“There’s no such thing as the Mexican race,” says Grandpa Pete.
We’re drinking margaritas on my mother’s patio in the heat of late afternoon two days before my niece’s wedding. My mom’s plants block most of the sun’s punishing rays, straining them like tea through lush ivy and morning glory vines. Hummingbirds dart overhead, red and green jewelled soldiers fighting over the bird feeders. We’re supposed to catch up on what happened in the year since I last visited Canada.
Instead, we’re in the middle of a Mexican standoff.
“My birth certificate says ‘Caucasian,’” He continues. “So does yours. We’re Caucasians.”
I’d done some research for my son’s school project, and in the middle of it, I remembered that my grandpa’s father was either full or part indigenous. All I want to know is the name of the tribe. This seems like a straightforward question.
But it’s the wrong question. Grandpa doesn’t identify as Mexican or part-indigenous.
Grandpa Pete became a foreman in construction at a time when Mexicans were laborers. The way he would handle people who didn’t want a Mexican family in “their” neighborhood is the stuff of family legend. Once, when a neighbor said he didn’t want to live next to Mexicans, my grandfather recoiled in horror and said, “There are Mexicans here? Where?!”
He worked on his neighbors one at a time, trying to make them see that they had a lot in common with him. He was born in San Jose, California. His family was as American as theirs. We just tanned better. Thanks to a conversation with a neighbor, he found out about the petition to “get the Mexicans out” going around the neighborhood. He insisted on signing it in big letters. PETE HERNANDEZ.
For some reason, the petition fizzled after that.
Grandpa Pete was the boss who would see a cocky young man going down the wrong life path and try to teach him to be better. He would give his workers room to see their mistakes and give them a chance to fix them.
Some of those young men became life-long family friends. They would regularly show up to the revolving dinner party in my grandpa’s backyard. It’s a little hard for me to describe what Grandpa Pete and Grandma Bea’s hospitality meant to so many of us. I always had it. Maybe my husband said it best: “Nothing bad would ever happen at Pete and Bea’s house. They accepted me and made space for me.”
So when Grandpa Pete went to the hospital for the last time on Friday, it didn’t surprise me that a train of friends, coworkers and family arrived to say their goodbyes and to thank him. Some of them even brought wine and cheese, and they had a party for him outside of the hospital. Grandpa would have approved.
The hospital staff wanted to know who this person was that all of these people were there to see.
I learned my lesson since that moment in my mom’s backyard two years ago. Pete Hernandez was an American who spoke Spanish at home. In his heyday, he looked like a tanned James T. Kirk from Star Trek. He was a consummate host, beloved husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, and even lived long enough to become a great-great-grandfather. Grandpa Pete passed away on Wednesday, January 26th. He wasn’t perfect, but when he learned better, he did better. There are a lot of people who are better off having known him.
May we all have reason to say the same.