Editor's Note: We've received a number of emails and text messages from listeners wanting to help Juan and his family. Juan's teachers have setup this GoFundMe page for anyone who wants to contribute.

This story was produced for the ear and meant for listening. The family’s last name is not being shared to protect their privacy. Below is a transcription of the story, which has been condensed and edited for clarity.

--> Lee este artículo en español.

Juan, 17, got a call from his sister on a sunny day in April after work. Their dad, Francisco, was being rushed to the hospital. 

“She got a call from her husband that my dad was being put onto an ambulance. He never told us he was sick because he didn’t want us to be worried about him.

“So I called [the hospital] and I asked for my dad and they said ‘Yes, he's here. He is really sick.’ I talked to him, ‘Please ask God to give you an opportunity and please be strong,’ I tell him. ‘I don't know if I am going to make this’, he tells me. ‘You will be okay, you will come home soon.’”

Francisco, 56, was a New Bedford fish plant worker. He came to the U.S. from Guatemala with Juan five years ago. He was undocumented which means the one-month journey to get here was risky. They moved through Mexico by foot and bus, Francisco carrying Juan as his son nearly died from a lack of food and water.

“The majority of my brothers, we are here, only one is in Guatemala with my mom. My dad was here with us, my mom was with my other brothers. But we are all here for one reason, because we are looking for a better dream, a better life, and also to help my mom with everything she needs.”

“My dad spent a lot of money on me.  And when we got here, he said, ‘This is the dream that you deserve from me, that's the only thing that I can do for you.’” 

“[My dad was] always looking for work. He would always take his bike looking for work and he is always happy when he finds work.  ‘I gotta find new work’, ‘I got a new work today,’ he always has a smile.”

Francisco had done construction work back in Guatemala and he had pre-existing respiratory issues. So when Juan found out his dad was in the hospital with COVID-19, he was scared. 

“Every time when I called, I asked from the hospital to see my dad, ‘I want to talk to him,’ because they told me that he was really sick he was not gonna be able to talk in a few days but they didn't understand me. They told me ‘You cannot see him. We cannot let you guys come here because it's dangerous to come here because of the virus.’” 

“Every day I get home and call my dad. He said, ‘I can't, I cannot feel my body anymore.’ ‘What's going on?’ I ask him. ‘I cannot talk anymore.’ The doctor told me that his lung was worse, and his blood wasn't working anymore.” 

“And then it was that Thursday, when [the hospital] called me and told me, ‘Your dad is going to pass away [tonight]. We're going to take him off on the machine,’ and I say, ‘Oh no!’ And I told them, ‘Please don't take him off. I want to see him at least one time.’”

“So we just gotta wait. I tell my sister, ‘We gotta wait.’ They didn’t let us see him anymore. So I was calling my mom at eight, when [the hospital] called me and told me that my dad had passed away. And I just start shaking, scared, can't talk anymore because I wasn't believing.”

“[My dad] is the first one in the family who [who died]. We didn't know what to do, we all stayed quiet. What we gonna do? We start thinking who is gonna to help us? My sister’s friend knew what to do. And I just stay in my room.”

But he couldn’t just stay there. His dad was the family’s main source of income and Juan’s mom back in Guatemala was dependent on them for money. So Juan got a job at a fish plant where he learned, like his dad, how to carve perfect fillets of fish that would end up on dinner plates across the country. 

“The first thing I do in the morning was to put all the clothes that we need; wear mask, a helmet, everything. And I start cleaning fish or pass the fish to the person who is gonna clean. Or I am gonna be on the table with the ladies washing the fish and packing the fish.”

Juan was going to drop out of vocational school but his sister convinced him to continue to study and train to become a welder. While school is out, Juan will still work at the fish plant, the same 5am to 4pm shift that his dad always did. Juan remembers making fun of his dad when he would come home smelling of seafood and tell him to wash his clothes. But now, he comes home smelling the same way. He’s tired. And has learned the meaning of the phrase “living paycheck to paycheck.”  

“We got to work to pay where we live. It's like, you're paying for your life to live here. You got to pay a lot of things. Now I understand my dad meant when he used to say to me that I gotta understand why he cannot buy this thing for me.”

“[When I grow up I want to make] great things as a welder. Welding buildings and bridges. Everything. The welders construct and put things together that's why they are called welders...metal fabrication that's our name.” 

“I am being thankful with a lot of things for [my family] because they give a lot, they spend a lot for me to be alive right now. And to be where I am now right now, thankful for my dad to give me the great opportunity to live here.”

Juan says his dad Francisco was always a jokester at the dinner table. One day when they lived in Guatemala, Francisco found Juan sleeping next to, instead of feeding, pigs on a farm they were on. So, from then on, Francisco would call Juan “the pig” at the dinner table ever since. Juan misses that.

“When we come here, he told me one thing. ‘Never cry for someone when they pass away because you're not going to let him be in peace.’ So sometimes I try to not cry for him because we know that we all gonna die one day. But sometimes I can't anymore cause I gotta cry.” 

“When he passed, I realized everything. I opened my eyes and understood everything what he said, but it was too late for me to understand.”

Francisco’s death certificate says he was cremated. Juan says it was something his dad never wanted...he wanted to be buried in Guatemala. But the death came at a bad time, in the midst of a pandemic. 

Juan hopes his dad could forgive him.


Nadine Sebai is the South Coast Bureau Reporter for The Public's Radio. She can be reached at nsebai[at]ripr.org.

Music: Slow Dial by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue)