José Gil Alberto Cayetano HUESCA
Born September 1, 1888, in Cañada Morelos, Puebla (State), Mexico
Died September 11, 1937, in Mexico City, Mexico
My grandfather, known to all as simply “Cayetano” HUESCA, had the cleanest windows in Orizaba, Veracruz. That was because when any of his 11 children got into an argument, he would hand them newspapers and instruct them to wash the windows of the family’s hotel. With one child working from the inside and the other on the outside, forced to look at each other through those windows, it did not take long before they burst into laughter, forgot their differences, and learned to work together.
This love for his family, sense of fairness, and strong work ethic permeated Cayetano’s life. I never met my grandfather but have felt close to him all my life, in part because of my own father’s deep reverence and esteem for him. Cayetano, my abuelito (or grandfather), loved his family deeply and was an honest and hard worker who would have been proud of his children’s deep faith in God, strong family values, character, successes, closeness to and support of their mother and each other.
José Gil Alberto Cayetano Huesca was one of six children born to José Enrique Florentino Huesca and María de la Luz “Lucecita” Merlo, in Cañada Morelos, Puebla. He learned to work with wood from his father, a master wood craftsman, and he showed an interest early on in mechanics.
What brought him to Veracruz, I do not know. One day, however, needing a cup of coffee and a pan dulce (Mexican sweet bread), he walked into a small bakery-cafe in Orizaba, owned and operated by my great-grandmother, María (Amaro) Perrotin. When he left, he had filled not only his stomach but also his heart, having fallen in love with María’s beautiful young daughter, María Angela Catalina Perrotin. The two were married shortly afterward in 1908 and had the first of seventeen children in 1909. 11 of those children survived into adulthood.
A humble man, his actions spoke volumes about his life. He was first and foremost a devoted husband and father, a devout Catholic, a hard-working railroad man, a pioneer advocate for the organizing of unions and workers’ rights, and a successful businessman and entrepreneur. Perhaps due to his business acumen (he owned two hotels, a casino, a roller skating rink, and a restaurant), six of his eleven children ran their own successful businesses. My mother, who never met my Abuelito, felt a special kinship with him during her married life, prayerfully believing that he was in Heaven watching over the three babies she had lost. (Coincidentally, my mother died 50 years to the day after my Abuelito’s death.)
Cayetano Huesca worked for the local railroad in Tierra Blanca, Veracruz, on Mexico’s east coast. With the demise of the steam engine, there was a lessened need for railroad workers, and the railroad laid off many workers in 1919, Cayetano among them. Needing to feed his wife (known as Catalina) and their five children, he moved the family to Orizaba, Veracruz, where he worked for Ferrocarril Mexicano. The family lived at 48 Calle Abasolo.
In 1923, Cayetano again was laid off. My father, about eight years old at the time, recalled helping his father count the silver pesos he earned as severance pay and watching his father cry as he wondered how he was going to support his family.
He moved the family again, this time back to Tierra Blanca. Cayetano found railroad work once more, but now he understood the instability of the changing industry. With the severance he received in Orizaba, he opened a new hotel and restaurant and called it El Buen Gusto (Good Taste). All the family, even the children, worked together in the business. Some washed dishes, while others swept and mopped floors. My father made the beds before heading off the school. (To this day, no one makes a bed as well as he did.) There were no allowances but a general satisfaction that all were contributing to the good of the family.
In 1925, with General Plutarco Elias Calles as President of Mexico and a struggle for labor rights beginning, Cayetano Huesca appeared as an actor in a union play, demonstrating the advances made by workers since 1900. Shortly thereafter, he joined other railroad workers in a strike for better conditions. They lost the strike and were fired. As he always did on such occasions, Cayetano went out of his way to feed the strikers, often without charge. Word of his actions spread throughout Orizaba and Tierra Blanca.
Despite his bravery, Cayetano was a quiet, gentle man who believed his actions spoke louder than his words. He never had to raise his voice to his children; rather, they knew when they had done wrong just from the look of disappointment on his face. He adored his children and could not bear the thought of having them away from him, even for a night. When my father was about five or six years old, a voice teacher heard him sing and asked my grandfather for his permission to take my father to Vienna, Austria, where he promised to train him as a classical singer. Cayetano turned down the offer without hesitation. A child’s place was with his parents.
In 1930, Cayetano and Catalina moved their family from Tierra Blanca to Loma Bonita, Oaxaca, where Cayetano leased land to grow pineapples and peppers. They stayed in Oaxaca for three years, moving to Perote, Veracruz, in 1933. There, Cayetano established the “Gran Hotel” – bigger than the “Buen Gusto.”
Like his father, he was an officer in the local Freemason chapter. He preferred obscurity to boastfulness and taught his children to “never let your right hand know what the left hand is doing” and that “whatever you do in this life will always come back to you.”
For all his humility, sometimes it seemed that everyone either knew him or knew of him. When I was growing up, I remember that no one spoke of my abuelito without a hushed sense of reverence and awe. Cayetano Huesca helped many people, among them a struggling young medical student, José Felipe Franco. Cayetano saw potential in him to become a good doctor, and he welcomed him as one of his own family, feeding him for free and eventually helping him establish a small practice in Tierra Blanca.
Some forty or so years later, when my family was living in Mexico City for a time, my sister became quite ill, and my anguished parents called a nearby clinic to request that a doctor come to the house to help her. A hunched, stout man of about sixty years old with salt-and-pepper hair arrived at our doorstep and was shown in. He examined my sister and exchanged pleasantries with my parents.
When he learned my father’s name, a look of amazement came across his face. He excitedly asked my father if he was related to Cayetano Huesca. “Then I cannot take your payment, sir,” he said, explaining that my grandfather had helped him years before. Thanks in part to Cayetano’s faith in him, he had gone on to become a successful doctor and a wealthy man, building a children’s clinic and hospital, “Clínica Dr. Franco,” located on Avenida San Cosme near Colonia San Rafael in Mexico City, where he cared for poor children and their families, often free of charge. He and my parents became close friends and stayed in touch until he died in the 1980s.
About six months after Cayetano and Catalina’s youngest child, Edilberto, was born in Perote in 1937, Cayetano fell ill with pneumonia. The family decided it was time to move again, this time to Mexico City, where Cayetano entered the Sanatorio Espanol, or the Spanish Hospital. But the treatment of the day was futile, and he died on September 11, 1937. He was 49 years old. He is buried in Mexico City with his wife, Catalina, and three of their children, Enrique, Mario, and Victoria.
Many years after his father’s death, my own father visited a friend at the railroad workers’ union hall in Mexico City. Recognizing his name, the receptionist asked him if he was the son of Cayetano Huesca. When my astonished father answered in the affirmative, the excited clerk led my father to a large hall, where he found his father’s name engraved on a plaque honoring the work he had done to defend the union.
Cayetano Huesca’s legacy of devotion, fairness, loyalty, and hard work lives on today through his children, his grandchildren, and his great-grandchildren, who surely have honored his memory by living lives of integrity, generosity, and charity.