After being granted his U.S. citizenship and buying his own home, Benjamin Sanchez believed he knew the meaning of the elusive and idealistic “American Dream.”
But that was before he was diagnosed with cancer.
Since acquiring his citizenship in 1998, Sanchez, caretaker and foreman of Serenity Farm, a hunter/jumper facility in Colorado, has worked diligently to save enough money to buy a home for his wife and three children. That moment finally arrived in December of 2005 in Elizabeth, Colo.
A year later, the perfect world that he’d worked for more than 20 years to create came crashing down on him after medical testing revealed that Sanchez was suffering from the early stages of esophageal cancer. As he broke the news to his family, Sanchez began to wonder how, without health insurance, he was going to pay for the months of treatments that were soon to follow.
While Sanchez has always been focused on providing the best he can for his family, his quest for a new life in the United States wasn’t driven by the “almighty dollar,” but by a sense of dedication to hard work and a love for horses.
“He’s one of the kindest and hardest-working human beings I’ve ever met,” said Sue Bury, who keeps her horse in Sanchez’s care at Serenity Farm. “We call him the horse whisperer because he connects so incredibly with all the horses.”
Cindy Cruciotti, owner of Serenity Farm, agreed. “When I walk into the barn he’s always whistling, and the horses are all watching him. He’s very efficient but also calm and the horses respond to that. When he clips them, he never has to use a twitch or a chain—even on the young ones,” she said.
In an effort to help Sanchez, Cruciotti and the boarders at Serenity Farm have all pitched in to raise the money necessary to pay his medical bills. Benefits, fundraisers, silent auctions and just old-fashioned good will are a few of the efforts the people at Serenity have put forth to aid their beloved foreman.
Sanchez, 51, prides himself in never leaving the stable until each horse is properly put away, a habit that grew out of his work on the Sanchez family farm in Zacatecaz, Mexico.
“It was a lot different there,” said Sanchez about the way his family utilized horses as a labor source. “We used the horses to harvest the fields and to get back and forth to work, not for pleasure. I remember when we got home late at night from the fields I would feed and put them away. We didn’t have running water either so I had to take buckets to the river and fill them up.”
The long days in Zacatecaz, carrying buckets back from the river, water sloshing from side to side spilling out onto his shoes and leaving a trail behind him, are not all that different from the seemingly never-ending days he puts in at the horse shows.
From the HITS Desert Circuit (Calif.) to the High Prairie Horse Shows (Colo.) to the Capital Challenge (Md.), Sanchez exemplifies the same unflagging work ethic everywhere he goes.
“He’s the first one at the barn in the morning and the last one to go home at night,” said Cruciotti. “And he does it because he wants to.”
A Tireless Teacher
The work ethic that Sanchez developed while working alongside his father, Angel Sanchez, is something that he tries to instill in other grooms that he meets on the circuit and at Serenity Farm.
After working with horses for almost 50 years, 28 of those in the United States, Sanchez has taught innumerable other men who work with horses not only how to be good grooms but also how to be good horsemen.
“We get a lot of young Thoroughbred horses off the track, and before I sit on them Benjamin works with them for two or three weeks teaching them how to longe, how to go forward, how to halt, so that it’s safe when I get on them,” explained Cruciotti, who won the 2005 Ariat Adult Medal Finals aboard Q, a horse Sanchez cared for.
“He’s a tireless teacher and often tells his younger co-workers that the farm isn’t an 8-5 job,” added Jennifer Wallen, an adult amateur competitor who boards her horse, Otis, at Serenity Farm.
Recalling how diligently Sanchez cared for Otis when he injured himself jumping out of the paddock, Wallen said, “Benjamin took care of him like he was gold. He called me right after it happened, and when I arrived at the barn 15 minutes later Benjamin had already stopped the bleeding, cleaned the wound and called the vet.
