BY FRANCISCO GUAJARDO
José de Jesús Zuñiga, or Jesse as his friends and family called him, was determined to not die in the hospital if he ever contracted COVID-19. He unequivocally told his wife Maricela, who bore close witness to his life of more than 32 years of marriage, “If I ever get the virus, I will not go to the hospital.”
Jesse feared the deadly nature of the virus, but he feared dying alone more than the virus itself. And, on Aug. 7, 2020, he succumbed to the virus, at his La Feria home, as Maricela valiantly attempted to rescue him.
“He just stopped breathing, and I couldn’t do anything to help,” Maricela said.
The tragedy of Jesse’s finality differed dramatically from how he lived his life, his jovial personality and his engaging sense of humor. Jesse was “definitely funny,” Maricela intimates, as she describes how he came into the world on Dec. 11, 1969. He was delivered by a midwife on Sixth St. in La Feria.
“He weighed in at over 9 pounds,” Maricela said, as if showing up as a plump baby was Jesse’s first punch line.
Jesse grew up in the border community of Santa Maria, lived the life of a small-town boy who married his first love, and worked hard to love her until the day he died.
“Jesse was a good provider,” recalls Maricela. “He learned how to work hard from the time he was 13 or 14, when he worked as a migrant farmworker in the fields of Michigan and New York; he was not afraid of hard work.”
Through work, Jesse also gained his life education.
“My husband and I first met Jesse when he worked at Burton Auto Supply. First thing that impressed you was his personality,” said Gloria Casas, a long-time resident of La Feria who bore close witness to Jesse and Maricela for the past 30 years.
“But the most impressive thing was that Jesse always remembered what people needed,” Gloria said.
Working for Burton for more than 23 years, Jesse developed the skill of knowing people, and knowing their needs.
“When we married, he was only 16, so he was just a kid,” Maricela said. “But he always had a good heart, and he had a sense of purpose to help others.”
He built much of that skill set through his interactions with people at the auto parts store. He became a public person by working there — and that became his education.
“He was a natural at dealing with people,” Gloria said. “Una manera that helped him be a good public servant.”
Jesse’s je ne sais quoi facilitated his way to two terms on the La Feria City Commission, and to a seat as a member-at-large of the Lower Rio Grande Valley Development Council.
“Jesse did not seek out a political position. People sought him out as a public servant, because they trusted him,” Gloria said. “He represented a new breed of leaders.”
In the end, Jesse lived on his own terms, and he died on his own terms.
Maricela recalls, “Jesse was often quoted as saying ‘I was born in La Feria, I live in La Feria, and I will die in La Feria.’” Indeed, Jesse had it his way.
Que en paz descanse José de Jesús Zuñiga. Rest in peace.
Francisco Guajardo, chief executive officer for the Museum of South Texas History at 200 N. Closner Blvd. in Edinburg, authored this story as part of an ongoing series entitled Bearing Witness. The museum’s effort aims to document some of the Rio Grande Valley lives lost to COVID-19. For more information about the museum, visit MOSTHistory.org.