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With A Daughter’s Love, Single Father Gets By

“You want fries?” asks 3-year-old Natalie Luna. She bats her brown eyes and poises a pen over a piece of paper. “Fries?”

“OK. Fries. And a hamburger with cheese,” her father says with a grin, his elbows perched on a red-checked tablecloth at Rodolfo’s Ristorante Italiano in the Spokane Valley. Natalie scribbles dutifully.

Little Natalie Luna is playing waiter, a perfectly logical game for the daughter of Filo Luna. Luna, 34, is a gregarious Spokane waiter who, for the last six years, has served tables at Azteca, Casa de Oro, and now Rodolfo’s. A single father, he is raising Natalie with the help of a supportive circle of friends, baby sitters, and adopted “family,” such as the owners and staff at Rodolfo’s.

Natalie heads to the restaurant kitchen, pausing to call back, “Thank you.”

Her father has resumed his conversation.

“THANK YOU,” Natalie hollers. “THANK YOU!” “You’re welcome, Natalie,” her father calls.

“She’ll probably be a waitress someday,” he says with a proud smile.

It’s an occupation that has paid off for Luna. It financed his escape from the gritty street life of South Los Angeles to the relative safety and calm of Spokane. His salary and tips have allowed him to nearly pay off his debt on a mobile home near Airway Heights, where Natalie has her own bedroom, and he even dreams of buying a small house someday.

Today is Luna’s day off, and he and Natalie are visiting the restaurant. He wears a white wrestling tank top, jeans and a silver cruxifix around his neck. On his arm is a tattoo of a lion, for his childhood nickname.

Luna was born in 1961, the year when “The Lion Sleeps Tonight” blared from every radio. His parents and older brother dubbed him “Little Lion.”

The second in a Mexican-American family of 10 children, Luna grew up to battle the streets and to work his way out, recycling pop cans from the trash, and later working as a swing manager at a McDonald’s restaurant.

He finished high school, but college wasn’t even a question.

“How are you going to go to school after high school when there are 10 people in your family, and your family is poor?” he asks.

Instead, at 28 he headed to Wenatchee to work in the fields, and when that work was over, he rode along with a couple of guys headed for restaurant jobs in Spokane. He’s stayed ever since.

“Here, man, thank the Lord,” Luna says. “We’re in paradise.”

Luna began a relationship with a woman he met in Spokane. She became pregnant. When ultrasound revealed the baby was a girl, Luna was delighted.

Natalie was born nearly four years ago. Although Luna and Natalie’s mother were never married, Luna helped to care for Natalie immediately. When she was 1 years old, Luna sued for custody, and won.

“I was impressed with his tremendous concern for his daughter,” says attorney Mary Murphy, who was the guardian ad litem in the case. “He seemed genuinely very tender, very concerned for her. He really loved her.”

At first, Luna was surprised to find himself in this new role.

“I could never picture myself being a single parent,” he says. “I’d be lying on the couch and watching ‘Barney’ and I’d be like, ‘I can’t believe it.”’ Natalie tiptoes up, grinning, and grabs her father’s nose. “Beep, beep,” Luna says, chuckling.

Luna’s boss, Rodolfo Portolesi, sees Natalie nearly every day when a baby sitter drops off the little girl at the restaurant at the end of Luna’s shift.

“She’s very secure,” says Portolesi. “When a child shows so much selfconfidence, that doesn’t just happen. That comes from home.”

Luna is determined to raise his daughter right. “I went to parenting classes, I went to anger management classes, I did all of that,” he says.

His father was family-oriented, too. He’s been married to Luna’s mother for 40 years, and always managed to keep his children fed.

“He always taught us that ‘No matter what, even if you go hungry, you feed your kids,”’ Luna says. “You got five tortillas; you got 10 kids: You cut those tortillas in half. They all eat.”

Natalie has her father’s deep brown eyes. Her hair is brown, his is black. She wears hers in a high ponytail, along with pink plastic sunglasses. She zips around the restaurant, talking a waitress out of a quarter for the candy machine, wheedling a Coke and pretzels from the cook in the kitchen.

She’s learning to speak both English and Spanish and can count to 10 in both languages.

She’s learning from her father what it means to be Mexican-American, a culture whose children may emblazon “Aztec Warrior” on their bikes but never actually set foot in Mexico.

“They call us, ‘these people,”’ Luna says, mocking a disparaging tone. “But we have values, too. We have one thing. We have respect.”

Luna remembers the respect he received from the gang members on his streets.

“In my neighborhood, everybody knew me. Even the dogs knew me,” he says. “They were mean dogs, but they belonged to my home boys, and they knew me.”

Now, lots of people know Filo and Natalie Luna in Spokane. On the holidays, they always get plenty of invitations. Today they plan to barbecue with friends.

But they’ve already celebrated once this spring. In May, a friend bought a Mother’s Day card, and had Natalie print, “I Love You, Papa” inside.

The card fit. It stood for of all the renditions of the Barney song, all the trips to the potty, all the good-night hugs and “I love yous” Natalie’s papa provides.

“I’m proud of being a single parent,” Luna says. “Maybe in the future, I’ll get married, find someone to be her mommy. But if I don’t, I think I’ve done a good job.”

Natalie plays with a lemon slice at the table. When the acidic juice hits a small cut on her thumb, it stings. Tears spring to her eyes, and she cries to papa.

Luna kisses her thumb. She gives him a hug.

“Nobody’s going to love me with the pure love that she loves me,” he muses. “Nobody.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color Photo


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