Mario Guerra was a community volunteer long before he ventured into local politics, but his election to the Downey City Council in 2006 transformed him from ordinary family man and Little League president into a bona fide public figure, and his propensity for the spotlight cemented his image as an outspoken – and sometimes brash – politician.
For someone with as much energy as Guerra, the job of city council member suited him well. If you belong to a Neighborhood Watch group, chances are good Guerra attended your first meeting. Guerra published his personal phone number in the Downey Patriot, and at council meetings he showed the same passion for multi-million dollar redevelopment projects as he did plans to fix potholes.
Guerra sang Downey’s praises everywhere he went, earning him the nickname “Downey’s Biggest Cheerleader” from former mayor David Gafin. He personally made the 5,000-mile trip to Roscommon County, Ireland – the birthplace of John Gately Downey – to sign sister-city papers.
But Guerra’s oversized personality also made him a lightning rod for criticism. He sometimes sparred with residents at council meetings, and was the target of critics who accused him of turning a blind eye to Downey’s “cultural inertia.”
Through my time as editor of the Downey Patriot, I grew to know Guerra pretty well. And speaking strictly as a writer and journalist, his candid personality was an interviewer’s best friend.
I also got to know another side to Guerra, one not typically seen by the average citizen.
It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the fall of 2015 when I got a panicked phone call from my mom. She was working as a live-in nurse to an elderly woman who was near death. A devoutly religious woman, she insisted on receiving her last rites before taking her final breath.
There was little time to spare. Priests from the local Catholic churches were in the middle of Sunday services, so my mom asked if Guerra – an ordained deacon and chaplain with the Downey Police Department – might be willing to visit for a prayer. I told her I’d ask.
Guerra answered the phone with his familiar, “Hey, big guy, how you doing?” He sounded relaxed and happy; I heard the distinct sound of children’s laughter in the background.
I apologized for interrupting his Sunday afternoon and explained the situation. Despite having just arrived with his wife at a family birthday party, Guerra dropped everything and made himself available.
He didn’t ask who the woman was, or which church she attended, or even if she was Catholic. All he asked was the woman’s address, because all he saw was a person in need.
Guerra arrived at the home within 30 minutes, and the elderly woman died that same evening. She died with her soul at peace.
There are other instances too. In 2010, I was interviewing Guerra about his re-election plans at the Coffee Bean on Firestone Boulevard when we were approached by a disheveled woman begging for food. I mumbled something about not having any cash and apologized meekly. Others wouldn’t even look the woman in her eyes. But Guerra did something remarkable – he placed his arm around the woman, escorted her to the counter, and handed the cashier a gift card that had been tucked inside his wallet. He told the woman to order whatever she wanted off the menu.
I like to think Guerra not only provided that woman food and nourishment, but also dignity by making her feel human.
Then there was Christmas 2014. It was my first year organizing a toy drive for Gangs Out of Downey and donations were hard to come by. The Downey community is extremely giving and charitable, but we were competing for donations against other toy drives happening simultaneously in Downey (a good problem).
Guerra wrote a personal check that, frankly, saved the Gangs Out of Downey toy drive from being a total disaster. He made the donation from his personal bank account and with zero fanfare. He had to be talked into posing for a photograph a week later.
For several years Guerra pitched me on the idea of helping him write a book, but I hesitated for several reasons, not the least of which was I’ve never collaborate on a book before. The thought of writing the personal story of another man’s life – literally from birth to present – was overwhelming.
Also, the timing wasn’t right. As long as Guerra remained on the City Council, it wouldn’t be appropriate to collaborate on a book while simultaneously covering him as a journalist.
But perhaps most importantly, I wanted no part in writing a book that wouldn’t be taken seriously by the public. Was this going to be a real memoir – a book that people would want to purchase and enjoy – or just a vanity project?
The more I chatted with Guerra, the more I realized his vision for the book was sincere. In fact, “Embracing Change: An Immigrant Saga” isn’t as much about Guerra as it is about hope, inspiration, patriotism, and invaluable lessons learned first-hand.
Born in Cuba, Guerra arrived in the United States at just six years old in the first wave of “Freedom Flights” fleeing Fidel Castro’s iron-fisted dictatorship. He spoke no English and lived in a cramped 1-bedroom apartment with 11 other family members. He endured unspeakable tragedies, including the deaths of four family members in a plane crash over Long Beach (Guerra had been scheduled to be on that flight).
Despite these obstacles, Guerra earned a college degree, started his own insurance agency, raised a family, became a deacon, created two foundations, ran for public office, and eventually became mayor of his hometown.
The journalist in me saw a story.
Once Guerra was off city council and firmly in the grasps of civilian life, I agreed to help with the book. The result is “Embracing Change: An Immigrant Saga,” published by Archway.
The ultimate compliment would be for someone to read the book and come away enlightened, or possibly entertained. It’s the same goal I set with the Downey Patriot every week.