A Birthday Call From My Compadre, Jaìme

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My longtime compadre Jaìme called me Sunday afternoon, the first time we have talked in five years. The number on the phone said the call was from Mexico. I have had a couple similar missed calls in the past month or so, which I was unable to return, since I don’t pay for cell service into Mexico. But I suspected it might be him, so I answered.

Sure enough: “Mister Gary, it’s Jaìme.”

My Spanish is rusty and was mediocre at best even when I spoke it regularly with him. Jaìme speaks a smattering of English but generally expected folks like me to learn Spanish by osmosis. That was actually effective face-to-face. Jaìme and I spent at least one day together each week, working on whatever house I owned at the time. I would teach him the English word for various objects, and he would teach me Spanish, gently correcting my mistakes, earnestly pronouncing the English words or phrases. But after Jaìme returned to his home in the village of Paso del Correo, in the state of Veracruz, in 2009, I didn’t have anyone with whom to speak Spanish. That became obvious as we tried to communicate. As usual, Jaìme did most of the talking.

I met Jaìme one Sunday morning in 2000. Day workers gathered each morning at a park south of downtown Nacogdoches. I was looking for someone to help with yard work. Jaìme was the fleetest of foot and made it first to my Jeep, hopped in and started speaking rapid-fire Spanish. That was the beginning of what became a friendship that continues today, two decades later and now from a distance of about 1,000 miles.

Jaìme was a hard, competent worker, excelling especially at painting. He was always smiling beneath his bushy mustache. He loved showing me photos of the progress being made on his house with the money he sent home each week. As is common, his wife stayed home, raising their two children — who are now 21 and 23 years old, both college graduates with good jobs. They have a six-month-old grandson who lives about 40 miles away. Jaime’s hamlet is near the pyramids of El Tajin, and I always planned to come visit him. Maybe someday, though it is looking increasingly unlikely.

His farm consists of about 10 acres on which he raises a few cows and some chickens, and has mature avocado and orange trees. With the money he sent home while working in Nacogdoches and Lufkin, Jaìme paid to completely remodel his house, originally made of concrete blocks, now surfaced in stucco. The house boasts an ornate red-cedar door, air-conditioning, ceramic tile floors and a marble-floored bathroom — all paid for with money Jaìme wired back home every Sunday. As Jaìme put it, he was willing to work lo que — whatever was required.

He called on my 65th birthday, though he acted surprised when I mentioned it. I think he was kidding. Jaìme has an amazing memory for dates, almost Rain Man like. He would turn to me while we were working and say, in Spanish, “Three years ago today, we were painting your rent house.” He is now 58 and still takes delight in noting our age difference. “Muy viejo, Mister Gary.” Very old. Thanks, Jaìme.

I asked how the pandemic was affecting his part of the world. Jaìme has always kept up with the news, avidly watching Univision and reading the Spanish-language newspapers circulating in East Texas. He said COVID-19 is a serious issue in the larger cities near where he lives — Papantla and Poza Rica — but not in the isolated village where he lives.

Here’s my favorite Jaìme story: I introduced him to three Japanese exchange students visiting at the house one day. He began speaking rapidly to them in Spanish. “Jaìme ,” I protested. “These girls are from Japan. They don’t know Spanish.” He looked at me and replied rather haughtily, “Well, I can’t speak Japanese.” Jaìme  continued talking away en Español.

It was good to hear from my compadre, especially on my birthday.Con


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