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Incredible Story

This is a story written by a good friend of mine and published in December by Real Clear Politics. It is a phenomenally inspirational account of how a man overcame seemingly impossible odds to not just survive and get by, but rise far beyond what the average person accomplishes in life to make a substantial impact on society with achievements that shined a spotlight on him. David Einhorn is a jazz bass player whom I first came to know in the early 1980s when he was the first choice for bassist in the combos put together in South Florida by the legendary, multi-instrumental jazz super-star Ira Sullivan, who died in September 2020 at age 89. David continues his career as jazz musician and writer from Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. Unfortunately, I could not find a way to upload the remarkable photos.

A Will and a Way By David Einhorn December 21, 2022 RCP

Some 30 years ago, walking in a mountain village in Paraguay where I had once served in the Peace Corps, I suddenly saw something in the distance crawling across the dirt road ahead of me. At first I thought it was an animal of some sort, perhaps a giant turtle. But as I came closer I realized it was a human being. He was a little boy, maybe 3 or 4 years old, with no legs and only one arm. He had devised a way to lift and drag himself along the ground. His ragged clothes and face were smudged with dirt. But as I approached he looked up happily and greeted me with an unforgettable smile. That was the day I met Antonio Resquín.

After my chance meeting with their son, I went to visit Antonio’s parents, Ruben and Delia, whom I had known when I was a volunteer four years earlier in their village of Planchada. I remembered that Delia had been pregnant when I finished my service, and Antonio was born a few months later. At the time, Planchada was a particularly isolated community of small farmers located about 10 miles from a paved road and without electricity or running water.

Ruben and Delia were distraught over what to do with Antonio – a sentiment that would later change dramatically – but they laughed when I told them about my encounter with him. Even as a toddler, their son had quickly won over the neighborhood with his charm and intelligence.

Delia explained that she had received rudimentary prenatal care during her pregnancy, but had missed two appointments for a sonogram at a health center in the provincial capital of Villarrica, the first time because rains closed the road and the second because the family did not have enough money. At the time, Ruben farmed cotton and Delia sold sundries from a storefront window of their house. Delia had not been particularly concerned because her health was fine, there were no outward indications that the baby was in distress, and she had given birth to their first son Cesar two years earlier without any problems. She did notice that the baby moved less in the womb than Cesar, but was reassured by what she thought were occasional kicks.

They turned out to have been punches.

Disabled and Poor The World Bank estimates that 85 million persons with disabilities currently live in Latin America and the Caribbean, and that one-third of those disabilities are severe. That Antonio Resquín is today a project engineer at one of the largest hydroelectric plants in the world, director of two engineering faculties at a major university, and a candidate for Paraguay’s National Congress suggests a story primarily of mental and physical triumph. He has a master’s degree in electro-mechanical engineering but never used any type of prosthetic or wheelchair until he had finished his university studies at age 23.

Yet, as Antonio and his parents tell it, his story is as much about a close-knit family’s struggle to overcome poverty. One thing is certain: To appreciate the trajectory of Antonio Resquín’s life, the place to start is at its beginning in 1988. And only two people can tell that story.

DELIA: “I remember that my baby was crying and I really wanted to see him. The midwife came and sat next to me on the bed and said, ‘God loves you so much, He has entrusted you with a very special child.’ I was excited, I said ‘Really!’ She told me he had no arm, and I thought, he can overcome that. But then she said, ‘There’s more.’ And that’s when I got scared. She showed me his legs and I was shocked. I didn’t cry but I felt destroyed. As mothers we always have this vision looking forward for our children, and in that instant I saw him in his childhood, his youth, in all the moments of his life. And I had no answer for what would happen to him.”

RUBEN: “I was with my sister-in-law in the kitchen waiting. Suddenly we heard a baby cry, and the midwife came out and called me over. She told me the child was missing part of his body. Then she took me into the room and put him into my arms. I was completely confused. I didn’t say anything, but I thought to myself, ‘Oh no, my son will be worthless!’”

DELIA: “I fell into a kind of depression for about a month. A lot of thoughts were going through my head. What I wanted for my child was legs, but it was impossible. The community helped me, and finally a neighbor took me to Teletón, a foundation in Asuncion [the country’s capital] that helped families with disabled children. We stayed there for a year and a half of treatment because Antonio also had a problem with a dislocated hip.

