By Mark Ellis
Drawn by the stories of riches to be made in the north, Juan and his brother Alvaro responded to the dream burning in many immigrants’ hearts and made their way to the United States.
“I heard stories about making money,” says Juan Cruz, who grew up in Toluca, Mexico, about 25 miles west of Mexico City.
When his friends returned from the U.S. with money, Juan decided he wanted to be like them. “I was attracted to that. I want to know about this place that sounds unreal, like a dream place. I thought cars might fly in that country.”
He had a rough background in his youth. “I wasn’t going to any church. I was a gangster since I was 13. I grew up in that circle of drugs and alcohol and stealing, doing things that gangsters do, like fighting.
After he turned 19 he went to his mother and announced: “I’m going to the U.S.”
“What will you do there? We have no family there,” she said.
“I will go with my brother, Alvaro.”
“I don’t like the idea of you going so far,” she replied.
He told her it was already settled and they would bring her back some of the money they earned.
As they departed, she called out to them: “May God be with you.”
When they made it to Tijuana, they slept in an abandoned car in a junkyard on Avenida Revolución. They made several attempts to get across the border, but failed. “We were caught by immigration many times and put back,” he recounts.
Crossing the border
But on April 5, 1990, they made a successful crossing and decided they would catch a freight train headed to Los Angeles.
They got off the train in Oceanside and found their way to a Christian mission near the train station, which provided them a meal and clean clothes.
They spent the night under a freeway overpass, along with a community of homeless people.
“We laid our blankets on the ground and the next day we were up early waiting for the cargo train to arrive.”
They jumped on the train at 7:25 a.m., as a man yelled at them to get off.
“We’re not getting off,” they shouted.
“It is your responsibility if something happens,” he said.
“We don’t care. We just want to go to LA.,” Juan replied.
Halfway through the Camp Pendleton Marine base, the train suddenly stopped.
Juan looked through the door and saw immigration agents coming, so they jumped off and ran to the beach. There were officers waiting at the beach.
“I hid in a big bush,” Juan says.
When they thought it was safe, Juan and his brother headed back toward the train. “There was an officer watching us with binoculars. He got in his truck and came down to try to catch us.”
The train started to move, but they were able to jump on. “The officer was yelling at us to get off.” Other immigrants on the train shouted expletives at the officer as the train picked up speed and they headed north.
After a few miles, the train stopped again in Capistrano Beach. “They are trying to set us up to catch us,” Alvaro told his brother, so they jumped off and considered a place to hide.
But they looked around, didn’t see any immigration officers, and after a few minutes the train abruptly started moving again.
The two brothers began to argue about whether they should stay for the night or leave right away.
“We better leave right now,” Juan said. “What if we get caught again? I don’t want to risk it.”
Finally Alvaro relented, but the train had picked up speed. “We ran as fast as we could to jump and grab a side ladder, but it is hard to run on the rocks. I was always looking to see where I could grab a side stair,” Juan recalls.
Alvaro leaped first and was able to get on. “I jumped for the metal stairs but the speed of the train pulled me,” Juan recounts. He couldn’t get his feet to land where they should.
“I was hanging and my feet were flying in the air. I couldn’t stand the movement and I let go. My body came down and the train sucked me in. The train sucked my leg into the wheels and smashed them totally.”
Horrified, Alvaro had watched his brother hanging in the air. He could feel something bad was going to happen. He saw him let go and had “a terrible feeling.”
After he witnessed Juan fall beneath the train, Alvaro jumped off himself, rolled, hit his head, but didn’t break any bones.
When he saw his brother’s legs had been severed by the massive wheels, he didn’t know what to do. “I was bleeding badly. I had no legs. They were gone,” Juan says.
Alvaro grabbed his brother and attempted to pull him away from the tracks. The accident happened behind a Price Club warehouse (now Costco), next to a nursery.
Ken, one of the owners of Seaside Growers Nursery, heard the screams and came running. He immediately saw the young immigrant bleeding to death. The Vietnam vet acted quickly, grabbed some wire and sticks and made a tourniquet to stop the bleeding. He stayed until paramedics and police came.
“I couldn’t speak English. I couldn’t understand anything,” Juan says. Finally, Officer Ortega arrived, who spoke to Juan in Spanish. “He told me to calm down. I was screaming. I was in shock. I couldn’t stop screaming.”
With the massive loss of blood, Juan started to feel strange. “Alvaro,” he called out weakly, “tell mother I was sorry for being a mean person and ask her to forgive me for everything. Tell my brothers and sisters I’m sorry I was mean with them. Tell them I love them. I’m sorry because I’m going to go.”
Alvaro grabbed his brother and shook him. “No you can’t die,” he sobbed. “Don’t leave me. Please don’t die!”
Juan arrived at Mission Hospital and abruptly passed out. The doctor explained to Alvraro that Juan lost so much blood he would probably die during surgery. “He may have a stroke or heart attack. We will do what we can.”
Remarkably, Juan survived the operation and awakened at 5:30 pm, but he didn’t open his eyes at first. “I thought I had a terrible nightmare. I thought I was still sleeping under the freeway.
Then his eyes flickered open and he saw he had no legs, and he started screaming once again.
He turned to his brother, sitting nearby. “Alvaro, tell me this is not real, this is not happening,” he said.
