“Tio” Alberto walked up the aisle of the viewing room at Duggan’s Funeral Services, past 13 rows of wooden benches filled with people weeping and rubbing shoulders. But he veered left before reaching the shiny white open casket that held the body of Silvia Patricia Tun Cun.
“I want to remember how she used to be,” said the man she had called uncle.
Tun Cun, 29 years old and known as Patty, was recalled by friends and family as cheerful, kind and giving. Early in the morning of New Year’s day, her life was cut short when 19-year-old David Morales, fleeing from police after allegedly shooting at three pedestrians near Valencia Gardens, slammed into the white Toyota sedan in which she was riding.
“She wasn’t doing anything bad, anything wrong,” her sister Evangelina Tun Cun said at last week’s viewing, her voice shaky and her eyes searching the room for answers. She noticed Silvia’s pale pink lips; in the photo next to her, her lips were bright red. They forgot to put lipstick on her, Evangelina whispered. She never left the house without it.
Some stood next to Silvia’s casket, shaking their heads. Others wailed when they saw her. Her hands were clasped, fingernails painted a glittery forest green, face glowing in the rosy light next to an explosion of red and white roses. A man with a guitar strapped to his back looked at her quickly, spun around and, whimpering, covered his face with a black cowboy hat as he walked away. A woman fainted twice.
“She came here like anyone,” said Evangelina. “To look for a better life.”
Originally from Guatemala, Silvia Tun Cun was the youngest of seven sisters who had come, one by one, to San Francisco. A single mother who left her son in the care of another sister in Guatemala more than five years ago, Tun Cun was working two jobs, as a restaurant server and a bartender, to save enough money to be reunited one day with seven-year-old Javier.
“It hurts that she’s gone,” said Pedro Navarrete, owner of La Terraza, where Tun Cun worked. He remembers her as efficient, hardworking and friendly with customers. A photo of her is displayed on the bar, with a note informing patrons of the accident and asking for their help in raising money to send her body back to Guatemala.
Evangelina Tun Cun estimates the cost of sending her sister’s body home, along with mortuary costs, to be around $13,000. So far the family has raised $2,000.
“Her main dream was to bring her son to the United States,” said Tio Alberto, who was Silvia Tun Cun’s driver. Six days a week, he drove her to her jobs in Bernal Heights and the Tenderloin. And whenever she asked, he would take her to the laundromat, to the grocery store and to the bank, where she would send most of her money to her family in Guatemala.
A victim of multiple incidents of domestic violence, Tun Cun depended on Tio Alberto for transportation because she didn’t feel safe walking alone or taking public transportation to and from her home at 17th and Capp streets. “I was really upset about a lot of the things that happened to her,” he said. “She was tired of men using her and abusing her.”
Tio Alberto, who preferred not to give his last name, said that he was in the process of helping Tun Cun with her immigration papers, adding that she was on her way to becoming a legal citizen. He would often advise her to be less giving. “She was vulnerable because of her heart,” he said. “She was a beautiful person.”
Tio Alberto got to know her while driving her around, and took note of how generous she was. She would loan money to people even if they couldn’t pay her back. “She would not let anyone not have a good time,” he said. “She would provide for them.” When she went to the grocery store, he would tease her that she ate too much. But mixed in with her groceries were special things she had picked out for her sisters.
Tio Alberto had become like a father to her, Tun Cun told him. Outside the funeral home, he began to cry as he talked about how close they were. “She was like my little daughter,” he said. He has a daughter of his own, the same age as Tun Cun. “That’s what really gets me.” He said that he made her feel like part of his family. Part of his soul.
He still has her lipsticks and nail files in his car. He remembers her pulling down the mirror above the passenger seat, applying her makeup and saying, “Don’t drive too crazy, Tio.”
She confided in him things that had gone wrong in her life. “I shouldn’t have done that, Tio,” she would say.
And on New Year’s Eve, she told him that she wanted to change her ways. “She was going to be a little stronger this year, to better herself,” Tio Alberto said.
He said he still has nightmares about the tragedy that unfolded the following morning. He had planned to pick Tun Cun up at 4 a.m. on the first day of 2013. He tried to reach her but she didn’t answer the phone. At 5:30 a.m. she called him back, but when she realized he had been sleeping, she said, “No, Tio, don’t worry. Stay sleeping. My nephew’s going to take me home.”
Her nephew, Manuel Garcia, was driving her home a couple of hours later. But she never made it back.
When Tio Alberto found out what had happened, he texted her anyway. “I was testing her,” he said. “I thought it was a lie.”
“Please answer me,” he texted. “Answer me. Answer me please.”
Back in Guatemala, Evangelina Tun Cun said, the sister who is Javier’s guardian began to cry when she got the news. She pulled out a photograph of Silvia so that she could make an altar. Javier asked where his mother was. Then he asked why his aunt was crying.
“Tell me the truth,” he pleaded. “Don’t cry, because if you cry, I’m going to cry as well,” Evangelina recalled.
On the day of Silvia’s funeral, her immigration papers remained in the inside right pocket of Tio Alberto’s black wool coat. He pulled them out on three different occasions, if only to remind himself of how close she was to becoming a U.S. citizen and seeing her son once again.
“I’m going to love her forever,” he said.
Donations to help Silvia Patricia Tun Cun’s family can be made to Chase Bank, account number 163712120.
Andrea Valencia contributed to this story.