RUBEN: “I remember us asking ourselves, where could our son have lost his legs? But that’s impossible, a voice in the silence, nobody can explain that, only God, and we never learned for sure what caused it. Back then, people were not aware of how to handle a person like this, we didn’t know because we didn’t have any communication with the outside world, no television, no telephone. Suddenly we were faced with this situation and we didn’t really know what to do.”

Antonio’s future indeed looked bleak. Delia remembers that shortly after he was born, on a trip to Villarrica she saw a legless man in a wheelchair who frequented the bus terminal and asked herself, “‘My God, could it be that at some point I used to make fun of him?’ Because he was the only person I’d ever seen like that. I never could have imagined that I would have a child like him.”

When I spoke with Delia and Ruben 30 years ago after meeting Antonio, I too couldn’t help but imagine him someday wheeling himself around on a platform along with the lepers and other disabled people I used to see begging for money in front of La Riojana, the country’s only department store at the time in Asuncion.

A few years later, on yet another return visit to Planchada – I remained close with my many friends there for years – I brought a stack of children’s books in Spanish intended for Antonio. But by then the Resquín family had moved away and I lost track of them.

As it turned out, Antonio’s future was to be far different from the dismal scenario I or anyone else had imagined for him. And while his experience is emblematic in some ways of important progress for the disabled over the past generation in Latin America, it is the exception, not the rule. Despite efforts in many countries to strengthen the rights of the disabled, the World Bank’s 2021 report Disability Inclusion in Latin America and the Caribbean states bluntly that “the full inclusion of persons with disabilities remains an elusive goal.”

All of which renders Antonio Resquín’s story, well, exceptional.

Free Range Antonio’s early years in Planchada fell into a consistent pattern as the family coped: unflinching progress for him, and a never-ending struggle for his parents to make ends meet. Delia credits the Teletón Foundation for providing the psychological support she needed to soldier on. “They helped me accept what had happened. Also, I had contact with other families, so I realized that my son’s problem was much less serious than the problems of others. I got a clearer sense of what I was dealing with …There was nothing to be done except to consider Antonio a blessing.” For his part, Antonio recalls nothing less than a free-range childhood.

“My family never separated me from the reality around me, they treated me equally,” Antonio told me. “You found me dirty and playing, but they could have kept me in a room locked away, that happens. I was able to figure things out and learn how to get around using my arm.” One stroke of good fortune came when Delia was hired by the local elementary school and became Antonio’s teacher through the fourth grade. A strong student, Antonio quickly developed what he describes as a symbiotic relationship with his classmates that would serve him well throughout his schooling.

“In first grade my friends started carrying me on their shoulders piggyback style. Some were behind in their studies because schooling is something of a privilege in the countryside and many started school late. So I doubled as their tutor. I helped them with their studies, and they were my legs. “I knew that I depended on people, so that made me develop a social personality,” he added. “It was almost like natural selection: I had to be social to be able to function in a group.”

If ever there is an argument for mainstreaming the disabled in schools, Antonio Resquín would be the poster child. At the regional level, the World Bank report notes that “numerous factors work against the performance of children and youths with disabilities in school, including the persistence of special education institutions that do not equip them with adequate skills, inaccessible learning materials, and the absence of assistive technologies and training for teachers and school leaders.”

Planchada’s elementary school at the time indeed lacked everything on the World Bank’s list, but the staff and Antonio’s fellow students made up for it as best they could with caring. “We just enrolled him like any other student, and we were continuously astonished by his skills,” School Director Juan Antonio Martinez recalled.

One grade school classmate, Claudio Demattei, remembers that Antonio was so popular and so adept at propelling himself that he even played soccer with his pals during recess and was afforded just one allowance for his disability.

“He was the only player allowed to use his hand,” Demattei recalled.

Moving On Planchada had no school beyond the sixth grade and in the meantime the Resquíns had had another son, Cristian. They would eventually have five boys, none with disabilities except Antonio. By now, Ruben and Delia were aware that the midwife had been right: They had a very special child on their hands in Antonio, and he deserved more of an education. So they made the decision to move to Ciudad del Este, Paraguay’s second-largest city and, as destiny would have it, home to Itaipu, the country’s binational hydroelectric dam with Brazil.

