By Herman Sillas
He was a Mexican born in El Paso, Texas. He went to the school for Mexicans, which had used equipment, furniture and books. He didn’t like school and played hooky frequently. The truant officer contacted the boy’s father and told him of his son’s absences. When the boy arrived home, his father was waiting with a rope.
He dragged the boy to the backyard and threw one end of the rope over a big limb of the tree to hang the boy—no use raising a dumb kid. The boy pleaded for his life. His father let him live if he went to school.
Eventually, the boy quit school and worked during the day. He got into trouble with the law and eventually left town. He arrived in Tucson, Arizona when the city experienced a big fire. He signed up to help and worked for two days and nights.
The man that hired him was impressed with the boy and gave him a permanent job. In a short time, he was made a leader of his crew. When he got his next check, it was for the same amount as before. He told his boss and was told to see the man in the office.
That boss said the check was right, “We don’t pay Mexicans more than $1.50.” The kid hit the boss with the wrench in his hand. He dashed to his residence, got his clothes and split to L.A. to live with his sister. Later, he learned the boss he hit lived, and future Mexican employees eventually received raises.
This young man met Guadalupe Feliz, a beautiful girl. The boy’s father sent a letter in Spanish to Guadalupe’s parents asking for her hand in marriage for his son. The young man translated his father’s letter in Spanish to the girl’s parents asking for their permission to marry. It was given.
He had become a sheet metal mechanic and was working for a company in Los Angeles.
The union at the company came and found out he was a Mexican and told his boss the Mexican couldn’t be a union member. His boss said if he couldn’t be a union member, then the boss would not sign the contract. The Mexican became the first union member. He attended union meetings and was always called out of order. Eventually, he taught himself the procedure rules used in the meetings. He became active, and he and his group elected new union officers.
World War II came, and he went to work at the shipyards building the country’s ships. After the end of the war, he became a boss at a sheet metal company. He hired a Japanese-American that he had worked with before the war. Two employees came to him and told them they would not work with a Japanese-American. He gave them their checks and kept the Japanese-American worker.
He eventually bought a sheet metal company and manufactured under-bar equipment. He continued educating himself. I worked at his plant and my earnings allowed me to go to school, get married and have children.
I know how much he did for me and Mexicans. He was a student at a school that didn’t want Mexicans there. He worked at an establishment that wouldn’t pay him more money because he was Mexican. He changed that. He attended union meetings and became educated as to their rules. Following World War II, he bought a sheet metal business and taught me a trade in case I didn’t pass the bar.
He eventually retired and spent his later years getting his wife materials for her dolls that were sold to the public. I learned a lot from this man. I used those lessons in my life as an attorney, husband, father and a man. I loved him. He was my dad, Herman Sillas Sr.
That is the view from the Pier.
Herman Sillas is a former director of DMV and a former U.S. Attorney of the Eastern District of California under former President Jimmy Carter. Sillas may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.