Our Relay Race

I’ve taken a small step back from everything and everyone the last few weeks. I needed some time to readjust to my new circumstances and to create new approaches for the direction my life is going in right now. While I was between New York City and Washington D.C., I received news that my Papa passed away.

This is extremely difficult for me as he was the only consistent and positive male figure in my life.

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Emilio Ybarra Martinez

A eulogy I wrote for my mother and I

My favorite stories told by my Dad were the ones that made him seem authentic and vulnerable. A majority of his stories were meant to engaged others for their entertainment. How he told my siblings and I that he invented the upside down pineapple cake, and claimed Shirley Temple died choking on potato chips; how he told his grandchildren that he was a retired red power ranger and had a damaged arm from a Jedi battle; how he told everyone countless Vietnam stories about how he jumped out of planes without a parachute and swam across oceans – accomplishing the impossible.

These are not the stories that help me remember who he was. I want to talk about the man behind the mask who was an important player within a relay race we are all part of. The man who was in fact genuine and more vulnerable than any of us could ever imagine.

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I recently read a book that contained a small passage reminding me of my dad. It was about a familial relay race shared between generations. Our families don’t always cross the finish line in the span of one generation, but each generation passes on to the next the fruits of their labor.

In the end, the American dream is not a sprint, or even a marathon, but a relay. Our families don’t always cross the finish line in the span of one generation. But each generation passes on to the next the fruits of their labor. My grandmother never owned a house. She cleaned other people’s houses so she could afford to rent her own. But she saw her daughter become the first in her family to graduate from college. And my mother fought hard for civil rights so that instead of a mop, I could hold this microphone.
— Julian Castro

I couldn’t help but be reminded of my dad’s love for horse races after I read this, and the relay race each generation of our family is part of. This passage is about grit and unconditional love – that’s who my dad was at the end of the day. That’s who he was behind his superhero mask. He was a man who pursued grit and unconditional love in order to be the best son, best brother, best husband, best father, and best grandfather he could be to his family – a best friend to all who came across him. He made it his duty to always be the best because whatever we could do, he could do better.

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He plays an integral part in this generational race within our family. He gave us more and taught us more that will always be beyond us. It’s important to recognize and highlight his hard work because it was all for us. It was always for us.

The first leg of the race: His father, Emilio R. Martinez, taught him what it meant to manifest these exceptional characteristics. A man who immigrated to America after the Mexican Revolution, honored by President Echevarria of Mexico in 1972, and fought for equal wages and better working conditions for Mexican workers in Orange County. He had an undying love for his culture and people.

Then there is second leg of the race: His son, my father, Emilio Ybarra Martinez, learned from him. However, his radical love was for his family because that is who his people were and were always meant to be. He had two jobs growing up with his siblings: working on a bakery truck and picking oranges in Orange County. He worked picking oranges in the fields to provide more money for his family. He worked on the bakery truck so he could bring home bread to go with the soup his mom made so that his family would have a bigger dinner. My dad made it his responsibility to help his family in any way that he could.

He was drafted into the Vietnam war as a medic to serve his country while he longed for his family in California. He fought hard because it was duty to serve this country and strive for valor even in the weakest of moments and smallest of rations. He fought harder when he worked two jobs and went back to school to get those promotions that required an AA. I remember going to his night job with him cleaning office buildings because I didn’t want him to be alone. I remember laying into his chest when he hung over his business textbooks trying to get his degree in order to get that job all so he could provide more for us. Somehow, someway, through all of his hardships he still made time to party with his friends until dawn, go golfing, play his guitar and watch football in his outdated rocking chair. Never did he pass an opportunity to make a better life or pass an opportunity to live a better life. 

He never let someone tell him he couldn’t do something or couldn’t be something. He earned that job even if it meant that he had to work harder than the standard American man because that’s who he was. There was a time where we were almost taken from him and he couldn’t afford an attorney. Instead, he took matters into his own hands and studied in law libraries around Orange County to absorb as much knowledge possible to represent himself. He won that case, on his own, and gained full custody of his children. Never did he back down from a fight even if odds were against him. That’s when he fell in love with an incredible women who was his soul mate, Jeanne, that he felt confident in to teach his children what his parents taught him. A woman that equally fights a good fight because they shared the same sense of duty.

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It’s no coincidence that on his last day he went to the race track. It was the end of his race, my dad ran a damn good leg of the race, and it is now our turn to carry on his legacy as he carried on his parents’.  

Now we are in the third leg of the relay race: His children, my siblings, who have acquired fruits of his labor. Who were taught to resonate with his hard work, perseverance, and doing the right thing. He showed us what hard work meant. He once admitted to me that he did not know how to raise us: we slept on new couches every few months, dealt with crazy landlords, and could not release ourselves from this emotional rollercoaster. This upset us because we didn’t understand why this was the life we lived.

He pulled me aside one day: Mijo/a, you have to be tough because it’s a tough world.

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This is where we learned his grit. He was the best demonstration we could have had because he told us that we must take strides to survive, so we did. We did together as one family. It made us all hard, and these are all things he has given to us that we are lucky to have.

All so our children, his grandchildren who are the fourth leg of the race, could see stories and experiences that are similar to my dad’s life. He gave them his unconditional love so that they would be inspired to help others in this world. It’s no coincidence that our children are eager to make a difference. Their Papa taught them that they have the capacity to do whatever they put their mind to. Just like he did.

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He didn’t need to put on a superhero’s mask, because he was already a hero behind that. He was a hero not due to the stories that he told but the stories that he created that will live on for several generations to come. By his own experiences that he lived through as a charismatic individual who had unconditional love for the people in his life. All I can do now, all we can do now, is to give our thanks to him.

Thank you, Dad, for being that hard ass Latino who threw us around just to pick us back up and tell us that we need to be better. We will run a good leg of the race for you because you taught us how to run with purpose.