“It’s not a dream Juan, this is what happened.”
“Please help me to die. I don’t want to live.”
“I won’t help you die. There is a reason you’re alive.”
Shaking his head, Juan pulled his IV out. In response, the nurses sedated him.
The hospital sent in a psychologist but he didn’t want to talk to her.
A priest visits
Then a catholic priest visited his room. “My little brother, I am bringing you the body of Christ. Would you like to receive it?
Juan shook his head. “I don’t want Christ. I don’t want anything,” he said.
The priest returned a few days later. “Would you like to talk to me?” he asked.
“I told you last time I want you to leave me alone,” Juan said, somewhat irritated.
“I hated God and I hated church,” Juan recalls. “I didn’t like people who came and talked about church or God. I don’t want him to talk to me about God.”
A few days later, Juan overhead the priest talking with his brother outside his room.
Don’t even think about coming into my room, Juan thought. This time I will tell him some bad words. He began to think of ways he could insult the priest.
Deciding he would rather sleep than fight, Juan pressed the button to receive a morphine shot and began to drift off.
The priest came into the room and sat down on a couch at the end of the bed. Juan opened his eyes slightly and noticed the man was reading a book.
“As I was falling asleep I could feel his hand touching my hand,” Juan recounts.
No, no, no, you’ve gone too far. Now you deserve what I am going to tell you, Juan thought.
Then the priest did something astonishing. He lifted Juan’s hand and kissed it.
Juan was mortified. What have you done? No way.
Then Juan opened his eyes and saw the priest was on his knees, crying.
Juan was shocked by the sight. “I didn’t know what to do. His eyes were red with tears coming down.”
“Who are you?” Juan asked.
“My name is Juanote.” Juanote (Big John) is the nickname given to Msgr. John V. Coffield, who devoted more than 60 years to social work on behalf of the poor, even at the cost of angering church officials in the 1960s.
“OK but why did you do this to me? I told you to go away. I said I don’t want to talk to you but you keep coming.”
“Because you are my little brother and you are a son of God and I would like to share this suffering with you if you let me be your friend. God loves you so much that he sent me here to share this suffering,” Father Juanote said.
These words shocked Juan. “I don’t want to be your friend.”
“I’m not coming to talk about God with you. I just want to be your friend.”
“If you don’t talk about God, then I will be your friend,” Juan said.
The two men embraced and Juan started crying.
Father Juanote, 75-years-old at the time, came to visit the younger man every day. When it was time to be released, Juan planned to rent a room in Los Angeles.
But Father Juanote sent a nun to pick him up at the hospital. Juan stayed in the priest’s home for several days, until Father Juanote arranged for another family to take him in.
“A family in the church adopted me to stay in their home and they took care of me for a few years.” Father Juanote visited every day and the two men had lunch together.
When Juan first arrived at the home of Manuel and Costanza Isas in Capistrano Beach Father Juanote said, “This is your new family.” They had a feast to welcome their new arrival.
“We made food to celebrate that Juan is coming to live with us,” they said. Later, Alvaro also came to live with them.
A few days after they arrived, the family invited Juan to attend a church retreat. “No way. I don’t believe in God,” he told them. “I don’t like church. I’m not interested.”
“It’s like a party, like a fiesta,” daughter Gabriela Costanza told him. “If you don’t like it you leave.”
Juan agreed to go, but he was determined to show them there is no God, that God is a fantasy man invented. I will go to this retreat and tell them God is a fake, he decided.
On the retreat, Juan was astonished when he had a personal encounter with the living God.
“I heard his voice talking to me by my name. He told me, ‘Juan, it is me talking to you, Jesus.’”
It is not possible, Juan decided. It is only my thoughts.
“It is not your thoughts. I love you so much. My love is all you need to be happy. I have a mission for you.
No, I’m just imaging this.
Juan’s resistance began to break down.
“Jesus showed me he is a real person,” Juan recounts. A spirit of repentance softened his heart.
“I’ve been a mean person,” he told Jesus. “I even hated my father.” Jesus led him to forgive his father for abandoning the family, and for abusing his mother.
“I want to give you my life. I want to follow you,” Juan declared, and he was born again. “I want you to be the Lord of my life and I want to live in you.”
It’s been 26 years since Juan gave his life to Jesus. Ten years later he met his wife, Elizabeth. They have been
married 15 years and have four children.
They live in a small trailer near Costco. Elizabeth cleans houses and Juan goes through local neighborhoods in his wheelchair, collecting recyclables. He also sells snacks part-time at the soccer fields.
“Jesus came into my life and I found real meaning,” he says. “This is what gives me the strength. Now I live because I found his love.
“I told God I will live and love you until I die. Where would I go away from God?
“Where could I find the love and peace? I still have troubles, but with Jesus at my side they are not too bad.
“If I have his peace, everything is possible. I don’t give up. I fight with him at my side.”
Juan is also a musician and plays a guitar Father Juanote gave him as a gift before the priest passed away in 2005. He has recorded four CDs.
“Some day you will play this guitar and sing in front of many people,” Father Juanote told him.
Juan didn’t tell his mother about the accident until two years later. One day he felt compelled to tell her the truth. “Don’t worry about me,” he told her, “because I have Jesus in my heart. I am not sad anymore.
“I lost my legs but now I have something better, Jesus.”
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