By David Sedeño
VALLE DE AMARATECA, Honduras—It’s a little before 7 o’clock on another sticky September night in Honduras and Tony Melendez is standing backstage inside the open-air gym at Villa de los Niños, waiting for his cue.
A backdrop decorated with a cutout of a giant guitar, birds, flowers and plants and emblazoned with the words, “Tony Melendez and Friends” hangs from floor to ceiling. In the center of the stage is an armless, cushioned chair set on a piece of carpet, a white hand towel is folded on the back of the chair and a tall side table is next to it with two opened bottles with straws. Melendez’s Taylor acoustic guitar is plugged into the sound system, a guitar pick next to it and an iPad nearby.
Melendez’s khaki slacks hang loosely and break neatly at the bottom, hanging slightly over his sandals, the type many people down here refer to as “huaraches.” A necklace of brightly colored, three-dimensional artwork given to him earlier in the day upon his arrival at the all-boys Catholic school hangs around his neck and down to the middle button of his brown print shirt, a loosely fitting, short-sleeve and un-tucked garment that is even looser because of his upper torso.
It truly is a hot and humid night and dark clouds and lightning can be seen in the distance. Melendez is approaching the final hours of his five-day tour of central Honduras, a trip originally arranged by Prince of Peace Catholic Community of Plano and stretched out to include visits to this tuition-free school and an all-girls Catholic sister school about 30 minutes away.
Melendez’s voice has been challenged the past few days because of the continual movement that has taken him from hot, heavy humid air in the 90-degree-plus weather outdoors to cold air-conditioned surroundings in vehicles and indoors that have taxed his vocal cords. Small beads of sweat are beginning to form on his forehead and near his temples and he looks around to see what the hold-up is.
On the other side of the wall on the gym floor and about 30 feet from the stage, Melendez’s brother José sits behind a table with his computer laptop and other hardware. He’s struggling to resuscitate an audio and multi-media system that is an integral part of the concert but that shorted out earlier during an electrical surge.
José Melendez is his brother’s partner, manager, event coordinator, sound engineer, sounding board, and personal assistant in the way only a brother can be. But right now, his attention is focused on a digital console that is used to operate video, music and slides. As Tony Melendez paces a bit, his brother remains calms, using his fingers to ask for five more minutes.
In the crowd, there are 570 boys, ages 12-16, dressed in white shirts and blue pants, sitting on plastic stools and talking away, few are restless, yet. Eight nuns from the Sisters of Mary religious order that runs the school are strategically positioned around the perimeter of the students. Also among the crowd are townspeople who live in the valley surrounding the school, a few benefactors, and about two dozen local Honduran Army soldiers dressed in starched fatigues and shiny black books who have been brought here tonight by their colonel, who loves the music and message of Tony Melendez.
In some ways, this trip seems like a homecoming, as close to the Melendez’s native Nicaragua as they have been in a while. For Tony Melendez, the landscape and the tough life for many people outside the walls of this oasis are reminders of the harsh economic conditions and few opportunities that persist in Central America. For those with physical handicaps in these parts, life can be even tougher.
The visit here serves as an opportunity for him to offer his message of “esperanza,” of hope, much like he has been doing after a global call-to-action was given to him more than three decades ago. “Everything is possible with God.”
His brother now signals to a nun serving as a go-between that the equipment is up and ready. The lights go down in the gym and on stage.
A video begins to play, projecting on white walls on either side of the stage detailing the life of Tony Melendez, a boy born in Nicaragua without arms. It talks about his life, with photos of him as a little boy. It transitions to images of his feet on the guitar, his of songs of praises, and his words of hope.
“Don’t ever say that you can’t,” he will say in Spanish again tonight, this time directing his message to the boys in the audience. “Look at me.
As the moment nears for his time to walk to the chair, slip off his sandals, sit and retrieve the pick between his big toe and the one next to it and begin strumming and playing the guitar and telling his story, the words of his brother will soon ring clear.
“I don’t know what happens from the time that Tony starts playing the guitar and the music reaches people in the audience, but it is very powerful. Tony’s hands are in heaven. His hands are with God. He is the one who provides for Tony what he needs.”
In God’s Hands
For many who believe they know the story of Tony Melendez, revelations of the layers of his life surprise quickly surprise them.
José Melendez has told the story many times. His father, also named José Ángel, was from El Salvador and was an agricultural manager. His mother Sara, a teacher, was from Nicaragua. When José himself was born in 1959 in Rivas, Nicaragua, he was told that his uncle went out into the streets of their town heralding the great news.
A little over a year later when Tony was born with no arms, his brother recalled being told, no one celebrated his birth, but Tony said that his parents would never give up on him, either.
