By Estela Reyes-López
When I learned that our community had lost Juan Sandoval I felt lament for his family and those he loved. Truth be told, I lamented for myself as well. It seemed like Juan and I were forever hoping and planning a get together that never quite seemed to get past notes on our calendars. Now I will only imagine myself with Juan, chatting away over tea or a delicious menudo and listening to his razor-sharp and sometimes Brit-like dry wit.
Anyone who ever knew Juan recognized him as one of those special beings put here to teach the rest of us how to treasure the beauty we’re blessed to have around us. For Juan, that meant turning his passion for art into one of the most revered and exquisite private art collections ever known in Texas. You wanted to get an up-close look at great creations of Chicano and Latino artists? You didn’t go to the local museums. You went to Juan’s place in Sunset Heights – if you were lucky enough to be invited.
I met Juan many moons ago when I was a UTEP freshman. I spent a lot of time at the UTEP library where Juan worked. All those thousands of books were magic to me. Juan seemed like a mystical wizard who knew all, would help you track down just the right book, and — most of all — seemed to relish in showing a mocosa, wet-behind-the-ears, wanna-be writer how mesmerizing libraries could be. It also didn’t hurt that he showed me where in the library a sleep-deprived student could occasionally sneak off to for a much-needed, undisturbed nap.
I’m going to remember Juan most for his sense of dignity. He was deeply proud of who he was, where he had come from, and the strong man that his struggles as a gay, Chicano had shaped him into. He was articulate, cultured, and stylish. His ways reflected a man of formal education and professional experience — one who carried himself with great respect and humility. De nadie se dejaba.
That brings me to my favorite Juan story. He shared with me that years ago he’d often end his work day by walking home to his Sunset Heights apartment. He’d stop, turn around to gaze at La Frontera, enjoy the sun sinking just beyond Juarez’ mountains, and keep on walking. Then came the day a uniformed Border Patrol officer ruined Juan’s beautiful walk with insulting questions, demands for ID, and insinuations that Sunset Heights was not where Juan belonged.
Juan recollected with laughter that the entire time the officer’s eyes were glaring at him, accusing him of not being a real Sunset Heights resident, the guy never once noticed the uber-expensive Mont-Blanc pen sticking up out of Juan’s shirt pocket. How could he? This was a guy who couldn’t possibly be expected to recognize and appreciate the glory of a finely crafted Mont Blanc … or of a tired, hard-working, highly educated Chicano just trying to get home after a long, hard day at the University Library.
I don’t know exactly how that conversation ended. But I have a pretty good idea. I can see Juan standing his ground, reminding that officer just who paid his salary, giving him a much-needed history lesson on El Paso race relations, raving at him with a lifetime’s worth of civil rights and legal terminology, and enjoying the rest of his beautiful walk home.
Estela Reyes–López is an El Paso, Texas-based media and communications professional. She is a cooking instructor, gardener, writer and editor, and a Chicana voter.
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