Mis Ángeles: What A Day Laborer's Death Taught Me About Hard Work And Joy

(Illustration by Chava Sanchez)

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The last thing Lucia Gomez told me before she got off the phone after telling me her dad's story was, "I'm glad we were able to have those memories at the end." It was raining, I think. Or maybe I was just crying. It was another sad coronavirus story. At least that's how I saw it then.

A few days earlier, I'd been standing in the yard watching my cousin Benito and his helper David, both day laborers, drill a big hole in my one-room place to install a portable air conditioner. I don't even remember what day it was because every day now feels like a scene from Memento. But it was a hot day and I remember thinking, "This is a hard job."

I had no business "overseeing" the gig. Truth be told, I was putting off writing a radio piece I had been chasing down for about two weeks while secretly hoping it would fall through. The story was an obituary for Gaspar Gomez.

Gaspar isn't a famous celebrity, though you should have seen him on the dance floor.

But you know Gaspar ... sort of.

He was a day laborer like the ones you've seen waiting for gigs at Home Depot or working on the construction crew renovating your kitchen.

Like my cousin, who has basically built my entire extended family's houses at this point. Like the workers I would see every day as I walked along Raymond Avenue past California Boulevard to the KPCC studios in Pasadena back before the quarantine.

I often wonder if they're still out there.

Gaspar is one of the first known day laborers to die from COVID-19 in Los Angeles County. He died May 3 at the still-young age of 51, leaving behind his wife, five daughters and a son.

But Gaspar is much more than a day laborer and much more than a story. He loved his family, he loved to dance, and he loved working with his hands — it's how he built his life here.

And that's why I had hoped his daughter Lucia wouldn't return any of my messages. I didn't want to write an obituary, especially one about someone who could have easily been my cousin.

That's why I was standing there watching Benito and David do the work I couldn't. Then I realized they were wearing masks and I wasn't. So I put one on because I didn't want to be selfish or entitled.

I walked the dogs and wondered the whole time how many more sad coronavirus stories I would have to write. I thought about all my colleagues who are doing important reporting, and telling heartbreaking stories daily in the middle of a pandemic that they are not immune to and an economic crisis that's endangering their livelihoods.

This too is a hard job.

When I got home, I heard from my family about three people we knew who had coronavirus. One of them died. His name was Robert Olvera, and he was a father and a volunteer at the kids' jiu jitsu school. His son was my niece's sparring partner back when the school was open.

I sometimes forget that as hard as it is to write sad coronavirus stories, it's so much harder living them. And that even though we are in physical isolation, we are going through this together.

Lucia called me back a few days later, and we talked about her father.

The reason she took so long to get back to me to do the obituary was because she was busy planning her father's memorial. It's a much harder and longer process to do in the era of COVID-19. It's expensive, too. Lucia's had to organize a GoFundMe to raise money for the services.

We talked after she read the obituary this week. She told me she cried while reading it. I told her I cried while writing it.

But even in all that, we were able to find joy and laughter while she told me stories about her father. Like how he would tap his toes when a song he liked came on the radio, or how "when the song ended he would tap and sing 'tan tan' every single time."

Gaspar's favorite musicians were Los Originales de San Juan and Chalino Sanchez. He especially loved to dance zapateado to Chalino's "El Pavido Navido" — something I learned to do dancing with my tias as a young boy.

The last time Lucia danced with her father was at a family quinceañera a few months back.

"When I close my eyes and think of him, I think about that," she said. "I think about his laugh and his love of music. He left so many good memories behind. People loved him because he was the type of guy who helped everybody."

And she remembers that Gaspar definitely danced zapateado that night, tapping his toes rapidly all over the dance floor to the very end of his favorite songs.

Tan tan.

About the Mis Ángeles column: Erick Galindo is chronicling life in Los Angeles for LAist. He took on this role after serving as our immigrant communities reporter. Erick came to us last year from LA Taco, where he was the managing editor.

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