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A life recovered, then taken by coronavirus – Los Angeles Times

Posted: June 27, 2020 at 12:44 pm

The accordion hummed, the snare snapped, and a warm baritone voice rolled out over the cemetery lawn.

Yo se lo dije a mi padre, quiero que vengas conmigo.

I told my father, I want you to come with me.

A Catholic priest stood over a white enameled coffin with gleaming brass fittings. One at a time, each member of the small funeral party tossed a handful of dirt into the grave in a North Hollywood cemetery.

Quiero pistiar esta noche, como dos grandes amigos, para decirte pap, lo mucho que te he querido.

I want to drink tonight like two old friends, so I can tell you, Dad, how much Ive loved you.

The corrido, La Troca del Moo Negro by norteo band Los Originales de San Juan, is a tender plea from a son to a father, a request that if the son dies, the father not cry and in place of a hearse use the sons black pickup truck, adorned with a black bow.

But as Gaspr Gmezs family buried him in the shade of a tree, the melody and words carried a different weight. Instead of the fated death of a child, the mourners wept over the loss of a father.

Chosen by one of his daughters, Lucy Gmez, the song was a tribute for a corrido-loving, hardworking man who spent many dark years estranged from his children and who often failed to be the stalwart father the lyrics describe as a man of steel.

The tribute was made all the more poignant by the knowledge that the coronavirus caught up to Gaspr even as he was working to repair a life marred by substance abuse struggles and legal trouble.

How does your life straighten up and then youre taken again? Lucy asked.

Cuando raye el sol, tengo una bronca pesada. Si no me vuelves a ver, la suerte ya estaba echada.

Gaspr Gmez turned a corner after he met Elba Regalado. He stopped drinking and began attending Mass with her.

(Photo courtesy of Elba Regalado)

Once the sun shines, Ill face a tough reckoning. If you dont see me again, we were already out of luck.

Gaspr was born in Santo Domingo de Atani, a small town in the Sierra Juarez mountains of Oaxaca, Mexico. As a teenager he immigrated to the United States along with his sweetheart, Mara.

He didnt have papers, so he found work as a day laborer on construction projects, the same work he would do for more than three decades until COVID-19 made him too weak to continue.

The couple moved to Van Nuys and had four children: Mara, Lucy, Stacie and Cristin. Gaspr loved to take them to the beach, to the pool and to the park every Sunday after Mass.

He was a really good dad when we were kids, said Mara de Jess Gmez, his oldest daughter. He worked so hard for us. He just wanted to be happy and loved.

When the children were still young, Gaspr and his wife divorced. The children went with their mother. Lucy called the divorce his downfall.

He begged for us to stay with him. But we were just kids. I dont know if he understood that we didnt have a choice, Mara said. If you dont have help and you dont have loved ones, its destructive.



A showcase for compelling storytelling from the Los Angeles Times.

Desde muy chico cre que eras el hombre de acero.

Since I was very young, I believed you were the man of steel.

In real life, there are few men of steel. Gaspr began to drink heavily and soon turned to drugs. His brother Marcelo, who worked alongside Gaspr on construction projects for decades, joined him.

We were lost in alcohol and drugs, Marcelo said in Spanish. Wed do crack and crystal. Whatever we could find. You find so much in the streets.

Court documents show Gaspr pleaded no contest on three occasions to reckless driving and driving without a license, grand theft and possession of controlled substances for sale. Family members say that this was only a fraction of his legal troubles and that he spent at least five stints in jail and that government officials deported him at least three times.

If they [the police] saw him on the street with a beer theyd be like Vmonos pafuera. Lets go, youre out of here, said Marcelo, laughing. He was en malos pasos on a bad path.

When Gaspr was deported, hed call Marcelo for help. At times, Marcelo would tell his brother he needed to get clean first. But I would always bring him back. Hes my brother.

His ex-wife and children settled in Madera, four hours north of Los Angeles. Sometimes Lucy and Mara would ride down on the bus to visit. He shared an apartment with a few other men, but when the girls came for Christmas, he made sure to decorate with Christmas lights so theyd feel at home. He liked to take the two to local restaurants to dance.

