His abuelita was a hard woman “always on the move,” according to Fernando Osorio.
In fact, when he was 24 years old and she was in her mid-70s, he held her hand and she trudged her way through a Tijuana cemetery.
While he walked beside her, she was on her knees, in the dirt, making her way down through the graveyard’s winding path.
Osorio explains that his abuelita was a superstitious woman and she had promised Juan Castillo Morales, the folk saint of soldiers and infantrymen who has a statue in his honor just south of the border in a graveyard, that she would make the journey on her knees.
“I held her hand, and she did it — through the dirt. I couldn’t believe it,” Osorio said.
She had done this because she had promised that if her grandson, who she had raised since he was 9 years old, and who had given her hell as a troublemaking honor student who helped her organize the family get-togethers every Sunday at her house, came back from the Marines in one piece, she would do the walk in gratitude to Morales.
But before she would make that walk, Osorio had to make sure that even as Scud missiles flew overhead and the Middle Eastern sun beat down on his neck, he would make it back home to his abuelita.
Osorio was born Sept. 13, 1969, to Luis and Eusebia Osorio.
The oldest of six siblings, Osorio from a young age knew he would have to make a path for himself. After his father left, his mother worked to support her children as a technician at California Smog.
Salvation for Osorio, though, would come in the form of his abuelita, or simply “Wita,” as her family affectionately called her.
Wita, Socorro Maldonado, lived in a single bedroom in East Los Angeles. But on one summer trip, when Osorio was 9, he found a love and affection not only for his grandmother, but also for her neighborhood.
“My grandmother was always making tamales, and she raised so many kids,” he said. “I mean, my cousins lived just down the street, and I could always play with them, and I really liked the school there.”
His mother consented to having him go and live with his abuelita, and Osorio got his dream of living with his East Los Angeles family. But it wouldn’t be the cake walk that summer might’ve been for him.
“She was a hard-ass sometimes,” said Osorio. “I’d come home and she’d check my homework. She didn’t have a car so she’d walk everywhere — to Kmart or to this little store for tamale supplies.”
One time, Osorio said he was sick at school but really only had to go to the bathroom. Trying to get out of class, he went to the nurse’s office, and they called his abuelita to come pick him up.
“Wita walked the mile and a half to come pick me up,” Osorio recounted. “But by the time she got there, I was ‘feeling better’ already. But I wanted to go home. Later though, my cousin came over and asked me if I wanted to go out … and I was all excited to go and she goes, ‘No, you’re sick. You’re staying home.’”
After finishing elementary school and junior high, Osorio said he entered high school and almostly immediately discovered he had a talent with his hands: whether they were grabbing engine parts or beers.
He said he liked to party, and would often go to ditch day parties throughout high school. “The guys we bought it from knew we were underage but didn’t care.” However, when he was actually in class, he was taking every type of “shop class” imaginable.
“Woodshop, auto shop, any type of shop, I took it,” said Osorio.
However, he said one day, while working in the same Kmart his grandma would trudge to on nearly a daily basis, he had an epiphany.
“I worked in the makeup and toys section at the store, and every day I would clean up (stock the shelves), and one of the kids would come through and pull it all off and onto the ground,” said Osorio, with a tinge of joking resentment still in his eyes. “And I knew right then — this wasn’t for me. I knew I had to do something with my life.”
Osorio said around the time of the Kmart-toys-in-the-aisle debacle, a Marine recruiter he had met earlier came to his door.
“I told him he can’t come in ’cause Wita wouldn’t like that,” said Osorio, adding the Marine recruiter proceeded to wait, on his abuelita’s porch, for 45 minutes while Osorio got ready. He then was driven by the recruiter to take the ASVAB test.
Less than three months after graduating from high school, Osorio enlisted on Sept. 18, 1986, in the U.S. Marine Corps.
He was sent down to San Diego from East Los Angeles to complete his basic training only after telling his abuelita.
“She was worried,” said Osorio. “She didn’t want me getting hurt.”
He says, though, there are two days every Marine remembers: the Marine Corps’ birthday and the day they finish basic training.
“I came home, and my mom and Wita were so happy,” said Osorio. “I went out with my friends when I got back, and I remember looking at them thinking like how much I had changed since I first left — but all my friends were still doing the same stuff.”
After finishing his infantry training, “because everyone in the Marine Corps is in infantry,” Osorio traveled a bit from base to base before receiving his military occupation specialty in being a mechanic. He would end up in Hawaii for his first official installation. Every year, he would spend six months in Okinawa, Japan, which he said he loved.
“Everywhere I went, from Washington, D.C., to Wake Island, to Guam, to Hawaii, to the Philippines, to South Korea, to Japan,” Osorio said, “I picked up a phone to call back home and tell them where I was.”
The Gulf War
Osorio remembers being told he would be shipped out to Saudi Arabia eventually, but he doesn’t remember being told how boring his detail would be.
“We did so much guard duty,” he said, recounting that they would fill their days either standing for six hours a day on guard duty or filling sandbags.
Although the landscape and/or view wasn’t as appealing as it once was when he was working on cars back in Hawaii, Osorio said the joy he found as a teenager, causing a little bit of trouble here and there, was still a part of him, especially on those long desert days.
“We’d always be messing around with the Saudi troops that were there,” said Osorio, talking about a handful of pranks the troops from different countries would pull on each other during their shared watches. “Some of them aren’t really good to put in a newspaper, but I did learn it is rude to show them the bottoms of your feet.”
But in spite of the boredom he would feel during the daytime, it didn’t mean that he or his fellow Marines were ever out of harm’s way.
Osorio and his batch of Marines had arrived on Feb. 24, 1991 — the first day of the U.S. troops on the ground having an involvement in the Gulf War. When he wasn’t guarding an oil rig or military base, he was watching Scud missiles from Iraqi forces streak across the sky.
“Every time one flew overhead, we heard a siren and we had to put gas masks on,” said Osorio. “There would be so many, that by the third or fourth, guys weren’t even putting their masks on. Some wouldn’t even get out of bed. We only once saw a Tomahawk missile intercept one.”
After serving for one day short of six years, the kid from East L.A., who had traveled the world as a Marine, was honorably discharged on Jan. 11, 1993.
For his service, Osorio was given the National Defense Medal, Rifle Marksman Badge, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, a Southwest Asia Service Medal with two bronze stars, Kuwait Liberation medal, a good conduct medal, a Navy Unit Commendation and a certificate of commendation.
He now works as a mechanic at Sun Air parts, which sells vintage aviation parts and accessories, here in Valencia, where he’s also raising his three sons and daughter.
Every Sunday he and his family still get together like they used to, with one of the primary focal points still being the matriarch of the family: Wita.
“She lived in that one-bedroom apartment she raised us all in until the day she died,” said Osorio. “We used to bring her food, money, anything; anything because she took care of us for all those years. If I had money in my pocket when I saw her, I’d give it all to her.”
Although Wita died last July, Osorio said the family still takes care of her, and still goes to visit with her and one another every Sunday at the cemetery.
“I wish I had spent more time with her when I was young… and if she were here right now — I’d just want to tell her I love her,” said Osorio. “We get together at the cemetery and eat food and joke and hang out, just like we used to in her living room for all those Sundays through the years.”