“I urge you to celebrate the extraordinary courage and contributions of refugees past and present.” ~ Kofi Annan, UN Secretary-General
It was the day after Thanksgiving last year. My best friend Andrea was out of town. I called her father, Mr. Mena to see if I might stop by and visit.
I said, “Hola, it’s Alice.”
Papi said, “Oh, mi otro hija!” (my other daughter).
When I arrived, he wanted to cook for me. I didn’t let him, but I said yes to his Chilean wine and pride. We sat at the kitchen counter talking about life, family and politics.
Although I’ve known this man since high school and he once introduced himself to my mother as, “Hello. I’m Alice’s father,” it’s never been just the two of us. Usually, I was in his home visiting Andrea.
You know how sometimes you drop by just to say a polite hello, and somehow time opens up to make space for words never considered?
Mrs. Mena was in the back bedroom sleeping. She hasn’t been the same since her stroke 20 years ago.
Although I never considered this question before, I asked how they met—some 50 years ago. Papi told me when he was a teenager he was friends with Mrs. Mena’s sister. Then, he saw Andree with her long hair, but he said, “I wasn’t thinking anything. I was 16.”
Later, he got free tickets for a concert because he’d pounded a dent out of a bus and the owners gave him the tickets. He fell asleep on the bus ride to the concert and awoke to Andree kissing him on the cheek.
His eyes lit up as he recalled their young love. They used to go out dancing and he’d buy her Coca Colas.
Even back when he was a teenager, Mr. Mena worked on cars. He built a car that was in a three-country race: Chilé, Peru and Argentina. Then, he got hired by the university and earned a paycheck! Mr. Mena told me he never had trouble making money.
Later, Andree wanted to get married. He was 19. She was 17.
Both their fathers approved and went with them to get married. Both moms were opposed, especially his because he was the family breadwinner.
Then, Mr. Mena told me about the coup and Pinochet coming in as dictator of Chile. That’s when Mr. Mena became a part of the resistance.
Because now Pinochet was in charge of all the companies, Mr. Mena and his coworkers would do things like leaving the lights and water on all night to wreak havoc. In the shop where he worked, they made sharp objects to throw in the road to stop the military and secret police.
He also took people to the French Embassy to escape.
Papi descrribed helping one mom and her three girls go out the back of their house and in the front and out the back of three houses to escape the military police, who, he claimed were “so mad!”
“Why were they after her?” I asked. “Because her husband was part of the resistance.”
Mr. Mena drove the woman and her girls to a farm. Those were just the things they did. Yes, it was dangerous.
In fact, the military police captured and tortured Mr. Mena, but he “never told them anything because then they’d have no use for me.” Then, they’d kill him. Mr. Mena’s sister and many of his friends were killed.
While he was held and tortured, Mrs. Mena searched and did everything she could to find her husband. By this time, they had three small children.
Mrs. Mena pleaded with the French Embassy and told everyone she could that her husband had been captured. She made a lot of noise and with the help of the French Embassy, Mr. Mena was released and the family fled the country.
Mr. Mena showed me some old black and white pictures of one man who came to Santa Fe, NM to visit and thank Mr. Mena for saving his life. He showed me a letter the guy had written him. Of course, it was in Spanish.
Somehow, our conversation wound to God. Papi said he doesn’t believe in God. But he said, “How easy to find him in this,” as he picked up an apple, “or a flower or ants building things.”
He told me he gets mad, all those people dying. ”Why does God do this?”
His wife, Mrs. Mena was healthy, fine, until a doctor prescribed Premarin which caused a blood clot and then she had the stroke.
I listened as this strong, masculine man, my father figure, praised his wife for getting him out of Chile, encouraged him to buy the land the house we sat in was built on and to work hard. She always supported him, and the kids in all their sporting events.
Papi said he talks to his son Ish, now grown with his own kids, about what it means to be strong.
“I say to him, ‘You can’t go to Albertsons, give them money, and say you want to buy time.’”
Mr. Mena emphasized the importance of being strong, deciding what you want and going for it.
Then, he told me—the girl who used to enter road races under the name Alice Mena because I wanted to belong to his family—how proud he is of me, how strong I am, how he sees me as having done everything on my own. (Not quite true, but I ate up his compliments the way I used to devour Mrs. Mena’s langostino empanadas.)
Papi kept preaching about how proud he is of me for finishing school. (Oh, yeah, I completed my bachelor’s degree at age 37!)
He told me what a great example I’ve been and that his daughter, (my best friend) Andrea looks up to me. The feeling is mutual.
Mr. Mena and I continued our conversation, now onto marriage and divorce.
It makes him mad when people say how much they respect him for still being with and taking care of Mrs. Mena.
“Where else would I be? She’s my wife. She’s my life.”
Mr. Mena has always been a proud man. It felt different on this day.
More than in the past, I took in his kindness. How respectful and full of admiration he was for the woman who welcomed me into their home, cooked for me and often restaurants where she was dealt the blows of conflict between her Chilean Spanish heritage and the New Mexican Spanish culture I grew up around.
Mrs. Mena slept for most of my visit. Papi and I went into the back bedroom and woke her up. She looked at me with a mother’s adoration. Tears of joy leaked from her eyes.
I held her, hugged her, kissed her, looked into her soul and told her I wished I could take her pain away. She shook her head no.
Mami pointed to my diamond circle pendant necklace, diamond earrings and rings and her eyes lit up like I’d landed some rich man. I reminded her I worked in a jewelry store for many years. She always loved jewelry. She still loves it and shopping.
Mrs. Mena eyed for (since spoken language is no longer her friend) Mr. Mena to give me a big bag of Lindt chocolates.
Papi told me about the foot surgery she had to fix her foot that wasn’t quite right since the stroke. Now, it’s even worse. She can hardly walk. He drives her in a van and she has a scooter.
Mr. Mena’s doctor told him he better take care of himself or he’ll die before her. “I try, he said.” But, he has diabetes, is overweight and his health doesn’t look like it’s rooting for him.
He showed me a new Mercedes he’s working on making into a truck. He’d sold his old prized Mercedes sedan. “What do I need with a car I can only drive once or twice a month?” He also sold his apartment in Chile. “Andree can’t travel.”
It seems not too many years ago he was insisting otherwise.
His priorities have shifted. His purpose is caring for his wife and watching his grandkids grow up. Mr. Mena told me he spoke in Washington, DC at the UN years ago. His talk was called “The Ismael Menas of the World.”
I considered the multitudes of people like papi who came from harsh circumstances to build their American dream.
The Ishmael Menas of the world: people I am most thankful for.