news got around quickly. My sister first heard the news very early, when her son, a deputy sheriff, called to tell her about it. Soon after that the phone rang repeatedly with calls from others who had heard the news and claimed to have new details. A cousin whose son is a volunteer firefighter, a friend who used to be related by marriage to the doctor, and others.
As is the case in most small communities, when you talk about things happening to people, you’re not talking about strangers; you’re talking about friends or relatives. In this case, Tony and Gloria are not relatives (although one of his nephews was married to one my nieces for a while, and they had two beautiful children together), but even though we haven’t seen each other in some time, you could say that we are friends, for it’s impossible to grow up in a small down and not be friends with people with whom you grew up.
Tony’s older brother, Tomás, was my junior high softball coach and my junior college French teacher. The Rivera family lived a block away from us. Our address was 513 West Edwards, theirs was 513 West Val Verde so when we stood at our kitchen sink and looked south through the kitchen window, we could see the Riveras’ front door. That house still stands; ours was torn down in 1965 by Urban Renewal.
Gloria Amaya grew up on the other side of town so I didn’t know her that well. But I got to know her better in the summer of 1963 when our family ended up in a migrant camp near Endeavor, Wisconsin, where the Amaya family and several other Crystal City families were also working and living.
Six days a week, all of us, some 40 or 50 men, women and children, worked side by side, bent over or on our knees, crawling across vast verdant mint fields, pulling up weeds, tossing them into bushel baskets and emptying those baskets onto wagons to be carted off.
It was tedious work but it wasn’t backbreaking. Compared to other work, this was relatively easy. We were on the soft, spongy loam of dry ancient lakebeds. The work was not hurried at all and the slow pace encouraged conversations and jokes, so every day out on the fields was like a fiesta; the camaraderie was stimulating, addictive.
Gloria was the oldest in the Amaya family. Next to her was Joe. Although Joe and I were in the same class, we were never friends until we got to know each other at the Kempley Farms migrant camp near Endeavor. He and another boy, Gustavo Jiménez, who was a year behind us in school, and I became good friends and we continued that friendship when we came back to Texas to begin the school year.
Eventually the old gang drifted apart. I went off to college and Joe and Blanca, his wife, moved to Michigan. Tavo stayed here and became a successful businessman, but he died a number of years ago. Joe is also now retired and comes down to Crystal City during the winter to get away from the Michigan cold.
SO THERE IS a connection there. And that’s the thing about life in a small town: there always is a connection. That is why even though the Riveras, as retired successful professionals, are probably not hurting financially, the community is already coming together to rally behind them. A gofundme page has been set up and, in fewer than 24 hours, it has already raised close to $1,000.
That fund will grow, for no doubt everyone in this community is thinking, “That could have been me – that could have been my home.”
Losing a home – and everything in it – to a fire right after Thanksgiving just as winter makes its late arrival has got to be difficult for any family, no matter how strong or financially secure.
Everyone here understands this, and so the community comes together to help its own.
In the days ahead, the phone calls and coffee shop conversations about the Rivera fire will continue. So will the speculation and theories about the cause of the fire and what the family will do. And the community will continue to rally behind the Riveras.
That’s what happens in a small town. That’s what people do.