Facebook beating victim Delfino ‘Don Vale’ Mora’s sad journey
BY KIM JANSSEN Staff Reporter email@example.com July 22, 2012 9:52PM
Delfino Mora's relatives say a final goodbye, clinging to his coffin shortly before he was buried in a country cemetery outside Ciudad Hidalgo, Michoacán, Mexico, on Friday. From right to left, they are his daughter Angelica, son Jose Marco, nephew Antonio, son Manny, grandson Leo, grandson Omar and granddaughter Lizbeth. | Photo by Kim Janssen~Sun-Times`
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Updated: August 24, 2012 6:10AM
MICHOACAN, Mexico — Delfino Mora worked so hard he built his own grave.
He always knew he’d end up here, buried in a little country cemetery next to his father and his brother, not far from the isolated ranch where he was born, as poor as poor can be.
So the last time he visited his family in Michoacán, Mexico, he paid for a hole in the ground, then climbed down inside it and lined it with concrete. “You never know when you’re going to die,” he told his oldest son, Valentin.
He was a Chicagoan, an American citizen with an American passport. But he hardly spoke a word of English, and in his heart he was Michoacáno.
He wanted to retire here, among the beautiful green mountains he grew up in. For 40 years, he traveled back and forth between the U.S. and Mexico, earning the American dollars he needed to build his Mexican dream house a piece at a time, brick-by-brick, tile-by-tile, with his own calloused hands.
It was almost finished, and at 62, suffering from a disability and with the youngest of his 12 children about to graduate high school, Delfino was ready to live in it. But he never got to, not really.
Instead, his family brought him back from Chicago in a box. In a city where the rising toll of senseless murders is making national news, his murder made less sense than most.
Only one thing figured: he was working when he died.
It was still dark Wednesday morning when a small section of Delfino’s family gathered, bleary-eyed and dragging hastily-packed suitcases at Midway Airport for a 7 a.m. flight to Michoacán.
There was Delfino’s widow, Maria Carmen; his sister, Isabel, and her husband Jose Plata; his sons Valentin, Mario, Jose and Manny; his daughters Carolina and Anjelica; his uncle Joaquin Correa; and his grandsons Leo Plata and Rodrigo Mora.
They’d hardly slept. Just hours before, they’d been among hundreds of relatives and Mexican immigrants who packed a sweltering funeral home on Chicago’s North Side, weeping, singing and praying beside Delfino’s open coffin.
It was almost unbearable for them to contemplate how the scar visible across the right side of his head got there. It was caused, prosecutors say, by a fatal punch.
Delivered by a 16-year-old gang member, the blow sent Delfino crashing to the ground with a sickening crack, the prosecutors said.
Worse still, the murder had been filmed by two other teens along for the ride, playing a game called “Pick ‘em out, knock ‘em out,” prosecutors said. Delfino’s family had to live with the allegations that the teens had then posted the snuff movie on Facebook.
Now they were flying 2,000 miles to weep and sing and pray all over again.
Return to the lush valley
The U.S. State Department says non-essential trips to Michoacán should be deferred, citing the deadly drug cartel violence that has claimed the lives of nearly 50,000 Mexicans in the last five years, including the police chief of Ciudad Hidalgo, the city where they were going.
But there was never any question that Delfino’s family would lay him to rest in his hometown, making a reverse pilgrimage of the journey Delfino first took to the U.S. in 1972.
The return tickets for the family would cost $12,000 alone, never mind the costs of shipping Delfino in his coffin on a separate flight, transporting him to his hometown and entertaining hundreds of guests in their home.
It was money they didn’t have. But they set about making plans anyway, trusting that the values that their patriarch had instilled in them would get them through, as they always had.
Family, faith, community, love, respect and hard work weren’t empty words in the Mora home on the 6000 block of North Washtenaw.
Chicago’s immigrant community knew it. Laborers, busboys, landscapers and small businessmen lined up at the wake with envelopes stuffed with cash to help out.
Donors from across the U.S. read how Delfino was picking up empty soda cans in a West Rogers Park alley at 5 a.m. on July 10 to supplement his meager disability payments when he was murdered.
The strangers from around the country stepped up with money, too, and the family made the flight.
They were exhausted — and still had a two-hour drive to contend with when they touched down at the airport in Morelia, the state capital. But they brightened when they saw the picturesque Michoacán countryside, a valley of lush corn fields surrounded by rolling hills and tree-covered mountains.
“Michoacán, it’s good?” Maria Carmen asked in her halting English from the back seat of her nephew’s crammed-full SUV.
She was beaming. It was first time in a long time.
He was ‘Don Vale’
Two men and a child leading three donkeys laden with firewood down a hill caught her attention.
