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“You’re actually working?” This is how my aunt greeted me on our first day working in her and my uncle’s fully-equipped garage. She approached me quick as I wire brushed our ’65 Clark Cortez’s brake drum and brake parts, mechanical dirt flinging onto my arms and face.
But her question is one I’d soon learn a lotta people would ask, mainly when they see me squeezed under the Cortez and Andy stood from above. For starters, there was my uncle — When he saw me working, his eyebrows jumped up to his hairline and he came to a sudden halt mid-walk. (I should mention though that second of shock was replaced with a huffed-nostril laugh and a look of respect cast Andy’s way that said, “Damn right — Trained her right.”) And every person after has also first responded in this surprised way — One of my friends even made a bet with Andy that I’d last three days before my motivation to work on an ancient vehicle would be gone, used up, done.
When he made that bet, I was already five days in.
I guess though me working on the Cortez not only surprises people — It downright confuses them, which admittedly strikes me as odd. True, I have no knowledge on auto mechanics and Andy is my auto guru but I am the same girl that has always preferred dirt over make-up.
“Just because she’s pretty doesn’t mean she gets away without doing work.” Andy’s response to people is the same each time — whether it’s as a shout above the air gun as I take the lug nuts off a wheel or a statement across a sandwich shop table during lunch. What can I say, the man did train me well.
And good thing too because together, we were tackling our second Cortez problem: the brakes.
The faulty driver’s side brake was an issue we knew about before purchasing our Cortez. The unfortunate part, however, is that we had been unable to tackle this job due to the fact that when our motorhome was delivered it — well, it didn’t start.
This lead us to replacing its starter motor and cables so that now — good news — our monster is running! While this is fantastic in and of itself, it gets even better: The running motor means we could leave our original/delivery location — which was in my aunt and uncle’s green farm grass between Chicken Houses Three and Four.
Knowing it was time to take our Cortez on its first maiden voyage — admittedly less than one mile further on the farm — Andy hopped into the driver’s seat and turned the key into the ignition.
While we filmed the entire trip (which is on our YouTube channel), I’ll just say here it started slow, beginning with a couple sprays of starter fluid to get our motorhome running; then our journey turned humorous as we — and the speedometer’s needle — were roughly bounced up and down at a reported rate-per-second of anywhere from zero to ten miles per hour; and finally, our drive ended in moments of terror as Andrew frantically bent and fumbled for the emergency brake after forgetting — more than once — that we didn’t have working brakes.
“I’m sweating like mad,” he panted while wiping his brow with the sleeve of his shirt and leaning back to take the largest inhale of breath. He had arrived and only to be downright exhausted and that was a dramatic understatement; heck, I was exhausted simply watching him and being the Cortez’s passenger.
So we sat in silence for a few moments. To be honest, I think we were both debating what in the hell did we get ourselves into. The ride was rough — verging on abusive, truthfully.
“What are you thinking?” I asked him. I knew what I was thinking and it wasn’t thoughts of sleeping under the Milky Way or exploring hiking trails or parking in hidden off-the-grid spots.
“That was terrifying.” He turned to me with massive wide eyes. He looked like he had been shocked. Seriously — as if an electric current had zizzed through his body.
I agreed, of course, because what else was there to say? Our fifty-four-year-old vehicle that did not have brakes and needed possibly every renovation . . . drove and rode exactly as advertised — like a fifty-four-year-old vehicle that did not have brakes and needed possibly every renovation.
“Right, let’s do this,” Andy announced, reaching for his door handle to exit. He was ready to get out of the Cortez . . . only to be reminded, of course, that our driver and passenger’s door handles did not work so he was stuck inside. “Fuck it,” he said, throwing his hands in the air as if giving up. “Let’s just get out of the bloody vehicle” and so he stood to walk to the very back where he opened the rear door. Obviously door handles are on our list of improvements . . .
But improvements are what we needed to focus on because we had reached our destination — the garage.
And this garage, by the way, is far from average. Thanks to my cousin who is a master technician, this garage is for the mechanic gods: It is a garage where every auto desire from a lift to welding equipment to air tools to metal cutting equipment to a fully-stocked tool box the size of a massive refrigerator can be found.
Miraculously, we were somehow privileged enough to be allowed to work here . . .
