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.
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.
He wants better schools, a better life for his children. "So they don't have to suffer as I have."
A stay in any hospital is rarely comfortable. In Ben Taub things are starker and tougher. This is a poor people's hospital, and it teems with bodies. Lower-level hallways are crowded. Claudio's room isn't semi-private but semi-semi-semi-private, which is to say, not private at all. There aren't enough interpreters to go around, and wheelchairs are hard to locate.
In Ben Taub, Claudio is an isolated, lost soul. He doesn't understand what's going on -- it is ten days after the accident before he is able to speak with his wife (he hasn't known her telephone number) -- and he worries. He doesn't know if his children are being cared for properly. He doesn't know if they are eating. (As it turns out, two-year-old Antonio, who is in a body cast and has a broken leg, hasn't been. Hospital personnel bring his sister into the boy's room to try to spark some interest in food). Claudio doesn't know when he is getting out of the hospital. He has lost control.
Grandmother Estella, despite 11 years in this country, doesn't speak much English. She is accompanied by a family friend as she goes to the nurses' station to ask for a wheelchair for Claudio so he can visit his surviving children, who are also on the fifth floor. "We don't have any available right now," the nurse says. "You'll have to try later." Estella smiles docilely and, confused by the signage, asks for help getting back to the wing her grandchildren are in. She has spent her days rolling them up and down the hallways in a children's wagon, helping take care of them when they cry, encouraging them to eat, to get better. She sees her daughter when she can and her son-in-law after that. She is a tiny rock, pulling the family together as best she can.
By day 11, Claudio's wife has had a second operation on her leg and Antonio is scheduled for more surgery as well. The other two children have gone home, where their grandmother and other relatives are caring for them. Claudio wants to go home. He wants his family, to be with them, to talk with them. A two-bedroom apartment is better than this.
When asked about his dead son, Claudio speaks in words ringing with pride and loss. Raul had just started school in a pre-kindergarten class. He was beginning to like to study. At first, he was scared and cried, Claudio says, explaining, "He was not used to being around the other children." But he told his father, "My teacher would get me by the hand and give me something to eat so I would calm down."
Raul was just learning to write his letters. Claudio traces a capital A over and over in the air as he explains how he worked with him, showing him how to form the letter correctly.
"I showed him how to hold the pencil. I showed him how to write it." Then Raul would write it out by himself. It is a memory Claudio returns to again and again in conversation. His son was getting an education, and he was helping him. After they finished, they would go over what the letter was. By 8 p.m. Raul would get himself ready for bed so he could get up early for the next day of school. This was important business. He would learn from his father, and then he was the one who would teach his brothers and sister to do things.
Raul accepted this leadership role very naturally, Claudio says. If Raul heard his baby brother cry in another room, he would go pick him up, trying to console him.
Still, Raul was not much more than a baby himself, Claudio says. He loved the Power Rangers and liked to dress up as a cowboy with boots and a hat. He was happy and liked talking on the phone to his grandfather in Mexico.
His wife is upset about the loss of her leg and her son, Claudio says. "Because he was the oldest child, she doesn't know how she's going to deal with the loss," he says. Pausing, then staring at a wall, he continues: "As for me, I can't accept it."
His children still call for their brother. "I remember. My children will remember, too."
He is glad to hear people are willing to help his family with donations. At the same time, "all the money in the world" His voice trails off and he stares into space. He rouses himself to say that Raul always wanted a Super Nintendo. But, of course, he never got one.
The man driving the car that hit the Dominguez family surrendered to police on the day following the accident. Rene Ivan Franco, 21, of the 7600 block of Clarewood, was charged with five felony counts of failure to stop and render aid. Claudio doesn't know anything about him but hopes whoever hurt his family can be stopped so no other family suffers as his has.
"We're innocent people. We're not people just to be squashed like roaches. We are human beings."
Donations have already begun to fade, Mary Garcia says. Briefly a news story, the Dominguez family will sink back into the invisible underbelly of Houston where people with limited English work long hours for almost no money in the hopes of making a better life. We don't notice these people. Not when we pass them working in yards or are waited on by them in fast-food restaurants, or even when we see them walking single file along a street.
Claudio Dominguez and his family briefly pierced the veil of our public consciousness because a five-year-old boy died and his mother had part of her body amputated, because babies were thrown out on a street and the family did nothing to deserve all this. And yet the life they have here -- they believe -- is still better than what they had in Mexico. Which probably makes most of us very proud and very sad to be Americans, all at the same time.
Donations can be made to the "Dominguez Family Fund" at any branch of Banco Popular. Locations include the branch at 8340 Southwest Freeway at Gessner, (713)414-5600.
E-mail Margaret Downing at email@example.com.
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