Mexican Samurai

articles Living, Working, Retiring

Maggie Van Ostrand

A Balloon in Cactus

In the mid-sixties while others were espousing peace, love, and rock and roll, Gaby Shiraga left Japan and came to Mexico. He spoke only Japanese, ordering his first foreign meal by miming a chicken laying eggs. The waiter immediately understood and brought Gaby’s sunny-side-up breakfast. No one knows how he ordered the bacon.

Gaby, an engineer, was in Mexico on a job and since he spoke no Spanish and didn’t know a soul, he stayed in an owner-supplied apartment on the factory premises. One day, the kind owner felt Gaby should meet people, and invited him to a small party at his home. Little did he know how many lives would be affected by that party.

Unbeknownst to the owner, Araceli, his daughter, had recently dreamt she would meet and marry a Japanese man. She believed in her heart that it would happen. She met Gaby at the party.

It was love at first sight, and Araceli’s father soon gave his consent to their marriage, with two covenants: They were to live in Mexico, and their children were to be raised Catholic. Gaby agreed. One of their daughters married my son last year, a happy day. Having a daughter-in-law who is a product of two great cultures, Japanese and Mexican, has brought much joy.

When Gaby and his wife, Araceli, were visiting their daughters in California two Christmases ago, I was delighted to make a rare drive down from my mountain home to meet them.

It usually takes time to love someone, yet it took only a moment to love Gaby. He spoke a weave of Spanish and Japanese (Japish? Spanese?) that no one could understand, but did anyway. And he no longer had to imitate a chicken to be understood either.

While Gaby and Araceli had seen mountaintop snow from their Mexico City home, they had never touched it, so I brought two huge plastic containers filled with the stuff. Their eyes opened wide at the first sight of it and, at the urging of their daughters, they tentatively touched the cold white stuff. It didn’t take long before they were playing in it and rubbing it on their faces. They actually reinvented snowballs. Everyone went outside for a snowball fight right there in the heart of Encino, a San Fernando Valley surburb of L.A.

Just after New Year’s, Gaby and Araceli came to my writer’s retreat for dinner. “What are those?” he said, pointing to some breadsticks, and gleefully said he thought they might be Samurai swords, grabbed one, and we commenced dueling. Instantly, everyone joined in. Three languages expressed the fun, and everybody understood, whether they knew the strange words or not.

I tell you these things to give you some idea of the loss endured by many when Gaby died last week.

It was to visit an ailing Gaby that I flew to Mexico City in November. Oxygen tank by his side, Gaby struggled to rise from his wheelchair, a sunny smile on his broad face. He could still manage a warm welcome, even under such painful circumstances.

When it’s my time, I’d like to go like Gaby did. He fought the good fight, with grace and dignity, like a true Samurai.

Adios, estimado Gaby, mi querido amigo.

Published or Updated on: April 1, 2004 by Maggie Van Ostrand © 2004
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