Or I should say ‘We were privileged enough for Andy to be allowed to work here and me to train here’ because I am Andy’s apprentice. This he has made clear from the start.
“They’re not gonna do themselves,” he told me kneeling next to the driver’s side tire and presenting a long, shiny tool my way. It was held out as if it were a gift I should be excited about — the gift of removing fifty-four-year-old seized lug nuts from a wheel. Awesome.
“Sure,” I told him, not showing hesitation and taking the tool. I am not one to back down from a challenge — mainly from a man . . . that is until I was tasked to get rusted lug nuts off of our prehistoric motorhome.
I huffed and moaned and groaned and pushed and pulled and used every single muscle in my body but that damn tool wasn’t moving even a millimeter. I imagined my force bending the metal. Either that or giving myself an aneurysm.
“Oh my God!” I cried while Andy stood idly by watching. “I’m going to break this — this — thing! This — tool mechanism! What is it?!”
“It’s a breaker bar,” he responded, nonchalant and taking it from me. This tool name, by the way, is the first time something in the auto-mechanic world has made sense to me. “And we are definitely buying a battery-powered impact wrench,” Andy followed up as he laboriously loosened the lug nuts.
I think sometimes he thinks I know what he is saying. “I don’t know what that means, but if it is want it — okay,” I told him.
Regardless of some coveted battery-powered thing-a-ma-jig, he seemed to do fine loosening all of the lug nuts and removing the about-sixty-five-pound tire.
Here we had our first look at our faulty part: The driver’s side brake did not work due to its wheel cylinder, which meant our plan was to take this brake apart, identify the wheel cylinder, replace it, and reinstall it.
While Andrew busied himself on removing the parts, I was tasked with cleaning each item.
This is around the time I began flinging mechanical dirt all over myself (courtesy an uncontrollable wire brush) and spraying brake cleaner into my eye (courtesy my stupidity).
“I told you to be careful!” Andrew lectured me after hearing me moan despite the fact that I made it clear I did not purposefully aim for my eye and that instead the problem only arose because someone did not explain the insane amount of force that brake fluid comes out of a canister. (Dear Reader, it comes out with an insane amount of force.)
“For fucks sake . . . ” was all Andrew mumbled as he turned and walked back to the Cortez. I suppose sometimes he thinks I’m untrainable, a lost cause.
And on that thought, my aunt walked in, striding over to me in amazement that I was actually working. “Were you supposed to wire brush the paint off the wheel?” she asked. Up until then, I thought I did a damn good job — Andy’s British directions basically translated into “Wire brush the hell outta that wheel,” which is what I set out to do but now I was analyzing my handiwork. Andrew had not in fact said “Remove the paint in full from the wheel. Oops.
“I mean . . . ” was all I could tell her as she disappeared with a laughter trailing her. “Pst . . . Hey, And? Is this okay?” He needed to see my work at some point even though it was way too late to resolve it now.
“Yeah, it’s great,” he confirmed with little effort cast my way. Sometimes I feel like a child when working on our motorhome — I just want approval and excitement, and my tasks to be treated as if they are major, even if it is just wire brushing brake drums and wheels.
But he was gone, continuing about his job to take apart the brake.
Here, we found one of three problems: Number One, our faulty brake cylinder was caked in disgust due to both seals failing. In fact, Andrew told me brake cylinders are supposed to be sealed with metal on each end. Ours had moisture enter it somehow, which caused the metal to rust and gradually disintegrate.
Number Two, the edge of one of our brake shoes was damaged (as seen on the bottom of the right-side of the curved plate).
Finally, Number Three was that there was no fluid coming from our brake line.
Determining there was little else to do on the brakes, Andy spray painted the brake drum to reduce future rust. Once it dried, we assembled all again then packed before heading to the auto shop on the way home.
Here, we decided for good measure we would replace both front wheel cylinders and brake shoes. Therefore, using the wheel cylinder part number, we ordered replacements. This auto shop didn’t have and couldn’t get in brake shoes so we went to a more eclectic one, where we learned the parts could only be found at that one store and the shoes were the last two sets on the East Coast! Amazing.
Long story short, our cylinders came in the next day but despite the cylinder part numbers being the same, they were not the correct replacement, which meant we were ordering parts again. This time we chose to replace every brake cylinder and were told the parts would come in two days.