Sara Melendez had been prescribed thalidomide for morning sickness, ironically by her physician uncle. She had only taken the medication for a week, but the damage had been done. Few people at the time knew the birth defects and deaths worldwide later attributed to the drug, which eventually was banned.
Not only was Tony born without arms, he also had a club left foot. The family was told that if he ever were to have a chance of living the best life possible, his foot would have to be repaired. So, in 1963, the Melendez family and extended family members traveled by car to Los Angeles, where a doctor at UCLA had agreed to do the surgery on his foot.
The intent was never to stay in the United States, but the family remained because the surgeries to Tony’s foot would be spread out over several years. The Melendez patriarch now working as a janitor, and his mother, a teacher in Nicaragua, did not work in the United States, rather became the family’s nurturer and faith leader.
Soon, the Melendez family included two daughters and the family moved out to Chino, east of Los Angeles. As he grew, his father made Tony do things for himself, preparing him for a life of independence. Tony made a few friends, but there were taunts, laughs, jeers and tears. But not from Tony.
“The kids would run away saying, “Here comes the kid with no arms! Here comes the kids with no arms!’ ’’ Tony Melendez recalled.
When it came for Tony’s first time to get on the school bus, José Melendez described how others backed away from his brother, laughing and taunting him.
“Growing up, my sisters and I would get really mad at other people laughing or making fun of Tony and I would get into fights,” he said. “But Tony never got angry. He never did. He would say, ‘I know they laugh at me and make fun of me, but I choose to not let it bother me.’ ”
But José Melendez recalls that when he was about 12 years old and after a particularly frustrating bad day about Tony, he went home to his mother nearly in tears. He wanted another brother, he told her, one who could throw the football or play sports with him. His mother held him and told him to forget what the world thought about his brother because Tony was in God’s hands.
“She didn’t say anything else and I am feeling that the moment is over and it’s done,” José recalled. “But then I turn around and Tony is standing in the doorway. My heart sank when our eyes met because I was like all those other kids. I was the one who was being mean and I was saying, ‘I don’t know how to love you. I don’t know why you are so different and I don’t know what to do with all of this.’ I felt worse when he turned around and walked away.
“I remember running after him and when I caught up to him, he was coming out of our bedroom and he was carrying a Frisbee between his chin and his shoulder and I was like, ‘Dude, you don’t have to do this!’ ”
They went outside to either side of the yard. José threw the Frisbee to his brother who caught it between his chin and shoulder, dropped it to ground and picked it up between his toes.
“He flings his foot back, flings it forward and releases it and the Frisbee comes straight at me. It hits me right on the bridge of my nose,” José said. “I’m so surprised that I fall back. But when I get up, I am now looking at Tony with my heart and not my eyes.”
A few years later, when Tony was about 16, he discovered “opening tuning” that other guitarists use and believed it would allow him to play the guitar with his feet with more ease. He practiced and he practiced and his siblings complained and complained about the noise.
But, once he started playing liturgical music, his brother said, Tony’s music seemed to soar.
Fast forward to 1987. Pope John Paul II was preparing for a tour of North America and Los Angeles was a stop. Papal organizers had heard about Tony and asked him to come in for an audition. Melendez, now 25, played two songs. After he had finished, they told him they would get back to him. Right, he recalled—LA, Hollywood, audition. “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” He thought he had blown it.
Mission of Hope
On Sept. 22, the Melendez brothers were the last ones to board the connecting flight in Houston that would take them to San Pedro Sula, Honduras. They walked toward the back of the plane and joined their traveling group of 10 missionaries from Prince of Peace Catholic Community in Plano. Tony Melendez and his music were to be a gift from Prince of Peace to the parishioners of the Cathedral of Our Lady of Las Mercedes in El Progreso, Honduras, to commemorate the two groups’ 20 years of working together for the community.
Melendez played concerts at the cathedral, at a school for children with special needs, a public school, a free-lunch mini-center, and at Hogar Suyapa, a home built by both parishes and which houses 38 children from ages 6 months to 18 years who have been abandoned by their parents or removed by the state from at-risk home situations.
At the crowded, hot cathedral in El Progreso, a little boy sat by himself in front of the altar area, singing and swaying and clapping to the rhythm. A priest sat in the front row recording video on his smartphone, much like others in the audience.
A woman sat near the aisle close to the altar, her disabled daughter in the wheelchair next to her. As Melendez sang and played, the woman held her daughter’s right hand, tears rolling down her own cheeks.
