By Tom Nussbaum
(This article is intended to be the first monthly column spotlighting the working-class heroes among us, our Mexican neighbors who work hard, made our—we emigrés, ex-pats, snowbirds, and undefined adventurers—lives more enjoyable.)
His name Flores means flowers and appropriately he works at a restaurant with a floral name, The Blue Rose. He waits tables there. But he also bartends, an oddity since he does not drink. He is a complex man, a contradiction. This becomes obvious once one learns the story of his life.
Few of Juan Flores’ regular customers and fans, however, know the details of his history or about his courage and determination.
Flores, who was born in the Chapala area, is the youngest of his father’s 17 children. Although a naturally intelligent and curious person, Flores stopped attending school at 16. But he didn’t stop learning and the next level of his education took place in the United States. How he got there is a tale of a whim—some may say a foolhardy one—then persistence.
After leaving school, Flores flew to Tijuana where he tried to cross the border on his own to visit relatives north of Spokane, Washington. This was intended to be a short-term visit, an impulsive naïve teenager’s lark. But this attempted border crossing failed. “Then I met a kid who had an uncle who knew a coyote and we found him. So, for ten days or so I took care of a 15-year-old while we waited for an opportunity to cross,” Flores recalls. “I even had to save him from some older guys who were punking him, bullies.”
During that time, several attempts at crossing were made, but Flores, his youthful naiveté driving him, was not greatly concerned with the risk, danger, and legal issues in this endeavor. “I thought of it as an adventure. Besides, I was more worried about getting food and surviving a few cold desert nights.” While he did spend nights in the desert, he spent several in the “comfort” of basements to which he had been led by men who promised help in the crossing. But once in the basements, Flores and several other wannabe border-crossers, were locked in and they became aware armed guards were protecting the houses from police and military. The uncertainty of this situation, the true intentions of these men, and the risky situations were obviously scary, according to Flores.
The fifth attempt to cross was successful. “The 15-year-old and I crossed together with a group in a truck. When we finally saw the lights of Los Angeles, I knew we had made it.” Flores contacted an uncle who picked him up.
After spending a few days in L.A., Flores’ uncle drove him to Las Vegas, giving this small-town Mexican youth a first-hand impression of the US based on two atypical major cities. Once in Las Vegas, he connected with his brother who had driven from the Spokane area. Together they drove north and when they reached the brother’s Northeast Washington home, Flores began to help out in the family’s Mexican restaurant. This is where he began learning the restaurant trade. It was also where Flores learned the differences between the economic systems of the US and Mexico. His eyes were opened. His intended “visit” became longer than originally conceived.
Flores also began to learn English soon after arriving. This was done by listening to Americans in the restaurant, watching TV and movies, and taking classes at a nearby community college. Pay from his restaurant work was sent to his parents back home. Two years later, with English conquered, Flores moved to Spokane, worked in other restaurants, and had his first serious girlfriend. A few years later, his parents came north for a visit and a joyous reunion was held.
But before he knew it, Flores’ planned short visit, that teenage lark, had become nine years; four years had passed since his parents’ visit and Flores felt it was time to visit them. “After nine years, I thought I’ll go home for a vacation,” Flores explains. “But once I got there, I stayed because I realized my parents needed me. They were getting older.” He still lives with them on the family property near Chapala. He also has three dogs.
Since his return to the Chapala-Ajijic area, Flores has bartended and waited tables at several eateries and has developed a loyal following. He also performs those duties at many private parties and events. Flores does not have much free time, but when he does, he runs and romps with his dogs, rides his bike, and goes to the gym.
Reminiscing about his adventuresome past, a more mature Flores says, “As an older, wiser man, I look back on what I did at 16, and I think I could not do that again.”
When one learns a bit about him, Juan Flores is not just a charming bartender and waiter and an attentive, detailed professional, he, as his name implies, is a flower, continually growing and reaching toward the sun. He is an intriguing person with a story and a past, as are all of our native neighbors.
Some of us occasionally forget this and take these hard-workers for granted, making assumptions about them and minimize how their contributions improve our lives. They make our existence here better, happier, and more pleasant. They, like Juan Flores, are interesting individuals, complex humans, who have overcome difficulties and survived. They deserve respect, appreciation and our thanks. We should never forget that.
For more information about Lake Chapala visit: www.chapala.com