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A dad, a grandfather, a farmworker: A family remembers Tomás Reyes Soto

Photo courtesy of Madi Bolanos
Tomás Reyes Soto and his granddaughter, Madi Bolanos, embrace for a photo in Fresno, CA.

My grandpa’s name was Tomás Reyes Soto, but we all called him Papi Tomás. He died on December 13, 2020, a week before his 69th birthday. In the year since his death, I’ve had a lot of time to think about his legacy and what his decisions meant for me and my future. I feel this extreme sense of gratitude for him. My Papi Tomás taught me the value of hard work, to have pride in my work, and that nothing was out of my reach.

Papi Tomás was born in Pueblo Nuevo, in the Mexican state of Durango, in 1951. When he was 12 years old, he started making the trip to the neighboring state Sinaloa to work picking tomatoes. On one of his trips at age 16, he met my grandma, Elisa Aguilar Zepeda or Mami Licha. She says he was very direct.

“He went up to me and said ‘you’re going to be my wife, chaparrita,’” she says in Spanish. “I told him, ‘you're crazy.’ That Saturday, he sent a mariachi that played music from northern Mexico.”

They married and had five kids together. Soon after, they moved to Mexicali, on the border of California and Mexico. He made and sold tacos. My mom, Monica, says some of her favorite memories are helping him cut the cabbage and tomatoes.
I just remember he used to make the best tacos, the best flour tortillas, tacos with the best salsas,” she says. “He made really good spicy salsa. That was his thing.” 

Photo courtesy of Madi Bolanos
Tomás Reyes Soto and his wife, Elisa A De Reyes, in Mexicali, Baja California in 1980.

But my grandma says Papi Tomás always had bigger dreams to move to the United States. He never attended school as a child. Mami Licha says he didn’t want that for his kids. So in 1985, Tomás took his wife and kids through the desert to cross the border.

“He had the idea that his children had to grow up in the United States and that they were going to be the best there,” she says. “He was always proud of their accomplishments. When our two oldest children graduated from university, he cried so hard.”

Mami Licha says sometimes she felt like her kids loved their dad more than her because she had to be the strict one. But my mom remembers her dad being even more strict than her mom.

“Especially when he came home from a long day of work,” she says. “We’d see the truck and we would run home, make sure that house was clean and everything was nice and tidy because Papi Tomás was coming.”

He was coming home from the fields, where he picked garlic, olives, and oranges for 40 years. He enjoyed it. It was honest work, but he wanted his kids to strive for more.

“He would tell all of us, ‘you better pay attention in school or this will be your future,” my mom says. “And I took it literally. I wanted to get straight A's because I did not like working in the fields.”

Papi Tomás’ kids remember him as a tough-love kind of dad. But that changed when he became a grandfather.

I was born when my mom was 20 years old. She was a single mother. Many people told her she was making the wrong decision by keeping me, including my grandpa. My mom says their relationship was contentious for the first year of my life. But she was determined to prove him wrong and everyone else who doubted her. She was going to be a successful single mom because her dad taught her to be hardworking and determined. She got a job as a teller at a bank. Now she works as a lending consultant.

Photo courtesy of Madi Bolanos
Tomás Reyes Soto (center) and his grandchildren in Madera, California.

And she owns a new home in the same fields her dad took her to pick olives as a teenager.

He would always say, “a chambear porque nacimos bonitos pero pobres!” Work hard because we were born good looking but poor! She took that literally, too.

I was his fifth grandchild. All in all, there were 15 of us. My grandma says he would often count them.

“He’d start counting them,” she says, “every few years he’d say ‘how many are there now?’ And he’d name them, but not by their actual names, by the nicknames he’d give them.”

One of them was rábanito, Spanish for radish, because he blushed easily. Another one was nadador, a swimmer in English, because he was trying to swim in the tub at only 6 months old. I was his Monicita Jr. or his Madi Yupi.