“Many people say that I offer hope to people, maybe so,” Tony Melendez would say later. “Maybe that’s why I’m here, to offer hope to sing and to offer a little bit of my heart and my music. I don’t know how God uses me but I know that he is with me and that he will never leave. God loves all of us.”
He also visited a nutrition center, also built by the two parishes, and attended other prayer services, learning about all of the services provided to the community and accepting hugs from people at all sites and posing for countless photos.
At each of those stops, he and his brother told their story, talked about God’s love and his plan for each of them and encouraged everyone to never give up. At several of those places, Melendez played and sang, “No Tengas Miedo” (Don’t be Afraid) and asks those in the crowd to sing with him. They sang and swayed and some wiped tears. As several of the stops, he told the crowd how he gets dressed; how he brushes his teeth, eats, drinks, bathes, and drives.
At Hogar Suyapa, as toddlers looked at him and several gently began tugging on and looking up his short-sleeve shirts, he told the adults, “They do this all the time. I usually tell them, ‘If you find my arms let me know, it’s been a while since I’ve seen them.’ ”
On Sept. 24, the Melendez brothers traveled south toward the capital of Tegucigalpa and spent three days with students, staff and the Sisters of Mary, a religious order that operates Villa de las Niñas, an all-girls Catholic school of 639 outside of Tegucigalpa, and Villa de los Niños, the boys school whose enrollment will expand from 570 to more than 1,000 in a few months after the construction of a new building is completed.
The schools were founded in 1964 in South Korea following the Korean war by missionary Father Aloysius Schwartz, declared Venerable by Pope Francis in 2015. The schools now number 14 in seven countries. In Honduras, 11 nuns are assigned to the girls’ school and eight are at the boys’ school.
The boarding schools are tuition-free and students are recruited from all parts of the country. Inside the walls, the lessons are not only academic, but spiritual, technical and practical. The students are grouped into “homes” with a nun serving as a mother, who becomes their faith formation leader and nurturer.
Parents can visit once in May and September and the students return home for three weeks during Christmas. The aim is to bring order and provide consistency in students’ lives and to educate each one of them so that by they time are 17 or 18 can graduate, then continue their studies or begin work. The goal is for them to eventually return to their communities and become leaders, to give back and help improve the lives of others.
“When they come here, many of them are crying because they are leaving their family,” said Sister Liliana Martinez, the leader at the girls’ school. “When they leave here, many of them are crying, because they are now leaving their family.”
The girls’ school is off a busy side road off a major highway. High concrete walls and razor war serve as a protect from nearby farms, businesses, shanties and the homes in the hills that are populated by MS-13 gang members. They’ve never had a problem, but the juxtaposition of the school and its neighborhood brings home to the Melendez brothers how truly lucky the girls are to be inside the protected walls of the campus.
Sister Liliana told the Melendez brothers she wanted them to talk to a group of young women who are set to graduate in December because many are afraid of what awaits them outside the walls. At a small gathering, Tony Melendez encouraged them to never give up and to find the goodness of God in their work and in others.
That evening, he played a 50-minute concert for the entire student body, a few alumni and invited guests in an open-air gym, sprinkling it with stories and life lessons.
He talked about his life, his parents, his siblings, his upbringings, the struggles in his life, how they withstood the abuse from an abusive alcoholic father and the love they have for their mother and are now continuing to build up their own families. The brothers now live 15 minutes apart in Branson, Mo., and their mother also lives nearby. Their father is deceased.
Tony told the story about the love of his life: wife Lynn, a former staffer in the Diocese of Dallas Office of Youth and Young Adults, who, he would say in an interview later, how that when he proposed to her that she not only said, “Yes,” but told him that “he was whole.” The couple have children, who are now adults, but who were adopted from Nicaragua and El Salvador.
He asked the crowd to sing with him, clap to the beat of music and instructed them on how to do several variations of “the wave” to go with his music. He asked the girls to think of others.
He thanked his brother and asked him to take over for a bit so that he can rest his voice. His brother recounted the story of telling his mom that he wanted a new brother and the rest of the story about the Frisbee.
Tony made his way off the stage and José, Frisbee already in hand, tossed it to him. It took a couple of tries. Then Tony Melendez took the Frisbee, just like his brother described in the story, and sent it across the gym to cheers and extended hands.
Not long after, he closed the concert and the atmosphere of revelry turned nearly immediately to reverence as the stage was transformed to an altar area. The girls knelt and faced toward the middle aisle to begin the Holy Hour.
Four girls dressed in black cassocks processed from the back of the gym, two with large candles, another holding an incense boat and a fourth carrying a thurible, incensing the path in front of the priest and the Blessed Sacrament he is carrying.
