It’s surreal for Fr. Frank O’Loughlin to see a video of a straight-faced Policarpia Gaspar Xuncax talking about the Guatemalan-Maya Center, a nonprofit serving immigrants that they co-founded in Lake Worth.
“In real life, she couldn’t make it through two sentences without laughing,” he said.
Her sense of humor and her passion for education loom large in the stories family, friends and community members tell about the woman they knew as Poli.
Gaspar Xuncax died May 2, three years after being diagnosed with leukemia. Community members turned out by the hundreds to her wake, her funeral, and a novena – nine nights of praying the rosary and sharing their memories of Gaspar Xuncax in her family’s backyard.
Gaspar Xuncax’s work started with finding the right words for others, as a translator in her native Kanjobal for immigrants seeking asylum and trying to access services in the United States.
But the people who knew her best struggle to encapsulate in words who she was, and what she meant to the community.
Her older son, Glenn Mendez, described her “resilient positivity” – her faith that “times may look tough, the situation may look impossible...but it’s not as bad as it looks.”
Her sister, Dominga Xuncax, tells stories – of Gaspar Xuncax’s love of dancing and music, of her generosity, of her success in guiding truant kids back to school and of the vast cross-section of people who have showed up to honor her memory – and punctuates each anecdote with “that is Poli.”
“There’s so many things you can say about her,” she said. “I don’t think you can separate words to describe Poli.”
Gaspar Xuncax was born on December 3, 1965 in San Miguel Acatan, Guatemala. As hostilities escalated in the Guatemalan Civil War, she and her family fled to the United States. They landed first in Los Angeles, where Gaspar Xuncax saw to it that her younger siblings were placed in a magnet elementary school that taught students to use computers – unusual for its time.
“I thank my sister for opening those doors for us,” said her brother Valentin Manuel Xuncax. He has since returned to California, where he lives with his wife and kids.
The family moved to Indiantown in 1986, where her brother said they were surrounded by other Guatemalans – women dressed in the traditional huipil, or embroidered top, and corte, or skirt – many speaking the family’s native language, Kanjobal.
It was her familiarity with Kanjobal that led Gaspar Xuncax to Fr. Frank O’Loughlin and the Holy Cross Center in Indiantown, where he was helping immigrants at the time. She worked as a translator, assisting people as they filled out immigration paperwork and applied for residency.
When Guatemalans moved south to Palm Beach County for jobs, Fr. O’Loughlin and Gaspar Xuncax followed. They founded the Guatemalan-Maya Center in Lake Worth in 1992. The center now serves 1,000 people each month – helping women access prenatal care, tutoring immigrants for the citizenship test, offering classes for children and adults and otherwise helping newcomers adjust to the community.
Gaspar Xuncax was devoted to the Guatemalan-Maya Center and the people it served well outside of normal business hours.
She and her husband, Juan Mendez, led after-school, summer and Saturday programs at the center.
Her son Glenn Mendez said it wasn’t unusual for someone to knock on their door in the evenings, after Gaspar Xuncax had gotten home from work and made dinner for the family, to ask for help.
“Maybe at 8:30 someone would knock on the door and say 'hey, my cousin just crossed the border and here they are, can you help us out,'” he said, “And then she’d spend like an hour finding resources for them.”
In the late 1990s, she began working for the Palm Beach County School District, first at Lake Worth High School and then at South Grade Elementary School.
One of her coworkers and friends at South Grade, then-kindergarten teacher Marc Drautz, ran for mayor of Lake Worth in 2005. He remembers canvassing for votes during the campaign, and hearing a pickup truck behind him as he knocked on doors.
“I looked up and there was Poli,” he said. “She had a big megaphone type of thing she was talking through, and she was driving up and down the streets.”
She’d come to campaign for him without being asked. And even after he won, he remembers Gaspar Xuncax helping him, taking him into churches and translating for him as people discussed their concerns about the city.
After the school district, Gaspar Xuncax worked for the county health department, where she translated for the adults coming in with health concerns. But her sister Dominga Xuncax said she missed working with kids.
Last October, she joined Xuncax’s department at the school district as a Kanjobal community facilitator, traveling around the county to work with Guatemalan kids.
In every role, her sister said, Gaspar Xuncax transcended her job description and worked to help people not just meet their needs, but thrive. Dominga Xuncax laughed as she recalled how people would ask for “Doctor Poli” at the health department, or “the lawyer lady” when she was helping them with their immigration documents.
“She was a doctor and a lawyer without even going to school,” said Xuncax. “My people made her like that.”
In every role, Gaspar Xuncax wore her traditional Mayan skirt, or corte.
“I never saw her with jeans or with dress pants,” said her daughter, Mallyn Mendez. “It was an extension of her personality and an extension of her culture, and she wore it with pride.”
Looking back through photographs for her memorial service, her sister Dominga Xuncax recalls seeing a photo of Gaspar Xuncax, her husband Juan Mendez, and others standing in the snow. Everyone was dressed warmly, and “there was Poli in her corte.”
Gaspar Xuncax’s funeral was held at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Lake Worth, the same place she married Juan Mendez in 2007. She is survived by her husband and her three children, as well as her parents and all eight of her siblings.
She was interred at Lake Worth Memory Gardens while a marimba played. At the end, said her sister Dominga Xuncax, the family danced, “because that’s Poli.”
Fr. O’Loughlin, her Guatemalan-Maya center co-founder, said Gaspar Xuncax’s work won’t end with her death.
“We’ll be asking Poli to keep an eye on us,” he said, “and keep that spark, that vision of hers, alive in us.”