Opinion

Want to know how to live to 100? Ask Henry’s advice, he’ll give you a good laugh, too.

‘Be thankful and live happy.’ See how this centenarian celebrates 100 years

Former Bracero Henry Guerrero celebrates his 100th birthday with friends and family, Saturday, May 18, 2019.
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Former Bracero Henry Guerrero celebrates his 100th birthday with friends and family, Saturday, May 18, 2019.

An extensive body of science calculates life expectancy based on our sex, income levels, educations, health histories and environments. And yet somehow, some way, Henry Guerrero has beaten science to reach the age of 100 today.

“I never thought I would live this long!” said Guerrero. “To reach 100! Oh my goodness! It’s a miracle!”

If not a miracle, Henry’s longevity is remarkable. Science tells us that life expectancy is greatly influenced by education and affluence. The more educated you are and the more money you have, the longer you will live.

With education and affluence comes comfort of living, an avoidance of harsh working or living conditions and ready access to premium health care. But the science of aging doesn’t stop there. The natural erosion of body and mind accelerate with age. Life can bring calamities and injuries that weaken immune defenses and diminish the spirit.

In 1825, less than a 100 years before Henry was born, Benjamin Gompertz, a British actuary, came up with a law of human mortality that is largely borne out by institutions such as Social Security Administration and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Gompertz law goes like this: Your odds of death basically double every eight years.

Opinion

Gravity and Levity, a popular science and physics blog, used Gompertz law to come up with a calculator that rated the odds of reaching 100.

What was the answer? That most of us face a 99.6 percent chance we won’t celebrate the birthday that Henry is celebrating May 19.

Our man is Henry is Mr. 0.4 Percent

When I typed my age, gender, weight and lifestyle data into a mortality calculator run by the John Hancock Life Insurance Company, it told me that my life expectancy is 87. My late mother was born in the United States a few weeks after Henry, but grew up in Mexico as he did.

But she died more than 20 years ago. My Mexican born dad was five months older than Henry, they may have even lived close to each other in early 1940s Mexico City, and papa died a decade ago.

All of this is remarkable enough until one assesses the risk factors of Henry’s life. And this adds another dimension of awesome to his story.

Guerrero lives now in his Foothill Farms home in North Sacramento with his 94-year-old bride, Alice. The distinguished gentleman of today enjoyed few material advantages in his life.

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Henry Guerrero, who celebrates his 100th birthday on Sunday, May 19, lives with his 94-year-old wife Alice in Foothill Farms. Photographed on Tuesday, May 14, 2019. Hector Amezcua hamezcua@sacbee.com

He was born in Mexico City where he was Enrique Guerrero. He came to America in the 1940s as the most humble of immigrants, part of a cohort of guest workers brought to America to harvest our fields during the manpower shortages of World War II. It was called “The “Bracero Program.” Why? Because the Spanish word for arms is “brazos.” And those who worked with their arms were “Braceros.”

“Employers were supposed to hire braceros only in areas of certified domestic labor shortage, and were not to use them as strikebreakers,” according to the Bracero History Archive, an educational project run by the Smithsonian National Museum, Brown University and several other organizations. “In practice, they ignored many of these rules and Mexican and native workers suffered while growers benefited from plentiful, cheap, labor.”

The late Cesar Chavez rose to prominence in the 1960s by organizing farm workers to combat the abuses of program, which was abolished in 1964.

For Henry, this entry to the United States meant back-breaking labor. It meant tending to wheat crops near Tule Lake and potato harvests in Southern California. He was brought from Mexico by train in a cramped freight car and slept on hard cots in army barracks.

He earned 5 cents a bag if he filled it with 90 pounds of potatoes. He later became a construction worker, laid concrete, worked in carpentry. He did very dangerous storm drain construction. His youngest daughter Christina Valle said that her father worked in conditions where cave-ins were common. Once, a storm drain he was working on caved in, burying him up to his arm pits. She said her father could feel his lungs constricting before being rescued.

This is a man who never knew his father. He was raised in relative poverty by his mother Vivianna in Mexico City. By the time he was a teenager, he was working in a foundry. A young friend suggested they go to the U.S. and Henry agreed.

