A life well-lived: Las Cruces City Councilor Gabe Vasquez remembers his Tío Sergio
LAS CRUCES – It came on suddenly. One day, Sergio Vasquez was not feeling well. The next, he was hospitalized at Del Sol Medical Center in El Paso, isolated from those who cared for him most. It was COVID-19. On Sunday, June 21, he died.
“That’s the tragedy of it all, that just that someone who spent his whole life taking care of other people — for him not to be taken care of, or not to be surrounded by his family and those who cared for him the most, in his last days is really tragic,” said his nephew, Las Cruces City Councilor Gabriel Vasquez. “That’s what this disease does, and I think that’s why it’s so important that people take this seriously.”
Remembering Tío Sergio
Like so many, Sergio Vasquez grew up on both sides of the border — with one foot in Ciudad Juárez, the other in El Paso. He was a hard worker.
“My dad told me he got a job as soon as he could start working — which was at about 12 or 13 in Mexico — to help provide for the family,” Gabe said. “He was always a provider, and he was always a caring person.”
Eventually, Sergio began working in the restaurant industry as a server. He would go on to make a career for himself in the restaurant industry in both cities.
“I think he worked at El Presidente Restaurant in El Paso for at least a decade,” Gabe recalled. “And he was always content with what he had. He was happy to be able to save a little money to buy a home, and he did it all through hard work. He instilled a lot of those qualities into his siblings — including my dad, which got passed on to me.”
A self-taught pianist
Many of Gabe’s earliest and fondest memories of his uncle were at family gatherings in Ciudad Juárez, circled around his grandmother Pilar’s piano while Sergio played.
We all just kind of sat there, in awe of what my uncle could do,” he said. “Living a pretty simple lifestyle, and always being very humble, but playing like a concert pianist. The whole family would just sit around and watch him play.”
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Sergio taught himself to play the piano, Gabe explained — “which is a cool thing. Because, growing up in poverty, not a lot of kids get to learn how to play the piano. He decided that was something he wanted to do for himself. Some of my most vivid memories of him were watching him play the piano, during Christmastime, and at other family gatherings. And not just, like — not easy songs — he would play Beethoven and stuff. And that wasn’t stuff that you typically heard in Juárez — Tchaikovsky and Beethoven. So it was kind of cool.”
He also loved to visit, Gabe recalled.
“He was also the type of guy, that — once you got in a conversation with him — you knew you’d be there for a while,” he said. “He had a lot to say. He was passionate about his beliefs, and about helping others. He was just a joyful person to be around.”
A natural caregiver
Gabe said that — apart from being a hard worker and a talented pianist — his uncle lived his life caring for others.
“That was who he was, and what he stood for. In that sense, I think a lot of that got passed on to my dad — his brother — and, eventually, to me,” Gabe said. “Sergio took care of my late grandfather and late grandmother until their very last days. When my grandma was very sick, he was the one who was there through it all. He was there every day to see her.”
The last few years of his life, he spent taking care of a chronically-ill person — a friend of the family who had fallen on hard times — who had some “pretty severe mental health issues,” Gabe said.
“He realized this person couldn’t take care of himself and didn’t have a family. So he ended up taking him in and caring for him,” he said. “He passed away about two years ago, but Sergio looked after him as his full-time caregiver.”
“I guess now it was probably about two and a half weeks ago,” Gabe said Thursday, when asked about his uncle’s first symptoms of the novel coronavirus. “He started feeling ill. He did have some pre-existing conditions. He had diabetes, and he had just recently had some heart issues as well — some palpitations, and some other stuff.”
Gabe said his dad talked to Sergio, who was “feeling very ill.”
“He was short of breath, and was having a very hard time getting out bed,” Gabe explained. “My dad suggested that he probably needed to see a doctor right away. I don’t think any of us thought that it would’ve been COVID.”
The next day, he was taken to the emergency room at Del Sol Medical Center.
“That was the last time my dad got to talk to him,” Gabe said. “An aunt of mine in El Paso was the designated family contact; She would get an update twice a day, I think. But the family wasn’t able to go see him. The family wasn’t able to even talk with him. We had to rely on that phone call that came in to check on his progress.”
Gabe said his uncle was feeling very lonely in his last days.
“He was feeling the effects of not having those who loved him — and those closest to him — being able to visit him in his final days,” he said. “I think that was pretty rough on him.”
Face masks: Public health over politics
“One of the greatest tragedies in this entire situation has been the politicizing of wearing masks,” Gabe said. “I think it’s become a social issue, rather than what it should be — a public health issue. People need to understand that this is one of the very small things that we can do to help take care of each other, and help take care of our community.”
As a community, Gabe said, it’s our duty to look out for one another. Wearing a face mask when out in public is a simple way to do that.
“If we truly want to be a good community, and if we are that caring community that Las Cruces really prides itself upon, then we need to normalize wearing a mask,” he said. “We need to take the politics out of it — until we find a solution, or a vaccine, or something that carries us out of this phase we’re in today.”
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The politicizing of face masks is what he said he finds most disturbing.
“If it wasn’t for the politics of the day, I think people would be more willing to wear a mask,” Gabe said. “Because they would believe the science, and they’d believe the data. But, unfortunately, it’s the politicizing of the mask-wearing that’s setting us back. For everyone who’s normal and healthy, and is able to wear a mask — there’s no reason not to wear one in public.”
Gabe described wearing a mask as a simple act of generosity — one that could have saved his uncle’s life.
“Locally, we’ve always prided ourselves in our diversity, our inclusivity and our generosity. And wearing a mask is an act of generosity to others, to your community,” he said. “There are probably a lot of asymptomatic folks out in our community who have COVID, who could just make that small gesture of wearing a mask — which wouldn’t require a whole lot of work on their part.”
‘A product of the Borderland’
I asked Gabe how his uncle would want to be remembered.
“I think he’d like to be remembered as a product of the Borderland. He grew up in Juárez, and later moved to El Paso. Worked in both cities — worked hard, took care of people,” he said. “One of the things that I take to heart is the story of the immigrant — my uncle is an example of the type of people that we are on the border. We put our heads down, we work and we take care of our families. We’re really just looking for a better life.”
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Gabe said his Tío Sergio personified that immigrant experience.
“He worked hard all his life. And he was a caregiver — for anyone in need.”
Damien Willis is a reporter and columnist for the Las Cruces Sun-News. His biweekly column focuses on the impact of the COVID-19 crisis in Las Cruces and around the region. Have a story to share? Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @DamienWillis on Twitter.