The day Gaspar Caballero’s life ended is also the most festive day of the year in his native Tarimoro.
Every year, on the days leading up to September 29, the rural village in the central state of Guanajuato, Mexico holds a festival in honor of its patron saint—San Miguel. It’s a time when many paisanos living in el otro lado–the other side–return from the United States to visit and celebrate with their families.
But Caballero, a 27-year-old who loved to dance, was still in San Francisco on that Monday, working at Café La Taza on Mission Street.
Around 8 a.m., before the start of the breakfast rush, he stepped out of the cafe, as he often did on Mondays and Tuesdays when he worked in the kitchen, to buy missing ingredients. As he walked up Mission toward a nearby produce store between 21st and 22nd Streets, a 1992 Jaguar XJS jumped the curb and rammed into Caballero, killing him instantly.
Yet while Caballero died far from home, he did not die alone.
A week to the day after his death, hundreds of men, women and children–most of them paisanos from “Tari”–came together in the Mission for a memorial service at the Duggan’s Funeral Home.
“For me, he was more a father than a brother,” said Rosa Caballero, Caballero’s younger sister. “He always asked how I was doing, he helped around the house and with my kids. He would take them to school in the morning.”
It was Rosa whom Caballero and his twin brother, Baltazar, followed to San Francisco 10 years ago in search of work. The three lived together with Rosa’s husband and two children on 30th Street.
In those ten years, Caballero worked mainly in restaurants, always sending money home to his elderly parents, who found it impossible to survive off the peanut farming the Tarimoro region is known for. Caballero was one of ten children and the second they have lost. Only a few years ago, a younger brother died in a car accident in Tarimoro. To appease his parents, Caballero talked of going home.
“He had promised our mother that this was the year he would return,” said Baltazar Caballero, who, like his brother, has not seen his parents since leaving for San Francisco.
In September, Caballero had been intent on going to this year’s patron saint festival, but decided against it because of heightened security at the border. “I told him not to go, that it would be too hard to come back,” said Rosa, who was in Tarimoro for the festival when she received news of her brother’s death. “I just got my citizenship, so I was planning on bringing my parents up soon to see him.”
Instead, Rosa Caballero left Tarimoro early and was back in the Mission for her brother’s service on October 6th. The chapel of Duggan funeral home echoed that evening with the chuntata rhythms of the Mexican guitar and the off-tone voices of men, half drunk, half grieving, singing nostalgic rancheras at the top of their lungs. Many of them had known Caballero since their childhoods in Tarimoro.
Women and children watched on, some continuing to pray the Hail Mary, most crying softly to the lyrics of the song. “Cantando voy por la vida, nomas recorriendo el mundo…” “Singing I go through life,” sang the grieving choir, “…just roaming around the world…”
Gaspar Caballero’s body lay in a wooden coffin shrouded with a huge Mexican flag.
“He was more than a friend, he was a brother,” said Francisco Medina, who studied with Caballero at the rural high school back in Tarimoro and played with him on the local soccer team. Medina said that while Caballero was a good student, he looked forward all week to playing soccer on Sundays.
In San Francisco, when Caballero wasn’t working, he was most likely out dancing at the Malibu or El Tropical, or partying at friends’ houses. “He liked to have fun. He had a dance called the ‘around the beer’ dance,” recalled Carlos Aguñiga with a weak smile. “He would just dance around the beer bottle, goofing around.”
Aguñiga, who met Caballero in the Mission through distant cousins from Tarimoro, recalled that just a few weeks before, Caballero gave him two pairs of boots, a belt and a shirt, for no particular reason. “He was a very giving person,” said Aguñiga, who also came to think of Caballero as family here.
The day after Caballero died, a group of his friends from Tarimoro and the Mission set up an altar at the exact spot where he was killed and decorated it with flowers and candles. They put out a donation box to raise the money needed to send his body home to Mexico, taking turns manning the altar and collecting money from morning till evening.
Rosa Caballero said she was shocked at the amount of support, both moral and financial, that the family received–not only from paisanos from Tarimoro, but other Mission residents as well.
“People that I don’t even know have come today,” she said. “They offer to help, they give money, whatever they can. Some people even gave checks. My house hasn’t been empty since it happened.”
So far, she said, they have raised the $7,000 needed to transport the body, although there may be additional costs that they have not yet taken into account.
Rosa said she filed charges on Friday, October 3rd against Jason “Lala” Yantas, the driver of the car that killed Caballero, and who police report either passed out or fell asleep at the wheel. Reports that she was intoxicated could not be confirmed. Yantas was transferred to County Jail 1 after being treated for minor injuries, and remains in custody. A court date is pending, but on the night of the memorial service, Rosa was not thinking about that yet.
The following day she would be leaving for Mexico again to accompany her brother back to Tarimoro.
“La vida no vale nada…” the choir of men sang, weeping and holding each other in front of the casket as they stared blankly at their friend’s body. “Life isn’t worth anything…”
When the guitarist asked for requests, someone suggested “Roads of Guanajuato,” the traditional ranchera ode to Caballero’s home state. “Allí me quedo paisanos…Allí es mi pueblo adorado…” The women could not resist and joined in, voices cracking with the grief and nostalgia of bidding farewell to a paisano in a foreign land. “That’s where I’m staying, paisanos…That’s my beloved home…”