Like many police officers, I became a cop because my father was one.
Unlike many other police fathers, my dad was a cut above the rest. You see, he was a living legend. My dad was Jose Vargas, “El gran y famoso Official de Policia de Santa Ana.” The great and famous Santa Ana police officer.
His life story has inspired thousands.
Dad was 11 when his father died. My grandmother struggled to raise the family of six after his passing.
As the oldest child, he felt obligated to do something.
That something involved riding a boxcar with a friend from San Martin Hildalgo in Jalisco, Mexico to the United States border in Tijuana.
Grandma Cuca filled his head with the idea that the United States was the land of milk and honey. People actually ate meat every day there.
So in 1952, at 16 years old, he rode the 1,500 miles to the border with Tijuana.
He ended up working in the fields and according to him picked just about everything that could be picked and harvested. He also was deported more than a few times.
At the age of 20 he married my mother and started raising a family.
I was the first born of what would eventually be seven sons.
He had started working driving a garbage truck for Jaycox disposal in Anaheim. His boss, Warren Jaycox, convinced him if he learned English he could make him a foreman.
Dad enrolled in English classes at Anaheim High School. After a time he was speaking English fluently and was promoted to foreman. He continued going to school and at the age of 30 he earned his high school diploma.
Not content with that. and with the encouragement of his instructors, he enrolled at Fullerton College. He decided his major was going to be police science.
In 1967, at 33, dad was hired by the City of Stanton PD. Despite the fact he was one of the oldest guys (there were no women) in the class and spoke with a strong accent he managed to make it through.
He eventually transferred to the Santa Ana Police Department where after a stint in patrol he was made the department’s Hispanic Affairs Officer, a position he would hold until his retirement.
In 1977, he was recognized as one of the outstanding police officers in the United States by the International Association of Chiefs of Police.
He was at the forefront of a movement that would eventually sweep the country and become known as “community policing.”
Dad didn’t just like his job — he loved it. His passion and commitment to the profession were more of a calling than a career.
He was deeply devoted to helping people.
I’ve lost count of the number of people who lived with us. Yes, he brought his work home with him.
One day he found a young man who was found locked in a boxcar. He was dehydrated and unconscious when my dad responded to the call. He had been chasing the same dream my father had.
He ended staying with us for a while until he got settled. Then there were the young people. Debbie, Brett, and Jeff. All were welcomed into our home.
There was the blind teenager, Lupe, from Mexico he fostered while he received training from the Braille Institute.
There always was room at the inn as far as dad was concerned.
Dad’s fame spread far and wide in the Spanish-speaking community. The uniqueness of his journey and his constant message of self-improvement and personal challenge resonated with immigrants.
His self-deprecating sense of humor and honesty made him a sought-after speaker.
He was a frequent guest on “Sabdo Gigante” and “Christina.” Think Johnny Carson and Oprah.
Dad retired from the Santa Ana Police Department in 1997, but that didn’t stop him.
He hosted a Spanish cable television show for years. His aim was to share immigrant success stories and educate and inform the Spanish-speaking community.
After his retirement, dad had his 4×4 painted red, white and blue. On the back were the words, “American by Choice.”
In 2003, dad was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. He soon lost the ability to speak or write.
His last public speaking engagement was at a graduation ceremony for adult education students. He closed his address with the following:
“You live in the greatest country in the world, where if you follow the road you will go far, a land where you can fulfill your dreams. But dream something great and make it come true! Because if you do not dream, you cease being a human being. Now may the great commandante up in heaven watch over you and keep you motivated and give you bigger dreams.”
Dad succumbed to illness in 2013.
He left behind nine children and 21 grandchildren. He took fatherhood to the extreme.
He was the greatest cop I ever knew.
Joe is a retired Anaheim Police Department captain. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.