Before he fell ill with COVID-19, Gaspr Gmez had begun reconciling with his children after several years of estrangement.

(Photo courtesy of Lucy Gomez)

For the children, life back in Madera was hard. Mara joined the Army at 17 and eventually resettled in Washington state. Lucy remained close with Gaspr and was eventually adopted by a couple in Porter Ranch who had employed Gaspr off and on for years.

T has sido mi protector, tambin mi madre querida.

You have been my protector, so has my dear mother.

Often, instead of Gaspr protecting his family, it was family that protected Gaspr. The third time Gaspr was deported, Lucy said that at first, he didnt want to come back. But Gaspr had spent his adulthood in the United States. His life was here. His children were here, even if he didnt see them often.

Lucy, then just 17 years old, said she helped raise the $1,500 to pay for a coyote to smuggle him across the border.

But then the coyote called. Gaspr made it across the border, but the smugglers were holding him at a drophouse somewhere in Arizona. If the family didnt find an extra $1,500 per Lucys recollection they would kill Gaspr.

No one is really sure why Gasprs smugglers-turned-captors eventually relented maybe they got softer, maybe they realized they wouldnt get the money, maybe Gaspr got sick but they did, allowing a family member to come pick him up.Gaspr didnt talk about the ordeal afterward, but Lucy said he didnt emotionally recover for a few years. And still, Gaspr struggled with substance abuse. Eventually even Lucy cut off contact.

If you dont want to change, I cant change you, Lucy recalled telling him. I hope that one day you do get to find that family.

Then one day, while waiting in line at the supermarket, he met Elba Regalado. Gaspr was abundantly friendly and quickly struck up a conversation it was in his nature, Elba said. She was getting ready to pay, and Gaspr wouldnt stop chatting.

They became friends, and eventually a couple. She loved his charm, his charisma, his dancing.

Like many of his close friends and family, she fondly referred to him as el gordito (the little chubby man). Lucy said some people didnt know him by any other name.

At first, he still drank. A lot. Elba said he sometimes carried around cans of beer in a backpack. She said that once, after a night of heavy drinking, he tried to hit her. She decided she was done.

But Gaspr wasnt. She ignored his calls, over and over, until finally picking up to tell him she couldnt be with him. He begged for a second chance and she agreed, cautiously. And it was then, his family said, that he began to turn a corner.

I stayed in my world and I would see [Gaspr and Elba] go out to eat, to the park. He had changed so much. He seemed so, so happy, said Marcelo, who continued to struggle with substance abuse until himself quitting two years ago, partially thanks to Gasprs encouragement.

He needed a family to take care of. It gave him that chance of living again, Lucy said. Gaspr stopped drinking and began attending Mass with Elba.

Gaspr Gmez and partner Elba Regalado in a playful moment. He had changed so much. He seemed so, so happy, his brother Marcelo said.

(Photo courtesy of Elba Regalado)

My brother and I started getting closer to God, Marcelo said. I talk to God every day and thank him that Im alive.

Elba and Gaspr moved in together with her teenage daughter, Janette, in Pacoima (Elbas older daughter, Marisela, lived in Mexico at the time). Lucy started talking to him again. She got to dance with him one more time at Elbas daughters quinceaera a few years ago. He even began communicating with his other children again.

On April 13, Gaspr told Elba he was feeling sick. A few days later, he tested positive for COVID-19, then was hospitalized with respiratory problems. On May 3, after almost three weeks on a ventilator, Gaspr died. He was 51.

The last time Mara saw Gaspr was seven years ago, while she was visiting a relative in Los Angeles.

After five years in the military and a tour in Iraq, Mara had gone to college in Portland, Ore., then moved to Washington. Every once in a while daughter and father would catch up over the phone, but after years of distance, the reconciliation process was painstakingly slow.

Im 31 years old and Ive spent half my life without my dad, she said, sobbing. I didnt even know if I was entitled to mourn him.

Dame un abrazo papa, tal vez sea la despedida.

Give me a hug, Dad, maybe itll be our goodbye.

Times staff writer Toms Mier contributed to this report.

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A life recovered, then taken by coronavirus - Los Angeles Times

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