José Tomás Mejía was a legend for his brothers and sisters in the Salvadoran town of Moncagua.
They heard how he fled to San Salvador when he was 14 to avoid being forced into the military during the civil war. How he left the country at the age of 17 and ended up being assaulted, robbed and left in Mexico with nothing. How he slept on empty cement bags every night at the construction site he worked until he saved enough to get to the United States
He was the only one of the seven siblings his mother did not call by name. “Mi niñoshe called out. The letters Mejía sent from America became the textbook their mother used to teach younger children to read.
When Fermín Pineda arrived in the United States five years ago and finally met his older brother, he was not disappointed.
Mejía was a janitor, known and trusted by tenants and admired by his colleagues, in an apartment complex where he made $ 17 an hour. He spent lunch breaks helping negotiate a new contract for himself and his co-workers. When a car crashed into a crowd at an immigrant rights rally in Orange County, Mejía jumped on the hood to try to stop it.
Last year, the 50-year-old made his dream of buying a house in LA come true.
No one expected Mejía’s story to end on the fifth floor of a tower in La Brea Park, where he had worked for over three years. Or that his life would be cut short by an attacker no older than he was when he fled his homeland.
“His dream was cowardly snatched away from him. We can’t figure it out, ”Pineda said. “For me, José Tomás Mejía is not just a name. This is the title of a story. The title of a book. Because there is so much to say about him.
Mejía’s family lived in a rural area of Moncagua where ox-drawn carts got stuck in the mud.
The boy shared a bed with his mother and four siblings in a 13ft by 20ft house. Before he reached adolescence, Mejía promised that he would one day move his family to a place where there was room for everyone.
But first, he had to survive the country’s civil war, which pitted rebels against a right-wing government backed by the United States. More than 75,000 Salvadorans have died; millions more have fled.
After a friend was shot in the leg by a civil defense group who mistook him for a guerrilla fighter, Mejía decided it was time to leave. He moved to Soyapango in San Salvador, 120 kilometers away, and lived with an uncle, Raúl Mejía. There, Raúl supported him, bought him school uniforms and asked his eldest daughter to help him study.
“I supported him in the worst times,” said Raúl. “Everything he needed.”
When the conflict reached Soyapango, the family took down their beds and put the mattresses against the walls to try and protect themselves from the bullets. Eventually they fled to Nueva Granada.
Mejía, now 17, decided it was time to go. Being a minor, he had to return to Moncagua to have his mother sign documents allowing him to leave the country.
But when he arrived in Mexico, Mejía was assaulted and robbed. Left with nothing, he slept on park benches until a man offered him a job on a construction site. He spent the nights he worked, using empty cement bags as a cushion.
“Even then, he didn’t give up on his dream of reaching the United States,” Pineda said.
Mejía’s mother has not heard from him during this turbulent time. She thought her son was dead. It was only when he arrived in Los Angeles in 1991 that he was able to write to her to tell her that he was okay. Soon after, he got a job as a janitor at Toyota’s offices in Torrance.
Within a few years, he had sent enough money to El Salvador for his family to move into a new home.
By the time Mejía started working at Park La Brea, he had over two decades of concierge experience under his belt. And he was a married man, having met Dora Molina, also Salvadoran, on a dance floor in 1994. He helped bring his three children from El Salvador to the United States.
His arrival in 2018 marked the start of a marked improvement for the residents of Towers 33 and 34. Chan Rudrapatna saw him every morning around 8 a.m., changing the trash bags outside. Mejía cleaned every inch of the building, she said, including the doorknobs, mirrors, walls and elevator buttons.
“He wasn’t someone who took his job casually,” Rudrapatna said.
Mejía was also there for Rudrapatna in difficult times. Last year, when she informed him of her mother’s death, Mejía came to offer her condolences. After he finished working, he knocked on her door and spent 20 minutes trying to comfort her.
“I just don’t want you to feel so sad,” he told her, “because you have your family and they need you.”
Tenants expected him to greet them each day with a blissful smile. They learned his name from the patch that read “Jose” in red letters on his work shirt. In the morning, Igor Chase’s 4-year-old daughter went to pick up Mejía to say hello. When she heard him vacuuming the hallway, she opened the door to give him fruit or a snack.
