Alonso Guillen died an American hero—even if many didn’t think of him as an American.
It wasn’t uncommon for total strangers to rope Alonso Guillen into a selfie. He was something of a local celebrity in Lufkin; under the name DJ Ocho, you could hear him on several local radio stations or spinning discs at the club Rodeo Disko. A week ago, on what would turn out to be the last day of his life, the optimistic and outgoing deejay set out to save the lives of others in the wreckage of Harvey—even though he was at constant risk of being thrown out of the country.
Guillen was born in the border town of Piedras Negras in 1986. By the time he was four he was known as Ocho, because of the way he pronounced his name. When Ocho was fifteen years old, his father, Jesus, and mother, Rita, moved him and three siblings to East Texas. Ocho learned English well enough to graduate from Lufkin High School, and his father applied for and received permanent residency. But his mother’s visa expired, and she moved back to Piedras Negras (though she later re-applied for legal status). Ocho worked various jobs, including construction—but his passion was music, and he began deejaying at quinceañeras and weddings. In 2010 he got a part-time job at KSML Super Mix 101.9, co-hosting a show and playing a mix of Spanish music, from Norteño to cumbia and banda.
Ocho applied for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), a program put in place by President Obama to protect undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children from deportation. He was accepted, and soon received a Social Security Number. Ocho wasn’t a permanent resident, and could still be deported if he got in trouble, but he relaxed a little bit.
A couple of years later he got his own radio show on KSML. Soon he was working at five different stations in Lufkin, playing hip-hop and country as well as Tejano. When Ocho wasn’t deejaying, he was doing production and programming work at the stations. “He learned it all as he went,” says his boss Mike Koenig. “He fixed things at the station. He could play any kind of music, go do a remote broadcast, meet and talk to people. He could talk to anybody. And if you needed something—if you locked your keys in your car—he was the guy to call.”
Ocho was becoming a self-made man, learning and refining the tools of his trade. At night, he spun at Rodeo Disko, where he built up a following. “I used to call him Mr. Hollywood,” says his friend Manny Muniz, 22. “Everywhere we went, someone would say, ‘DJ Ocho, can we get a picture?’” Ocho became something of a mentor to Muniz and other younger men. “He was always a positive person. Not only did he teach me to be a great DJ, he taught me to be a man. He always told me, ‘Manny, I want the best for you. I want you to be better than you were yesterday.’ He had a heart of gold.”
Harvey hit Houston on Saturday, August 26. By Sunday the streets and highways had become lakes and rivers, and rescuers in boats were saving stranded people all over Harris County. Ocho and some friends decided to borrow a boat and head south. His father tried to talk him out of going; it was too dangerous, he said. But Ocho was determined. “I want to help,” he said. “I want to save lives. They need me.’”
On Tuesday afternoon, Ocho left work and met up with several friends, including Tomas Carren, 25, and Luis Ortega, 22. They had downloaded the walkie-talkie app Zello, which rescuers like the Cajun Navy were using to communicate who needed help, and where. They headed south on U.S. 59 for about 100 miles and stopped near Spring, where Cypress Creek was now a rushing river. It was nighttime by then, and Ocho, Carren, and Ortega got in the boat and headed into the dark and blinding chaos, steering toward an apartment complex they spotted in the distance.
But before they got far, they hit rough water, and the boat was pulled even faster through the rapids. They slammed into a bridge near I-45, throwing all three into the cold, dark water. They were knocked around like kittens, fighting the current and debris. Finally Ortega found himself above water, his arms wrapped around a tree. He clung to it desperately, and was soon rescued by a local resident. But he had no idea where his friends were.
Word quickly got back to Lufkin, and a large caravan of family and friends of both Ocho and Carren headed south to Spring to search for the two. Ortega told them where to go, as did another rescue crew that had seen the boat capsize. The searchers set up camp along the river. On Friday, September 1, around 1 p.m., Carren’s body floated by. The group stayed there for two more days, keeping their dread vigil, studying the brown water rush past and hoping that Ocho had somehow saved himself. But on Sunday, they saw another body float by. It was Ocho. As his brother-in-law retrieved the body, Ocho’s father wept.
When Ocho’s mother, still in Mexico, heard her son was missing, she drove to Eagle Pass and applied for an emergency humanitarian visa to go back to Texas to help find him. It was refused. She is trying again to get in, this time working with the Mexican consulate in Houston. More than anything, she would like to go to her son’s funeral, which hasn’t been scheduled yet.
Alonso “Ocho” Guillen—like so many other Americans—reinvented himself almost every step of the way, from the dusty streets of Piedras Negras to the piney woods of Lufkin and the killing waters of Houston. And like any good citizen, he set out to make both his community and himself better. Had he lived—had he not died trying to save the lives of Americans (and anybody else), and had DACA not been cruelly jettisoned as it was on Tuesday—who knows what else Ocho could have achieved.