“Oh well, just a minor setback,” Andy reminded me on our journey home. I was beginning to see a glimmer of how working on old vehicles can be both tough and annoying.
Making our way back to the farm, we decided we could still clean our other front brake, remove that old passenger cylinder, and paint that brake drum. Andy also decided I apparently must have a go at driving the Cortez to the garage. Again, this was filmed and was definitely more terrifying than our first outing. Also, can I just point out if you watch it — while Andrew gave me directions, he often followed up with “It’s like a normal car” and “Have you ever driven a car before?” My poor chap, though, must have forgotten our Cortez is completely unlike any car because here is what I noticed before we even got moving:
- there are three different keys for one vehicle
- the gas pedal fits a size-ten shoe
- you apparently have to hold the gas pedal down when starting the Cortez
- our motorhome takes sprays of starter fluid to get it fired up
- even with starter fluid, it still dies right away
- you need to leave your foot on the gas for a bit after it has fired up
- the clutch is “super heavy”
- the gearbox loudly protests when it goes into reverse
- there are no brakes
I think I’ve explained my rationale on why this is not a ‘normal’ vehicle. Thank you for listening.
I wish I could say after this getting-started confusion, we were set to go but I also learned that a one-foot by one-foot rear window is not enough to see through when reversing and I realized I am not capable of driving the Cortez while also reaching down to pull the emergency brake up. This Andrew realized too when I screamed, “WE’RE GOING TO FAST!!! HOW DO YOU BRAKE IT?! HOW DO YOU BRAKE IT!”
In short, I think both of us (again) were sweating something atrocious and felt in a constant state of panic/near death as our motorhome’s engine roared fierce and loud.
“That’s going to be every time we drive it,” Andrew announced and here all we could do was laugh because we are crazy and because this what we wanted and still want.
So to fulfill our dreams, Andy and I hopped out of the Cortez (using the backdoor, of course) and he went right away to change the oil and remove the oil filter while the engine was hot.
Apparently engine oil is supposed to be a clear, light gold color while ours was — well, this thick black sludge.
With new oil guzzled into our monster, we could now tackle a bit of work on the passenger’s side brake and it was here I learned not only an easier way to loosen lug nuts with a breaker bar but I was also trained on the air gun.
“I FEEL LIKE I CAN BE ON A NASCAR TEAM!” I shouted, air gun screaming in my hands.
“You have to work a lot harder to be on Formula One, Padawan. They would have replaced all tires and put them back on before you even got your second lug nut off.”
“I’M NOT SAYING I’M THERE YET!” I yelled as my last lug nut spun. “I’M SAYING I’M ON MY WAY!!!” I mean, everyone knows no one was an expert on a first go — Clearly practice is essential; I had potential is what I’m saying.
Jacking our Cortez up once more, Andy disassembled the brakes and removed the other dirty wheel cylinder while I cleaned all other parts he cast aside.
Meanwhile, he sprayed the passenger drum and for a bit of time we were both working quietly and calmly . . . until there was suddenly cussing. A lot of cussing. British cussing, which is even worse than American cussing. And then there was this: “Nope. Nope. Can’t do it. Proper fucked it — It’s knackered.” ‘Knackered,’ American friends, means something was damaged beyond a state of repair so I half was about to venture over to see and half rolled my eyes, sighed, and stayed put. Moments pass and then I hear, “Well, we need a new brake pipe now.” I knew right away this was code for ‘I’ve knackered the brake pipe so now we have to replace it.”
“What do you mean we need to replace it?” I asked . . . only to catch grunts and half-muttered words about needing to cut the brake line. Seconds passed and then he was galloping past to retrieve a massive handsaw before — without pausing again — he sawed through our solid brake pipe.
Sawed through it!
The sound of metal being cut began to fill the air as I caught a few more words of welding and creating. It was here I stopped him as he strode by once more, waving what-was-once our brake line in front of him before shoving it into a vice.
People say Andrew has a large amount of patience with me, but let me assure you — I practice patience regularly with him . . . as seen here when I learned in his efforts to remove the wheel cylinder, he bent the line.
“Is a brake line easy to replace?!” I tried to hide the horror in my voice as I watched him further work recklessly. How could we go from replacing a cylinder to repairing an entire brake line?