“My husband did that when he was a boy,” she noted approvingly in Spanish, through an interpreter.
Later in life, Delfino would find success as a sharply-dressed musician, playing hit tunes with his band “Los Coralillos” to an ecstatic crowd of thousands in Mexico City. He’d be known as “Don Vale,” the respected patriarch of an extended brood.
But when a 9-year-old Maria Carmen met her future husband, he was just 11, and he’d already been working for five years, hauling hay and wood from the ranch to market with donkeys, a three-hour slog each way that might earn enough to buy bread for his family.
Their families both farmed corn, and they attended the same 20-student school. It was so small it didn’t even have a name.
Their first encounter was not encouraging.
“He hit me in the head and said why did you hit my sister?” Maria Carmen laughed. “I didn’t talk to him for a while.”
But by the age of 15, she was developing feelings for Delfino, by then a striking 17-year-old man whose funny, sarcastic style she enjoyed when they ran into each other on the country trails.
Eventually, Delfino “admitted that I was pretty and that he liked me,” Maria Carmen said. “Our first date was just sitting on a rock at the ranch, talking. There was nothing else to do.”
For three years they dated, with Delfino stealing away every couple of weeks from his job in the corn fields to see Maria Carmen.
They married in 1972 and set out to make a new life in the bustle of Mexico City.
Delfino worked construction, learning the trade that would eventually allow him to build his own house.
But their first home together was a single room building, made of rocks, almost cave-like. There was no kitchen, no bathroom, “nothing,” Maria Carmen said.
Soon, she was pregnant, and Delfino was sick. With no money for medical treatment, his condition worsened, preventing him from earning the cash they so desperately needed.
A less stoic woman might have balked, but Maria Carmen never wavered.
“I loved him very, very much,” she said. “We kept working hard. What else can you do?”
Their first child, Guillermina, was born on February 1, 1973. They moved back to Michoacán, into a wooden shack on a hill in Hidalgo that belonged to his mother.
By the end of the year, they had a second child, Valentin, born December 9, 1973.
She would spend a full nine years of her life pregnant, giving birth to another 10 children.
There was Lorena, born two years later, then, after another year, Mario, then after another two year gap, Angeles, allowing mom a momentary three-year respite before Gildardo, Salvador, Carmelita and Carolina came in a four-year flurry. Jose Marco came three years after that, followed by the babies, Manny, born in 1992, and Angelica, in 1995.
There are 23 grandchildren.
Front page news
Delfino’s murder was front page news in Mexico, splashed across the top of the “Michoacán En Vigia” newspaper above a gruesome photograph from a local murder scene. His family picked up a copy at a roadside store on the way from the airport.
The story blamed xenophobia and anti-immigrant racism for Delfino’s death — an account his family shrugged off with the same resignation they treated the State Department’s travel warning.
“They’re just trying to sell newspapers,” Jose Marco said. “For them everything that happens in America is about anti-immigration.”
As they drove up the narrow two-lane mountain road towards Hidalgo, he tossed the paper aside. Delfino’s nephew, driving, turned up the stereo.
“My husband’s voice!” Maria Carmen cried. The song on the CD player was “Sentencia Dictada,” and Delfino seemed to be singing from beyond the grave to his killers.
“You’re gonna yell when they tell you how long you’re going to be in jail,” he sang.
As the SUV chugged up the hill, everyone inside sang along.
Delfino Mora loved to sing.
His grandfather, Guadalupe, died when Delfino was just 4, but Delfino never forgot the way Guadalupe could hold a crowd with his guitar. He looked up to his grandfather the same way his little grandson Rodrigo would more than half a century later in Chicago, strumming along with Delfino.
Delfino had always sung little love songs to Maria Carmen, homespun ditties like, “What do they care if I hug you?” She always believed he had the talent to turn professional, and after the birth of their third child, he did.
His uncle Joaquin played the accordion, and Joaquin’s brother Chayo played bass. Together they formed Los Coralillos, named after a type of red and white snake native to Michoacán.
A talent spotter from Mexico City brought them back to the capital to make a record, and soon their breakthrough hit “Cantarito Nuevo” was being played on the radio all over Mexico.
“We were so happy — it was a big surprise for us,” Joaquin said. “Everywhere we went, we heard it.”
Los Coralillos were suddenly in demand, living a hard life on the road, performing at festivals in almost every Mexican state in their flamboyant matching 1970s outfits, with colorful flared pants, wide-collared shirts and sharp cowboy hats.
They scored hits with love songs like “Arañando Las Paredes,” a song about a man so in love that he’s scratching the walls for his girl, and “Casi Todas Pagan Mal,” a sad lament for cheating women.
