Remembering the life of Nestor Vasquez

Jules Vasquez

Delivered by Jules Vasquez

First, an admission of inadequacy: my father’s life was too varied, too exceptional, too extraordinary, too much…my words will be unequal to the sweeping curve of his life.
My father, Nestor Vasquez contained multitudes. First, a lesson in survival:
It is 1940. Nestor is 8. His mother, Ventura is in San Pedro – she is dying of tuberculosis – she is quarantined, it is too infectious for her four children. How this pains young Nestor – to be apart. One day – in the throes of her illness – he is allowed to deliver some food to her at arm’s length – and there she is, at the door, on the stairs, emaciated and weak, this small woman, and he cannot bear it, the longing for the maternal embrace, he hugs her, they hug. She gives him the best motherly advice she can muster: to remain devoted to the feast saint of his birth, the virgin mother – a devotion he will keep for his entire life. It will be the last time they see each other. She will be dead within a week. Young Nestor is a motherless child. Soon he will be fatherless. Nestor Sr – wracked by grief goes to work on a ship -leaves his children in the care of relatives – some kind, some harsh and exacting with the Vasquez children. These were his formative experiences, life’s hardest lessons – that nothing is promised, not your mother, not your father, not food on your plate.
Thus is born Nestor the orphan, a wild child of the Pickstock area, a student of Holy Redeemer, a boy scout, a scrapper, a survivor, running the streets. His older neighbour George Price dubbed him “bad bush” because little Net Vasquez would do anything – particularly if it would put some money in his pocket, or some food in his belly.
Nestor Vasquez contained multitudes: second, a lesson in perseverance:
It is 1950, Net Vasquez is a high schooler looking for work. He is armed with nothing – save for a well-meant, but not exactly unstinting recommendation from his scout master, Brother Jacoby. It announces to the world that this young high school graduate – class of ’49 – is, quote, “of very average intelligence” but he adds, charitably, that the young man is determined to complete any manual task set before him. Brother Jacoby knows this because he has seen this small, scrawny boy throw himself into any competition, any fight, any chore, and scrap for success like his life depended on it. And it did.
He takes this recommendation to the Belize Marketing Board – where there are no vacancies – except for a job as a typist – because the secretary is on leave. Nestor Vasquez cannot type, has never typed, but he takes the job. And he labours every day – staying long hours after work, into the night – to complete basic tasks that would have taken a skilled typist just a few minutes. But he does not relent. A few weeks later – the secretary is back from leave – and Nestor is sent home. But, when you are a hungry 19 year old – failure is not an option. Nestor does not go home. The young man with the easy smile and the eager nature shows up the next day, and the next, and the next, until, perhaps out of sympathy, they hire him as a messenger. In a few months, the warehouse manager quits – and Nestor, the messenger who spends his spare time helping out in the warehouse, gets the job to run it. In another year, he parlays this knowledge to a desk job, he is now the marketing board’s bookkeeper.
Just a few years later, he is at Pannell, Crewdson & Hardy, an auditor, and 10 years later, he is a certified accountant with his own practice. Most would have been satisfied to settle there, but this was just the start of his ascent – this is the grit, the hunger and the determination that would become hallmarks of his success.
Nestor Vasquez contained multitudes: a lesson in love:
It is 1952, Net Vasquez is making 5 dollars a week at the Marketing Board. He falls for Hazel Busch, madly, deeply; he is overthrown by her shapely beauty, overcome by her charm; he serenades her in spanish, songs like “Rayito De Luna” and “Perfidia”. Hazel, you should know, does not speak Spanish. But, still, she is charmed by his persistence, that inimitable swagger. He is lifting weights now -and he lifts her – as he would say it – as carefully and effortlessly as a basket of eggs, and, he carries her around like this – the muscle man, the lover man. In 1957, they marry. It’s a hard go at the start: They come from families with nothing, really – Net only has that five dollar a week job. They live in a slum on York Street – with an outdoor latrine and shower. He never forgot these days, literally all they had was their love and the certainty that it was bigger than anything in its way.
And it was. They got out of that slum, they made a life, they made a family – and every success my father had – and there were many – this was his backbone, his lodestar, his true north, no matter the perils of paths he traversed, he always had home.
Nestor Vasquez contained multitudes: a lesson in strategy:
It is 1954, Nestor Vasquez is a weightlifter – his speciality? The clean and jerk and the snatch – the ballet of barbells – even into his 90th year, he was still deftly performing a modified version of this which Dean Barrow dubbed “the air squat.” But in ‘54 for Net Vasquez it was the thin air of Guatemala at the Central American Championship, competing as Belize’s buffest middleweight against a far larger Guatemalan opponent in the medal round. Nestor knew he could not outlift this man, he was 20 pounds lighter. But he could outsmart him. After two rounds they were tied, but for his third lift, Net asked for a weight he had never lifted before and knew he probably could not lift. It was a bluff to get his bigger opponent to try and outdo this maldito Beliceño. Net sits cool and calm, watching as the bigger man’s pride compels him to try for an outsized weight – he fails on his first try, then his second, and third – the gold medal is Net’s. He is the Central American middleweight Champ. But for a good show – Net still approaches the stage and attempts this weight he’d never done before. And, as I’m sure you can guess what happens next…? He lifts and sets it down…again, like a basket of eggs.
Nestor Vasquez contained multitudes: a lesson in patriotism:
It is 1967 – Net Vasquez is a nationalist – but not in the mold of George Price. He helps found the right wing Chamber Reporter – along with Manuel Esquivel, Harry Lawrence, Paul Rodriguez and Curl Thompson. They want change for Belize, but have their own vision, and form the Belize Liberal Party – which then goes on to be a foundational part of the UDP. In 1979, the party is poised for victory in the general election, to unseat the unbeaten and unbeatable PUP machine – but, they suffer a devastating, improbable loss. The UDP is sundered, but Net does not surrender. While the party goes into rebuilding mode, Net, Henry Young and others begin to strategize. He orchestrates one of the most exquisite maneuvers in Belize’s political history: part pincer movement, part palace coup – first, replacing Theodore Aranda with Curl Thompson as opposition leader in the House – and then getting Manuel Esquivel installed as Party Leader in a bloodless convention. The Liberal party is in the driver’s seat – and in 1984, the UDP is swept into office, the country’s first change of government; his lifelong friend Sir Manuel is Prime Minister. Net, the Kingmaker.
Nestor Vasquez contained multitudes. A lesson in imagination:
In 1978, Net Vasquez and Emory King invest in Belize’s first commercial satellite dish, an “earth station” it was called, to capture American TV signals for video rentals. For Emory it is business and gringo ganas; for Net it’s a pathway to open a TV station, Channel 7.
It’s an endeavor improbable in the extreme; the Belizean equivalent of putting a man on the moon. Emory backs out, and Net moves ahead to pioneer broadcast TV in Belize – breaking the electronic media monopoly then exercised by the state controlled Radio Belize. Fast forward 10 years and the then Prime Minister Esquivel commissions Nestor to privatize the phone company, then known as BTA. He charts the course for BTA to become BTL, Belize’s first private telecom company- with private citizens as shareholders – his dream for Belizeans to control what he called the commanding heights of the economy. Again, it had not been done before and there were doubters at the highest level – but, as my dad was fond of saying, “impossible only takes a little longer.” Net Vasquez believed that a lack of imagination was the only obstacle to overcome. His grasp always exceeded his reach. This really was his gift: that beam, that optimism.
But, you will say, I am getting like my father – always the stories of wit and will. Everyone in here has heard one (or one hundred), of grit, of perseverance and unlikely success stolen from the jaws of certain failure – if I told you all of them we would be here until tonight, and Net would not complain.
You see, my dad was many things, an orphan, a sportsman, a numbers-man, yes, but also a holy man – examples of his Divine mercy devotion decorate the walls of this church – and he was a family man, and – a country-man, so much of what he did in business stems from his unwavering belief, his certainty, that Belizeans can do it best.
I have today tried to capture the totality of my father, the aura of invincibility that emanated from him, but his death is perhaps too heavy with me to reflect the full intensity of that ultralight beam – and now that it’s gone, it is as if there was a sudden drop in voltage – and the soul-light of my family is flickering very low. It is the feeling we all have when someone we have loved so closely and so deeply for a lifetime dies, and we know that in this tug of dreadful loss, the world for us will never be the same again, never so good, never so true, never so comprehensible, never so hopeful, a feeling that some essence, some irreplaceable light has gone and will not return. But, we know too that this feeling shall pass, and just as we know in this moment, that there is no end to grief, that’s how we know there is no end to love. So we gather and celebrate Net, he would slap me on the shoulder and say, “cheer up, son, it’s gonna work out!”
So, I remember this great man who lies before us as the island boy, a child of the sea, rolling perpetually unto the limitless horizon. If we distill the multitudes of this man – the only thing as restless as Net is that which he beheld most often: the sea, he would gaze at it for hours – I remember the words of the poet…
“I tell myself, old man, you gone to sea again, only now forever, to be between skies and infinity, in the spray of the brine, moving, endless—
a skyline I cannot seize,
the blues that cannot be named.”
I end with Shakespeare, “the elements mixed so well in him that Nature might stand up and say to all the world, “This was a man.”