“Of course they are,” he responded back. “We will just make a new one.” This seemed an even more insane idea, which is probably what he realized I thought because he followed that up with “That’s what most people do.” I, for one, felt pretty confident most people did not damage brake lines . . . saw them in half . . . and create new ones. But I have to trust him.
Exhausted from a day of work and trust, we decided it was time to take a needed break and so we went home, me occasionally requesting that he take things a bit more slowly and him requesting that I not dwell on the past.
Day Three: Replace front wheel cylinder and more
Slipping by the auto shop, our new wheel cylinders were ready to be picked up and this also meant we could purchase a replacement brake line, along with “other bits,” as Andrew says. Soon, multiple bags loaded with new car parts were draped over both of our arms and I was dancing in the parking lot, full of renewed excitement.
“Who would have known I’d be the type of girl that would dance in a parking lot after buying new car parts — but here we are!” I hollered this to Andrew over my shoulder as I skipped to our car.
“I know! New car parts are super exciting!” he said and I swear he was skipping next to me as I felt we were overtaken in a corny musicals where everyone is gleeful and dancing in the most mundane of places.
And that happy mental-music continued after a short trip back to the farm where we now had all the tools we needed to repair our brakes.
With Andrew’s training, I was now loosening and air gunning the lug nuts before he stepped in to repair the brake line he cut.
For that, he used this pipe bender to (understandably) bend the pipe.
Because our bender had places for two different sized pipes, that meeting location was creating damage to our line. This meant we needed to sand down the lip and what better tool for that than a drill, which I proudly took over.
“Finished,” I told Andy only for him to announce the same a few moments later, brake line produced in front of me.
“That’s a sexy-looking brake line,” I told him.
“I thought so too,” he said.
“Well it looks good, but now let’s see if it works,” I added.
“If it works!” He was clearly perturbed by my additional statement. “What do you take me for?!”
Honesty, I took him for a man that unnecessarily cut our brake line but I bit my tongue as he moved to install it.
“Can you hand me a spanner?” he called from inside the wheel well.
“A what?!” I questioned.
“A spanner!” he said more loudly. It wasn’t that I misheard heard him; it was that in my (agreed, limited) experience working on cars, I had never heard of a ‘spanner’ before. “Nevermind, I’ll get it!” he announced, shifting out from under the Cortez, only to grab a wrench right next to me.
Guys, I am not only learning auto mechanics, but I’m apparently learning the British version. Your pity is fully accepted.
Regardless, Andrew moved back to the brake and within moments, he was done. Incredibly, our line fit perfectly between two already existing brake connectors.
Moving to the passenger cylinder we surprisingly found it in pretty good condition; however we still wanted to replace it for peace of mind and with zero hassle, our nice and shiny, new wheel cylinder was installed. This meant Andrew could rub on a bit of copper slip to avoid seizing before he put the brakes back together.
It was then my cousin Josh walked in.
“This is gonna take a lot of money,” Josh said. Andy was working as we took a moment to stand in front of the Cortez, the steel beast seeming more a daunting monster ahead.
“Hm” was all I could say. It wasn’t that Josh was against our decision or was making fun of what we chose to do — Quite the opposite. As a master tech, his mind was already calculating costs for the projects he saw; as a gearhead, he understood and wanted to set off on the road, too.
“Do you regret it?” he asked turning to me. This wasn’t the first time I’ve been asked that but for some reason — while Andy walked back and forth picking up his tools and as my cousin and I stood looking at the Cortez, I began to wonder if I did.
Did I regret it? I asked myself silently. We had spent six hours — in one day — tackling one brake. To be honest, I never answered Josh.
“And?” I asked Andy when we left and were gliding down the interstate towards home.
“Do you regret it? Buying the Cortez, I mean.” I felt confused, frustrated, a bit knocked down.
“Do I regret it?” he asked, more to himself as I had, and I watched as he squinted his eyes into little slits, as he pursed his mouth in thought. “A Volkswagen would have been easier,” he said and we both knew this — We had debated on getting an old Volkswagen caravan since we met but the appeal of a rare motorhome, and one with a strong American history — that is what swayed our hearts.
“It would have been,” I said. “Do you think we made a bad decision?”
“A new RV would have been easier,” he told me.
“It would have been. But we didn’t want that, you know? We wanted this — giving an old motorhome a life, giving it love, and it giving us stories. I couldn’t envision traveling in a new one. I can’t envision traveling in anything else really. I can only envision the Cortez — That’s the only vehicle I’d want to take to the road in.”
