In the footsteps of Saint Andrew

After teaching, Ignacio “Ray” Mendiola Reyes (1923 – 2018) opened a pool hall and then a mom and pop store. After that, he went into politics and was elected mayor of Merizo in 1952, but he didn’t care for the dishonesty of the trade.

“Politics is very dirty, you cannot become a successful politician if you don’t know how to trick people into doing what you want them to do. If you want to be a good politician you have to learn how to lie.”

Ignacio Mendiola Reyes

“Many apostles are fishermen, so I am proud to be a fisherman.”

After trying and leaving these careers,  Reyes settled down and made his living as a humble fisherman. He knew everything there is to know about fishing in Guam, but said he could only explain it in CHamoru.

Reyes could use a rod and reel, a spear gun, a box net made out of chicken wire, or even his bare hands to feed his family. 

 Reyes was born to Rosa Sablan Mendiola, a woman with Spanish roots from Sumay, and Ignacio Habla Reyes, of Filipino ancestry from San Antonio district in Hagåtña. Ignacio Reyes, Sr. made his living buying locally made coconut oil, and selling it for export. Ignacio Sr. and Rosa Reyes moved to Merizo when the government opened up the land, advertising: If you can clear it, it’s yours. 

When Japan invaded Guam,  Reyes was chosen to attend a school where he learned Japanese that was taught to CHamoru children. 

“It was that time I saw a lot of atrocities. I got slapped by the Japanese teacher in front of the class for whistling. While we were drawing, the teacher stepped out for coffee or something, and I started whistling ‘My Country Tis of Thee.’” 

At the time, American music was forbidden and  Reyes no longer remembers why he started whistling, just that he did so unconsciously while working. The Japanese sensei returned, demanding to know who sang and reluctantly, Reyes raised his hand.

“He pulled me up right in front of the class, I was so embarrassed. I was so scared, I thought they were going to kill me. The worst time that I ever saw them be so cruel and vicious, though, was when they first landed and when the US landed. I never saw them so cruel. We were enemies of the Japanese and enemies of the US so we were in a neutral zone, but a very dangerous place to be.”

Remembers how hungry he always was

Though they were fed everyday at the Japanese school,  Reyes said he never had enough to eat.

 “I could eat a karabao then I was so hungry. They gave us one small bowl of rice for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Sometimes they fry a fish head so crispy and split it in two. They made miso soup and I hated it, I could not eat it – now I love it.”

At 5′ 10″  Reyes estimates he weighed only 95 pounds at the end of the war, so thin that he and his friends called each other “crackling skeletons.”

 Reyes watched friends and family disappear before his eyes. While clearing the airfield for the Japanese, his brother Jose died of pneumonia. Later,  Reyes watched his uncle be gunned down by an American pilot, who thought the running figures below were Japanese soldiers.

When the Americans came,  Reyes and his cousins practiced their English, but they only knew one phrase: “How are you?”

“During the war, there was no such thing as happy memories. I can’t forget about it, but I want to forget about it. I want to be a happy person.”

The war taught him humility

When he thinks about it now,  Reyes said the war taught me about humility.

“It taught me how bad it is to hate people. Probably because before the war I was Catholic and I was baptized and I’m deeply rooted in that behavior, I still pray for them to settle their problems.”

After the war,  Reyes invested his livelihood in the Merizo Catholic Church, today known as San Dimas. When a typhoon knocked the pews out of the church,  Reyes traveled to Taipei to pick out new ones. A few years later, another typhoon broke the church and everything was demolished again, and all the pews were gone so Reyes replaced them again. His family wasn’t  rich but all of the money he had he gave to the church.

While teaching together at Merizo Elementary School, Ignacio met his wife Rosa Aguigui Reyes, born in 1915 to Bienvenida Mata Tyquiengco and Ignacio Babauta Aguigui. In 1946, Rosa became Guam’s first congresswoman. 

“We love orchids, my wife and I, we love orchids. And when my wife was alive, we traveled to many places.” 

In 1985  Reyes and Rosa traveled to Rome for the beatification of Father Diego Luis de San Vitores. To Pope John Paul,  Reyes presented a ifit carving of a latte stone. Though small, the wood was so heavy the security guards hesitated to let him bring it in, fearing it might be used as a weapon. When he met the Pope,  Reyes received a blessing. 

“That’s the proudest thing I have. I was so happy and so glad the Pope blessed me and now he’s a saint. When he touches me, I was warm all over, just like he poured warm water on me. Mrs. Lourdes Perez Camacho, when the Pope blessed her, she was so struck she could not stand. She was so excited she forgot how to stand, and I went over and helped her up.”

Reyes said his secret to his long life is his belief in God and happiness.

“You have to just believe in God, go to church, eat a lot, and stay happy. You have to stay happy. Don’t be moody, smile every day.”

When  Reyes lost his vision, he memorized his favorite prayers, including “Our Father,” “Hail Mary,” and “The Prayer of Saint Francis.” 

“I can pray for you. If you’re having problems with your parents or a family operation, tell me and I’ll pray for you. If there are problems with husband and wife, you pray for them and the good Lord will keep them together. I think prayer is very strong.” 

Reprinted and adapted, with permission, from Guam War Survivors Memorial Foundation by Amanda Pampuro.