Nieves Maldonado, who drowned Saturday in Modesto Reservoir on his 17th birthday, was a strong swimmer, the oldest of three brothers, and the proud owner of a pit bull named Baby and a white cockatoo called Paco, his family said Monday.
Nieves was devoted to his family, said his mother, Imelda Torres, 34, of Denair. He worked with his father in his painting business each summer and knocked down almonds in the family orchard during the harvest.
"Since he was born, I was right by his side," his mother said. "We would always go on family trips. He was never out with friends. Besides my son, he was my friend, someone I had on my side to talk to."
She said her middle son, Alejandro, 14, has been full of questions since his brother's death.
"Nieves was his hero," Torres said. "Now he's asking, 'Who's going to be in back of me, who's going to defend me?' "
Nieves died on the second day of "reservoir season," officials said. His was the first waterway drowning of the year. Last July at Rocky Point, a Modesto father drowned while swimming with his daughter. The girl was wearing flotation devices and was not injured.
Nieves was celebrating his birthday with family near Rocky Point in the southwest area of the reservoir Saturday. He went underwater at 6:30 p.m., officials said. Deputies recovered the body 45 minutes later.
Saturday started with a surprise for Nieves. His parents had decided to cover the cost of a Camaro he'd recently bought. He had applied for summer jobs to pay off the car. But, as a reward for hard work and success in school, they'd bought ribbon and a huge red bow to cover the purple-and-blue car, which changed shades depending on the light. The couple woke early Saturday to decorate the Camaro in secret.
"We pulled him out and his father said, 'Come here, I'm going to show you something. Happy birthday, son. This is your birthday present,' " his mother said. "He and his father both hugged and started crying. We all hugged him and said, 'Happy birthday.' "
Nieves and his parents, brothers and a few uncles arrived at Rocky Point about 1 p.m., his mother said. They brought chicken to barbecue, tostadas and chicken salad. Going to the lake had been her son's birthday wish, Torres said.
"He wanted his family and a few of his uncles around him that day," she said. "He was the one that decided he wanted to go to the lake. I never thought celebrating his birthday this way was going to end so bad."
Before the accident, Nieves had been on a boat with his two uncles, Torres said. One uncle wanted a chance to drive the boat, so Nieves and the other uncle decided to swim to shore.
"They were swimming deep, for the fun of it," she said. "Suddenly he was just telling his uncle he couldn't swim anymore."
The teenager grabbed his uncle around the neck to stay afloat.
"My brother-in-law said they both went inside the water. After that, my brother-in-law tried to go outside the water because he felt he was drowning, too," she said. "He told me, 'I just wanted to get a little bit of oxygen.' When he turned back to help Nieves again, he was gone."
As soon as his family realized the problem, they called 911 and the park ranger, Torres said. People at the lake jumped in to try to find Nieves, including strangers and the teenager's father. But the water was too deep.
She said her family often had visited Rocky Point before. Lakes were popular choices for family trips. Her son loved to be in the water, she said. He loved drawing and painting. And he loved to play with his cockatoo, teaching the bird words and sounds, talking to him and dancing him through the house.
The funeral for Nieves, who attended John B. Allard Community School in Turlock, will be Wednesday at his family home.
"He will always be with me, with his family," his mother said. "We just keep loving him, his brothers, his mama, his dad. We'll always keep loving him."
Bee staff writer Emilie Raguso can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2235.