“It’s hard to describe the relationship he has with the horses,” continued Wallen. “Mine can be difficult, and just watching the way he interacts with the animals—never saying a harsh word, never using force—I don’t know exactly what it is, but they just seem to melt in his care.”
When Cruciotti decided to open her own business three years ago she knew that finding knowledgeable and dependable help was crucial to her success. Sanchez flew with his family to Colorado from California to meet Cruciotti. “They are a big part of my life, and I wanted them to be there and see where we might be living,” said Sanchez of his decision.
Similar to laying eyes on a horse for the first time and knowing it’s “the one,” Cruciotti knew right away that Sanchez was the missing puzzle piece.
“I loved him immediately. He is one of the most giving, caring and warm people I’ve ever met,” she insisted. “I could never have developed the integrity and honor of this barn without him—he’s amazing with the horses, he relates to the clients and their needs, and runs the barn efficiently.”
In addition to his work with the horses, Sanchez also drives the truck and trailer to the horse shows.
“The first time I took him to a show, we got out of the truck and almost immediately 30 grooms were all around Benjamin. I asked him later if he was a celebrity, and I didn’t know it at the time because he just blushed and walked away, but he’s a living legend to many of the workers around here. You’d never know it by the way he acts,” added Cruciotti.
Building The Dream
Leaving his family and their beloved farm in Mexico wasn’t an easy decision for the then 23-year-old. In search of more money and a better life than the Mexican fields offered him, Sanchez arrived in the United States 28 years ago like many illegal immigrants do—on foot. Walking.
There were times when Sanchez thought that he would never make it, that border patrol would catch him and send him to jail. Opportunities for sleep were rare, and when he did sleep he dreamt of a new life, a family and his own home.
The first glimpse Sanchez had of his American Dream was a rusted doublewide trailer in Orange County, Calif., that he shared with nine other migrants. The weeds outside climbed at the walls, covering the blood-red rust stains that ate away at the tan-and-white aluminum siding.
Finally, after two weeks of no work and little food, Sanchez found a job harvesting pumpkins at a nearby farm. He remembers long days in the baking sun in sweat-soaked clothing. A week later when Sanchez’s cousin called offering him a job in a factory, he packed his bags and was gone the next day.
“I don’t remember much about working in the factory,” said Sanchez who made $85 a week at the time. “When I was offered the job working with horses at Onondarka Farm in Calabasas, Calif., after eight months of working in a factory, I was ready to do something different.”
Although the work was just as demanding as that of the factory, Sanchez found solace and comfort in arriving at the barn early each morning and feeding, turning-out and cleaning stalls. Leading the horses out to the paddocks, he watched the sun creep over the horizon, spilling brilliant pinks and pale yellows over the damp morning grass that saturated his shoes and the cuffs of his pants.
“I’m reminded of Mexico and my family whenever I’m around horses,” admitted Sanchez in a throaty voice.
One of the earliest symptoms of esophageal cancer is difficulty swallowing, a result of the tumor growing large enough to narrow the esophagus.
“I’m scared about having this disease, and it’s very hard on my family, but being around the horses helps a lot,” explained Sanchez, who first sought treatment for his symptoms while on a visit to his family in Mexico.
A life-long heartburn sufferer, he didn’t start to suspect that there was anything wrong until he began having a hard time swallowing not only solid food but liquids too. An endoscopy revealed that he had stage 1 squamous cell esophageal cancer. By that point, Sanchez had lost almost 50 pounds.
Sanchez continued working while he went through chemotherapy and radiation treatments. In an effort to help him regain strength and weight, however, doctors inserted a feeding tube into his stomach to provide him with nourishment. In addition, Sanchez wore a pack that gave him 24-hour chemotherapy treatments.
Following six weeks of radiation treatments and chemotherapy that culminated in March, Sanchez had surgery to remove the cancer cells and the tumor. Surgeons performed an esophagectomy, during which they remove the portion of the esophagus that contains the tumor along with nearby lymph nodes. The remaining esophagus is then reconnected to the stomach so the patient may still swallow.
