Slain Marine was son of Logansport, town of immigrants and patriotism – IndyStar

LOGANSPORT, Ind. — When Zach Szmara arrived in the Cass County town 10 years ago, one lunch meeting with an immigrant family “changed the trajectory” of his life. 
The Ohio native was only supposed to be in Logansport for two weeks as a “short-term” pastor, but on one of his last days, he remembers a local family inviting him and his family for a meal. 
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They went to a Salvadorian grocery store, with “a few tables” in the back, and ate pupusas, a type of stuffed tortilla. The two families spoke in broken English and Spanish, with a 12-year-old boy and 14-year-old girl translating for the adults. Despite the language barrier, the two families formed a life-changing bond.
“I’ll remember this until the day I die, but we got back into our car,” Szmara remembers, “And I looked over to my wife and she said, ‘We’re home.'”
That 12-year-old boy was Humberto Sanchez, who has been memorialized across Logansport, a northern Indiana city of about 18,000 people. He died in a bomb attack in Kabul, Afghanistan on Aug. 26, along with 12 other U.S. service members and more than 150 Afghan civilians. Sanchez was 22 years old.
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He was known as “Bert” to friends and community members, but also affectionately called “Abiel” by family and loved ones. His sacrifice is being honored by people of diverse backgrounds in Indiana, with thousands paying their respects in a homecoming procession on Sunday.
But his identity as a Marine was just part of who he was, Szmara said. He was also proud to be Mexican American.
“There’s something special about children who grow up in immigrant families where they’ve learned how to navigate multiple worlds,” Szmara said.
Szmara saw that “strength and tenacity” of first generation children first-hand at that memorable lunch, all those years ago.
“It’s immigrants who welcomed me, you know? And it was immigrants who reached out and invited me to lunch,” Szmara said. “Now I’m known as the guy who invites people and wants to connect with them … over coffee and lunch. But it was like, no, I’m just following the example that I saw. Which is pretty special.”
Szmara now serves as pastor for The Bridge Community Church, which calls itself a “multicultural, multilingual church,” with the demographics of white and non-white attendees always around “50-50,” he says. He was so touched by the city’s warmth, he formed a national organization to help immigrant families with legal services.
The Sanchez and Szmara families ended up becoming close friends and neighbors for several years. He served as minister for their daughter’s wedding ceremony, Szmara says, and he baptized Sanchez while he was in high school. On Tuesday, Szmara will perform the funeral service for Sanchez — a hero to thousands across the state, but in his eyes, a young boy he watched grow up.
“I’ve just been so blessed that so many immigrants have, you know, loved me and welcomed me,” Szmara said. “And the first among them was Abiel’s family.”
Immigrants have been part of Logansport’s fabric for many years. 
In 2003, Hispanic residents made up about 13% of the city’s population, IndyStar reported at the time. More recently, in 2019, nearly 30% of the population was Hispanic or Latino, according to a U.S. Census survey. That was about double the percentage in Cass County as a whole, and about three times the percentage in the state of Indiana. 
Over the years, the town has seen growth from several backgrounds. Jane Williams, a retired elementary school teacher, says she has seen firsthand how her student population diversified over the years, with people coming from Hispanic, Burmese, Karen and Asian backgrounds.
“I think that Logansport is unique in the fact that we’re such a blended community,” Williams said. “But we’re all one.”
“That’s one of the most special things about our community is that people from around the world make a choice,” Szmara said. “And they choose that Logansport will be their home.” 
Much of the migration came after the arrival of the Iowa Beef Producers meatpacking plant in 1995. A shortage of workers at the time led to transfers from other Midwestern plants and recruitment from places like California, Texas and Mexico.
The Martin family came from California to work at the plant, which was purchased by Tyson Foods, in 2001.
They see bits of Sanchez in their son Jesus — a U.S.-born Marine from a family of Guatemalan immigrants.
Sanchez was one of his “protégés,” Jesus Martin said, coaching him in soccer and encouraging him to join the Marines.
“It’s been the best decision I’ve ever made,” Martin said. “I just take pride in everything, especially being Hispanic and being born here in America, and joining the military —especially the military helps me be more proud.”
That desire for a better life, fulfilling the long-anticipated American Dream, transcends age groups and cultures in Logansport.
“It’s very common here. There’s so many kids here that are first-generation,” says Dheyanira Alarcon, a 19-year-old student at Indiana University-Kokomo, thinking about her own parents who immigrated from Mexico. She spoke to IndyStar after her shift at the town’s west side McDonald’s, the same one where Sanchez worked during high school.
Many feel the burden of repaying their parents for their hard work and sacrifices, she says.
“I always feel so much pressure,” Alarcon said. “Because I don’t want to disappoint them.” 
But others in the Logansport community say these stories are to be celebrated.
“They think their story is quite normal, and yet as someone who just observes from the outside, it’s like, no — you are unique and special and so gifted,” Szmara said. “Not only are you bilingual like you’re bicultural, and you have the ability to stand at the intersection of multiple things and lead in all of them, which is … pretty profound.”
Bill Cuppy, executive director of the Logansport-Cass County Chamber of Commerce, notes the city’s minority-owned businesses, have grown “immensely” across various industries, from restaurants, grocery stores and salons — and the city wouldn’t be the same without them. 
“Just visually you can just imagine if they weren’t here, the hole that would leave — not only in our physical locations downtown, but our population,” Cuppy said. ” You can just imagine what our economy and our city would look like.”
On Sunday, the community showed up with all its vibrancy, a melting pot decades in the making.
Thousands of people from all walks of life, from various generations, arrived to support Sanchez and his family as his body was carried home. Many lined the streets from Grissom Air Force Base, with others riding motorcycles in the procession.
In downtown Logansport, families set up lawn chairs and waved American flags, many wearing red, white and blue. They watched as firefighters hoisted up a ceremonial garrison flag, a tradition saved for only the most special occasions, to fly above the procession.
“Watch, the big flag’s gonna go up, OK?” a woman said to a child. 
Sunday’s procession seemed to come with lessons for the next generation, lessons of patriotism and what it means to be American in 2021.
“I mean, when I see our kids running down the street riding bicycles, and they’re all different nationalities and nations — I love it,” said Logansport native Jan Landis. “It’s like, that’s the way it’s supposed to be.”
IndyStar reporter John Tuohy contributed to this story. 
Contact Rashika Jaipuriar at rjaipuriar@gannett.com and follow her on Twitter @rashikajpr.

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