Contributed photo by Jesus Ceja
Contributed photo by Jesus Ceja
Alfonzo Alva Reyes of Milton-Freewater loved to dance. Friends who considered him family recalled when music would start at a birthday party, a fiesta, or on any Friday night, Alfonzo would begin moving to the beat.
Alfonzo was also an alcoholic. When he went missing in early November, his friends feared he was spiraling into ill-health and danger.
Pendleton locals walking their dogs found Alfonzo’s body the morning of Nov. 16 near the fence toward the east end of Pendleton Grain Growers’ McKennon Station. Pendleton police reported coroner results showed Alfonzo died from advanced liver disease and exposure to the elements. He was 58.
His close friend Jesus Ceja of Milton-Freewater said Alfonzo was so much more than how he died.
“I just loved the guy, he had a big heart,” Ceja said. “I am so sad I can’t think.”
Ceja, 46, said he grew up in the Milton-Freewater labor camps and was a teen playing basketball when he met Alfonzo. The older man was gracious and through the years they became friends. They traveled together, fished and hunted mushrooms in the Blue Mountains. Ceja said his friend made others feel special.
Around six years ago, Alfonzo was staying at a place with “a bunch of teens up to no good.” Ceja said. They picked on him because he was older. To avoid the harassment and confrontations, Alfonzo stayed in the laundry room.
“I couldn’t stand to see him like that,” Ceja said, so he opened his home to Alfonzo. Instead of paying rent, he helped around the house and took care of the dogs when Ceja was out of town for work.
No one knew when Alfonzo first came to the United States. He worked a circuit of farms from California to Washington. His friends said his hometown was Santa Clara del Cobre, Michuacan, Mexico, a place famous for its coppersmithing.
Tricia Perez, 47, said Alfonzo learned the craft in his youth and became quite skilled. Ceja’s nephew, Adrian Ceja, added Alfonzo studied karate and played in a band when he lived in Mexico and was a fine soccer player.
Perez said she met Alfonzo years ago through her father-in-law, who bought property locally and hired Alfonzo to help inspect the goods before the purchase. She also said her father-in-law brought Alfonzo along just to hang out with him. He had such a good nature, she said, that people loved him.
Shannon Byerly, Jesus Ceja’s fiancée, said she misses Alfonzo for his genuine heart. She and Perez described how Alfonzo could not help but dance when a tune played.
“He would hear the music at one our family fiestas,” Byerly said. “And he would have those happy feet and get up and dance.”
And his genuine nature and willingness to always lend a hand are some of the characteristics his friends hold most dear. If you were washing a car, Adrian Ceja said, and Alfonzo was nearby, he just joined in the work.
Byerly said he did the work of three younger men in his stint at Smith’s Frozen Foods, where he was hired about three months before his death.
Jesus Ceja said he lost the job after his alcoholism took hold and he began missing work.
Alfonzo struggled with an addiction to alcohol, and it began to effect his health. Ceja said a doctor told Alfonzo only half his liver functioned. He would stop drinking for a while, but always started again.
Ceja pleaded with Alfonzo not to drink, to seek professional help. His friend refused.
Alfonzo had a wife in Santa Clara del Cobre and 10 children, Ceja said, but no one from Alfonzo’s family called to wish him a happy birthday or merry Christmas. Sometimes a relative would show up for a handout.
“Many times I sent money to his wife in Mexico,” Ceja said. “The guy was lonely.”
Alfonzo’s father died when he was young, Ceja said, and his mother died in Mexico while Alfonzo was in the United States. Alfonzo took her death hard, Ceja said, and the grief may have fueled his alcoholism.
“I’m so sad at the way he died. He just didn’t have the support from his family,” Ceja said.
Some said Alfonzo was a legal resident of the U.S., others said his documentation was questionable. That may have played a role in why he stopped returning to Mexico and lost contact with family there.
Alfonzo also had a case pending in Umatilla County Circuit Court for a 2016 charge of driving under the influence of intoxicants. He was in and out of jail in Pendleton for missing court proceedings. Court records show the jail let him out on Nov. 14 due to overcrowding, but he did not return home.
Byerly heard about the body two days later and told Ceja she had a bad feeling.
Police soon confirmed her suspicion. Byerly called Ceja and broke the news to him while he was working on a roofing job at the airport in Richland, Washington. He came straight home.
“I didn’t want it to be the reality,” Ceja said.
Alfonzo’s friends said he touched the lives of so many.
“He was a great guy,” Byerly said. “He had this joy in his heart that you wouldn’t expect from someone who had so little. And that’s probably what I’ll miss about him.”
Alfonzo’s body is going back to Mexico, where relatives there can view him a last time. People here who knew Alfonzo can go to a visitation Saturday, 3-8 p.m., at Pendleton Pioneer Chapel, Folsom-Bishop. 131 S.E. Byers Ave., Pendleton. They also can express condolences online at www.pioneerchapel.com.