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BY JASON KOTOWSKI Californian staff writer email@example.com
John Holguin Espinoza was a fixture in Delano for nearly nine decades, a reliable friend, community activist and businessman -- reportedly the first Mexican-American barber in the city to open his own shop -- recognizable through his soft-spokenness and the sharpness of his dress.
"If you want to find a person to mold your life from, Johnny would be the one," said longtime friend Roger Gadiano.
Sometime last week the man who friends say was known by everyone in Delano was found stuffed in the trunk of his submerged car in the Friant-Kern Canal. Espinoza was last seen at his residence Sept. 18, and the vehicle was spotted in the canal the evening of the following day.
No suspects have been identified and the motive remains unknown. Delano police said Thursday the investigation was ongoing.
Friends of Espinoza say the 88-year-old was loved by everyone.
The Delano Chamber of Commerce has raised $5,085 in just three days as a reward for information leading to the arrest of those responsible for Espinoza's death. Chamber Executive Director Janet Rabanal said Espinoza was well-respected and valued by local residents.
"(His death) has really brought the community together and kind of united everyone to let the perpetrators know we're not going to put up with this in our community," she said.
City Councilman Rueben Pascal described Espinoza as a "pillar of the community." Pascal said Espinoza was his barber, and he'd known him since high school.
Pascal asked for Espinoza's support when he ran for city council. He didn't know it until later, but Espinoza quietly went around town campaigning for him.
That humbleness was a lifelong trait of Espinoza's. Pascual said Espinoza accomplished a lot in his life and remained active until the end, but had no interest in being in the limelight.
He didn't need to be.
"When he spoke, everybody listened," Pascual said.
Gadiano said he first met Espinoza when the older man opened up a barbershop across the street from the grocery store run by Gadiano's father. Gadiano believes that business, opened in the 1960s, was the first barbershop owned by a Mexican-American in Delano.
Born May 25, 1925, Holguin attended Delano High School and afterward enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he ferried Marines on amphibious landing craft during the Pacific campaign of World War II. Gadiano said he and Espinoza bonded as veterans; Gadiano served in Vietnam.
After the war, Espinoza participated in various causes supporting the rights of Mexican-Americans. Gadiano said one of his friend's greatest accomplishments was establishing the Mexican-American Pioneers of Delano, a group comprised of Mexican-Americans that settled in Delano in the 1920s and 1930s and which still throws an annual banquet attended by original members.
Friends said they believe Espinoza's siblings long left Delano. They said he has a son believed to have left the city, also.
Gadiano said Espinoza donated a lot of money to various causes, but also showed generosity in other ways. The two friends dined several times a week at Jenny's Cafe and, there as at other eateries, Espinoza would pay for the dinners of other patrons.
Why would anyone want to kill someone so beloved, so generous? Gadiano said the only reason he can think a criminal would target Espinoza is because the way he dressed made it appear he had a lot of money.
"He dressed so clean, he looked like a man of wealth," Gadiano said.
The friend said he jokingly used to accuse Espinoza of doing yard work in his church clothes because he dressed well even when he was raking leaves or pruning bushes. Gadiano said Espinoza responded that he needed to wear the clothes because otherwise they'd just be rotting in his closet.
Honest and giving, quiet and loyal, Espinoza made a big impression on this small city.
"He was everything I wanted to be," Gadiano said.
Donations toward the reward can be made at Citizens Business Bank to the "Delano Chamber of Commerce Johnny Espinoza Reward Fund."