In Memory of Juan “Brand” Cruz, a Man Who Inspired Me to Be Better

By Leo Babauta

About 10 days ago, my wife Eva’s father Juan “Brand” Salas Cruz passed away, and he left an immense legacy.

He also changed me in ways I am only now beginning to realize.

He was a man of fierce and immense love for his family and anyone whose life he touched — and he touched a lot of lives, for many years. My father-in-law Juan was a man who was there for anyone, whether you were one of his beloved grandchildren, nephews or nieces … or a friend of his at the Guam Legislature … or a fellow rancher who was in need. He was there, always.

He was the guy who was called when someone was in trouble. The guy who made huge amounts of foods for weddings, graduation parties, funerals, birthday celebrations. The man who would fight for his loved ones, would be a second father to nieces and nephews, would do anything at all for his brothers and sisters, who poured out love for his grandchildren.

He changed me, because I saw him live that message of love every day that I knew him. He changed me, because he inspired me to be a better man. And I love him for that.

A Life of Contribution

Juan Salas Cruz was born in 1948 in Santa Rita, Guam, when the village was still newly built in the red-dirt hills of southern Guam. It was shortly after World War II, and Guam was in ruins from war, when the Japanese occupied the island until 1944.

He was born to his parents Juan Camacho and Luisa Salas Cruz, the “Brand” family, and he was one of 14 brothers and sisters. So a huge family, one that is incredibly loyal to each other.

He served in the Navy in the Vietnam War, worked at the Guam Telephone Authority, and then he met his wife, Lourdes Santos, who he loved for 40 years. They had three children together: my wife Eva, along with Amy and Juan Jr. There was nothing he wouldn’t do for these three kids.

Juan worked for many years in the Guam Legislature, as chief of staff and key administrative staffer for several Guam senators. He was the man behind the scenes for many people in the government, the problem solver, the mover of worlds.

He was also the first person in his family to get a college degree, and he had a strong intelligence that he didn’t often show off but that you could see in his eyes and actions.

But he was not an academic: he was a fisherman and a rancher. He loved fishing with a “talaya” (the Chamorro word for fishing net) and would take his nephews and nieces with him to remote beaches to catch fish that he loved to barbecue. He absolutely loved his ranch in Dededo (in northern Guam) and raised pigs that he would roast for people’s special occasions, along with vegetables for his delicious soups. He was often found with red dirt smeared all over his clothes and cowboy boots after a long day at the ranch, and some of his best friends were his ranch neighbors.

How I Knew Him

Some of my favorite memories of him were were when I would help him cook. He had a huge outdoor kitchen with massive pots and pans that he got from Navy surplus, and it seemed like every week there was a big event he was cooking for.

I would help him make red rice (a Guam specialty), or make incredible amounts of fried rice, eggs, bacon, pancakes and more for family breakfasts on New Year. We would barbecue, smoke beef, fry fish, bake hams, roast pigs. And then after all that, we would clean those massive pots with a big spray nozzle and hose down the kitchen.

I remember helping him after a typhoon had devastated the island and we had no power or running water. He would drive his big red 4×4 truck around getting water for family members and friends, helping them fix their houses, cleaning up debris of torn-up houses and trees, getting equipment to whoever needed them.

I remember him with his grandchildren, my kids … and how they were the world to him. He threw big birthday parties for them, took them to the ranch to ride tractors and help feed the pigs, brought them donuts on random mornings just because he was thinking of them, made them their favorite dishes and desserts, was always looking for toys for them, and would kiss them as if it were the last kiss he’d ever get.

I know how much he loved his home island of Guam. There was no other place like it, and he would say, “Guam is good,” with a pride and love in his eyes. He loved the backcountry ranches but also the people in the villages, and he had friends everywhere. Everywhere. He would listen to island music (and also country music) and he talked to me about his pride in the Chamorro people.

His Love Lives On

It’s an understatement to say that loved his brothers and sisters and their kids — including his brothers and sisters on his wife’s side, and their kids, they were no different in his eyes, all family, all deep inside his heart. Love is a tremendous word, but it’s inadequate to express how he felt. He would do anything for them, and often did.

He had nephews who were sons to him, on both sides of the family. He had nieces who were daughters to him. And their kids were his grandchildren. He raised not only his own kids but many others, and they are so broken up about the loss of this father figure in their lives. He went to any length to help them, and taught them so much about life.

He is not dead, because he lives on in their hearts, in their actions, everything they do reflecting some part of him, from how they treat each other and others in the community, to how they made a huge fiesta spread with several dozen dishes last night to honor him.

He lives on in me, my wife, my kids. In his daughter Amy, in Juan Jr. and his wife Jenny, in every relative who loved him and wants to express that love in some way. He lives on in his wife, Lourdes, who now has to go on without her partner. I’m so sorry for your loss, mom. I’m sorry for everyone’s loss, because his cowboy boots can never be filled, nor can the place he holds in our hearts.

All we can do is live by his example, and be better people, out of love for him.

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