WARWICK, R.I. — Valentin Cardona Sanchez had faced hardship and the possibility of death before, each time he fled Guatemala for the United States.
He suffered in the treacherous desert crossing, was turned away by immigration officials, and incarcerated for his attempts to cross the border, his family said.
But Sanchez didn’t give up, because he couldn’t, his family said. He was the oldest of nine siblings, with a wife and children of his own, living in an unstable country where work was scarce and hunger was common.
“He was like a second father,” his brother Angel Cardona Sanchez said through a translator. “He was always worried about getting us food, (especially) the youngest ones. He would find a way to provide it.”
It took eight years and five attempts for Valentin Cardona Sanchezto make it into the United States in 2016. He and two brothers found work and settled in Central Falls, R.I., a tiny city that’s been home to generations of immigrants. His wife and son joined him, and Sanchez sent money to relatives in Guatemala, and to support his disabled 5-year-old daughter living with his parents there. Eventually, he wanted to bring her to the United States for treatment.
Sanchez had risked his life for his family over that 3,500 mile journey from Guatemala to Rhode Island. Then he lost his life trying to save a stranger’s child — a girl who was his son’s age.
The two families hadn’t known each other when they settled nearby on the sandy beach at Conimicut Point Park to celebrate a summer-perfect Father’s Day.
That changed when the tide rolled in.
Ten-year-old Yoskarly Then Martinez was walking with her uncle on the sandbar when the water rushed over on other side and swept her into the churning current. Her family screamed for help.
Sanchez, 35, who was fishing with his wife, Marlin Segura, dropped his fishing rod and rushed toward the cries. His 10-year-old son, Dilan, watched his father run to the little girl.
“He didn’t think twice,” Segura said. “He was trying to get to her. She seemed like she was close to us.”
Then, Yoskarly and Sanchez both disappeared under the water.
When Sanchez’s body was pulled from the water hours later, his brother offered his condolences to Yoskarly’s family, who were still at the beach, waiting for rescuers to find her.
“We told them we would pray for her,” he said. “The mother of the little girl said, ‘Thank you. Your brother really didn’t need to do it. We saw it all -- we saw how he jumped, he really tried to reach her, he tried to get her.’”
Yoskarly’s body was found the next day. Now, her name and Sanchez’ names are written on a handmade cross stuck in the sand at Conimicut point.
Sanchez’s family say they knew the kind of man he was. He would not have stayed on the shore. “He was a good person, with a really good heart, just like he gave himself for that girl, he would have given it for anyone else,” said Segura, his wife of 12 years.
His brothers said they will take up Sanchez’s dream of continuing to build a life in America and, one day, bring his daughter here. “We don’t know how to do it but we’ll find the help for her,” Angel said.
Dilan had watched how his father sent money home to Guatemala and listened as he explained how important it was to help other people. He witnessed his father’s last, selfless act on the beach at Conimicut.
“He was a good person,” Dilan said. “He really took care of me.”
Within a few days, they raised $20,000 in a GoFundMe to send Sanchez’s body back to Guatemala for burial. Dilan recorded a video, in English and Spanish, to thank contributors: “Thank you all, for your kind hearts, for your donations for my dad. I thank you all. God bless you.”
Sanchez’s wife says she and their son will remain here.
“I have decided to stay because it was his dream to come and bring his family and provide for them, and this is the only place I can do that,” she said.
His dream continues as his body makes the 3,500-mile journey home.