“It was an adventure!” he said. And so it was. The train ride in cramped conditions. The journey to places he had never imagined, to live among people he couldn’t understand. What job stood out?

“It was my job to frighten ducks,” he said, laughing.

Scaring ducks?

“Yes. They liked wheat and it was my to get up early in the morning and shake sticks at them.”

I looked at Henry like he’s gotta be pulling my leg, but he was not, and the absurdity of it made him laugh even harder.

But how were you treated, sir? What was it like for you as a “bracero?” It was a loaded question. I have read about this program my entire adult life and know it to be synonymous with exploitation.

But it didn’t get Henry.

“I was treated well, “ he said. “I had a bed. I had food to eat. And I scared ducks!”

More laughter.

Well, else did you do?

“When we weren’t working, my friends and I were like urchins. From Tule Lake we would go to Oregon.”

Did you take a train?

“No. By foot! We walked. We would hitchhike, but a lot of times there were three of us and it was harder to get a ride.”

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Henry Guerrero holds one of many American flags that decorate his home on Tuesday, May 14, 2019. He came to the United States from Mexico during World War II under the bracero temporary worker program. WIth many soldiers fighting overseas, farm labor was in high demand. Guerrero left all he knew to come to a strange land. Hector Amezcua hamezcua@sacbee.com

The Bracero Program shipped him to Southern California, where he thought he would just keep working the fields until a friend talked him into construction. He made more money. He joined a union. He had enough to ride the bus to downtown L.A. to dance with young women from the same ethnic background.

His favorite place was “El Sombrero,” a dance hall where Mexican workers gathered to dance tangos and boleros. A beautiful woman caught his eye. Her name was Alice, she said. They danced, they understood each other, they fell in love.

This June will mark 70 years of marriage. They had three kids. Those kids gave him six grand kids. And those kids gave him six great grand kids. And there is a seventh on the way. Oh, Henry has two great-great grand kids.

He came to Sacramento in 1980 because his two daughters moved to the area. He has lived in the same Foothill Farms house ever since. Until five years ago or so, he was still driving. Until a year or two ago, he was still climbing onto his roof to fix his TV antennae.

No one in his family has even come close to a 100, he said.

How has done it?

His daughter Christina said her dad has lived a clean life: No drinking or smoking. He eats healthy, low cholesterol fare – lean meats, vegetables and his beloved beans.

Her son Manuel Valle said his grandfather is always in motion, busy. He finds trinkets and fashions them into tiny works of art that he gives to family.

Ask him to sing a song for Alice, as his family did last week, and Henry obliges, performing an original composition.

He reduced everyone in the room to tears with his unbridled expression of affection.

How does he do it?

“I can’t say that I have a big problem in my life,” Henry said. “Since I was young, I learned it’s best not to dwell on problems. To confront problems head-on and not be afraid of them. It’s the natural order of life.

“Every problem has a solution except one, and that’s when you die. When you die, you’re in God’s hands. But when you live, to have a long life, I say you should listen to people. Understand them. Never feel superior to anyone. If you do, maybe one day you will realize that you are inferior to the person you looked down on.”

And then he laughed. He said he’s most happy when his family is around. “When I express myself as I feel,” he said

‘Everyone who comes into his home gets a hug,” his grandson Manuel said. “He tells people he is so happy they are there.”

And they are so happy to be with him. You find yourself sharing his feelings. He did it with me. By the end of our visit, I was thinking I have to keep my mind busy, as Henry does by reading The Bee and Parade Magazine and doing puzzles. I’m going to try keep my heart open to other people and cherish my family. I’m going to try to love freely and openly and not fixate on daily problems.

It’s how Henry has done it.

“Maybe one day, when you’re much older, you’ll think back to what that old guy said when he was turning 100 and think – he was right! Or maybe that he’s crazy!” Henry said.

If that’s crazy, then I’ll take that kind of crazy. Because when I left him, Henry was happy. He was laughing and his family was looking at him with love.

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Marcos Breton writes commentary and opinion columns about the Sacramento region, California and the United States. He’s been a California newspaperman for more than 30 years. He’s a graduate of San Jose State University, a voter for the Baseball Hall of Fame and the proud son of Mexican immigrants.

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