Special to the Register
He was born in Nicaragua without arms after his mother was prescribed the dangerous drug thalidomide for morning sickness during her pregnancy. When he was a child, the family moved to the United States, where he was the butt of taunting and jokes. But he refused to be daunted or discouraged.
The founder of Tony Melendez Ministries, which is especially dedicated to youth, Tony spoke and sang to a packed Cathedral of Our Lady of Guadalupe Sunday afternoon, Aug. 9. Several rows of extra chairs had to be placed at the front and rear of the church to accommodate the crowd – and the front seats were reserved for “los jovenes,” the youth.
His older brother, Jose, Tony’s tour manager, also was on hand, and talked about Tony’s courageous spirit even as a child.
“It was the stares, the commentary, how many times people would make fun of the little boy without arms,” Joe recalled. “My brother said to me one day, ‘They are just words – and I don’t hear them.’
“I would use my fists (against the taunters),” Jose admitted. “I hung my head in shame, and it embarrassed me. My best friends were making fun of Tony. One day, I went to my mother’s bedroom, and told her that I wanted another brother, one who could play Frisbee and football with me. She looked into my eyes, and said, ‘Love him the way he is.’
“When I left the bedroom, my brother Tony said to me – I guess he had been listening – ‘Do you want to play Frisbee?’ We went outside, and I threw the Frisbee to him. He caught it under his chin, and then flipped it down to his foot, and into the air to me.
“I realized that Tony does not have arms, but he is not handicapped. You and I are handicapped when we give up, when we stop believing, when we stop hoping.”
Later in the program, Tony and his brother Jose re-enacted their original Frisbee game to the cheers and tears of the audience. Tony was accompanied on stage by Tim Pope, drummer and bass player, and Pat Smith, a guitarist and original member of Tony’s Toe Jam Band.
Father Ted Skalsky, pastor of the cathedral parish, had introduced Tony, remarking, “One of the things he wants to achieve is the bringing together of cultures. He believes if he can do that, he has done something very important. He believes we are one human family.”
The audience seated before him -- composed of Hispanics and Anglos, Catholics and Protestants -- was a visible testimony to Tony’s achievement of his desire to bring different people together as one.
“Do not say to me, ‘I cannot,’” Tony told members of the audience as he pushed his right foot forward in a “Stop!” command. “You can. You can do much.”
The he began to sing in a voice as powerful as his message: “You are my God – and the rock on which I stand!” He invited the audience to sing along, and soon “Alleluias” were winging around the cathedral like birds in flight. People stood and chanted in “waves,” as Tony’s toes flew over his guitar.
“St. Francis said, ‘Preach the Gospel always – and sometimes use words,” Tony added. “We adore you with our lives,” he then began to sing.
Speaking every sentence in both English and Spanish, Tony then told the story of his father who died at the age of young age of 42.
“He drank too much,” Tony said. “I believe in my heart, he didn’t want to die. I loved my poppy very much. You never will hear this song I am going to play in church again. It was a song my father used to play.”
The pulsing beat of “La Bamba” rocked the cathedral and the audience. People clapped and sang along. Tony had tears in his eyes as he plunked his guitar with his toes.
Tony recalled his 1987 meeting with Pope John Paul II in Los Angeles. After hearing him play and sing Never Be the Same, “He jumped down from the stage on which he sat above me. He hugged me and kissed me.”
Tony gave four additional performances for John Paul, twice in the Vatican and another in the Pope’s homeland of Poland, and in Denver for World Youth Day 1993.
“I am trading my sorrow; I am trading my pain,” he sang, and looking into the eyes of the young people in front of him – los jovenes – he urged:
“God wants something of you right now. Use what you have!”