José Herrera has many children—too numerous to count, and only they know who they are; it’s not just blood that bonds. The sons and daughters who share his blood, however, bowed their heads as they sat on hard metal chairs beside his coffin. His wife, Rosa, the mother of the four: Maribel, José Jr., Jaime, and Marissa, sat quietest of all. They had lost their father, yet she … she lost her soul mate—had known and loved José since she was 19. “The most beautiful woman in the world,” he’d announce at every party and family gathering until the day he passed. Marissa and Maribel could only hope to find men that would worship them the way that their father worshipped their mother.
The Coachella Valley blew its hot breath against the necks of the Herrera family, and it felt as if José himself were whispering to them one last time, “Never forget—you are the richest family in the world because you have each other.”
The Herrera’s held the funeral service at the Bagdouma Park soccer field that José had worked so hard to voluntarily maintain for the past 20+ years because he wanted to give children, regardless of financial ability, an opportunity to play soccer. He knew that keeping kids involved in sports kept them off the streets. Re-writing the rules made this possible, so that’s what José did. He changed the rules so that only adults 18 and over had to pay to play; kids could play for free. Even though his kids were grown and most had left the valley, José made the soccer league a priority. It would only be appropriate and poignant to hold his funeral on the very grass that so many little feet had trampled.
Before he stood to face the people who had gathered on the soccer field to honor his father’s life, Jaime wondered how he would be able to speak. Slowly he rose. When he turned around he couldn’t see one patch of grass, the field covered by hundreds and hundreds of people who had come to pay homage to his father. There were 300 chairs, but there were more people standing than sitting. People old and young took turns holding the canvas edges of banners. One after the other they’d get in line to hold a sign that read “Thank you so much CALAMBRES.” The faces blurred before Jaime like one flesh; he couldn’t believe the number of people.
A mariachi band played in the background, hired by someone unknown. Free food had been provided by Taquería Guerrero for the entire week because the owner, José Guerrero told the family, “I want to do this because there’s no way I can repay José for everything he’s done for me.” And so it went with stories like that. Most of the good deeds that José committed were unknown to his family until his funeral, and still now, almost eight years later. Young kids approached the Herrera children and through sobs said things such as, “Your dad bought me soccer cleats when my parent’s couldn’t afford it.” For hours people approached the microphone at José’s funeral. “He went to all of my soccer games,” a kid said. “My parents never went, but Calambres . . . he went for me.”
During the all-night wake, a crowd gathered in the parking lot at the funeral home. They didn’t leave until the body did. One by one people that neither Jaime nor his brother even knew, would approach the two and want to stand watch by the body, customary in traditional Mexican wakes. They’d say things like, “It would be my honor to stand by him. He saved me from turning bad.” It was as if he helped them from beyond as people they didn’t even know appeared to help the Herrera’s mourn José.
The local newspaper The Desert Sun wrote an article about him, and his death was mentioned on the news. He was a local hero who “would make things happen out of nowhere. He’d help support people until they could go back to work.” Marissa recalled.
Their dad’s spirit is still very much alive in his family. When they speak about him it is with such fervor and through tears clenched at the back of their throats, as if he passed just last week. They talked about him on Christmas Eve 2013 while eating homemade posole and tamales. Maribel jumped in with, “Thirteen years after I graduated high school he was still going to soccer games. I didn’t know this until after he died. Kids were coming up and telling me. I didn’t know any of them. One kid told me that my dad would pick him up and make sure that he made it to practice.” Gangsters, kids, the homeless—all were recipients of José Herrera’s love and support. The man judged no one. He was known for saying, “Where one can eat, two can eat. Where two can eat, four can eat.” The family members were astounded to discover how many people José helped. He never talked about the things he did, and it took until after his death for the family to realize his impact. When Jaime turned around and saw the number of people at the funeral, only then did it start to sink in.
Jaime remembers that his dad would attend his soccer game, but then watch the games of other kids. “My dad bought a big ugly van just so he could pack as many kids in it as possible. He’d drive 30 minutes one way toward Mexicali to pick up kids to play soccer, then drive them home again.” At the funeral, kids revealed that the first time they saw the ocean was when José took them. The stories just spilled out of Jaime, “We shared everything. I grew up not knowing jealousy. Once we went to Walmart and he bought four bikes and gave three away to guys who needed them to get to work, and to a little kid.” At holidays he’d bring home a kid he saw on the street and give him one of the gifts from beneath the Herrera tree, feed him, and send him on his way.
On the weekends José loved to bar-b-que for his family, but because he grew up poor and starving, he would purchase 30 pounds of meat because, “It wouldn’t be fair to have people smell the meat and not be able to eat.” The Herrera bar-b-ques were neighborhood events. As a kid in Guadalajara, Mexico, José remembers smelling meat cooking at a quinceañera. He knocked on the door and a man answered and told him to beg somewhere else. José vowed that he’d never turn away anyone hungry.
The beauty of José’s character, in part, is that he was not a rich man. Making an honest wage as a grounds keeper for the Desert Horizons Country Club, José insisted that whatever he and his family had must be shared with those less fortunate. Marissa recalls that, “He woke up at 5 in the morning, worked in 120 degree weather, and came home and played with us for an hour before he went inside after working for 8 hours in the sun. We were poor, but I never ever knew we were poor.”
Every day there’s a card, or a note at his grave from someone whose life was affected by José. The notes are usually anonymous and are varied in their handwriting. When his children visit the Coachella Valley, someone always stops them to state how much they miss José. Jaime has even had his restaurant bill anonymously paid simply because he is José’s son.
José wanted also to change the chauvinistic views of traditional marriage. He influenced families to spread household chores around, and not to limit them to the women. If he saw a woman cooking he’d tell the men, “Get up and help cook if you want to eat!” Men learned to respect their wives and share domestic duties. Their children would see this, and the cycle would break.
Eight months before he died in his sleep, José and Rosa took in two children aged 8 and 10 who needed a stable home. When they first entered the Herrera home, the children grabbed at food on the table, stuffing it into their mouths. José said, “All they need is love and food.” At a time when José and Rosa could have been enjoying their golden years, they instead took in two small children. After José died, Rosa continued to raise the kids for the next seven years. The family believes that this was a blessing, that Rosa had a full house when her husband died.
As the seconds clicked by on the recorder Christmas Eve, the family spilled stories, so many that it’s impossible to cover them all. In the end José Herrera felt rich because of his happiness; he shared his money, his love, himself. “After he died, we all became better people,” Maribel said. And their cousin stated that when all of the Herrera kids are around it’s as if José is there because each one of them have decided to live their lives using one of their dad’s tools to repair broken spirits and empty stomachs. It’s the love of Jose that binds his family, and the definition of “family” extends to anyone and everyone regardless of bloodlines. “He had a way of looking at you, and you knew you were special,” his sister-in-law said of José. And I sensed him there, I really did, his spirit sitting on Jaime’s shoulder as he cooked, hovering in the corner of Maribel’s home, influencing Marissa to write positive reviews for upcoming authors nobody knew of, riding on the gaze of his oldest son, José, as he studied the fire . . . José Herrera, a seemingly ordinary man who has extraordinarily affected the lives of countless people, even now, even as you read this.