Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Real gringo hero

Thirty-three years ago Carlos Arredondo came to terms with the hopelessness of finding meaningful employment in his native Costa Rica and joined the wave of undocumented migrants making their way to the USA in search of a better life.  Today he is one of the heroes of Boston. 

Two weeks ago, Carlos attended the Boston Marathon. He was there to cheer on the “Tough Rucks”, a group from the National Guard that "runs" the race in combat uniform and combat boots. Their loaded rucksacks feature a yellow ribbon with the name of a comrade killed in Iraq or Afghanistan or lost to suicide and PTSD-related accidents.   One ribbon read “Alexander Arredondo,” Carlos' son.  

The “Tough Rucks” got an early start, leaving Hopkinton at 5:20 a.m.  They expected to arrive in Copley Square at 2:00 p.m. 

Carlos was near the finish line when the bombs exploded at 2:45. Instead of running away, Carlos ran into the fracas to help.  He put a tourniquet around Jeff Bauman's bleeding leg, found a wheelchair and lifted him into it. When the tourniquet didn't hold Carlos grabbed Jeff's femoral artery and pinched it shut. Aided by another volunteer he found an ambulance.  

Photos of Carlos wearing a Costa Rican cowboy hat, a “Tough Ruck” sweatshirt, and two photo-buttons have gone round the world.  Interviewed over a hundred times, articles about Carlos now number in the thousands.

I first met Carlos and his wife Mélida in August 2011 at the Veterans for Peace convention in Miami.  They’d set up a life-sized photo of son Alexander.  In front of the photo were his empty boots.  Alexander died in 2004 while serving in the U.S. Marines.  Two years later his brother Brian, driven to depression and drugs by Alexander's death, committed suicide. Carlos and Mélida have since dedicated their efforts to honor their sons’ deaths.  

As members of Veterans for Peace (VFP) they lobby to bring troops home. They also lobby that once home the soldiers receive medical, legal, and financial care and assistance as they reinsert themselves into civilian life.

Carlos and Mélida are also members of Boston's Samaritans Suicide Prevention Hotline, meeting with families to reduce the incidence of suicide. They have also provided guidance to the Marines on a more respectful protocol for notifying parents when a son or daughter has died in combat. 

George Bush signed the directive giving legal residency status to undocumented parents of military personnel killed in battle.  Carlos was the first to receive it.  Later Ted Kennedy gave him his U.S. citizenship certificate.

Carlos and Mélida attended the workshop I offered at the VFP convention and were especially interested in the soon to start Caravan for Peace led across the United States by Mexican Javier Sicilia.

When I said goodbye to them in Miami, Carlos unpinned two buttons from his shirt -- one with Alexander's photo, the other of Brian -- and gave them to me.  I overheard Mélida whisper, "those were the last buttons."  I said nothing, thinking it awkward to return them but clearly understanding the special-ness of the gift.

I marched in the Veterans for Peace contingent in Boston's Veterans Day parade last year wearing the buttons.  I was delighted to see Carlos and Mélida each wearing similar buttons.  They'd made more!

Last weekend I asked Carlos "what is it that you wish those hundred interviewers had asked you, but didn't?"  He replied, "They didn't ask about Costa Rica, why I came, and how I got here."

He spoke about Costa Rica's fame as a Latin American democracy where social disputes exist but are resolved peacefully. He is proud the country did away with its armed forces. Carlos expressed his hope for a Central America with open borders. 

Though he loves Costa Rica, Carlos left home in November 1979. He hitchhiked through Central America and slipped across the Mexican border near Tapachula.  He crossed the U.S. border near Douglas, Arizona on Valentines Day 1980.  He located in Los Angeles and then moved to Boston where he married and fathered two children, Alexander and Brian.  

He told me of a job he held in Costa Rica as a clown in the bullrings at cattle fairs.  Costa Rica's version of a bullfight is similar to Mexico's "jaripeos" -- the bull is not killed.  They have added a variation of Pamplona's running of the bulls with hundreds of spectators jumping into the ring and taunting the bull.  Carlos, dressed as an American football player with all the padding and protection that goes with a football uniform -- except for a helmet -- had the job of distracting the bull to get him away from injured bullrunners.  Prophetically he was known as "El Gringo". 

When the bombs exploded near the Boston Marathon finish line Carlos again jumped in to save the injured, but this time he was a real gringo. 

I read Carlos had visited Jeff Bauman in a Boston Hospital and given him a cowboy hat.  I feared he’d given away his signature hat, as he had given me his buttons.  “Oh no, my Costa Rican hat was too dirty and sweaty to give him.  I gave Jeff a U.S. cowboy hat!”

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