But the band was also known for novelty songs like “El Periquito” (The Parakeet) and “La Mula Chula” (The Beautiful Mule), a comic riff on the confusion that ensues when a young man compliments an attractive woman riding a donkey.
At their peak in 1976, the band played before 10,000 screaming fans at Toreros de Cuatro Caminos in Mexico City.
All the other bands at the show played one set, but “the crowd wouldn’t let us go,” Joaquin Correa said. “They knew all the words — we had to play twice.”
A live show broadcast internationally in 1979 gave Los Coralillos a chance to play in America.
They alternated their time between their families in Mexico and Santa Ana, Calif., for years, playing shows for the Mexican migrant workers on weekends and joining them to work in the fields during the week.
Brick by brick
Delfino’s hillside home in Hidalgo was prepared for mourning when the Chicagoans arrived. As the women hugged and cried the black-clad Mexican relatives who were waiting for them, the men headed for the roof.
From there, a breathtaking view across the town and the valley presented itself. The men could see down to the church where they would say a funeral mass for Delfino two days later.
To build this home, Delfino had picked strawberries on his hands and knees in California, then toiled on construction sites in Chicago. If his sons wanted fruit on the rooftop now, they could almost reach out and pluck a pomegranate from the neighbor’s yard.
Delfino had been sent home for an immigration violation the first time he went to America, but he kept coming back, again and again, to build what was once no more than a wooden shack.
Now it’s a two-story brick and concrete home. There are six bedrooms that sit across a pleasantly shaded courtyard from the heart of the home, the kitchen, where women were now preparing a delicious meal of turkey and rice and beans with mole sauce for the weary travellers, toasting tortillas over a charcoal fire.
A few yards away, a hundred plastic chairs were stacked against the wall.
Soon, it was clear there weren’t nearly enough.
The deluge begins
Everyone in the pretty market town seemed to know the man they called “Don Vale.”
At the funeral home, they’d buried his father and his brother.
At the radio station, they broadcast details of his funeral.
And at the bank, they recognized his name from the hundreds of cash wires he’d sent back over the years from a little currency exchange on Clark Street, not just to his wife, but to any family member in need, however distantly related.
They started coming to the home that night, before Delfino’s remains had even arrived.
The photo of Delfino the family had supplied to the media in Chicago showed a gentle-eyed old man with a hangdog expression who looked every one of his 62 years — the kind of unthreatening soul a teenage criminal might take for a soft mark.
But at the candle-lit shrine the townsfolk prayed at in the courtyard Delfino built, they hung a different picture — a young, virile Delfino, a man with an ambitious, faraway gaze.
News of Delfino’s murder had passed on by word-of-mouth through the town of 57,000, and many of the townsfolk had an incomplete understanding of what had happened. Those who learned the full story were appalled to learn his death was allegedly part of a Chicago street gang’s game.
“Stupid f------ gangs, man,” Serafin Espinoza said in a quiet corner. “We’ve got them here, too. They’re gonna spend a long time in jail.”
Other mourners just shook their head in disgust. Their shock was tempered by rural fatalism and the knowledge of so many drug-related killings in Mexico’s recent history.
Delfino’s family was likewise reluctant to blame Chicago for his death. “It could have happened here,” his daughter Angelica, 17, said. “It’s just how teenagers are now, everywhere — they want to get famous and they don’t want to work hard or respect anything. Here in Mexico the cartels also use teenagers to do all their killings.”
Her family laid out a crucifix made of chalk where Delfino’s coffin would rest for his second wake in three days, and placed half a sliced pumpkin at each corner, according to tradition.
The coffin arrived by road from Mexico City the next day. And then the deluge began.
Delfino reaches Chicago
Delfino first struck out for Chicago with his uncles Joaquin and Chayo in the mid 1980s. Not long after, he had a precious green card, thanks to an immigration amnesty enacted by President Ronald Reagan. It allowed him to travel back and forth without fear of deportation.
With his oldest sons, Valentin and Mario, he established a base in West Rogers Park, in a two-bedroom apartment at Western and Devon.
He worked construction and, as he had in California, performed with Los Coralillos for the local immigrant community.
It was on a Chicago worksite in 1997 that, at age 47, he slipped and fell hard on his back. The fall did permanent damage, making it impossible for him to fully raise his right arm or to do the kind of sustained heavy lifting he had always counted on for a living.
Still, he had a small disability payment, and he brought more children over —a few at a time — until finally his wife and two youngest joined him in 2005.
They went to church every Sunday at St. Jerome’s at Paulina and Lunt, and in 2006 Delfino became a U.S. citizen, proudly showing his family the certificate that proved it.
They moved to a home on the 6000 block of North Washtenaw in 2009. The family was there July 10 when Chicago Police knocked on their door and told them there had been an accident.
