Save a Prayer for Carmen Vasquez

By Roberto Vazquez

It was the middle of April this year when the man with the gun shoved the barrel of cold steel into Carmen Vasquez’ ribs. Her first thought must’ve been, “Not again! Not another man with a gun threatening to kill me.”

It was a recent Saturday morning, cool and overcast, just as a customer was about to enter a local O’Reilly Auto Parts.

Just then, a stranger stopped him and said, “Excuse me, sir. By any chance, do you know Carmen?”

The customer held the door open, taken aback by the question. Then, he lit up.

“Sure! Everybody knows Carmen.”

Desperately Seeking Carmen Vasquez

Carmen Vasquez is missing.

Yes, she’s alive and safe, surrounded by family and friends but Vasquez can’t be found.

Calls and text messages have gone unanswered and Vasquez hasn’t returned to the job she held for more than 20 years, or to the co-workers and community of locals who relied on her and became her friends.

Rick Lewis, who was interviewed last year, worked with Vasquez for 10 years.

“You build a relationship with customers and they only want to deal with that person. A lot of our customers come to her and they leave if she’s not here.”

The Price of Learning to Drive

It’s a most unusual story and an unlikely way to begin working on cars.

As she repaired a customer’s broken taillight, Vasquez spoke about her customers and recalled her life story. “One of my customers says it doesn’t feel the same when I’m not here.”

It all began with Vasquez wanting to drive.

“My stepfather said if I wanted to drive, I had to learn to fix a car, starting with a flat tire.”

Vasquez shared more, and shook her head at the recollection of her stepfather’s personality.

“He would yell and cuss when I did things, fixing the car. People would look at us hearing him yelling and saying ugly things. It wasn’t right.”

Vasquez continued, “One time he beat me, real bad. I tried to drown myself in the bathtub. I was 14,” then added, “I tried to, but I saw a light and the light told me, ‘Tomorrow will be better,’ so I stopped.”

All of this was shared as she worked, without a trace of emotion or self-pity.

Vasquez went on, as the car’s owner stood silently before her, unable to respond.

“Once, he put a gun to my head, too, and said, ‘I’m gonna blow your head off.’”

By this point, the taillight was finished and Vasquez smiled as she quietly moved on and began replacing windshield wipers.

An Unlikely Grease Monkey

Carmen Vasquez isn’t a big or burly person. Her hands were soft and smooth, not chapped, nor calloused. The uniform she wore was neat and clean, without grease or grime.

When Vasquez greeted her customers, her demeanor was polite, quiet and unassuming, yet, Vasquez is very much a knowledgeable mechanic.

Mr. Lewis, the assistant manager, smiled as he confided, “She does more things on cars than I do.”

Vasquez regularly helped her customers with minor repairs, but always calmly and quietly.

Hers is a story of persistence and determination. Vasquez continued, as she installed the new wiper blades.

“My stepfather threatened my mother and threatened me with the gun. He told her, ‘You leave me, I’m gonna kill your father and mother,’” she said, matter of factly.

A Whirlwind Romance

Vasquez was asked if her husband, Michael, is accepting of her unusual skills.

“Yeah, he likes it.”

She and a customer laughed together, and Vasquez’ personality peeked through, like rays of sunshine. Vasquez shared how their relationship evolved.

“He asked me what work I did and what I fixed on my car. He asked if I could fix his fuel pump, so I got under his car and fixed it.”

Vasquez smiled again, as she recalled that day, long ago. “He called his mother and said, ‘Mom, a girl is fixing my car,’’’ to which Michael’s mother replied, “Marry her! Don’t let her go!”

Like any good son, Michael listened to his wise mother.

Vasquez described their relationship.

At the time, Vasquez was PTA Club president at Willard Elementary, where they sold food during the Christmas season to raise funds for the student’s musical education.

Every night, after they finished selling food, Michael took Carmen on long walks to the park, beach or pier as they got to know one another.

Three weeks later, they moved in together.

“I said, ‘So, do you think you want to marry,’?”

They’ve been happily married for more than 25 years and counting, with a blended family of eight children.

A Different Kind of Parents

Carmen fought back in a different way.

She chose to be the polar opposite: no yelling, no cussing, no hitting.

Unlike her stepfather who never showed love, had a mean streak, and didn’t know how to be a father, Vasquez said, “As a mom, I always tell them how much I love them and I never beat my kids, ever, ever!”

Vasquez added, “I hardly ever get mad, but sometimes you get so mad! Before I say something I can’t take back, I walk away to my room or bathroom.”

The lessons extended to vehicles.

All of their children are capable of changing the oil, air filters and transmission fluid and, “Not afraid to get dirty,” according to Vasquez.

A Christmas Miracle, Indeed

When she last spoke with the Beachcomber, Vasquez planned to work another 8-10 years, in hopes of buying a home, one for her children and future grandchildren, “A big house for all their kids.”

This year, it’ll take a miracle to get Vasquez to return to her other family and other home.

Very simply, this Christmas we need a small miracle. This holiday season, please save a moment and a prayer for the much needed return of Carmen Vasquez.

Tomorrow will be better.

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