Lulu Pastrana’s long road to finding her father ended only a few short doors away, but that same road eventually led to STU
What she remembers most are the lights. They changed colour every few seconds, almost to the rhythm of her mother’s voice.
Every weekend since Lourdes “Lulu” Pastrana was five years old, her mother took her to the bar where she sang. It was located at Hotel Villa San José, one of the best hotels in Morelia, Mexico. With its red adobe walls and gardens of flowers bushes and pine trees, the hotel had a pastoral feeling she loved. Her mom was part of a band made up of her grandfather and aunts. They worked Wednesday to Sunday from 9 p.m. until 2 a.m.
“I would stay up until 12 a.m. Then, I’d gather a few chairs in the bar and lie [down] to sleep,” said Lulu.
She and her mother lived in a tiny house with one bedroom.
“My mom, she made enough [money] for the two of us. And she was more than enough as a parent.”
When she was five, she asked about her father for the first time.
Her mother explained they split up before they knew she was pregnant. At the time, her mother was 20 years old while Pepe Vega was 50. She decided not to tell him when she realized she wanted to raise her child alone. A year went by before her mom let him know he had a daughter. By then, he was no longer living in Mexico and all he’d left behind were two pictures of himself that Lulu saved.
“My mom told me he was working in the United States. But I don’t know why she told me that.”
It was a lie.
Four of Morelia’s best hotels lined a street called Patzimba. They all have old architecture, the type that makes you feel like you’re in the countryside instead of the heart of a hectic metropolis. Lulu’s mother and relatives worked in the one at the end of the road.
One afternoon, while her mom was rehearsing, she walked with her aunt to the convenience store five minutes away.
When they passed one of the hotels, “she told me, ‘Your dad lives there. Go ahead, knock on the door.’ So I did, but a random lady opened the door and said ‘Can I help you?’ and I said, ‘No.’”
When Lulu’s mother heard about the incident she was furious and insisted Vega didn’t live there.
But after this occurrence, Lulu asked about her father constantly. A few months later, her mom gave in.
“OK. You want to meet your dad? Let’s meet him.”
The first time
Lulu’s mom called Vega after many years of hearing nothing from him.
“I remember my mom even bought me new clothes for that day.”
Lulu was now almost six years old.
She climbed into her mother’s car with her white sandals and her new white dress, with two dark blue stripes at the hem. After a while she recognized the route her mother was taking. She was driving towards Patzimba, the hotel street where they went almost every day.
She noticed the hotel she’d knocked on a few months before had, for the first time ever, its entrance doors wide open.
“I had been going there for five years and my dad was there all the time.”
That was when she discovered her father was the owner.
The Hotel Quinta Torcazas was not open to the public, only to family and friends. Normally, its doors were closed.
“But that day he knew we were coming. He was expecting us.”
Lulu was intimidated by her father as soon as she saw him because he was “super, super tall.”
Vega was almost 60 years old at the time. Besides owning the hotel, he was a successful businessman who exported avocados to the United States and Canada.
“It was very awkward at the beginning. I didn’t call him ‘Dad.’ I didn’t call him anything I just said, ‘Hey,’” she said.
“He didn’t know how to have kids. I was his only daughter. He actually hated children and was kind of expecting me to be a young adult. But I was totally not.”
Soon enough, Lulu was spending her weekends at her father’s hotel, where she had a room reserved just for her. Hotel staff treated her like a queen, cooking for her and making her bed – a very different situation than at her mother’s house.
They were the ones who actually made sure she brushed her teeth and took her medicine when she was sick because her dad, let’s just say, wasn’t inclined that way.
“One time, I had a flu and [my dad] took me to the emergency room because he didn’t know what to do,” she said.
Never having educated a child, Vega struggled with boundaries.
“When I asked him for money to go to the convenience store he would give me like, in Canadian dollars, $50. And he didn’t even ask for change!”
Fortunately, her mother was there to help. She didn’t allow Lulu to ask for money or accept as many toys as he would’ve bought her without thinking. Lourdes said it would have been easy for her mother to take advantage of Vega’s money. But she never did.
“For me and my dad, our thing was travelling.”
They went on road trips almost every weekend to visit nearby villages, or to see the land where he grew the avocados. With the windows down, they would listen to music and talk.
It was during the road trips where they really got to know each other.
“He was actually a really smart man. He would explain how to do wine or talk about his favourite book.”
When Lulu started going to middle school and was more mature, she even went to business meetings with her dad.
“He really liked that.”
The bump in the road
When Lulu started sixth grade, her dad found a tiny bump on the back of his ear. It was a tumour.
After having it checked by Mexico City’s best doctors, he assured her and her mother the tumour was benign. Soon enough, though, it started growing cancerous cells that spread throughout his body.
While in treatment, Lulu spent more time with him.
“After school I would eat in my mom’s house, pay a cab to his house and go to the clinic.”
Even while in treatment, nothing had changed. He was still the strong old man he was when they first met.
“He was the healthiest man I have seen in my life. I had never seen him eating sodas or hamburgers.”
In her third year of middle school, Vega started chemotherapy.
He lost weight, his hair fell out and the right side of his face was slightly paralyzed.
He even stopped drinking wine, his favourite. And because he got tired easily, the long road trips they enjoyed were no longer part of the agenda.
Five days away from her middle school graduation, Lulu, 15 at the time, went to her father’s to drop off the invitation. As usual, they ate dinner together and talked.
“But you could see he was tired. By this time the tumour had spread to his lungs. They had operated [on] him and taken out a part of his lung.”
His face lit up when she gave him the invitation, but he soon fell asleep. Lulu put a blanket on him and left.
“The next day, my mom woke me up and told me, ‘I got a phone call from your dad’s receptionist. She told me your dad passed away.’ I remember it as if it were a dream, like not really happening.”
She felt numb.
The two little boxes
After Vega was cremated, his siblings and his daughter discussed where to leave his ashes.
“They were saying, ‘We are going to take the ashes to the city he was from.’ I didn’t want to do that. I didn’t want him to be away. I was never going to go to [Zamora] in my life.”
So she didn’t allow them to take Vega from her side.
“[My mom and I] took the box with ashes, we put the ashes in another box and filled the other one with sand.”
She knew her father’s siblings would never open the box to see the ashes; and so far, they haven’t.
“It felt more right for him to stay with his family,” she said.
Vega’s will left 50 per cent of everything he had to his daughter and the other half to five of his brothers.
“I really wasn’t expecting anything, but he was very generous.”
Her uncles contested the will, but Lulu’s mother took the case to court. Luckily, her partner was a lawyer and helped them fight for what was rightfully theirs.
“Actually, the trial lasted three years. My entire high school was that trial.”
Witnessing how the trial was sucking her mother dry, Lulu told her to drop it.
“I told her, ‘I would much rather be the poorest person ever and go to community college and have you healthy and safe.’”
Finally, the trial ended during her last semester of high school. The judge ended up charging Vega’s brothers with fraud and Lulu finally received what her father meant for her to inherit.
At the time, she met someone who was studying at St. Thomas University.
“He told me I should apply to STU because it is a great town, great university and the Latin culture is great.”
After applying, Lulu received the McLaughlin scholarship at St. Thomas which covers full Canadian tuition, leaving her just the international difference to pay.
“That is what I am using now to pay for tuition and my apartment. That is literally why I’m here, because of my dad.”
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