A man on the ground, bleeding
The police were asking about Delfino’s son-in-law, Juan Mora. Juan’s truck had been found near an unidentified, unconscious man, who had blood coming from his nostril, and a puddle of vomit next to his head in a nearby alley. The officers guessed Juan was the man on the ground.
But Delfino’s son Valentin knew Juan was at work, and that Delfino had been driving his truck. The family rushed to St. Francis Hospital in Evanston.
In the awful hours that followed, they stood vigil, waiting and praying for positive news. Delfino was always ticklish, and when his daughter Anjelica touched his toe and his foot moved in response, they clung to that fact.
But when a friend reached out to Manny and told him there was a video he needed to see, their world collapsed.
“It was like someone threw a bucket of cold water over me,” Jose Marco said. “My brother told me that someone had beaten my father, and that there was a video of it.”
It was scant consolation that prosecutors say the video lead them to charge Malik Jones, the 16-year-old who allegedly threw the deadly punch, then posted the video on his Facebook.
The video clearly shows Jones tell two accomplices who filmed the attack, Nicholas Ayala, 17, and Anthony Malcolm, 18, “I’m think I’m going to knock this m----------- out,” before he hit Delfino in the jaw then stole $60 from his wallet and ran off laughing, prosecutors said in court last week.
All three allegedly admitted their roles in the attack and are locked up without bail in Cook County Jail, charged with first degree murder, though Jones’ father claimed last week that Jones did not know Delfino was dead when he confessed.
Such trifles would have meant nothing to the Mora family when they stood at Delfino’s deathbed on July 11 and were told by doctors he was brain dead.
Some of Delfino’s sons were hot for revenge. Two of their father’s alleged killers, Jones and Ayala, are Latin King gang members, but that might not have been enough to save them.
Only the deeply religious Maria Carmen could do that. In the midst of her grief, she told her sons she didn’t want it.
They didn’t mention it again.
Wails of grief
More than 100 mourners were at the family home in Hidalgo when Delfino’s remains arrived Thursday afternoon. Hundreds more squeezed in through the night to pray over his body to Santa Maria.
They lined up in the alley outside, patiently waiting their turn at Don Vale’s side. They were country women swaddling babies in blankets; sinewy, leathery old men in cowboy hats; boys in t-shirts; former Chicagoans in branded sportswear; and devout widows, dressed in black and clutching bibles.
They were relatives, mostly. They joked that they were all called Jose or Maria and even they sometimes seemed confused by their complex but deep relationships to each other.
Delfino’s casket was laid out, beneath a crucifix, in the courtyard before the mourners, surrounded by thousands of flowers in all the colors of the rainbow.
Between regular call and response prayers and hymns that lasted till dawn, the mourners listened to Joaquin and a group of musicians play Los Coralillos songs. They drank spiced coffee made in a drum over a coal fire and tequila. And they wept and laughed and held each other.
In the nightime street outside, mourners seeking a respite from the intense grief gathered around a traditional bonfire, beneath a black ribbon marking the home as a place of loss.
A black smear where the fire had been was still there at lunchtime Friday, when they carried Delfino out of the home, then followed his hearse on foot through town to the church.
Perhaps 1,000 people were there.
After the service, 200 of them piled into the back of beat-up pick up trucks, bouncing around in the truck beds as they followed the hearse five miles up to the mountain cemetery.
Once there, they placed the coffin at an altar. His children fell upon it and wailed, “Mi papa!”
They opened the coffin for one final goodbye, then shut it.
Delfino’s sons climbed into the hole he had prepared for this moment, and they lowered him into his final resting place.
As two workmen laid bricks across his grave, permanently sealing him in, a frog hopped out at their feet.
They placed the final brick in the wall just as it began to pour with rain.
The marathon ritual of mourning won’t end until next Sunday, when nine days of nightly prayer meetings at the family home will conclude.
Delfino’s family is still grappling with the senseless loss and it isn’t easy for them to find the right words.
But when their grief was freshest, back at the funeral home in Chicago last week, they had to pick out a homily for the prayer cards they handed out at the wake.
Chosen from a book the funeral home kept, it was written in Spanish, and had probably been picked by countless immigrant families before Delfino Mora was brutally murdered this month in a Chicago alley.
The words were printed on the back of an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe.
They read: “God saw he was tired and that a cure was not possible.
“So, he wrapped him with his arms and murmured into his ear, ‘Come with me.’
“With our tearful hearts we saw him go, disappearing. And although we loved him so much, it was impossible not to let him go.
“A heart of gold stopped beating, hardworking hands are resting.
“God broke our hearts to demonstrate he only takes the best.”
Delfino Mora's band