Now that the turkey dinner leftovers are starting to get a little less inviting and the prospects of the hustle and bustle of the holidays looms ahead, I usually try to write a "Jennis Year in Review" for my journal. I sit down and take a quick inventory of the years changes and then jot down my goals for the coming year.
Ive had a lot of changes this year and although Im not very religious, Ive been blessed with many new friends, a new home and a great new job. But lately, Ive been thinking about Raúl, a young man I barely knew.
I met Raúl during visits to my uncles house for their monthly church service in Boyle Heights. Raúl was a polite and handsome Latino man. After the service, the church provides lunch for its members. Although this is a Japanese religion, their followers are from around the world, and people of all colors and backgrounds are embraced.
I shared these lunch meals with Raúl a few times. I wasnt sure if Raúl was just shy, if there was a language barrier, or if it was me, unsure of what to say. Usually, I would just say, "Hi Raúl" and he would nod back at me and smile.
Raúl joined our family on Christmas day at my moms house two years ago. He came with my cousin Marlon, who is a young Sansei minister. It wasnt unusual for Marlon or his family to bring visitors on Christmas. People from the church, visitors from Japan, wherever. I learned that Raúl had been living in the streets and that he was now living at my uncles church.
I saw Raúl again on New Years Day, and was surprised to see how much he enjoyed sushi and oshogatsu. Again, we smiled at each other, but I didnt make much of a move to talk to him, or get to know him any better. I got the sense that Marlon and Raúl had become close friends.
A few months later, I received a message on my machine from Marlon, saying that Raúl died. My brother, Darin and I went to the funeral at Fukui Mortuary. Marlon officiated the service in English and Spanish. The people at the service were a mix of Japanese ladies from the church, young Latino friends of Raúls and people from groups called Impact Options and NA Enchandia.
During the eulogy and testimonies I learned much about Raúl and his short and difficult life. Raúl was born near Guadalajara, Mexico. His mother died when he was a year old, and his father died when he was 9. When he was 16, Raúl came to Los Angeles. He worked as a migrant farm worker in Bakersfield, did odd jobs and worked as a gardener. In some ways, it reminded me of the story of our Issei pioneers.
Raúls life was an inspiration to many of his peers. His best friend talked about Raúls thoughtfulness, his capacity to make people laugh, and how he liked to draw pictures. Raúl had joined the church and completely changed his life. He had taken a Spiritual Development Course in Spanish. Raúl would wake up at 5 am to help clean the church sanctuary and take the bus to do gardening jobs in West Covina. He was attending counseling and support groups Impact Options and NA Enchandia on a regular basis. He had a new girlfriend. He was always doing things to help around the church.
People who knew Raúl told stories about how he was a rehabilitation success story. He and Marlon were working together and living together and it was obvious how much they enjoyed each others company. He was 22 years old and given a chance to make changes in his life, did just that. His future was filled with so much potential.
Its a tragedy that Raúls life was taken from him at such a young age. He had been making such positive changes in his life. I later learned that he had been murdered - shot in the back by rival gang members who didnt know that he had left his youth behind and turned his life around.
So as I sit down this year to write my goals for 1998, I think about the lessons Ive learned from knowing Raúl. The first one is that life is short. I had many opportunities to get to know Raúl, and I didnt take the time to get to know him better. I had to learn about his life at the funeral when it was too late.
Ive also learned from Raúls determination. Despite the odds against him, Raúl was a young immigrant man who was actively making changes in his life for the better.
Finally, Ive learned from my cousin Marlon. In a day and age when people are reluctant to get involved or lend a helping hand, Marlon befriended Raúl, brought him into his home, and in doing so, gained a dear friend.
Their actions remind me this holiday season that we should take the time to talk to our neighbors, friends and family; we should continue our efforts to work together for change; and that we can always help others, in big or small ways.
Jenni Emiko Kuida lives in the Venice/Culver area of LA and is co-author of the popular "Original 101 Ways to Tell if Youre Japanese American."