Raul Mariscal looks at an infographic of Spectrum Health Healthier Communities program.
Raul Mariscal will soon graduate from the Spectrum Health Healthier Communities program, Programa Puente, which seeks to improve the health of the Latino population in Kent County. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Many moons ago, Raul Mariscal began his career as an agrobiologist with the Mexican counterpart of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Economic deregulation and the subsequent crisis caused by rampant currency fluctuation yielded pink slips for many government employees in the mid-80s, including Mariscal.

“I first opened an auto repair shop and then I went on to work at the family trucking business,” he said.

Most Mexican immigrants who lived through the North American Free Trade Agreement period south of the border may recall it as an era of relative economic growth and stability. Things looked so promising that Mariscal ventured into the wilderness of ‘the neoliberal miracle’ and he went big with a large tire store that had up to 21 employees at one point.

Little did he know about the economic disaster that would bankrupt his dream come true. In 1992, Mariscal arrived in Miami. So did Andrew, one of the most destructive hurricanes in United States history.

Area code 616

“Those were scary times,” he continued. Back in the day, telecommunication was in its infancy. Mobile phones were only for the wealthiest and the Internet was mostly just a military application. “I tried booking a flight from Miami to Kentwood; my English was very limited.”

All he had was his soon-to-be host’s phone number and, with the help of the Yellow Pages and a pay phone, he remembered locating the nearest airport he could fly into from Miami. Mariscal then arrived in Grand Rapids on a Greyhound via Chicago.

It didn’t take him long to find not one, but two, jobs and bring his pregnant wife and his son, Raul Jr., from Mexico three months later. Joseph, his second son, was born in 1993. The family kept growing. Juan Carlos came into this world in 1996, and his youngest, Gabriel, was born in 1998.

Mariscal’s employment opportunities were limited, similar to his language skills, but the owners of Olga’s Kitchen at Woodland Mall lent him a hand and he became a manager within a few years. “One of my greatest satisfactions is opening the RiverTown Crossings mall store for Olga’s Kitchen in 2000,” he said. “I trained the staff.”

He is currently employed as production lead for Crème and Curl Bakeries.

On top of his two jobs, Mariscal also attended night school and learned English as a second language.

A devout Catholic, Mariscal and family first attended Saint Joseph the Worker right in the heart of the Grand Rapids Latino community. Then his Samaritan ways took him to Saint Andrew’s Cathedral, where he is still a parishioner.

Engaged activism

During the early and mid-2000s, Mariscal became involved with the Michigan Organizing Project. An advocacy group that promoted access to health care, employment and fair housing, among other issues. He had the opportunity to meet with Senators Ted Kennedy and John McCain to discuss immigration issues as a board member for MOP.

Occasionally, Mariscal would join forces with other community leaders to raise funds for those who couldn’t pay their bills and even assisted in the repatriation of corpses so that their families in Mexico could bury them.

Mariscal’s contributions to the local Latino community might seem as modest as he is when he talks about MOP or the literacy efforts he has been a part of. “I used to help people in how to read and write,” he said. “There are a ton of community resources, but you have to do great part of the work, you can’t expect them to work like magic.”

Saint Andrew’s Cathedral was one of the first parishes Programa Puente screened back in 2014.

“The parish nurse would take churchgoers’ blood pressure, but there was a missing link until you guys came along to do free health screenings,” he explained.

Mariscal is disciplined when it comes to his annual check-ups and his family’s follow-up care. “I’ve always known that I suffer from high blood pressure; it’s hereditary, but what is there to do? That’s when your services became handy for me and my church.”

Family matters

Nowadays, Mariscal goes to the gym on Tuesdays and Thursdays with Juan Carlos, who also works with him. His days are long, because he goes in to work at a bakery long before the sun comes out.

“Everything can be done if you embrace the change you what to see,” he explained. “You can’t wait for a product or service to change you from one day to the other; you need to do your part.”

“I want to look great when I am older, my kids are watching,” he explained. Sometimes work, and taking care of Mila Rose, his granddaughter, when her parents are at work comes first. Somehow he still manages to fit in a workout at least three times a week.

“How do you do it?” I asked. After a brief silence, he replied “…you really need to want it; it’s a lifestyle.”

Mariscal drinks green tea as soon as he is out of bed at 4 a.m.

At 9 a.m., he eats a light breakfast followed by fruit and some protein at noon and then a heavy meal after he goes to the gym at 3:30 p.m.

“I don’t want to suffer from Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s, I take good care of myself for my family.”

The second to last visit

As he walked in for his health screening, Mariscal greeted me with a huge smile and showed me a ‘before and after’ picture as I registered him.

“He started off in September of 2014 with an 8 percent cardiovascular disease risk and he cut it in half,” said Gladys Pico, RN. “His lipids are significantly low that, in the case of LDL and triglycerides, the machine read ‘N/A’ or ‘not available’. (His) BMI is great and he’s lost some weight.”

When asked what he has done differently, Mariscal tells his nurse that he watches what he eats. “I read my labels, you guys taught me how; you’ve changed my life!”

In two months Mariscal will turn 58, and in six months he will graduate from Programa Puente.

For now, Mariscal and his family, including his daughter in-law, Rachel, the proud mother of Mila Rose, are trying to decide where they will be flying into Mexico for their annual family reunion. “It will be a huge gathering—cousins, uncles, granduncles, parents, nephews, nieces, more than 150 people,” he said.

This, too, will be the first time his family will get to meet his only granddaughter.

“What does it feel like to be a grandpa?” I asked in closing. He rolled his eyes, elated, then answered, “She’s my life…”