"Tony Tinajero is still with us" by Terrence Halloran


It was good to see Father Bill Barry at Tony Tinajero's funeral. I had been thinking about both of them, and about Tony's wife Celia, the day Dolores called to tell me her father had died.

The last time I had seen Tony Tinajero was five years earlier, at a hospital in Orange, California. He was recovering from a heart attack. He had asked the nurse for a phone book, so he could contact some of his friends in nearby Santa Ana and Irvine.

The evening before the funeral, I drove to Los Angeles. I greeted Louie Diaz just inside the door of Santa Isabel church. 25 years earlier, Tony had helped him become a candidate for California Secretary of State.

Louie said he was still happily the director of the Variety Boys Club in East Los Angeles. He said he hates funerals and had to drag himself to this one. He talked about Tony's energy and kindness, his loyalty to friends and his devotion to worthy causes.

I shook hands with Celia's uncle Nemorio. "Sí, me acuerdo de usted," he said. "Usted y Antonio eran muy amigos, ¿verdad? ¿A usted le daba consejos? El siempre daba consejos a los sacerdotes." ("Sure, I remember you. You and Tony were good friends, weren't you? Did he used to give you advice? He always gave advice to priests.") Then Nemorio laughed and gave me a big hug.

Celia heard him and grinned, delighted to see me there. I told her my wife Connie remembers Tony well. One night at our home in Detroit 17 years earlier he had entertained us with stories of his youth in El Paso and with some intense ideas about religion and politics. We were very sleepy the next day, I told Celia.

Before the Rosary prayers, the family played a recording of Tony singing some of his favorite hymns and ballads in Spanish. There were many smiles and a few tears as we listened. Padre Lucien, who led the Rosary, told us he knew Tony well as a parishioner. They didn't always agree, he said, but they respected each other's sincerity.

One of Tony's brothers led a short hymn, "Hombres Nuevos" ("New Men") after each mystery of the Rosary. After the prayers, a friend of Tony's from New York stepped up to the lectern. In eloquent Spanish, he told us how they had first met at a meeting of Hispanic Christian leaders in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Tony's faith and concern for the poor captivated him. Years of working together strengthened their friendship and their dedication. He assured us that Tony now enjoys fully the love of God that lights our path through this world.

As we left the church, Celia and the children invited us to their home for refreshments. I met some of Tony's relatives for the first time, and renewed some friendships from over 20 years earlier.

The six Tinajero boys and girls were now strikingly handsome and gracious young adults. Tony, Jr. told me a joke about a priest and a policeman standing on a sidewalk in Boston. He imitated their Irish accents with a perfection his father would envy.

We paged through an album of photos taken ten years earlier at Tony and Celia's 25th wedding anniversary. I noticed that Father Bill Barry and Father John Coffield were among the concelebrating priests at the anniversary Mass.

When we entered the church the next morning, the organist was playing "Adiós, Mi Chaparrita." It's an old folk song about youth and sorrow, patience and love. "Goodbye, my little sweetheart. Don't cry for me. I'm leaving, but I'll come back soon. I'll return with some nice presents, and a kiss to take away your troubles."

The funeral Mass, with Father Bill Barry, Father John Birch, Father Bill Atwill and some of the Salesian priests concelebrating, was longer than Tony would have liked. But it was important to hear the words of his nephew Francisco, of his daughter Maria and of Father Barry.

Francisco was a seminarian then. He spoke in Spanish, even though English would have been easier for him. He delighted us with a story of when he was five years old. There was very little in the kitchen to eat, so his uncle made him a mayonnaise sandwich. When he hesitated, Tony said, "Cómetelo. Hay mucha gente en el mundo que ni eso tiene." ("Eat it. There are a lot of people in the world who don't have even that.") "To this day I hate mayonnaise," said Francisco.

Then he read the Gospel story of Jesus announcing that he would heal the sick, make the blind see and the deaf hear, free the captives and bring the Good News to the poor. Many who heard Jesus were angry when they heard this. No prophet has honor among his own people.

Francisco reminded us that his uncle had the same problem. "Muchas personas no le entendían. No se sentían a gusto cuando él hablaba de los oprimidos." ("Many people didn't understand him. They didn't feel comfortable when he talked about the oppressed.")