“I’m, well, I’m so glad you said that” he told me and here he smiled.
Without either of us answering the question, we seemed to find our answer within each other.
Day Four: Adjust front brakes and more
Rejuvenated and back at the farm the next day, we had a plan: Adjust both front brakes then clean both rear brakes, replace those cylinders, and paint the drums.
A bit of auto knowledge I learned: Modern cars mainly have calipers while older vehicles (ours) have brake drums. This means we have to mess with things like brake cylinders and this little part — a brake adjuster.
The brake adjuster rests inside the brake drum between the brake shoes and when the wheel is turned, it adjusts the brakes by pushing the shoes out, which creates friction — hence brakes.
With little space to work and an even smaller amount of room to adjust the brakes at the back of the drum, Andrew’s lack of patience made me offer to take over the adjusting so that (slowly but surely) our brakes clicked into place.
While I finished adjusting, Andrew bent to look for the jacking point at the rear of the motorhome.
And here, I wish I could say we had tackled the last of our obstacles but that was far from the truth. Andrew’s investigation proved both exhaust pipes were flawlessly obstructing both jacking points.
This apparently meant those pipes had to be cut . . .
and that apparently meant Andrew needed an angle-grinder for the job.
Sparks — fiery and wild — shot from the angle-grinder and exhaust tips as my obviously badass boyfriend removed about half a foot from the pipes.
With that complete, we were exhausted to say the least and that’s when Andrew took this picture of us — one day left to work on the brakes — and I admit, I was frustrated.
I felt time was never on our side, that it moved too fast — that it was constantly turning against us. We were so close to being done and yet we had to leave again to care for our pup-kit.
“It’s just the way life is,” he said with a kind smile. He is my optimist and he is right, though I sometimes forget this simple thought — Later down the line, our pup-kit will be able to travel with us so for now, we will steal little moments to kindle our dreams.
Day Five: Replace rear cylinders, adjust rear brakes, and more
Back at the garage, we were like a well-oiled machine: I removed the rear lug nuts while Andy jacked the rear of the Cortez then set to work removing the parts.
This shows his process to get the wheel cylinder out and replaced.
Once more, I cleaned them while he painted the drums and when done putting it all back together, I adjusted the rear brakes.
Day Five and we were done with the brake cylinders, brake shoes, the drums, and adjustments — a huge day of accomplishment! However, this also meant our next — and last — brake venture was bleeding of the brakes, which Andrew said is the most headache-worthy job.
At the time, I couldn’t imagine anything more time consuming that what we had gone through already so I was more than happy to take on a different aspect of the brakes.
Day Six: Bleed the brakes and clutch and more
“Um . . . Do you mean down?” I yelled to Andrew sitting the driver’s seat of our Cortez. He was under our motorhome, draining the old brake fluid into a bottle. This, I was learning, was what ‘bleeding of the brakes’ meant.
“What are you right now?” he questioned.
“I’m up — but you said up so you mean down.”
“Sure,” he retorted back as if it were my fault he got the two orders confused. “Down then.”
On and on we went until gradually my floppy useless brake pedal turned into one with a great amount of resistance.
“Is it supposed to be like this?!” I yelled to Andrew, convinced my job must be harder than sitting in the cushioned driver’s seat, pushing a brake pedal up and down.
“It’s perfect!” he told me, seeming quite elated that my job was harder and returning under the Cortez.
The truth though was while my job seemed super simple, it was important — In fact, I’d now rival to say the most important. While pushing the pedal, I was monitoring the level of brake fluid. To do this, I was continuously checking and refilling the the brake master cylinder (aka the container holding fluid that drained into the brake line).
At first, there was a bit of confusion because the cylinder labeled “Brake Fluid” was assumed to be the brake master cylinder. However, when its fluid didn’t drain, we determined it was instead the clutch master cylinder (which also uses brake fluid). That meant our brake cylinder was the one on the right.
Still, there was a good amount of fluid in both, which I watched drain because the second part of my job wasn’t explained.
“How low is the fluid getting now?” Andy asked when we started on our first brake — the furthest away which was the rear passenger brake. Apparently there’s some written-in-blood rule somewhere that says you should start from the far back and move forward as both Andrew said this . . . then my uncle . . . and Josh . . . and even my aunt all on separate occassions.
