January 19, 2015 - 7:28 PM
VERNON - When he was a kid, Mario Aragon’s grandfather nicknamed him ‘tiacuache’—Spanish for opossum—because the animals are said to have seven lives.
Mario, now 53, has lived up to the moniker. His journey from the small Oaxaca village he was born in to Bill’s Place, an addictions recovery home in Vernon, has been a long one.
These days, he lives in a downstairs suite at the facility, using his skills as a chef to prepare meals for the other residents. He has his guitars, his health—he spends many hours at the gym—and is able to offer guests tea or a soft drink. Those things mean a lot to Mario. He says Bill’s Place has given him a new life.
“When you cut a tree, the roots start shooting up and growing. You grow up again,” he says.
He wants others to know if he can get a fresh start, so can they. But to understand what this new life truly means to him, you have to know how he got here. Like the other men who walked through the doors of Bill’s Place, he has a past and a story. If you’ve ever wandered by someone on the street and wondered how they arrived there, well, this is one man’s answer.
Mario was only a child, eight he thinks, when he went out on his own looking for work. In a household of 15 kids, there were too many mouths to feed and his parents couldn’t support them all. Mario got a job at a tortilla factory, working seven days a week, sleeping under trees and buildings some nights, sending money home to his family.
“God gave me this power to never give up,” he says.
Throughout his life, Mario has been determined to make something of himself, “to show people who I am and what I have in me.” It was that same drive that prompted him to leave Mexico in his early 20s and move to California.
America wasn’t immediately what he’d hoped for. He got a job as a dishwasher, making $1.75 to $2.50 an hour, playing his guitar at bars and restaurants for extra cash. He didn’t give up though. He saved enough money to take a culinary course in San Francisco and four years later landed a job at a restaurant in Newport Beach making $30 an hour. He bought a beautiful red motorcycle, started racing it, and was suddenly surrounded by ‘senoritas’.
“I wanted to be this little guy coming from Mexico from the middle of nowhere, from poor people, from a family with 15 kids, from a place I had no shoes on. I wanted to show them I could be something in my life,” Mario says.
In a few years, he had $75,000 in the bank, but it wasn’t enough. He decided to quit his job and move to Las Vegas, “a place you can be famous and make your dreams come true.”
He didn’t find what he was looking for in Vegas—or in Salt lake City, Chicago, or any of the other cities he visited over the next several years. He began spending more money on partying and drinking, with no job to support the lifestyle. His cash was running out. He began jumping on trains and riding them wherever they went. Asked why he kept moving, Mario says, “You look for something better but you never find what you want.”
Eventually, he found himself in Everett, Washington, close to the border, and decided to make his way into Canada. He crawled into a compartment underneath a train, secured himself with rope, and made it all the way to Vancouver. He gave the conductor quite a fright when he dropped out from under the train. To his own surprise, the conductor said ‘Welcome to Canada,’ and gave him $20 for bus fare.
He applied for refugee status and got a job in the kitchen of a Holiday Inn. Acquaintances tried to coerce him into selling drugs on the streets of Vancouver, but he walked away. He soon got together with a woman and followed her to Hope where they lived with her three kids. After working at a gas station for a while, Mario opened up his own restaurant and called it Mi Casa. Life was going well for Mario; he was making new friends and becoming a popular character in Hope. But things began to sour with his girlfriend, and Mario decided to close the restaurant and move out. He heard there was work in Vernon, and with his beloved dog Jack, hit the road again.
He began working in a Coldstream apple orchard, a job he loved because Jack could be at his side all day long. The owners were good to him, paying him fairly and providing accommodation.
With a friend’s help, Mario decided it was time to look up one of his sisters who to his knowledge, was living in California. He hadn’t spoken to her in over a decade. On the phone with her, he asked about the rest of the family, still in Mexico. He wanted to know if they were alive.
“I had tears coming out of my eyes,” he says.
It was around this time that Mario started drinking heavily. With no family around him, his loneliness began to weigh heavily. Then the orchard shut down, and his loyal dog Jack passed away.
“He lived with me 18 years and 11 days,” Mario says. “When he died, I didn’t know what to do.”
He chased his sorrow down with whatever alcohol was in the fridge, drinking at breakfast, lunch and dinner, he says. Mario, who had never given up on himself before, had lost the will to live.
“Sometimes I wouldn’t eat. I’d get sick and go to the hospital. The doctor would say Mario, you have to stop. You are killing yourself,” he says. “I didn’t care. I was going crazy.”
This past year, Mario was walking around, drunk, at 1 a.m. and began throwing up blood. He was rushed to hospital and stayed there for over two months. Medical personnel connected him with Bill’s Place, where staff guided him through the 12 step program and helped Mario find his inner strength when he couldn't find it himself.
“You come here, and these beautiful people day by day make you get stronger, make you, you again,” Mario says. “I’m alive again because of them.”
Now he goes out grocery shopping for Bill’s Place and cooks his famous spaghetti and burritos for the other residents. He plans to get another dog soon, and after that, maybe find a señorita.
Everybody has the power to heal and start again, he says. Like the opossum with its seven lives, people can get a new life.
“He gets up again. He survives and keeps going. He makes it to wherever he wants to go,” Mario says.
Bill’s Place, which opened in the spring of 2013, receives no government funding and is reliant on donations from the public.
Donations can be made by mailing a cheque to the John Howard Society at: 2307 43rd Street, Vernon, B.C. VIT 6K7 or online by visiting their website.
To contact the reporter for this story, email Charlotte Helston at email@example.com or call 250-309-5230. To contact the editor, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 250-718-2724.
News from © InfoTel News Ltd, 2015