From Rancher to Caregiver

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Jose Miguel Lopez grew up in the small town of Guachinango, Jalisco, Mexico–some 50 miles from Guadalajara. He got his first horse at age six. Walking and horseback riding were the only means of transportation on the ranch.

Hard work was something the men and boys of Guachinango were accustomed to. He’d been working with his father, brother, uncles and cousins since his pre-teens. The men capable of manual labor worked while the girls went to school. This was the life of many a rancher in Mexico–even at 12 years of age.

At age 21, he left the family ranch to work for his uncle in the Sonoran Desert, leaving family, friends and his favorite black horse, El Gato behind. In July 1969, after ten years farming in the Sonoran Desert he returned to Jalisco.

Upon returning, Lopez saw a Guadalajara newspaper ad that caught his attention: “Drivers needed. Passport preferred.” The next day, he and his sister Aurora, a school teacher, found themselves at the once popular Villa del Sol. Miguel’s credentials so impressed Rogelio, his future boss, that Rogelio-assuming the five-month pregnant Aurora was Miguel’s wife, not sister-attempted to convince the young man he needed the job. He did. Lopez started his career as a caregiver the next day.

Villa del Sol was one of a half dozen group homes (which the guys affectionately referred to as “gimp camps”), where paraplegic, quadriplegic and other disabled wheelchair users could rent rooms or bungalows by the week or month.

Recruiting and training young Mexican males to work as caregivers for paralyzed veterans and non-vets had been a common practice going back to the mid-1950s. Long before patient lifts and wheelchair adapted vans, strong and willing young men were lifting quadriplegics in and out of bed, the shower, their cars and up and down stairs-sometimes, wheelchairs and all.

Miguel Lopez would begin the learning process from day one as he was taught about catheters and other personal care needs of these American quadriplegics.

Lopez, as with many other attendants from the Guadalajara gimp camps, would eventually pair up with one person. In his case, it was Vietnam veteran Jimmy Lietz, who needed a driver. The passport would enable Lopez to drive him not only in and around Guadalajara but also accompany him on trips to the States.

By the end of 1969, Lopez had accompanied the young Vietnam vet to Manzanillo (a favorite fishing and vacationing seaport for Guadalajara’s growing para and quad community), as well as to Acapulco and Stateside trips to Las Vegas, Hollywood and Phoenix.

Miguel Lopez found himself assisting a travel-thirsty Lietz who, with fellow vets Richard Jaros, Charlie Gilliam, and Peter Mirche, made up for time spent working long hours in the desert sun for Lopez and nightmarish memories of Vietnam and rehab at Walter Reed Army Hospital for Lietz.

There were lazy sunny days hanging around “Village of the Sun” for Miguel Lopez and Lietz, but not many. Time was not wasted as Lopez became acquainted and made friends with other attendants and friends of his new Gringo employer. Lietz formed lifelong friendships with other vets, among them Jaros, Gilliam and Mirche.

While Miguel Lopez had logged many miles driving for Lietz in and around Guadalajara with numerous trips to the ocean, a trip to the Washington, D.C., area where Lietz grew up, would be the most memorable. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.

In the summer of 1970, Lietz was admitted to the Richmond (Va.) Veterans Hospital for an extended checkup. His father, employed at the Department of Agriculture, was able to arrange a special VIP tour for Lopez, the former Sonoran Desert field worker. The Mexican rancher turned caregiver for a severely injured Vietnam veteran got a guided tour of The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, complete with a Spanish speaking twenty-something female tour guide.

In 1980, Lietz returned to the U.S. and settled in Tucson, Ariz., as old Villa del Sol buddies Jaros and Gilliam had before him.

In May 1981, Lietz and Miguel Lopez took a short trip up the road to visit another friend they had met in Guadalajara. Jack Tumidajski lived in Glendale, Ariz. His caregiver, Sofia, just happened to be Lietz’s former girlfriend. The on again-off again relationship was on again. Guadalajara’s Mr. Fear-of-Commitment finally popped The Question!

An impromptu wedding ceremony took place a few days later on Tumidajski’s patio. A number of Phoenix area friends and couples who met in Guadalajara attended.

Newlyweds Jimmy and Sofia Lietz would return to Tucson. After 12 years assisting Lietz, Jose Miguel Lopez would go on to help Tumidajski for the next 23 years.

Jimmy Lietz passed away in Tucson in 1994.

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