When students from GW’s tight-knit Latino community returned to D.C. earlier this month, they knew one of their friends, freshman Daniel M?ndez, would not be there. M?ndez, 19, a native of Panama, died Christmas Eve in a car accident on a Panama City highway.
To mark the one-month anniversary of M?ndez’s death, more than 60 of his friends gathered in St. Stephen Martyr Church Saturday afternoon to lament the loss of a man who touched many lives in his lone semester at GW.
Mourners participated in a formal mass that was preceded by a communion and rosary, a Catholic prayer.
Before the service began, freshman Javier Loreto, M?ndez’s good friend, lit two candles and said a prayer for his companion.
“He was so full of life and had so many goals,” said Loreto after rosary ended.
Students sat huddled together inside the hushed church, united in their sorrow.
“It’s been really hard to come back. We really feel his absence,” freshman Nicole Vidal said after the rosary.
After a 20-minute mass, freshman Raul Vidal spoke about his common bond with M?ndez.
“We are both from Latin America, and even though he is from Panama and I from Cuba, we were brothers,” he said.
Raul Vidal described M?ndez as “a man of action” who wanted to be president of Panama.
He said that M?ndez was emerging as a “hero” who would change Panama when his life was cut short last month.
M?ndez, along with two of his friends, died in the early hours of Dec. 24 when his Honda CRV crashed into a large truck on a stretch of highway several miles outside Panama City.
“It’s just really hard to be with a person every day of your life and then suddenly he’s not here,” said freshman Susana Fonseca, a Panamanian student who went to high school with M?ndez.
Fonseca said coming to GW was a rough transition for her and M?ndez.
“Our last conversation was about GW and how we were gonna make it through,” Fonseca said. “So I have to do it for him.”
Besides being an honest and loyal friend with “good intentions,” Fonseca said M?ndez, the oldest of three children, had been “at the top of his class all his life.” In high school, he was a member of the honor society and founded a debate club, she said.
“He wanted to change the corruption in Panama; he was in love with his country,” Fonseca said.
Freshman Gabriel Garcia, M?ndez’s best friend, struggled to fight back tears as he spoke about the strong friendship he and M?ndez had forged last semester.
“We are complete opposites – he looked at life in another way as I looked at it, but because of him my life has been completely changed,” he said.
Garcia, who said he was living in the “fast lane,” has “slowed down” since his friend’s death and has begun to focus on the “more important things in life.”
“Sometimes death makes us look at life in a completely different way,” he continued. “You have to take every day one at a time, and sometimes life is hard, but you can’t give up and you can’t deny it.”
“God has a plan for all of us,” said Garcia, “and his plan for Daniel was for him to be part of my life for only five months.”