I met Tom Herrera on May Street in Pilsen, relaxing in the shade with his brother Joe and his dog Mama. That was in the summer of 1991, and he and I have been friends ever since. It was Tom’s thoughtful, sensitive personality that drew me to him; be likes to share everything. When I visit his place he worries that his dishes and things are not clean enough for me, though in fact they are very clean. When I leave be walks me to the corner and stays with me until the bus comes.
The text below is edited and condensed from conversations we’ve had over the last two years. –Akito Tsuda
My name is Thomas Herrera. I live in room 815 at the old folks’ home. It has all of the comforts, like a stove, a light, hot and cold water, and even an elevator; however, I have never liked living here. There is no freedom or privacy. This place remains to me just an institution, like the Angel Guardian orphan home where I grew up.
I just need this place to get social security and other social benefits, that’s all. I have another place I go to take care of someone really special to me.
-After my wife Jean passed away, I lost some leadership and confidence. It was a truly heartbreaking feeling. But I held on to myself. I have to show people that despite her passing, I can still go on. I wanted to show people that there is a survivor who keeps her name going.
I had a common everyday outlook on life until I met Jean. She was a rare specimen in life who really had confidence; I was just lucky to be an average person. I always had poor jobs like a freighter at the freight house or a busboy at the tavern. But Jean never said anything like “Get a better job” or “You don’t make enough for me.” Actually, she thought I was great no matter what little or nothing I made. For a lot of people it’s money that causes the dispute, yet we were happy just being together.
I started taking walks after my wife passed away. I wanted to keep my spirit and confidence going, and I tried to make some friends with people and animals. Then one day I saw a big pit bull wandering in the park. He had a full, fat face, a big jaw, and small ears with this kind of wondering look. He looked like he wanted to make friends. So I said hello to him, and, real easy, I put my hand down and patted him on the back. He showed some emotion after I spoke a few words to him. I told him that we needed to stick together as long as we could. That was the beginning of a new chapter of my life.
I had lost most of my family and my home, and I wanted to have a close relationship with this pit bull. I decided to call him Mama because I never saw much of my mother in my life. I thought the name would be close to my heart. He accepted that name and he always looked at me when I called him Mama. From then on I could feel my spirits begin to lift.
I needed a place to stay with this pit bull. A police officer I had known told me that he owned a building and that he would allow me and the dog to live in the basement as long as I would clean the front of the building and the backyard. There was nothing in the basement except a bare light bulb, but I was really excited to be here with this dog. The basement became my real home.
I treated Mama as if he was a human being. Mama followed me everywhere I went. We slept together in the basement. We put blankets on, got close to each other, and I put my arm around his neck to let him know that I was there. That helped him sleep better. We knew that this life would not go on forever, so we wanted to be together as much as we could.
One day after Mama ate something he became very quiet and still. Three days later he showed no signs of life. I did not want to bury him right away; I did not want to leave him. I stayed with him in the basement for three days until it became impossible to keep him.
I started digging a hole. I dug as deep as I could. I covered him with papers and blankets. Then I buried him. It was breaking my heart. I said a prayer for Mama. From then on I kept him in my heart. I have not forgotten about him. The good lord would take care of him from then on.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Akito Tsuda.