One of thousands of impoverished families flocking from the countryside to the city, the Resquíns struggled at first, moving from house to house, until eventually Delia got another teaching job and Ruben found work first as a carpenter, then as a taxi driver. Antonio attended poorly funded public schools – at one, he recalls, classes were held under a tree. The family had no car, so for the first two years he rode piggyback with Cesar on his bicycle for two kilometers to reach the school. By the time Antonio went to high school, his indefatigable older brother had a motorcycle, but the school was further away so Antonio had to hang on for 10 kilometers.

It was in Ciudad del Este, at the cusp of adolescence, when Antonio says he suffered one of his few moments of despair.

“My cousins came to visit and they all went downtown. I’d never even been there and I couldn’t go. I asked myself, ‘Why was I born like this?’ I cried and I spent the night praying for God to give me legs. When I woke up I saw that there had been no miracle. So I concluded that I had to forget about miracles and begin to work on what I was actually able to do.”

After excelling in high school, Antonio was awarded a scholarship to a nearby Catholic university and eventually earned his degree in 2010. But that, too, was fraught with the dual challenges of poverty and disability. Classes were held on the fourth floor with no elevator – which meant having to find people to carry him upstairs – and the cost of books, supplies, and transport were a heavy financial burden on his family. But Antonio made new friends, led study groups on weekends, and borrowed his classmates’ books. His biggest challenge came in his final year, when students were required to do an internship.

“No company would take me because of my disability, especially because of the issue of my having to be carried around,” he said.

By chance, he was contacted by a Brazilian firm looking to promote a prototype leg prosthetic. Antonio had tried on prosthetic legs once before – a sympathetic priest in Villarrica gave them to him as a gift for his first communion – but his hip problem made them difficult to fit and they were painful. He was averse to using a wheelchair, partly because in the hardscrabble world of Paraguayan poverty, even in cities, there was virtually no accommodation to use one – no sidewalks, no ramps, many roads of cobblestone or dirt, and, alas, often no elevators.

In this case, Antonio by necessity relented. The prosthetic legs were an improvement over the rudimentary ones he had tried years earlier, and the independence they provided enabled him to get an internship at Itaipu. Several of his instructors worked there and recommended him for the opportunity. Antonio would move from the internship to building his career at Itaipu, in part based on the success of an early project that put his artificial legs – and his fortitude – to the test.

The Chaco It is not every day that someone with no legs and one arm gets to be something of a solar cowboy, but Antonio Resquín buckled up his boots – literally, over his prosthetic legs – and tackled what was to be a formative challenge. The back country of the Chaco region has long been the stuff of legend in Paraguay. Isolated and difficult to reach, it is mostly desert and arid scrub land. Its northernmost department of Boqueron, roughly the size of Indiana, has a population density of one person per square mile and is home primarily to several indigenous groups in various stages of assimilating into the modern world. The department has the distinction of having posted the highest temperature ever recorded in Paraguay: 113 degrees.

In 2014, Itaipu asked its gifted young engineer Antonio Resquín to prepare a project to install a solar panel plant in Boqueron, then sent him to oversee the technical side of its implementation over several months. Conditions were difficult, but not just for someone who was disabled: An engineer from Spain hired as project director lasted two days.

“The sun was unbelievable, and the mosquitos were the size of butterflies,” recalled Antonio with the enthusiasm of a boy adventurer. He remembers trading sacks of flour for alligator meat with tribesmen and watching wild animals roam as he worked.

“It was exciting to start from nothing and know we were doing something that could have a national impact. But the challenge to overcome the heat and the lack of electricity wasn’t easy. I had to walk two or three kilometers a day, and the prosthetics are like seven-kilo boots, without any ventilation. A wheelchair out there would have been useless. So I adapted. I didn’t want anyone to say Antonio can’t go to the Chaco because he can’t walk.”