While the surgery was effective, with surgeons reporting they believe all the cancer was removed and the reconstruction of the esophagus went well, Sanchez contracted pneumonia. Complications led to adult respiratory distress syndrome, in which the lungs are unable to heal. As of press time, Sanchez had spent eight weeks in the hospital and was just removed from a ventilator. He was hoping to return home on May 25, and his lungs are expected to recover fully.
“Benjamin is irreplaceable, and our lives have been more enriched not just because he’s a good worker, but because he’s a wonderful human being,” said Cruciotti.
“I just want people to continue with their prayers,” she added. “Because he feels them and knows they’re there.”
An Ongoing Crisis
Currently, the United States is faced with two long-term challenges—the high costs of health care combined with the erosion of health insurance coverage. This is an especially heightened problem for immigrants to the United States, many of whom, like Benjamin Sanchez, are uninsured and have limited access to health care services.
Adding to the concern of limited health care access is the fact that unresolved health problems can limit a person’s ability to maintain productive employment. A survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau revealed that job-based health insurance is offered to 87 percent of non-Hispanic white citizen workers, but only to 50 percent of Latino immigrant workers.
In some cases, employers are able to treat immigrants—even legal immigrants—differently by classifying them as contract, temporary or part-time workers so they’re not required to offer benefits. In other instances, employers pay employees under the table to avoid having to pay out workman’s compensation or disability.
In 1996 a welfare reform law passed that prohibited most lawful permanent residents admitted after the law’s enactment from receiving federal Medicaid coverage during their first five years in the United States, thus further narrowing insurance and health care options for immigrants.
But in an industry that’s listed by the U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics as the sixth most dangerous occupation in the United States, health insurance and adequate health care is becoming more and more of a luxury among farm workers as the national number of insured individuals continues to plummet.
“I’ve always wanted to get insurance for all of my employees, but being a small business, it is astronomical,” said Cindy Cruciotti, owner of Serenity Farm. “We just have two or three employees, and it would cost $1,500 a month per employee.”
In 2005, the number of people without health insurance climbed from 45.3 million to 46.6 million or 15.9 percent of U.S. residents. These patients without health insurance who are treated in this country every year, generate medical bills in excess of $41 billion. In many cases, a raise in local and state taxes as well as an increase in health insurance premiums compensate the unpaid bills.
Fundraising To Save A Life
Being diagnosed with cancer is a traumatic event in any person’s life, but not knowing whether or not you’ll have the ability to pay for the possibly life-saving treatment is even more devastating.
After his cancer diagnosis, Benjamin Sanchez knew he had a chance to beat the cancer and return to normal life, which gave him hope. But he faced the reality that he might not be able to receive the necessary treatments due to lack of money.
“When the doctor told me I had cancer, I called my family and they started to cry. Then I started too because I was scared,” said Sanchez.
Giving someone a second chance at life is typically something that only physicians have the opportunity to offer, but Sanchez’s friends are finding ways to provide him with faith and a possibility for recovery.
Sue Bury Oldham, who keeps her horse in Sanchez’s care at Serenity Farm, is continuously working at educating people about Sanchez’s long history as an extraordinary horseman and the need for money to pay for his medical treatment. On Jan. 27, she organized a fundraiser, the “We Believe In A Cure—A Cancer Benefit For Benjamin Sanchez,” which raised more than $24,000. All of the proceeds went to pay for Sanchez’s medical bills.
The wine-and-cheese benefit gala featured world-renowned Flamenco guitarist, René Heredia, as well as musicians from the Denver Classical Guitar Society. More than 50 silent auction items, including a Denver Broncos football signed by Pro-Bowler Champ Bailey, were donated.
“The auction was fantastic,” said Bury-Oldham. “Benjamin donated an iron bridle rack, and we sold it at the live auction for $2,000. Benjamin was very choked up because the family gave it back to him after they purchased it.”