Alejandro Lopez and the Mariachi Band

Alejandro Lopez 3

My grandfather, Alejandro Lopez was born, lived, and died last Wednesday in the same small Texas town of Mercedes.  At one time demographics say that “The Queen City of the Valley” had about 13,000 residents, but, I think that’s about double what the actual population is today if I were to venture a guess.  Since the town failed to draw in big box stores and chains that nearby towns enticed in the later part of the 20th century, Mercedes seems to be in decline.  The same store fronts from 30 years ago are there, but many have been closed and were boarded up years ago, as residents found it more convenient to drive to the next town over and shop at the large chain stores.  Mercedes is located about 30 minutes south of the Harlingen airport, a small regional airport with about eight flights a day to Houston – and one direct flight to St. Paul/Minneapolis so that the snowbirds (predominately white senior citizens from the North who come down seasonally to enjoy the mild winter and live in gated communities), as my grandfather called them, can migrate non-stop as the weather changes.  If you drive about ten minutes South, you’ll get to Nuevo Progresso, Mexico, a small border town where you can purchase tax free liquor and cigarettes, and cheap prescription drugs or dental work.  What used to be a fairly porous border has become more clearly delineated in the last several years with the requirement of passports at the border checkpoint, and the recent rise in drug-related crime in Mexico has deterred many families who used to travel freely to and from Nuevo Progresso from venturing over the Rio Grande.

Mercedes, and my grandfather, exist in a strange in-between – not quite ‘Mexican’, but also not totally ‘American’.  Generations of family have lived on either side of the Rio Grande for years – at times American citizens, at times Mexican citizens, and for a brief period of time (1836-1846) they were citizens of the Republic of Texas.  Many words have been used to try and describe this unique blend of cultures and traditions in the borderland: Tejano, Chicano, Mexican American…

Life tends to operate at a slightly slower pace here.  No existential urgency or anxious need to accomplish…at least that’s how it seems from the outside with retired grandparents – perhaps young adults in the Valley region would have a different opinion.


Immanuel Lutheran Church 2

Alejandro Lopez’ funeral was Saturday afternoon.  The women at Immanuel Lutheran Church prepared lunch for the family before the funeral in their gathering space – a simple, un-airconditioned room with a small stage to one side and a kitchen on the other.  It was a textbook church meal.  Tea and lemonade, store-bought chicken, homemade potato salad, homemade fruit salad, homemade jello salad, and, well, homemade salad salad.  After the meal they brought out trays of their favorite dessert – H-E-B strawberry ice cream, and I was informed that were were very lucky to be enjoying such a treat – just the other week H-E-B had run out of it!  I never cease to be amazed by and to give thanks for those who care for others in their grief, and watching the 70 year old women who never met us before serve us lunch was a beautiful picture of the Church being the hands and feet of Christ.

After lunch there was some confusion as to where exactly the family should go.  Were we meeting in the sanctuary of the church?  Were we all headed to the funeral home (located two blocks from the church, and just across the street from the elementary school)? Someone had rented limousines to take us to the cemetery, but, who was to ride in them? Just hours earlier the organist had a death in the family – did anyone know who would play the organ at the funeral now?  Communication flows slowly, but calmly.  There’s an unspoken understanding that somehow or another it’ll all turn out okay.  Maybe not in a timely or orderly fashion, but, that’s ever been an expectation, or even a desire.  As a worship leader who co-ordinates teams and builds minute-by-minute flowcharts to run smooth clockwork services that hopefully come together to appear graceful and effortless, it can be both a challenging and a cathartic experience.  A call to simplicity.  A caution about the folly of building taller and taller towers to try and reach the heavens ourselves, and a reminder that God speaks to those who slow down, and still their hearts enough to stop, and listen…

Immanuel Lutheran Church sign

In the end, we walked or drove to the funeral home – some guests gathered there and others gathered at the church.  We started about twenty minutes late, partially because some guests hadn’t arrived, and partially because we weren’t exactly sure how to begin. Eventually the funeral home director came into the room, we payed out last respects, and we went to the church for the funeral service (some in the limo, and others in their cars).


Before we left, just before the casket was closed, my grandmother was wheeled forward to say goodbye to her husband.  From her wheelchair she put one hand on the edge of the coffin and spoke to my grandfather – slightly louder than she talks to most people, but he was hard of hearing in his hold age.  I suppose that’s the volume she had grow used to speaking to him in.  Her voice was shaky but matter-of-fact as she spoke:

I love you very much Alex.  I have been married to you for 65 years, but now we have to let you go.  I have always been faithful, I always did whatever you asked me to, and I never spent a penny more than I needed to.  You were a good husband and a good father, but we have to let you go now.  You are with a chorus of angels in Heaven.  We will miss you.  Goodbye Father.

And then, as the wheelchair was turned, a single sob escaped, and her face became tight and pained.  I didn’t need to look to know that there were tears in all of our eyes.


Immanuel Lutheran ChurchThe funeral service was more crowded than I had anticipated.  Having lived his whole life in Mercedes, Grampy had made many friends: Mercedes residents, political allies of my grandmothers (she is fiercely active in local politics , even at 91.  The mayor came to the funeral and she told him right there on the church steps with her walker in hand that he had lost her support because he was taking jobs away from qualified Mercedes residents and giving them to less qualified outsiders.), a large number of war veterans, church friends, former members of the little league baseball teams he had coached, and extended family – so extended I didn’t know who they were.  There WAS an organist, and she played the hymns exactly as they should be played in Mercedes, Texas: nice and slow.

Grampy’s flag-draped casket was placed diagonally in the front of the small sanctuary and Grammy rested close by in her wheelchair.  Perhaps it was the Valley heat, or the long nights just after her husband died, or maybe you just get tired in your ninth decade of life, but Grammy had a hard time staying awake during the service.  She woke up several times in a coughing fit, and it took a considerable amount of water and throat lozenges to suppress the cough.


Alejandro Lopez Funeral

After the service, the funeral processional led to a large cemetery on the edge of town.  Grammy and Grampy had planned ahead when they reached their 80s and purchased a place in the family plot right next to Grammy’s brother, Anthony Castellano.  Their tombstone was already in place, with only the final dates waiting to be etched in.  The large number veterans formed neat military rows behind Grampy’s grave, several in full uniform despite the heat.  For years Grampy would run home on the weekend, grab his American Legion hat and head to funerals for other veterans in the area..and now others had done the same for him.  Just behind the veterans was a row of Mariachi’s, also in uniform despite the heat, their silver studded pants reflecting the light of the sun.  The solemn and precise execution of the veterans – a seven gun salute, the paying of Taps, and the folding of the American flag…the reading and prayer by the Lutheran priest with his simple robe and stole…and then the brightly colored rose pedals placed on the casket to the accompaniment of a seven-piece mariachi band…it was a fitting end for a man born and raised in the Valley.

Mariachi Band

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