Reconnecting With My Compadre, Jaime

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The “friend” request came on Facebook. For a moment, the name didn’t look familiar: Jaime Leòn Vàsquez. I get a lot of random requests from people I have no connection, which I decline. Then it hit me. Jaime! He worked for me for nearly a decade, toiling nearly every weekend at whatever house I owned at the time, in Nacogdoches, Lufkin and Longview. He was a skilled painter and handyman, familiar with cattle and fence mending, and basically did whatever needed to be done — cheerfully and efficiently. As he said, “Lo que.” Whatever.

I first met Jaime in the spring of 2000, when I went looking for someone to do yard work. In Nacogdoches, the day laborers — nearly all Hispanics with a scattering of Blacks in the crowd — gather at a park just south of downtown, lining up along a bridge that crosses Banita Creek. When a vehicle approaches and slows, the race belongs to the swift. Up to a dozen men rush to the driver’s side of the vehicle. Usually the driver, if experienced, will hold up one finger, meaning only one worker needed, and so forth.

Jaime was the first to get to my Jeep that day, jogging over in a pace that became as familiar to me as the purring of my cat. He generally jogged to whatever task was next at hand. He climbed in and immediately began talking, admiring my Jeep in rapid Spanish interspersed with occasional English phrases. He and I worked together many weekends for the next nine years — painting rent houses, fixing fences and working cattle during my brief foray into gentleman farming, once building a bridge across a creek, planing rough-hewn red oak and black walnut for furniture projects. Lo que.

Jaime’s home is an unmapped village in the interior of the state of Veracruz, below the pyramids of El Tajìn, a pre-Columbian archaeological site that’s 2,000 years old. The closest large city is Poza Rica, known now mainly for its oil refineries and misfortune for getting hammered by hurricanes. He returned there for good in 2009, after earning enough money in East Texas to finance remodeling his house, which is lovely from the photos he showed me, and helping his son and daughter become educated adults. His son, also named Jaime, is working on his master’s degree at the University of Chapingo in Mexico. His daughter is an engineer specializing in renewable resources. He has one grandchild. Jaime is clearly, and rightfully so, proud of all of them.

My compadre is quite a talker. He apparently still believes that if he speaks Spanish long enough the person to whom he is talking will learn it by osmosis. Once, I hosted two junior-high Japanese exchange students for two weeks. I introduced the students to Jaime, who began speaking rapidly to them in Spanish.

“Jaime,” 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.” Jaime continued talking away en Español.

ComIt is true my Spanish improved considerably by spending much of one day each week in conversation with Jaime, as we often worked side by side, ate lunch together, and enjoyed each other’s company. He was unfailingly cheerful and intensely curious about the world. That has not seemed to have changed in the ensuing years.

Almost daily, he sends me Facebook Reels, a video format popular for sending snippets of stuff. The other day he sent one via Messenger of people in Veracruz wearing masks and group dancing to mark Dia De Los Muertos. Colorful banners hung above from light poles, as they line-danced on a plywood stage set in the middle of a street. Another video showed a clever farmer standing astride a homemade platform above his harrow discs, while two mules pulled him along to break up the soil.

Since he left, 14 years ago, my Spanish has become quite rusty, not that it was all that great anyway. More Spanglish than Spanish. So, if I want to write something relatively complex to Jaime, I lean on Google Translate to get the job done and use the same when needed to figure out what he is saying.

I have a standing invitation to come visit him in his little village, check out his orange grove, his wife’s chickens, and ducks. Who knows! I might just take him up on that invitation. He is one of the finest humans I have had the honor to know.

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