Young Jonathan and Erminda Lopez.

Rosa Erminda Flores de Lopez, a short black-haired woman with circles under her eyes, dark eyebrows and a widow’s composure sat on Saturday night at a Salvadoran restaurant across the street from El Rio, where friends of her late husband were hosting a benefit to raise money for her family.

“He was a good person,” the 42-year-old Rosa said softly of her 50-year-old husband, Jonathan Lopez, who supported her and three children ages 6, 15 and 17, until he died of a heart attack on Nov. 5. “He worked so hard to take care of all of us.”

The fundraiser was still going on, but Rosa and her 17-year-old son, Riquelmy, had to leave. They had offices to clean, she explained as she packed an uneaten pupusa neatly into her purse and rose slowly to go.  Already that day they had scrubbed a See’s candy store.

Lopez would have turned 51 today.

In the two weeks since her husband’s death, Rosa has been forced to step into her husband’s shoes as the family’s new breadwinner. Aside from delivering papers for El Tecolote twice a month, Lopez worked for Firato, a company that contracted him to clean four See’s Candy stores and several office buildings in San Francisco and San Mateo, paying him a monthly salary rather than an hourly wage.

There was so much work to do that he often brought helpers with him, including his wife and oldest son.

“He never stopped working,” Rosa said, except on early Sunday mornings when the family would step out of their one-bedroom Fruitvale apartment for a hot chocolate.

Most days, her husband would go without eating all day, and as a diabetic on medication, his blood sugar remained at a stubborn high.

Nonetheless, his sudden heart attack came as a surprise to all.  Only four years earlier, the Lopez family’s luck seemed to have changed miraculously.

After years of struggle in El Salvador, Lopez immigrated illegally to the United States in November 2005 only to be kidnapped by bandits, tortured, and later turned over to immigration by a coyote. But after only a few days in a Texas detention center, immigration sent him into the United States with asylum papers.

Rosa said the decision was made because of all he had been through in El Salvador, including the civil war and the murder of his father in 1989. A bus driver back home, her husband lost his livelihood when his bus was stolen.

After her husband got asylum, Rosa received a letter from immigration granting the family permission to enter the United States.

So in December of 2008, she left her job as a secretary in the small town of Tamanique, and brought the three kids north. They’d been apart from their father for four years.

In the 11 months that they all lived together in Oakland, her husband scrambled to pay the $700 in rent and support his family. Riquelmy, now in high school, accompanied his father to work when school got out; relishing the time they spent as father and son.

“I liked to work with him and learn what he was doing,” said Riquelmy, an aspiring pilot with a round face and a manner beyond his 17 years. “My dad told me to learn the street names and addresses and was teaching me how to drive.”

His death came so suddenly, said Riquelmy, who is learning English.

At 7 a.m. on the day that he died, Rosa, her husband and two other workers cleaned a See’s candy store on Geneva Avenue, in San Francisco.

From 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., they delivered 1,500 papers for El Tecolote. Afterwards, they cleaned an office on Bryant Street, and then See’s Candy stores on Embarcadero Street, San Mateo and Market Street.

For the majority of the jobs on the day of his death, Lopez stayed inside the van. He complained of a sore throat, nausea, chest pain, and breathing troubles, but Rosa had given up trying to convince him to go to the hospital. He told her there was too much work to do.

“He kept saying ‘I’ll go tomorrow, I’ll go tomorrow’,” said Rosa, adding that he had been complaining of cold-like symptoms for a week.

Lopez had in fact already been to the Eastmont Wellness Center, an Oakland clinic, on Monday, November 2, but had not been able to see the doctor. He waited in line for hours but was turned away because he was number 18 on the list, and the doctor would only see up to number 15.

On Tuesday, Lopez cleaned a dental office and a See’s Candies store.

He was also scheduled to deliver papers for El Tecolote. But when Martha Duenas, development assistant, opened the door for him as she had for the past year and a half, he sat down, holding his chest.

“He said he thought he had a cold and wasn’t sure he could deliver the papers,” said Duenas, who called him the “nicest person ever.”

She urged him to go to the hospital, but he told her he had already tried unsuccessfully. He called Francisco Barradas, in charge of El Tecolote’s distribution, and asked him if there would be papers to deliver the next day.

Barradas was fond of Lopez. They met in Fruitvale while Barradas delivered papers in the Latino neighborhood. Lopez asked him how he could get a job delivering and Barradas hired him.

“You immediately feel you can trust that guy,” said Barradas, a Mexican immigrant. “Something I always admired was his humility…kind of benevolent with other human beings, but with admirable strength and capacity to fight all odds.”

Jonathan died at the California Pacific Medical Center on Buchanan Street at approximately 2 a.m., less than half an hour after arriving. Rosa Lopez stayed by his side, but Riquelmy and the other two workers had to drive back to the See’s Candy on Market Street to finish cleaning the store.

Jonathan Lopez will be buried in Modesto, California because it’s cheaper, said Rosa Lopez.

“We have no family here,” said Rosa, an evangelical Christian. “But a lot of people from the church are going to come.”

She says the Firato company has agreed to give her the job—a blessing were it not for the fact that she doesn’t drive. Rosa Rivera, Lopez’s cousin, plans to finish teaching Riquelmy how to drive so that he can work and take his mother to her jobs.

“I think about staying here for the future of my kids,” Rosa said. “But right now we are destabilized.”

Message from El Tecolote: If you would like to contribute funds to the Lopez family, you can drop off a check at Bank of America, payable to his Erminda Flores, sponsor of the Jonathan Alfredo Lopez Ortiz Memorial Fund. Account # 0546416605.

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