Back before the fire that triggered her heart attack and turned everything she and her family owned into soggy ash, 70-year-old Graciela Campos made lace doilies. Hundreds of them. Red, blue, white, small, large. Intricate, beautiful.
But that was in the years leading up to July 7, when a roaring blaze woke her up and ravaged the Redwood City apartment complex where she lived with her husband and son. Since then, she’s had nowhere to spread out her sewing, no place to call her own – until now.
The person she can thank most for her new apartment, where she can once again stitch her doilies, is her son Humberto Campos, 30.
At an age when other young men might be more concerned with the next party or computer gadget, Campos has the kind of devotion to his parents usually found in folktales. He sleeps on the couch, leaving the apartment’s one bedroom to Mom and Dad, and works two jobs baking bread and pizzas. He’s the family’s sole wage earner.
He is also the only one who speaks English. So when their home was destroyed, Campos was the one to figure out how to get a new place to live while he, his mom and his 73-year-old father all crushed in with a cousin’s family.
“I could only afford about $1,400 a month and still have enough left over to buy food and other things we need, and even then I couldn’t save up enough for the deposit or to replace the furniture and clothes we lost in the fire,” Campos said the other day, sitting with his parents in the tidy living room of their new one-bedroom home.
“Then I got some help, and it made all the difference.”
Season of Sharing provided the first month’s rent, and at the beginning of November, the three moved into their new place, just a few blocks from their old one. “If my husband and I could have fixed everything, we would have,” Graciela Campos said in Spanish, while her husband nodded his head gravely. “But we are older. Things are not so easy for us.”
She gazed over at her son, the brown eyes in her deeply lined face softening near tears.
“He is such a good boy,” she said. “I can lose my bed, my clothes, even all my doilies – but if I don’t lose my son, my family, I am OK.”
Paying it forward
“Humberto really stuck out for me,” said Andrade, the community center worker. “He takes care of his parents before he takes care of himself, and I don’t see much of that anywhere. Most parents, when they get older, are just left to fend for themselves.”
Humberto Campos can’t conceive of being any different.
“Family is everything. My job is to take care of my parents the way they took care of me.”
Campos was working when his parents were awakened by screams and flames the morning of the fire. He got to the chaotic scene in time to help them into ambulances with 20 other victims, one of whom died. His mom suffered a heart attack and his dad passed out from smoke inhalation.
In the days that followed, Graciela and Raul recovered in the hospital.
“Even now, whenever I see fire, even on the TV, it feels like I’m going through it all again,” Graciela Campos said. “It is only with the grace of God and family we are here today.”
The family emigrated from Mexico City when Humberto was 12. They had extended family members in the Bay Area who were welcoming, but they were already tripled up in small homes with little money.
Raul Campos, who’d earned a living with a shovel and hammer since adolescence, found construction work in San Francisco. They settled in Redwood City, where Graciela took care of Humberto and several grandchildren through another son.
‘We were raised right’
Life in their new country was good. “We weren’t rich, but we were raised right,” Humberto Campos said. “We went to the movies, went to the circus, had dinners with the relatives. … Mom made sure I spent hours after school with the English language teacher instead of just playing soccer, so I became the one who learned.”
When his father’s legs and muscles succumbed five years ago to a lifetime of hard labor, Campos told him he would support them. “I’m the only one not married,” he told his father. “It’ll be OK. We’ll make it, leave it to me.”
Now, between his two jobs, days off are for hanging out with parents and cousins or playing a game of pickup soccer with friends. Sunday is for church.
And for Graciela Campos, free time is for making new doilies.
Her bookcases already have a set stitched from blue, red and white thread – the colors of America.
“There will be many more now,” she said, smiling and running a finger along the tightly laced edge of one of her creations. “Now that we have a home again – many more.”