He spent decades with the Service Employees International Union-United Service Workers West. And he rose through the ranks. He was elected by his peers to sit on the executive council of the locals.
“He was walking the path of change he wanted to see in the world and has dedicated a great deal of his life to helping others,” said Alejandra Valles, Secretary-Treasurer and Chief of Staff of SEIU-USWW.
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On June 16, Mejía went to Tower 33 to work. At around 1:15 p.m., he spoke with his wife and told her to take a bus to do the grocery shopping and that he would pick her up from the supermarket after her shift.
That afternoon, around 2:30 p.m., a 17-year-old came to Tower 33. He had had a dispute with a resident of the building and was intended to “harm” this tenant, the detective said. LA Police Department. Sean Kinchla.
But the suspect met the janitor, and there was “a showdown,” police said. Mejía was found – stabbed to death – in the stairwell on the fifth floor of the Park La Brea tower.
Mejía’s keys had been confiscated, possibly because the suspect was trying to enter the tenant’s apartment, Lt. John Radtke said. The keys were then collected on site.
The teenager fled on foot and was later arrested. He faces a murder charge; his defense team has expressed doubts about his ability to stand trial. The police do not release his name because he is a minor.
At 4 p.m., as Molina was walking towards the market, she called Mejía. He did not answer the phone. An hour later, she was standing next to a full cart, waiting for her husband to arrive and pay for their groceries.
“Where are you?” she texted him. ” Why do not you answer ? “
When Mejía’s cousin called and told her he would come pick her up, she left the market sobbing. She thought Mejía had had an accident.
“I never thought it would be something like this,” Molina said. “He didn’t deserve this.
The day after Mejía’s death, locals stopped to pay their respects at a small memorial erected by union members outside Tower 33.
People, some making the sign of the cross, stopped to look at photos of the smiling guard.
Word among workers and tenants was that the suspect wanted to enter his girlfriend’s apartment and believed the janitor’s keys would unlock the door. According to Valles, Mejía’s keys did not open the apartments.
Still, “Tomás was not giving up the keys,” Valles said. “This is the building he is responsible for cleaning and keeping safe. Knowing Tomás, he fought.
“In loving memory of José Tomás Mejía,” one poster read, which included a link to a GoFundMe to help Mejía’s family. On another board, residents wrote messages: “Thank you for your positive energy every morning that we meet in the lobby of Tower 33”; “José, you were an angel for us on earth”.
Among those who stopped was Rafael Acevedo, whose boots were covered in mud after spending the morning fixing an irrigation pipe in La Brea Park. He has worked at the resort for over 20 years.
When he heard the news the day before, he cried. He had known Mejía since 1994; Acevedo’s wife is the niece of Mejía’s wife. Acevedo is familiar with the loss; in 2016, his brother was shot dead in Guatemala.
“But here?” he said. “You would never think something like this would happen in a country like this.”
That evening, more than 50 people gathered for a vigil in the dark parking lot of union headquarters in Southern California on West Washington Boulevard, the few lights coming from a path of candles. Mejía often told his wife that this building was her second home; union, his second family.
When he finally bought a real house and got the keys on his birthday last September, the house was less than four miles from the union building. He planned to use one of the rooms as an office for the union organization.
“I don’t know where he got so much strength, so much energy from,” said Molina, who described her husband as having childish happiness.
Against the backdrop of enlarged photos of Mejía, who was smiling at almost everyone, dozens of her union colleagues shared memories. Among the participants was City Councilor Kevin de León, who fought and walked alongside Mejía.
They talked about the workers who admired Mejía and the supervisors who feared him. The time someone pointed a gun at him as he knocked on doors in Las Vegas trying to turn the state blue. The way he fought for his people, like a real “luchador. “
“Tomás never asked for anything for himself,” Marisol Rivera, janitor and SEIU-USWW vice president, told the crowd. “It was for his colleagues. For the others. “
On Saturday, Mejía will be buried in Inglewood Park cemetery.
He had always planned to return one day to his native country. But his family accepted that he be buried in the country where he spent most of his life fighting for others.
His mother, now 74, doesn’t want to think about her son who died after so many years.
She wants to remember him as he was.