I was touched deeply listening to Maria's poetic description of her father. Using elegant phrases, she spoke of him as a brave adventurer, a prophet, full of curiosity, impatient for justice, convinced that unselfish love is possible and worth achieving. She said he journeyed widely, in our country and abroad. Many of his jobs required travel. He had to stay in motion to keep food on the family table. And it was a way to strengthen friendships wherever he went.

Father Barry's homily was thoughtful and cheerful. He was a neighbor of Celia on Chicago Street, he said. Tony worked for Father John Birch at the Catholic Youth Organization when he and Celia were courting. Tony was restless and full of ideas, while Celia was a stable force who kept him close to reality. That was my impression too, when I got to know them 12 years later.

During the communion of the Mass, a cousin of Celia's sang the Canción Mixteca. "I'm far from the land where I was born. Unbounded nostalgia invades my thoughts. I'm so alone and sad, a leaf on the wind. I want to cry, to die from the hurt in my soul. Land of the sun, I long to see you. I live far away, without light, without love. I'm so alone and sad, a leaf on the wind. I want to cry, to die from the hurt in my soul."

There were so many cars going to the cemetery that it took us a long time to get out of the church parking lot. A woman walking to her car said Tony would love this. "He'd be walking around talking with everyone, wouldn't he?"

About 200 people gathered at the graveside. The priest blessed the grave and led the final prayers. He said a few personal words, remembering Tony and affirming eternal life.

Then Maria stood and asked Bill Little to give us his thoughts. Bill urged us to honor Tony by imitating his love for all, his zest for life, and his quest for equality and peace.

Tony's sister Esperanza stepped forward and told us two charming stories in Spanish.

Growing up during the Depression, Tony was fortunate to have a baseball of his own. But one Sunday morning he hit it over the fence into the priest's yard. The other boys told him he'd never see it again. Going into the sacristry to serve Mass, he noticed a bulge in the priest's pocket. When it was time to bring the wine and water to the altar, Tony made the priest wait. "Deme mi pelota," he whispered. ("Give me my ball.") The priest didn't want the congregation to notice what was going on, so he gave Tony his baseball.

During an illness a few months before he died, he woke up one morning tied to a bed in a hospital. "Desátenme," he insisted. "Dios me hizo una persona libre. No soy esclavo de nadie. Sólo Dios me manda. Desátenme." ("Untie me. God made me a free person. I'm not a slave of anyone. Only God tells me what to do. Untie me.") Persuaded by Tony's theological reasoning, the nurses let him get up and move around.

More than a dozen people came forward to speak at the graveside. These are some of the things they said:

"When we were young men, we liked to go to the dance halls in Ciudad Juárez. One evening Tony decided we would dance only with the old ladies. We showed them all the new steps. They had an enviable time, and so did we. The young people watched and applauded. They wondered who these two clowns were."

"I'm a brother-in-law of Tony, married to the prettiest of his sisters. Some years ago I became a Catholic, partly because he showed me the joy of faith. You know, this is the first funeral where I've really seen people laugh. I'm sure he's enjoying these moments as much as we are."

"It was Tony who encouraged me to join the Knights of Columbus. I often remind my fellow Knights that he sponsored my application for membership."

"Yo conocí a Antonio por primera vez en 1952, cuando yo y mi familia éramos recién llegados de México. Me invitó a afiliarme a la Sociedad de Adoración Nocturna, de la cual he sido miembro desde entonces. En 1960, me invitó a ayudarle a promover la candidatura de John Kennedy en la comunidad hispana. He sido voluntario activo en la política desde entonces." ("I first met Tony in 1952 at Santa Isabel church, when my family and I were new here from Mexico. He invited me to join the Nocturnal Adoration Society, and I've been a member ever since. In 1960, he invited me to help him promote the candidacy of John Kennedy in the Hispanic community. I've been an active volunteer in politics ever since.")

"Tony worked in the Kennedy for President campaign in 1960, in the Poulson for Mayor campaign in 1961, in the Brown for Governor Campaign in 1962, and in the Salinger for Senator campaign in 1964. He wasn't on the winning side every time, but he was always with the candidate he felt was best. When our children read the history of those years, they'll probably say Tony chose the right side every time. And Tony will probably agree with them."

