Last year when I interviewed Papá Chepe at the East LA StoryCorps booth I asked him about his proudest life achievement.
I was a little surprised by his answer.
He admitted that he was proudest to have donated his home in Tijuana (what I call the Tijuana house) to an orphanage, Hogar San José de Calasanz (HOCATI). My grandparents came to this decision after their home had been on the market for years. They’d had some problems with the house too. There were break-ins, and a car crashed in to the garage (no one was hurt). As they aged, they spent less time in Tijuana and their other home in El Cargadero, Zacatecas and more time at their LA home, also known as my family’s home.
I grew up going to Tijuana frequently. Each time my family went, we’d have birria downtown in a restaurant with stuffed cow heads mounted on the walls. Aftweward, we’d go shopping. I usually came home with a shiny pair of patent leather shoes. I’d scuff them up the next weekend chasing kids and imitating my mom’s dance moves at the next party.
For us kids, the Tijuana house was a bit boring. We couldn’t watch our typical cartoons. Instead we explored the house. We’d rattle Papá Chepe’s collection of Miller High Life glassware and neon signs as we ran around the second floor. We’d run up the cool metal spiral staircase in to Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni’s room. We’d crawl in and out of the tiny door in to the garage… until we got scolded by Mamá Toni or my mom. We’d have Azucaritas for breakfast and churritos with limón y chile from the store down the street for a snack.
Sometimes, we’d sit out on the second floor balcony and stare at the thousands of homes crowded on the Tijuana hillside. We’d walk down to the third floor, which had been made to apartments, and explored the outdoor laundry area and small garden.
I was too young to understand why my grandparents had three homes in Tijuana, East LA and Zacatecas. I didn’t know that Papá Chepe built the house nor that when Papá Chepe came to the States to work, he moved his family to Tijuana so that they’d be closer to him. It was in this period that my tío Chuy got lost in downtown Tijuana. He was just a little boy, no more than six years old. The family was rightfully worried and looked for him everywhere to no avail. That evening, he was brought home by a mysterious, short and chubby man. My family thinks it was the Santo Niño de Atocha. When extended family migrated north from Zacatecas, they often stayed at the Tijuana house on the way to the states.
While the Tijuana house was a significant part of my childhood, it was less so in my teens and almost absent in my 20s. I’ve only been to the Tijuana house once in the last 10 years. In 2005 I stayed with Papá Chepe and Mamá Toni for a couple of days before flying out with them to Zacatecas for Christmas. Rather than run around the house, I spent it going through old albums identifying tías and tíos as children and teens. The house was like a museum of my family’s history.
All of that history has been removed from the house. The furniture stayed. The home is large enough to house about 15 children. Currently, it’s being readied for teens to move in. My family is very committed to HOCATI. My grandparents and parents have visited the children and taken them toys. When they donated the house, my family knew we’d be supporting HOCATI for a long time. Last fall, my mom sold all of the avocados on our tree and donated what she raised. (There were a lot of avocados, at least 300.)
This Saturday, March 19th, my family will host a fundraiser for HOCATI at our home in Hacienda Heights. It’ll coincide with el Día de San José, which we always celebrate as it’s Papá Chepe’s saint’s day.
At the fundraiser this Saturday, we’ll have lots of great food for sale as well as entertainment. If you’d like to stop by for some tacos, sopes, tamales, or enchiladas or would like to know how to donate to HOCATI, let me know and I’ll send you the invite.