Pressures of supporting business, family leave widow with little time to mourn Death of restaurateur, 39, prompts immigrants to review big work loads

July 30, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Heliodoro Bravo worked so hard for so long that, when he dropped dead two weeks ago at age 39, what his wife did made sense to their friends: she kept the family restaurant open and kept working.

No time off for a funeral. Only a few scattered hours to mourn. She says she could not even spare the days or money to accompany his body to Mexico, where her husband's parents had a service and burial. "We have always had to go forward, to support the family," says Filomena Bravo, 41. "We always work and work, because we have to pay the bills. We never rest."

The Bravos worked seven days a week, 15 hours a day at El Taquito Mexicano in Upper Fells Point. They did not take vacations, Filomena Bravo says. That sort of schedule is common, particularly for small-business owners, in Baltimore's small but growing Hispanic community.

But Bravo's death July 19 -- of liver failure caused by years of overwork and heavy drinking, friends and family say -- shocked the many Baltimore residents who knew him. It also has prompted considerable discussion in the city's Hispanic community about the schedules and lifestyles of new immigrants.

"I think maybe we all need to slow down a little bit," says Jose Luaces, owner of The Fishery restaurant on Eastern Avenue. "You know how it is with these young guys like Heliodoro: He worked hard. And he deserved to live long and have success."

"At first, I was astonished to see the Bravos' restaurant open the day he died," says Manuel Alban, publisher of the Spanish-language weekly El Heraldo. "But in our community, it was not really a surprise, because if you don't sell, you don't eat."

Long days and hard work have always been a fact of life for immigrants, from the earliest Europeans to the most recent Korean arrivals. Local Hispanics, though, make the case that the hours are especially long in their community, in part because they have not helped one another as often or as effectively as previous immigrant groups.

"Members of this community, as immigrants, face tremendous isolation," says Haydee Rodriguez, the mayor's representative to the Hispanic community. "If there is a family that typifies hard work and integrity, Heliodoro's is it. But even in this case, the family literally could not afford to grieve."

Miguel Rivera, 44, says the death of a fellow entrepreneur five years his junior "scares me." As the owner of San Luis Restaurant on Broadway, Rivera is cook, waiter and accountant. He says his health is "fine," but his days usually start at 7 a.m. and end at 2 a.m.

"All the work can be bad to your health," says Rivera, who has owned San Luis for two years. "I think a lot of us are saying, 'Maybe we need to slow down.' "

Last week, after Bravo's death, Rivera had a talk with his wife. "I said, 'Honey, we're going to try this restaurant for one more year. And if it doesn't get any easier, I'll find some other way to make money.' " He adds: "Heliodoro has three children, and I want to be around a long time for my kids, to watch them grow up."

Heliodoro Bravo's life is similar to those of many immigrants. Born July 3, 1957, in Chinantla, a small town about 100 miles northeast of Mexico City in the state of Puebla, he wanted to make a better living than his parents, who farm there.

As a teen-ager he moved to the city of Puebla, with about 100,000 residents. When he was 18, he began dating a smart, pretty young woman from Guerrero whom he met on the assembly line at a car-parts factory. Today would have been Filomena and Heliodoro's 18th wedding anniversary.

They have three children -- Nancy, 17, Carla, 16, and Heliodoro Jr., 14. "Their father wanted very much for them to be professionals -- doctors, lawyers, nurses or whatever," Filomena Bravo says.

In need of money to support the children, Heliodoro came to the United States in 1980. He told the U.S. government that he had come to visit, but his true intent was to work and send money to his family. Bravo washed dishes in Fells Point restaurants, friends say.

After the government granted amnesty to Bravo and thousands of other illegal immigrants during the late 1980s, he arranged for his wife and children to join him in the United States. Four years ago, the family launched El Taquito.

The restaurant developed a following, but the Bravos still struggled to break even, Filomena Bravo says. Her husband often found relief after a long day of work with a few beers at a neighborhood bar, despite a doctor's recent urgings that he cut his hours and stop drinking.

She said one day last week that it is hard for her to work in the narrow dining room, adorned as it is with her husband's mementos, without crying.

On one wall, near a copy of the menu, hangs an autographed picture of Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke with a young-looking Bravo last year. On another wall, Bravo, a recent applicant for U.S. citizenship, had hung the Mexican and U.S. flags.

"It is going to be very difficult without him," his wife says. "But I have to go on working. We must go forward."

Pub Date: 7/30/96

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