PLANT CITY — Among Plant City’s Hispanic community, he was known as Don Raúl, a man with a white beard who greeted everyone while walking or riding his bike.
On Jan. 26, he was struck by a car while trying to cross Alexander Street in Plant City. He was pronounced dead at the scene, where there were no crosswalks. No charges were filed against the driver of the vehicle. That night, police investigators found an identification in one of the man’s pockets with the name Raúl Martínez Florencio, 67.
“Nobody knew his real name until then,” said Yuri Piña, a Plant City resident.
Piña created a GoFundMe page earlier this month to repatriate Don Raúl’s body to his native Mexico. In less than 10 days, the community raised almost $3,000.
Piña met Don Raúl a few years ago in Plant City. She always saw him at a gas station, not far from her house. She and other Latino neighbors helped Don Raúl as much as they could with clothes, food and a temporary place to live.
In Spanish, “don” is used in a way similar to “mister” but it conveys a higher degree of respect or reverence.
“He was always very polite and kind,” Piña said.
Piña began her own search to find Don Raúl’s family and friends in Mexico and the United States after he died. She remembered that he had told her that he had family in San Pedro, a small town located in the southern region of the state of Guanajuato. But sometimes his memory failed. The town was San Pablo.
“He seemed to be waiting for better days,” Piña said. “Unfortunately, that never happened.”
Piña shared information about Don Raúl on social media and texted and called dozens of people in Guanajuato with the last name Martínez. She even contacted the Mexican consulate in Orlando.
Two Mexicans in Georgia recognized the name and photo of Don Raúl. They reached out to Piña and Don Raúl’s wife in the Mexican town of Comonfort, where she lives now.
“His family longed to greet him again,” said Piña, “but not to say goodbye.”
Juan Sabines, the Mexican consul general, said the consulate always tries to help in cases like this, but when the family does not communicate with them, things become more complicated.
“Now that we know who this person is, we are working together to repatriate the body as soon as we can,” he said.
With a special visa and a death certificate, his office can repatriate a body in two weeks. They can also contribute $1,000 if the family does not have enough money and help with other arrangements for the preparation and disposition of the remains.
It is less expensive to repatriate ashes, Sabines said, but many people prefer to send their loved ones’ bodies, which can cost up to $4,500. Last year, the Mexican Consulate in Orlando processed the return of 230 deceased Mexicans.
“It is part of our duties and humanitarian commitment,” Sabines said.
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Martínez came to the United States 36 years ago and never returned to his country. Nobody knows why. He lived in different states and cities, such as Nashville, Tennessee; Georgetown, Kentucky; and Sebring and Plant City. Sometimes he stayed for a couple of months, sometimes for years.
In Mexico, Don Raúl was married to Claudia Álvarez, 69. They have three grown kids: Jesús, 46, Ana Rosa, 45, and Blanca, 36.
During a phone interview with the Times, Álvarez said her husband grew up in a modest family. Both met at a very young age in Mexico City and were married on Dec. 30, 1974.
“As you can imagine, our wedding day was very special, the most important of our lives,” said Álvarez.
The couple lived in the capital for less than a year and moved to Guanajuato, where she worked in the fields while he was employed at a local factory. But despite their efforts, the couple were never able to overcome poverty.
“The money was not enough, so he decided to go to the United States to work and earn more,” said Álvarez. “I stayed in Mexico because it was too dangerous to cross the border and I didn’t want to risk my children.”
Álvarez said her husband never forgot his responsibilities: he always called her once or twice a month, wrote her letters, and sent her money. In 1988, he stopped contacting his family.
“He did his best,” Álvarez said.
That’s why she was always hoping to hear from him.
“All I want now is a decent burial for my husband,” said Álvarez. “He deserves to rest in peace.”