The Air Force honor guard fired a salute, played "Taps," folded the flag from the coffin and gave it to Celia. Then Esperanza started us singing "Happy Birthday" and some other songs and hymns in Spanish. People gathered in small groups to exchange thoughts and memories of Tony:

"He helped me get a job I didn't think I had a chance of getting. When I needed a pre-employment medical exam, he took me to a doctor who didn't even charge me. The doctor said it was free because I was a friend of Tony."

"He helped us feel proud of our language, our religion, our music, our food and our traditions."

"I think he should have spent more time with his family. They missed him whenever he was gone."

"All his life he tried to add a new word to the English language. He spelled it just like the Spanish word cabrón, but he pronounced it káy-brahn. He would say it to people when he despised what they were doing or saying, or when he loved them for trying to be better persons."

"Tony told me there's no conflict between priesthood and marriage. If he had lived in an age when there were married priests, he would have been one of them."

"Did you ever hear him explain that Mexico is more like Poland or France than we realize? He said that if Poland or France were ten miles south of San Diego, we'd all be learning some Polish or French, and probably resenting it."

"Lo raro es que no se hizo ni rico ni famoso. Tenía mucho carisma." ("It's strange that he didn't become rich or famous. He had a lot of charisma.")

"I was with him at a political rally where Pat Brown recognized him and greeted him with a hug. I asked Tony later why he didn't take advantage of knowing the governor so well. He said he didn't want to become part of the establishment."

"He helped change the rules of the Variety Boys Club so girls could be full members. The club almost lost its charter over that issue. Some people wanted to back off, but Tony refused to compromise."

"He was a Democrat, but he admired Mayor Poulson and President Eisenhower. He didn't like Mayor Yorty or Alan Cranston or Adlai Stevenson. He wouldn't let anybody forget that Yorty had been head of Democrats for Nixon in 1960."

"Fue duro con sus hijos." ("He was tough on his children.")

"The priests he loved most were Coffield, Barry, Birch, Sheehan and Fosselman. He didn't hate McIntyre, Manning, Hawkes and Languille, but I don't think he liked them."

"I had asked him about immigration. He told me Mexico is an overheated boiler and our border with Mexico is a safety valve that benefits both countries."

"Decía que mis socios eran mexicanos agringados porque no creían en la igualdad de las razas." ("He said my business partners were gringified Mexicans because they didn't believe in racial equality.")

"He asked me how priests and ministers could learn so much theology and so little Spanish during their long years of study in the seminary."

"Many of his friends were Anglo, black and oriental. I used to wonder how they felt when he would call them all gringos. I hope they knew he was just being an affectionate clown."

"He was director of the national Catholic office for the Spanish speaking in the late 1960s. Can you imagine Tony being quiet enough to keep a job like that for very long? I remember he got in trouble once for supporting Cesar Chavez and the grape boycott in the bishops' official newsletter."

"Quería que México y el Vaticano tuvieran mejores relaciones con Israel." ("He wanted Mexico and the Vatican to have better relations with Israel.")

"La culpa no la tiene el indito, sino el hacendado que lo hizo compadre." ("Don't blame the poor Indian, blame the landowner who made him his compadre.") "That's what Tony used to say about Nixon. He thought Eisenhower should have known better."

"Tony was rich in ways wealthy men don't even understand. His treasure was that he believed and he cared."

Leaving the cemetery, I stopped to help a young couple whose battery had run low. I asked them how they came to know Tony. "Eramos vecinos," they replied. "Con todo el mundo él hacía amigos." ("We were neighbors. He made friends with everyone.")

We started the car. As the young man returned my battery cables, he said, "Estamos practicando lo que Antonio nos enseñó, ayudándonos uno al otro." ("We're doing what Tony taught us, helping each other.")

Tony Tinajero died February 1, 1986 at age 63. Father Bill Barry has touched the lives of many wonderful people in the grace-filled years since his ordination in 1944. So maybe for him Tony Tinajero's funeral wasn't a unique experience. For me, it was very special.