After the priest placed the Blessed Sacrament into monstrance, a few girls alternated reciting prayers and delivering reflections as Tony Melendez played intermittently, the sounds of young female voices resounding through gym, the sounds of thunder and flashes of lightning piercing the sky outside.
“Tony went from this little kid that people made fun of to a man that people want to know what his life is about—where did he get this charisma, this joy to live the life that he lives,” his brother said. “Tony always been good about it (saying), ‘It’s been my faith, my parents; God has always been a part of my life.’ He is sincere. He is innocent and he is about letting God use him to the best ability that he can.”
It’s now the evening of Thursday, Sept. 26, and Tony Melendez is at the boys’ school waiting backstage for his cue.
The crowd is watching a video that shows a much-younger Melendez sitting on a stage at an event center at Los Angeles across a much larger stage from Pope John Paul II. “Holy Father,” a young man is seen on the video addressing the pope, “we now have a gift to present to you. Our gift represents courage—the courage of self-motivation and family support. Our gift is music and the performer who says, ‘When I sing, I hear the Lord.’ Holy Father, we are proud to present to you, Tony Melendez.”
The video shows Melendez singing and playing “Never be the Same” on a 12-string guitar. When he finishes, he receives a standing ovation, including from the pope who is clapping. Then the pope surprises everyone, especially his security detail and jumps off the stages, goes to Melendez, who bends down so that the pope can reach him to give him a hug and a kiss.
Melendez is teary-eyed. The pope returns to his chair, waits for the crowd to stop cheering, and then says, “Tony, Tony, you are truly a courageous young man. You are giving hope to all of us. My wish to you is for you to continuing giving this hope to all the people.”
All eyes in the boys’ school have been glued to the walls and as the video fades, Tony Melendez has wiped his face on the towel, taken a sip of water and quietly taken his place on his chair. The pick is between his toes and his feet are on the guitar. His brother fades out the music on the video and brings up the volume on Tony’s microphone and guitar and Tony is now playing the same song.
He talks about playing for the pope. He talks about the kiss from the saint. He talks about his life mission of hope.
“I want to tell you that anything you want to do in life, it is possible. Never say that you can’t,” he would say repeatedly. “Look at me.”
His voice is raspier now. He goes through the repertoire. He sings some more. He asks them to do the wave. His brother talks about their lives. The Frisbee eventually comes out. Tony tries to fling it into a basketball hoop, but it lands near the area where the soldiers are sitting.
And just like at the girls’ school, after about 50 minutes, he moves to another area so that an altar can be brought in. A priest who is scheduled to be there cannot make it, so the Blessed Sacrament cannot be exposed, but it is present on the altar.
The boys, like the girls, kneel in prayer and several go to the front and give their reflections, some of them lengthy prayers asking for protection and guidance from the Blessed Mother.
After the Holy Hour closes, the nuns ask him to go on stage again. The boys perform a “can-do” song with hand movements and turns in choreographed unison, the Melendez brothers smiling and tapping their feet to the beat of the song.
Hugs and photo opps take up another half-hour before the brothers are ushered into a van for a return trip to the girls’ school.
“It was a great honor for me to hear and to hug Tony Melendez because he is a person who perseveres,” says Benjamin Antonio Hernández González, a student at the boys’ school. “I have vision problems and he helped me. He counseled me how to succeed, telling me never to get depressed and to always look toward the future and to have big dreams and never give up.”
His is just one of many testimonials of renewed hope throughout the trip inspired by a man who was given a charge 32 years earlier by now St. Pope John Paul to “give hope to everyone.”
The next morning, the brothers bid goodbye to the girls, take a photo with the nuns who have hosted them. It has been a great week, they say. They plan to take a few days off then start on a two-week driving tour that will them to the northeast and then to the Midwest.
They have talked about their love for their families, for each other and their shared ministry. They each have said how great of a trip it was, extoll the missionary work and commitment of the Prince of Peace community, and their desire to return some day. They have traveled to 44 countries, taken youth groups to seven World Youth Days.
“The message that Tony Melendez gives is, well, I don’t know if I have to say to much sometimes,” he says about himself. “They are seeing a guy plays the guitar with his feet and they are like, ‘Whoa!’ It’s kind of a shock to them. I think example is even more than my words.”
And his brother talks about how they are like disciples, traveling in a pair to evangelize to bring God’s message to those who need it most. He says they pray wherever they go and stay focused—their joy and satisfaction measured differently.
“We could have been rich many times already,” José says. “I don’t think that’s what God wants for us. We are rich in a different way. We are rich because of the generosity of others and love and kindness of others. I used to think of the secular riches, but I never imagined the riches available to you once you say ‘Yes’ to God.”