The project, which included installation of solar panels and wind turbines, dramatically expanded electricity service in the area. At the inauguration of the plant, Paraguay’s Director General James Spalding, referencing the rugged environs, said the project “shows that where there’s a will, there’s a way.” He might just as well have been talking about Antonio.

A Blistering Pace It is October of 2022, and Ruben Resquín picks me up in his taxi from a bus stop outside Ciudad del Este. It is a far cry from the last time he gave me a ride on an ox-drawn wagon coming back from his cotton field in 1986. I meet briefly with Antonio, who lives next door to his parents with his girlfriend of seven years, Fatima, a lawyer. I remind Antonio that I met him when he was a child, but he doesn’t remember me.

The plan is for me to tag along on Antonio’s typical daily schedule, a pace as blistering as the day is hot: a full workday at Itaipu, supervision of university classes that are held in the evening, and, today, somehow squeezed in between, a radio interview to promote his candidacy for the Paraguayan National Congress. Antonio drives his own car retrofitted so that he can use the stub of his right arm to handle the brake and gas pedals. He pulls himself in and out of the driver’s seat with his left arm with an ease that reminds me of the child rambling along a dirt road decades earlier.

Itaipu Built in the 1970s at the site of Iguazu Falls on the Parana River, Itaipu produces more energy than any hydroelectric dam in the world. It also serves as Paraguay’s center for energy research, much of which is carried out today by teams supervised by Antonio Resquín.

Our first stop at the massive facility early the next morning is Itaipu’s Committee for Persons with Disabilities, where we share tereré – a cold tea sipped from a metal straw, a custom that is ubiquitous in Paraguay – with Coordinator Yreneo Brizuela. Although Antonio does not work at the committee, he keeps an office there because of its easy access. Now that he works in Paraguay’s formal sector, where there is some accommodation for the disabled, Antonio has finally acceded to using a mechanized wheelchair. Brizuela lost the use of his legs during a military training accident years ago, and he is talking about the emotional pain he endured when he had to accept that he would not be able to walk again – suffering that Antonio notes he was spared. “Losing a part of your body is much more traumatic than being born without it,” Antonio explains, as if he were somehow lucky. The conversation clarifies Delia’s comment to me earlier, which I hadn’t understood, that the Teletón Foundation had helped her realize that others were worse off than her son.

In the years since the Chaco project, Antonio has been promoted to director of the Technology Park Foundation, Itaipu’s research branch. He worked with a team that included his brother Cesar, now also an engineer at Itaipu, to develop a low-cost motorized wheelchair using recycled materials. They also designed a prosthetic arm covered with a latex lining that uses plastic to make a three-dimensional impression. Using local materials the prosthetic can be assembled for a cost of approximately $1,000, as opposed to a cost of more than $50,000 for a manufactured version. Antonio has posted an open-source video about it as a public service.

Antonio’s current project is a very different line of research that takes advantage of the Itaipu reservoir created by construction of the dam. Researchers are attaching photovoltaic batteries to buoys and testing their effectiveness in generating solar energy under water. Whether wheelchairs, prosthetics, or solar energy, Antonio explains, “we’re always looking to adapt projects and technology to the context of Paraguay’s climate and resources.”

Adapting, after all, is Antonio’s specialty.

The Candidate Antonio’s string of successful projects, and the honors and media attention that have come with them, have raised his national profile – and stoked his ambitions. Earlier this year he decided to make a foray into politics and run for the National Congress representing the department of Alto Parana, where Ciudad del Este is located.

“I’d like to improve our country and I don’t want to say later ‘Why didn’t I do this, I could have done something,’” he said.

Antonio admits his candidacy is a longshot. He is facing two experienced and well-financed candidates in the upcoming primary. Their billboards can be seen all over Alto Parana, but Antonio won’t be putting any up. While his family is no longer poor, neither are they rich. He has car and house payments to make and has committed to not borrow money to finance his campaign. For the radio show where he has been invited to speak, Antonio is paired with a candidate for governor who dominates the conversation. Nearly 25 minutes elapse before Antonio can get a word in, and, predictably, the questions immediately turn to the disabled. He notes that Paraguay has many laws on the books to help the estimated 12% of its population with some type of disability, but those laws are essentially unenforced. Addressing the hardships they face, Antonio sounds almost as if he is recounting what could easily have been his own life story: Many disabled persons in the countryside are invisible, the state doesn’t even know they exist, and when there are opportunities for them, economic and mobility issues often make it near impossible for them to take advantage of them.

