Dreams over time, one at a time
He has always dreamed.
Of what could be.
When he was 8, picking strawberries in the fields of his Mexican town.
When, at 12, he left home for the big city to sell popsicles and snow cones to help his parents provide for their family.
When, at 17, he walked from Tijuana over the mountain range into California, wanting the American dream.
"Era muy triste - la pobreza," he says. The poverty - it was very sad. "And it made me very sad. My dreams were different."
What he saw was a life of possibility - and music.
And although it may not be exactly the original dream, what Ruben Escalera has now, at 54, is close enough to make him happy.
By most days, Ruben is a school custodian who takes pride in keeping his Douglas County high school neat, clean, ready for the students who fill its halls. Other days, he trades his working polo shirt for a crisp button-down, his white baseball cap for a black cowboy hat, and steps onto a stage to croon norteño music in a deep, resonant voice before crowd-packed venues in several Mexican states.
He is a wiry, compact man, a divorced father of three with brushes of gray in his sideburns and a closely trimmed beard and mustache. He walks with a measured step, and speaks with quiet assurance born of devout faith that seeks good in what comes his way.
"Gracias a Dios, nunca me di por vencido," he says. Thanks be to God, I never gave up. "Luché, luché, luché, luché."
He fought, always.
And there was much to fight.
He lived in Corona, a rural town in Michoacán, a state just west of Mexico City. He was one of 13 children of a homemaker mother and a father who did everything from plumbing to bricklaying and construction.
Some of his brothers cut sugar cane; Ruben did, too. Mostly he picked strawberries with two of his sisters. He'd arrive at the field at 7 in the morning and pick for an hour, then head to school. At noon, he'd leave school and return to the fields for another two hours, before finishing out the afternoon with play and homework - "the typical life of a boy of 8 years old."
Because he had to leave school to help his father, he repeated first grade four times. He never made it to second grade.
"Es una tristeza," he says softly. "It is a sadness."
That reality derailed an early dream to be a priest, to study in a seminary. Instead, at 12, he left home for Mexico City to sell popsicles and snow cones. He lived with seven others who rented a house together.
"I believed that was the best way I could help my parents," he says.
But another dream - the one in which he was a singer - stayed quietly alive.
It was born in his home, among the instruments dispersed in corners - the guitar, the violin, the guitarrón of the mariachi tradition. His father played them all. His mother sang with "a precious voice." And his brothers and he joined in also.
"Nos traían esa herencia," he says. They gave us that heritage.
And much happiness.
At 9, he had won his first singing competition at the local theater, the first of many such performances in those young years.
But at 17, searching for a better life, he crossed the border illegally to join his brother in Los Angeles. He washed dishes and cars, worked in metal and carpet factories. He also learned to play the bass guitar and joined a mariachi group that performed in Mexican neighborhood nightclubs. It became a second, welcome source of income.
His voice, smooth and sonorous, brought him work in variety shows in Los Angeles and Las Vegas on long weekends.
When he married at 25, he turned to norteño music, most comparable to American country music, Ruben says. And for seven years he performed with a band. During that time, in 1986, Ronald Reagan's immigration policy, which provided amnesty to 3 million illegal immigrants, opened the door for Ruben to become a legal resident.
But then came the "sickness in his throat." Cancer. He stopped performing for two years to treat it, then joined another band, the most successful one, with which he toured throughout the U.S. and Mexico for four years.
In 1999, the cancer returned. And "with all the pain in my soul, I had to leave the band." For much of two years, he communicated only by writing, praying that God would let him keep his voice. Eventually, his throat healed.
That twist in the road, however, brought him to Colorado and to the job he now holds and which, he says, he loves.
Six years ago, working hard to improve his English, he became a U.S. citizen.
Five years ago, he began to sing again.
The first time he performed, he cried. "It was a very big emotion, very big, very big. ... The people, they liked my work, accepted my style. ... I was happy."
He calls himself "El Vale de Michoacán," after the nickname his late father called him as a child - val-ay, buddy. Two to three times a year he heads to Mexico to perform.
Life is good. He is content.
But he harbors one more dream, to one day dedicate himself only to his music.
Dreams are important, he says.
"When you know you can be someone, but you don't have the means, well, it is dreams that one uses to fight."
Like Ruben did.
Un sueño, one dream, at a time.
To listen to Ruben Escalera sing, go to www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZWysVfyFmog.
Ann Macari Healey's column about people, places and issues of everyday life appears every other week. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 303-566-4110.