A Living Legacy: Juan Suaste

Long-time SDJA staff member looks back on his time at the school 

By Talia Gold (‘20)

Juan Suaste (Jan 2020)

Juan Suaste photographed by Talia Gold (‘20)

When speaking of Juan Suaste, there is no person– staff, student, or parent– in the school community who doesn’t have something fond to say about him. His entrance into a room never goes unnoticed thanks to his loud, unabashed, “Shalom, Shalom,” announcing to everyone that he has arrived. 

“Juan learned how to say hello in like six different languages so that he can greet every student in their native language,” comments English teacher Sara Hansen fondly. “I think that’s really special.”

Throughout the course of our conversation, it became clear that Juan’s comfort and relationship with the students at SDJA had progressed over the years. He quickly recalled multiple memories of his interactions with them. Singing like mariachis with the graduating senior class, joking with students, making up silly names for them–the stories went on and on. 

His relationship with the students, beyond friendly joking, has played a big part in his learning Hebrew. Working in a place where students were learning a language he didn’t know sparked his interest in learning the language himself. With determination, Juan learned small phrases like “Shalom,” “Ma Shlomech,” “Boker Tov,” and “Sababa.” This small handful of phrases proved to be substantial enough to hold a minor conversation with the Hebrew teachers when he walked into their classroom. Juan fondly mentioned all of the students who helped him learn Hebrew.

As a main member of the school’s marvelous maintenance crew, Juan’s responsibility for keeping the campus clean, well-maintained, and looking sharp is endless; he often seems to be in several places at once. If someone were to say, “it’s almost like he lives here,” Juan would say, “I do.” Juan not only works at San Diego Jewish Academy, he also calls it his home, for real. Situated above the tennis courts, Juan’s house provides a spot from where he can watch over the campus he cares for so deeply, morning, noon, and night. 

Se siente un poco de responsabilidad por vivir aquí (There is a certain sense of responsibility that comes with living here),” shares Juan. “Cualquier problema pues anteriormente tenía que levantarme a chequar cosas ya, ahora ya como los últimos años hasta la fecha que han puesto mucha seguridad y todo, pero pues está bien. Osea que es conveniente para ellos y para mi que alguien esté viviendo en la escuela (Before, any problem that arose, I’d have to get up and go check it out. Now, the updated security makes things easier. It’s both convenient for me and the guards to have me here. We rely on each other).”

But Juan’s job isn’t his only priority. What many people don’t know is that he also spends time working on and improving his ranch in his hometown of Guanajuato, Mexico. 

“Soy dueño de un rancho que mide por ahí de cuatro acres y tengo mi propio negocio vendiendo pipas de agua ahí. (I own a ranch that’s about four acres in size, and I run a little business there selling water pipes).” Whenever he gets the chance to go home, which is about every two months, Juan says he works on further developing his ranch which is home to cows and sheep and his two dogs.

However, Juan doesn’t just go home to improve his ranch. His contributions to bettering the community extend past the gates of the San Diego Jewish Academy and travel with him to Guanajuato, where he hopes to make life in the small town a little better.

Hago cosas para mi pueblo (I do things to help my town). Ahorita tengo un club de emigrantes de mi pueblo que hemos hecho cosas para ayudar. Lo último que estamos acabando es que abrimos una escuela de música y nosotros hacemos rifas para poder hacer dinero y comprar instrumentos para los niños (I’m a part of a club with other immigrants from my town and together we raise money to help fund things there. The last thing we raised money for was a music school we opened for the kids who live in our town. We got money doing raffles and other fundraisers and as of now have been able to buy instruments for the kids to use).

If one asks Juan about his future plans, he will gush about his dream to move back to Mexico, his voice filled with longing to be reunited with his six brothers and their families. 

Cuando me retire, pienso irme a gozar mi ranchito aya con mi esposa en México, andar en caballo, cuidar mis borregas, mi burro, y trabajar un poco con mis trabajos que hago aya (When I retire, I plan to move back to my ranch with my wife, ride my horses, look after my sheep and donkey, and work more actively with my projects there.)” 

Nada es eterno, pero los mejores de mis años han sido aquí (Nothing lasts forever, but I can say that my best years have been here).

Juan’s time here has been very well spent. Having built a relationship with his coworkers and community, including parents, students, and staff, Juan has become a man no one can pass by without smiling. In his 22 years at our campus, he has worked his way into the hearts of everyone who visits our school. It truly wouldn’t be SDJA without Juan.