“I’m in a position of responsibility because I am privileged, I have my profession, my job, my family, my mobility,” he explains later. “Ninety percent of these people don’t have that, so I need to be their voice.” As noted in the World Bank report, the disabled in Latin America are more likely than the fully abled to live in households that are poorer and located in informal neighborhoods, have fewer years of education, and tend to be out of the labor market.

Antonio’s passion on a topic close to his heart notwithstanding, the show is nearly over by the time he is given a brief opportunity to deliver a broader message. Like the candidate himself, it is straightforward, humble, and technocratic but compassionate. Whether that is enough to get a political novice across the finish line remains to be seen.

“I’m not a mathematician but I think I have about an 80 percent chance of losing but an 80 percent chance of winning,” Antonio jokes with the plucky optimism of someone who knows what it is to beat the odds. “If the community wants you, money doesn’t matter.”

The University The elevator is out of service.

It is evening now, and Antonio needs to attend an important staff meeting on the second floor of the Universidad Internacional Tres Fronteras. Antonio joined the university as a professor in 2013, and three years ago was named director of the electro-mechanical engineering faculty.

Calls are made and three security guards arrive to carry him up the stairs in his wheelchair. But the effort fails amid a torrent of laughs, led by Antonio, who jokes about his weight. Long gone is the skinny teenager who could be carried on his classmates’ shoulders. What carries Antonio now, however, is prestige and respect: When informed of the situation, the president of the university moves the meeting to the ground floor.

On the way to the car after the meeting Antonio is stopped by a professor who needs to discuss a problem with engineering students who fell behind as a result of the switch to online courses during the COVID-19 pandemic. Antonio promises to develop a contingency program to reinforce certain courses, especially during the students’ critical third year of studies.

By the time we leave the university it is almost 10 p.m.

A Family United We are in the kitchen of the Resquín family early on the final morning of my visit, once again passing around a wooden cup called a guampa filled with máte, the hot version of the cold tea I shared the day before with Antonio. Ruben is now 62 and Delia is 57 and they are grandparents several times over. Delia still teaches elementary school and Ruben is about to take her to work in his taxi. Their five sons range in age from 22 to 36, and all are either engineers or studying to become engineers. Ruben and Delia’s pride in all their children is palpable as they tick off each one’s accomplishments. But they are quick to note that Antonio has played a particularly cohesive role in the family.

“Having Antonio with us is why we are so united, he is the nexus,” Ruben says. “We’ve had our share of problems as a family, like everyone, but we’ve been able to overcome them and stay solid.” Indeed, all of the sons live nearby, and the entire family still makes occasional pilgrimages to Planchada, where Ruben’s 96-year-old father Leoncio continues to live on the family farm.

The Resquíns remain a deeply religious family. Ruben believes there might have been a sign that presaged Antonio’s remarkable life when he was born. Ruben remembers that in his despair that night he went outside at some point to get some air.

“It was raining, and I raised my hands to the sky and I asked God why this had happened. But even though I was standing in the rain, I didn’t get wet.”

For her part, Delia says: “I’ve always felt that God accompanied us along this journey, though our sacrifice as a mother and father helped, as did the perseverance of my son. He was the first of my children to graduate, and the first one to help us out financially. To this day, when I have problems, Antonio is the one who helps me and gives me sound advice. What he didn’t have in legs and an arm, God gave him more in intelligence.”

As if on cue, Antonio wheels in from next door to say good morning, perhaps to share a round of máte with us. But there is no time and he is quickly out the door.

Which brings to mind the more hopeful findings of the World Bank Report: In recent years, the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean have unanimously ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, gradually adopted nondiscrimination laws and universal design principles, and begun to include the rights of the disabled in policy discussions on education, labor, health care, and political participation.

“All these realignments have laid the foundation for building a disability-inclusive future,” the report concludes.

For Antonio Resquín, that means his next 15-hour day awaits. David Einhorn is a freelance writer who lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.

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