American Dreams

It was Saturday night, and Claudio Dominguez's wife wanted to go out to eat. She wanted to go to a restaurant or a taqueria to get some menudo.

Claudio was unsure. He and Esmeralda have no car and would have to walk to the restaurant along the streets where Beechnut meets South Gessner and cars and trucks hurtle along. With four children -- his oldest was five -- this would be difficult.

Then they thought of going over to Esmeralda's mother's apartment in the same complex. Maybe she would take care of the two youngest, Claudio Jr., six months old, and Antonio, two years, while Claudio and Esmeralda went to eat with Ana Rosa, four, and Raul, five. That would be more manageable. They could relax and enjoy themselves.

Raul, Antonio and Ana Rosa
Raul, Antonio and Ana Rosa
Claudio Jr.
Claudio Jr.

But as bad luck would have it, Estella Marcos was not home. They banged on her door and windows and called to her, but there was no answer. Defeated, Claudio called for them to return to their apartment where they would make dinner.

Just as the family reached the gate leading into their section of the complex, Claudio heard something.

"I hear a noise from a car like somebody crazy was coming. When I went to look the car had already gone out of control. I looked too late. The car was already taking them," he says.

They were not on the street. They were on the grass between the sidewalk and the gate. But the car had left the roadway and would overtake them.

"I put up one hand and my leg to try and stop the car. To try and save my family." There was no stopping the car. It hit all of his family. They had no place to run to and no time to even attempt that.

Claudio can't remember falling. He can't remember anything that followed till he woke up in the hospital with a broken leg, an aching head, a bandaged arm and a face scraped open by his fall to the gravel. "I never saw who was driving."

The people surrounding his bed at the hospital told the 25-year-old Claudio that all of his injured children had been brought to Ben Taub with him and that his wife was at Memorial Hermann Hospital. Someone told him that one of his sons was dead. His beautiful 22-year-old wife would have her foot and part of her leg amputated. The pain was huge. He was inconsolable. He had failed to protect his family.

Mary Garcia is the office manager at Beechnut Palms apartments, one of the many complexes lining the street in the mostly Hispanic neighborhood in this part of southwest Houston, where the phrase "No inglés" is not uncommon.

On the night of the accident, Mary's daughter Sandy Garcia was visiting when one of the residents knocked on their door and said, "Mary, someone's crashed your gate."

They ran out to the terrible scene of blood and bodies. Several of the children were caught under the car. People gathered, called 911 and began trying to get the torn and broken babies out before the emergency vehicles arrived.

Mary later went to Ben Taub to see Claudio. "It was very sad. He kept saying, 'I just can't believe this actually happened to us. I was not in a car driving. I was not drinking. We were just trying to take my family out to eat.' "

Mary and Sandy are collecting money for the Dominguez family. The first of the money went to send Raul's body back to Guerrero, Mexico, where Claudio's parents buried the boy. The rest will be used to pay bills. Mary has moved the family to a first-floor apartment to make things easier on them. She talks of people coming up to her who live in the apartments, handing her their dollar bills. She set up a bank account at Banco Popular. She will do whatever it takes to help.

To look at the Dominguez family is to see people living on the margin. Improvements in their lives are measured in incremental bits and pieces.

Five months ago the family of six was able to move from a one-bedroom apartment in a complex across the street to a two-bedroom in the Beechnut Palms.

Claudio found enough temporary work to enable Esmeralda to quit her second job and spend more time with their children. She hung on to her first job -- she works at the McDonald's inside Auchan's grocery.

In the last few months Claudio had moved from yard work to a job in a hotel to a stint laying carpet in apartments. He talks of the yard work he did for about six months as being too hard and of a man who was giving him trouble at his hotel job. He left school at 16 in Mexico, speaks almost no English, and now, with some months of mending and physical rehabilitation ahead of him, has prospects more limited than ever. This is not someone who can be wheeled in front of a computer terminal to do data processing. He has set a life's course that makes him dependent upon his own physical strength, and that has been stripped from him, at least for now. Ask him what he plans to do, and he says he wants a better job someday, a job that pays enough for him to support his family, without being able to say what that is. All he can think about is his family, he says. He will stay in Houston, and they will rebuild. Despite this tragedy, it is a better life than Mexico offers. And this is where his children were born.

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