Backstory: Orlando full of grace
NEW YORK — It's a frigid winter morning, but the fan installed on the wall of Orlando Tobon's minuscule office in Jackson Heights, Queens, is going full blast. Without the ventilation the one-room travel agency and tax preparation operation would no doubt be unbearably stuffy, given the number of Latino immigrants who squeeze into its confines. The three worn chairs reserved for visitors are constantly occupied.
Despite the long lines, the atmosphere is upbeat, even buoyant. In a country often perplexing and hostile to immigrants, Mr. Tobon has developed a reputation as a benign version of the mafia don in "The Godfather:" He seems capable of fixing almost any problem.
Officially, Tobon is an accountant and travel agent. But the requests his visitors bring often stray far from taxes and tickets. This particular morning, he calmly listens from behind a desk piled high with papers as a young Colombian woman and her boyfriend ask how she can initiate a divorce from her husband back home. Tobon gives them the card of a Spanish-speaking attorney and tells them to mention his name. Another Colombian native presents Tobon with a jury summons he's unable to decipher. Tobon fills it out and tells the man - who is undocumented - that even though he's received the form in error, he must sign it and mail it in. And no, he reassures the man, it won't lead to deportation.
Given that it's rare to hear a word of English spoken in this Latino neighborhood, the appearance of a gringo outside Tobon's office a few years back must have raised eyebrows. Film director Josh Marston sought out Tobon when he was researching his 2004 film "Maria Full of Grace," which chronicles the experience of a Colombian drug mule coming to the US. Tobon's quasi-official standing as the "Mayor of Little Colombia" would naturally have attracted a director eager to provide a realistic portrait of immigrant life in the US. Still, it was Tobon's knowledge of the darker, grittier part of the immigrant experience that brought Mr. Marston. In the past 25 years, Tobon has helped repatriate the corpses of more than 400 Latin Americans who died smuggling packets of cocaine or heroin in their digestive systems.
After observing Tobon at work, Marston rewrote his script and cast Tobon as Don Fernando, the kindly gentleman who helps Maria send the corpse of a fellow drug carrier back to Colombia. With the movie, the lines at Tobon's door grew even longer.
But Tobon doesn't begrudge the demand. He genuinely relishes the opportunity to come to people's aid. "It fills you up," he says in Spanish. "When someone comes into my office depressed, and leaves with hope, it makes me feel good."
Tobon is religious - he attends Catholic mass every Sunday - but he traces his impulse to help people to his mother, who raised him as a single parent. "She was tenacious, a real fighter," Tobon says. "And she devoted her life to helping people. Once she gave away one of my Christmas presents, a toy truck, to a poor little boy. She told me he needed it more than I did."
With a smile, he admits that the concept that generosity could be its own reward held little appeal to him as a toddler. But it was his mantra by the time he arrived in New York in 1968.
As Tobon worked menial jobs while earning an accounting degree at night, he developed a reputation for always being willing to help. When a neighbor had to go to the morgue to recover the body of a sister who'd died in a car crash, she turned to Tobon for support. It turned out to be Tobon's introduction to the plight of drug mules. At the morgue, he learned of three unclaimed female corpses; they were drug mules who'd died when cocaine pellets they'd ingested broke. Drug carriers frequently travel under false identities, and even when family members suspect a mule's fate, they may not come forward, given the potential legal consequences.
Tobon was so upset by people denied a proper burial that he made calls to New York police and the Colombian consulate, eventually tracking down the victims' families. By collecting donations from his office visitors and arranging radio solicitations, he raised the money to send the bodies back to Colombia.
His work on behalf of mules aroused police suspicion, and they raided his apartment one night. "After they realized I had nothing to hide, one of the policemen gave me a $60 contribution for a burial," Tobon recalls.
His collaboration with officials in identifying bodies is alternately fulfilling and horrifying. Grateful families almost always call him when they receive a relative's body. Stories of how people decided to carry drugs in their bodies are wrenching: One involved an 82-year-old woman from Bogotá, who wanted to assure the financial independence of her mentally incapacitated son. She died in a New York cab after a pellet burst.
While Tobon's role as undertaker of the mules brought him public prominence, it's his contacts in the Latino community that attract politicians. The walls of his office are covered with photos of him with public officials like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Colombian President Alvaro Uribe. "He's a true immigrant leader," says Fernando Mateo, an aide to New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. "He's been there for immigrants who feel they have nowhere to turn and no one to appeal to."
Tobon is blasé about his powerful contacts. "They use me and I use them," he shrugs. A quid pro quo does seem to be involved. When Tobon worked with Bloomberg aides to round up crowds for election parades, for example, Tobon asked that they look into a case where undocumented immigrants had been bilked of their paychecks after weeks of construction labor.
For that case - as for any that don't concern tax returns or travel - Tobon did not charge for his help. But he probably never has to pay for coffee, judging by the complimentary cups dropped off during the day. Sometimes gifts are more elaborate: He gets a cut rate on his tortoise-shell glasses, and his custom-made crocodile belt was a gift from Fernando Mesa, a leather artisan who speaks very broken English. "Every piece of paper in English I get at home that looks official, I bring to him," explains Mr. Mesa. "I don't know what I'd do without him."
While Tobon enjoys the tokens of appreciation - he breaks into a wide smile every time a cup of coffee materializes on his desk - his real satisfaction is of a more intangible nature. It was through his volunteering that Tobon stitched together a family: Twice-divorced, he met his adopted son Eduardo through Big Brothers Big Sisters a decade ago. Today Eduardo and his pregnant wife live in Tobon's apartment.
With the help of a Peruvian journalist, Tobon wrote, "Chronicles of Jackson Heights," a memoir due out in the fall. He hopes it will inspire more community involvement: "There's a real lack of love in the world. Maybe this book could help make people more cognizant of that. And maybe it will make them realize that they can change it, if only in a small way."