As a kid, it was a great morning if he’d call and say in Spanish, “Madi Yupi, do you want me to pick you up from school today?” I’d run out of my classroom and see him waiting for me in his pickup truck wearing his jeans, a button-up shirt, a hat and his signature mustache. He’d dye his mustache every few months when it started to turn gray.

During that time he worked as a supervisor in the fields. After picking me up, he’d usually have to go back to work or run a few work-related errands. I remember on one of those days, we stopped at the gas station near his house and from inside his truck, he called out to a woman on the street. He told her, “be careful, immigration agents are driving around the neighborhood.” He was always looking out for his undocumented community.

And for us grandkids. I knew I could always count on my Papi Tomás. He taught me what unconditional love is. He was a second father to all of his grandchildren. He was even a father figure to his nephew and niece Grecia and Angel Mundaca, who didn’t have a present father.

Photo courtesy of Madi Bolanos
Tomás Reyes Soto and his granddaughter Madi Bolanos in 2020.

In the last few years before his death, he spent the most time with his younger grandchildren Mario Olguin,11, and Melanie Olguin, 17.

“I mean, if my mom or dad wasn't there when I needed them, who would be there? My grandpa,” Mario Olguin says. “He would always be there when I needed him.”

“He would always pick me up from school and he just wanted to hang out more with me and like, get to know me better,” Melanie Olguin says. “He'd be like, ‘oh, let's go to eat.’ ‘Oh, look at your belly, so tiny, so small. You look so skinny. Let's go out to eat.’ All the time.”

His grandchildren were the joy of the second half of his life. But that time was far from easy. He had high cholesterol, but he didn’t take it seriously until he had a heart attack at age 57. He underwent major heart surgeries shortly after. Then at age 68, he was diagnosed with prostate cancer. In the years before his death, he’d talk about it like it was just around the corner. He’d tell us when he died, to make sure we took care of our grandma, our Mami Licha.

At the start of the pandemic, Papi Tomas took COVID-19 very seriously. He only went to work in the fields and home. Then in late November 2020, Mami Licha contracted the virus while working as a housekeeper at the hospital. Papi Tomas took care of her. Then he contracted the virus and so did my mom.

“My body was in a lot of pain and all I can think of is that I hope my dad is not in the same pain that I am going through,” my mom says. “And the next day when we learned that he had passed away, it was painful.”

He had been sick for a few days. My grandma tried convincing him to go to the hospital, but he told her he didn’t want to die alone. She tried to convince him that since she worked at the hospital, she would check in on him as often as she could. He still refused.

My Mami Licha found him at home, lifeless, after a night shift at the hospital. That morning, I remember waking up to a scream from across the house. My cousins had gotten the news. My mom, who had been bedridden for days, suddenly had the energy to get dressed. We all raced to the car, tears streaming down our faces as we made the 25-minute drive to my grandparents house.

All his children and most of his grandchildren arrived at their house shortly after hearing the news.

Photo courtesy of Madi Bolanos
Tomás Reyes Soto and his granddaughter Melanie Olguin in 2020.

“We were parked right there outside the driveway,” Melanie remembers. “My grandma was walking very slow. I remember my mom screaming really loud ‘oh, no, no, no, you're lying!’ in Spanish, she was like, ‘you're lying! he's fine!’”

Tomas Reyes Soto passed away on December 13, 2020. He died in his sleep, laying on his side with his hands clasped together in front of him. For me and for my mom, the grief is still very real.

“It's still painful,” she says. “Doesn’t feel like it's real, and it's been a year and a month. You never want to go through that pain that your parents are gone, especially someone that you care for so much.”

A year before my grandpa died, I graduated college and got an internship in D.C. The day before I left, I went to visit him. I told him how grateful I was for his sacrifices, for the values he instilled in my mom, that she passed onto me. The values that allowed me to fly across the country to pursue my dream of becoming a reporter. We hugged and shared a few tears together.

Later that day, my mom says he called her to tell her she did a good job raising me. I felt and still feel indebted to him and my mom for the sacrifices they made for me. I’m just happy I was able to tell him that before he passed away.