What he left behind
Jose Hernandez left little behind except a few well-used landscaping tools and his wide-brimmed hat when he died last month.
But for those who knew Hernandez, the memories he created will last a lifetime.
Hernandez called an open-air shed just across the railroad tracks from the old peanut dryer in Aubrey his home. A few pieces of furniture, clothes, empty liquor bottles and beer cans litter the ground. There’s a wood stove of sorts that Hernandez used to cook his meals, and the sight of smoke rising from the shed no longer alarms the firefighters who work just a few yards away.
It was common for Hernandez to have visitors. On June 17, long-time friend Alita Tabor stopped by to see him. She was the first to discover the grim scene inside the shed and flagged down firefighter Bryan Cruz, who was working that Wednesday.
“I just found his body lying face down,” Tabor said.
Cruz said there was no indication that Hernandez, who was about 65, died of anything other than natural causes.
“I would just say unknown medical causes,” Cruz said. “Probably just age, being out in the elements like that all the time, just kind of rough living.”
At a memorial service July 3 at the Coffey Building on Main Street, friends, neighbors and Aubrey firefighters shared stories of Hernandez and remembered a man they say would not hesitate to help any other member of the community.
“I’ve known him for so long – since I was little,” Tabor said. “He’s known my parents forever, and I have nothing but good memories about Jose. He was so humble and sweet, willing to help everybody.
“It’s sad we had to have him pass away the way he did and then come together when we should have done this probably years ago.”
Hernandez was a Mexican native living in Texas on an expired work visa.
“He was unique because he kind of had his own language – didn’t really speak Spanish, didn’t really speak English,” firefighter Matt Lollar said.
“He was nice all the time. It was kind of hard to communicate with him, but he was never in a foul mood.”
Hernandez worked hard most of his life in construction, landscaping and the local cabinet industry.
Jeff Bair described Hernandez as someone who could never sit still, was always moving and loved work. He would mow lawns and do other yard work for cash and try to fit in as another member of the community.
Bair said he’s been touched by how the town has treated its homeless citizen and that it speaks to Aubrey’s character. Bair had been working with the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Social Security Administration to help Hernandez attain citizenship.
“We judge people and we don’t give them a chance and sometime these people, like this man here, I think he was happier than a lot of people I know that live in half a million dollar homes,” Bair said.
Hernandez’s storied past is one of survival and tragedy, friends said. Umberto Garza said that after Hernandez’s brother was hit by a car and killed in the mid-90s, he had no family left in the United States but decided to stay in Aubrey rather than move back to Mexico.
Lynne Brown had known Hernandez for 25 years, longer than most who attended the memorial. She said his alcoholism began after a tragic accident took the life of his young granddaughter.
“He was clean as all get out,” Brown said. “One day, the little girl was playing ball out in the front yard, and she ran out into the street to get the ball and a car hit and killed her. After that, he went to drinking those great big bottles of whiskey.”
Hernandez wasn’t always homeless. Brown told a story about Hernandez and his ex-wife shortly after they had bought a home in town.
“One night, he came home from work and went to open the door to the bedroom, and she shot the gun through the door thinking it was an intruder. Shot his earlobe off,” Brown said. “Every time he went to knock on someone’s door, he’d stand way back from that day forward.”
Hernandez faced another brush with death more recently when he did a favor for a jealous man’s wife.
“Jose told me that he mowed a woman’s yard and the husband got mad at him because he mowed the woman’s yard and just came over there and set him on fire. Burned his ear off, burned him all over the place. It’s a miracle he survived that,” Brown said.
Hernandez spent several weeks in Parkland hospital recovering from his burns.
Brown is waiting for the Hernandez family in Mexico to claim the body from the Tarrant County Medical Examiner’s Office. If he is not claimed after the required waiting period, Brown and neighbors plan to have him cremated and scatter his ashes near downtown.