Quadalajara: The Utopia That Once Was - a book by Jack Tumidajski - A history of the paraplegic and quadriplegic men and women who rediscovered life in Mexico's second largest city
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Lost Souls Find Fleeting Paradise

Reviewed by : ALEX GESHEVA

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Jack Tumidajski came to Guadalajara in 1972. He spoke no Spanish and knew almost nothing about the area. He just knew Mexico represented independence, freedom and a great chance to meet some dark-eyed "señoritas."Do you think you've heard this story before? Not from this perspective.

In his book, "Quadalajara: the utopia that once was," Tumidajski lovingly relates the story of one of the city's earliest gringo communities: wheelchair-bound quadriplegic and paraplegic war veterans, accident victims and degenerative disease patients.

Readers will find Guadalajara as it will never be again. Rent is 40 dollars a month. The Paralyzed Veterans of America become the first group to purchase their own clubhouse (as The Reporter wrote back on July 29, 1967), and aides of PVA members are ignominiously arrested after an "illegal" poker game. The Informador newspaper is there to point a judgmental finger. Wheelchair bound gringos fire guns and bring their own muscled, equally wheelchair-bound bodyguards to intimidate political rivals.

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Buddy from NY ('70), Jack from RI ('72), Tom from MN ('63), Bill from OR ('58), and JoAnn from MN ('64) enjoy a typical day in paradise.
As reported in The Colony REPORTER on September 29, 1979: (L-R) Transito Chief Jose Antonio Martinez Ramos, U.S. Consul General J. Donald Blevins, Vice Consul John Bennett and Paralyzed Veterans of America Mexico Chapter President Jack Tumidajski dedicate the city's first handicapped parking space outside the U.S. Consulate General in Guadalajara
But readers will recognize the heroes. Tumidajski writes of his own experiences as a gringo fumbling his way through the city's social tangle, caretakers, girlfriends, housemates and apartments. He tells of those who married locally and made it work and those who never quite managed to blend in, car accidents, road trips, fishing trips to Manzanillo, organizing picnics to help local orphanages and disabled children and nights spent chugging tequila.

In 1977, Jack Tumidajski got a Jalisco driver's license in his hand-controlled car, a jittery Transito cop in the passenger seat. He was even surprised by local police while parking with his girlfriend and paid bribes to escape arrest for "cosas inmorales." He is honest and humble about both his strengths and shortcomings. He is someone readers will want to know.

Quadalajara itself is a character in this book: "a unique place in a unique time" when those considered odd and unwieldy in the United States forged an independent life for themselves in another country.

A love for this city is just a small part of why this book makes for a good read. Most of the temporarily able-bodied (as a paralyzed friend once called them) are deeply curious about what life is like in a wheelchair. Tumidajski is brutally honest: from his accident only days after his safe return from Vietnam, to rehabilitation, isolation and bouncing back, he shares many minute details of himself. Ultimately, we learn that life in a wheelchair is like any other. The focus is on independence, love, entertainment, a place to call home, a meaning to the day.

Tumidajski's story is unblemished by flights of imagination, sparely told and more compelling for it. Spanish is seamlessly integrated into the text, with footnoting translated. The back section of the book is a treasure trove of historical documents, including everything from PVA correspondence to newspaper articles and personal photos.

"Many quads, paras, and other wheelers rolled around this unique city," writes Tumidajski. "Just as the Quadalajara era will never be duplicated, forgotten others will remain unknown -- many of them the original Explorers and Pioneers of an almost forgotten moment in time." That comment is followed by almost 40 pages of the names of those he remembers, with a short description of each one. Like the book itself, it is a touching tribute to a time and people that deserve to be remembered. By the 1980's, peso devaluations and rising prices no longer allowed low fixed-income gringos to care for themselves as they needed to. Gradually, the Pioneers drifted away or were left behind in dwindling numbers.

On September 29, 1979, Jack Tumidajski, then Mexico Chapter PVA President, was in a Reporter photo. At the side of the then-Consul General, the Transito Chief and the Vice Consul, he was at hand to inaugurate what was probably the first handicapped parking space in Mexico. More than two decades later, he's back in the local English-language newspaper, this time with a very good, well-told story.

Alex Gesheva
Guadalajara Reporter

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