“The fluid?” I asked. I had my eyes on it and had updated him — millimeter by millimeter — as it got lower but he didn’t seem to mind as he only kept saying, “Keep telling me but it’s okay.”
“I mean, it’s basically gone, Andy. We are basically at the bottom.”
This time he didn’t even respond and crawled out from under the Cortez once more to look. Sure enough, it was exactly as I reported. “Okay,” he said calmly. “The goal is to not let it get out of fluid so you won’t need to refill it before it is gone” and he pointed at our now-empty brake canister.
Essentially, I had failed at my job.
I learned a little too late the importance of my task: When bleeding the brakes, the purpose is mainly to remove air bubbles in the fluid. If air bubbles are coming out, the force of the fluid cannot push the brake shoes out — Instead the fluid works to compress the bubbles, which means the brake shoes don’t really move, and hence no good brakes.
“It’s okay,” he told me almost happy. “It at least means our fluid is draining, though it is taking awhile to get to me” and off again he darted under our monster.
He is my sweet (and patient) optimist.
So we began again, and this time I didn’t let that fluid get even less than halfway.
The rear passenger’s side brakes took the longest — around twenty minutes — but once it was done, Andy produced this glorious amount of disgust. I’m told the fluid should have been much lighter so this shows it was old, dirty, and definitely due for replacing.
Moving to the rear driver’s side brakes — same drill and here he rendered this amount of brake fluid, still thicker and darker than it was supposed to be.
With the rears complete, he jumped to the front, walking again to the passenger’s side.
Finally, by the time we got to the front brakes, our fluid had turned this lighter color, which showed the new fluid was slowly traveling through the lines — Great news!
On and on we drained away all old brake fluid and removed all air bubbles.
Because the clutch master cylinder took brake fluid too, we decided to go ahead and bleed it as well. Being that there is only one location for him to go to — and not in and around four wheel wells — he chose to do the work from the cushy passenger’s seat where he perched above our engine.
As we worked, the clutch became harder and harder to push down until it was near impossible to move and suddenly he announced: “Right, we’re done!” and just like that the bleeding of our brakes (and clutch) was finished.
“Now let’s test it!” I said. I was eager to know if all our work was in vain. While I do trust Andy completely when it comes to auto repairs, every job we do seems beyond daunting and I find myself thinking each time, “Surely this will max his knowledge.” So it wasn’t that I didn’t trust him, it was just that I wondered if his experience doing brakes in his cars was different than what we had to do here — maybe we missed a step or mixed something up.
“I’m a bit nervous,” he told me, “but fuck it — yeah, let’s do it!” and we hopped into our Cortez.
Turning the key in the ignition and spraying starter fluid in the carburetor, our beast fired up. He turned to me: “Right, he we go” and we honestly both held our breaths as Andy reversed . . . and as Andy braked! Cheering and bouncing and honking the horn, we took our Cortez on a stroll around the farm — stopping for imaginary animals that darted in front of us and stomping on the brakes for imaginary people that crossed our path, not paying attention. Each and every time the brakes were tapped, we cheered and cheered as if given the best gift.
So we did it! We finished the brakes!
In the end, Andy joked before we started any work that he hoped our relationship would make it after working on the brakes. This renovation was job was the one he was least looking forward to, the job that created the most anxiety for him so he reckoned it was doomed in every way possible.
True, we did put in many days and many hours to complete the brakes. (In all, it took six days — six long days with the shortest time per day being six hours — to complete the work.) And true, there was a large amount of cussing from both of us. And there were many frustrations and aggravations and annoyances.
But you know what? We did it and I can say now there is no better feeling of accomplishment — not only in knowing we tackled this together and are still together. There’s also a major sense of pride in knowing I did this — that I learned about brakes so much so that I wrote this entire daggon blog post by myself. That, my friends, is learning and in that, no better satisfaction.
* * * * *
For more information on our brake parts, part numbers, and prices, visit A Breakdown of Costs for Our Cortez’s Overhaul. Don’t forget to subscribe to our YouTube channel to find our horror-filled first rides and all labor to get our brakes working.
Also, a thank you: We will never be able to say enough thank you to my aunt, uncle, and cousin Josh. Without you, our Cortez dream would never be a reality.