A man was found dead in Kodiak earlier this month, floating in the water downtown. Jose Manuel Velasco has been a member of the community for more than 20 years. He’d fallen on hard times, but those who knew him remember him fondly. Now, a friend is fundraising to send Velasco’s body back to his mother in El Salvador.
Jose Manuel Velasco and Olazabal come from the same area of El Salvador, where their families were ranchers.
Olazabal says they both came to Kodiak in the 90s to escape political strife and found good jobs working in fish processing plants so that they could send money to family back home. Olazabal ended up making a life in Kodiak. Manuel found the adjustment more difficult.
Olazabal says Facebook helped connect them to loved ones in El Salvador.
“His goal was finally, after 26 years, to go this December to go see his mom. I showed him on Facebook a picture of his mom, and he was really emotional to his mom and dad.”
She says Velasco was always kind and respectful, and they maintained their friendship despite his struggles.
“I was really close. Really close to him.”
She’d often stop to speak with Velasco, give him food and water and sometimes warm clothes.
Right after Velasco’s death, Olazabal shared a video of them together on her Facebook page. It shows her speaking with him downtown by the harbor.
In the video, she tells Velasco to send his friends and family a message. Velasco says his kids want him to come home and they’ll eat things like fried eggs and homemade tortillas.
During Velasco’s later years in Kodiak, some members of the Salvadoran community shared food with him, like Moises Martinez, who says he and his wife had both spent time working with Velasco in canneries.
“He didn’t eat too much, but my wife, she’d start with something to eat first. ‘You should offer to eat first before you offer something up.’ But he wasn’t looking for food.”
He says he remembers Velasco as a hard worker.
“Even people from here, from Kodiak, from America, they even said the same thing, yeah, good guy, good worker, until he started drinking, but yeah, we were good friends.”
Martinez says even after they stopped working together, Velasco would stop by the cannery for a cup of coffee and ask after his family.
Velasco spent a lot of time walking around town and would sometimes stay at the Brother Francis Shelter, says Monte Hawver who runs the shelter.
“He was a good guy. He’d never gave me or anybody else I know of a bit of trouble. He was a kind soul. He never hurt or said a bad word against anybody I’d ever known.”
Hawver says in recent years it’s been harder to find cannery jobs as bigger processors swallow up the smaller ones and hire more workers from off island.
According to friends, Velasco had work off and on.
Alba Olazabal says she always encouraged him to get sober and to go back home and see his family.
Olazabal shares a picture on her phone of Velasco wearing a jacket she gave him.
“The picture is of the yellow and the blue jacket. He’s like another person. Like the real Manuel. Getting close there and looking handsome.”
Olazabal says while Velasco was alive, she had hoped to help him get home.
“And I know that people, when he goes to El Salvador, they would not let him come back.”
She says she’s still working toward that goal, so that Velasco can rest in peace nearby his family in El Salvador.