Hispanic Heritage Month is celebrated Sept. 15-Oct. 15. To commemorate the period, The Orange County Register asked readers to tell their family stories of the Latino experience in Orange County.
The following story was written by my aunt, Elaine Cali, about my grandfather and Daddy figure, Joe Martinez.
My father, Joe Martinez, was born in 1924 in Orange, He was a first-generation Mexican American and the youngest of nine children.
His parents immigrated to the U.S. during the Mexican Revolution seeking a better life. Growing up poor in the humble barrio area on Cypress Street, he never enjoyed the luxury of being spoiled, but rather took his place in the family and helped out where he could.
He was a happy child living amongst the sights and sounds of laughing children, the tempting aroma of Mexican dishes, and dusty roads filling the air of this close-knit neighborhood.
In the 1920's and 30's segregation was a part of life in America, and in Orange it took the form of a separate (but not equal) elementary school for Mexican children only, and special days for them to swim in the Orange plunge at Hart Park (the day before the pool was cleaned).
A sense of honor seemed to carry him through his life, as he volunteered for the Army Air Corp upon graduating from Orange High School when he was just 18 years old and World War II was raging.
He wanted to contribute to the war effort and his dream was to become a pilot. His dream came true and he became a B-17 pilot (one of very few Mexican American pilots) and rose through the ranks captain of his squadron. During his military career he flew more than 30 successful missions over enemy territory in Europe.
After the war he wanted to become a commercial pilot, and applied to many major air carriers but was denied. One can only speculate as to why someone with his tremendous credentials and stellar war record was passed over.
Only Mexicana Airlines accepted him — on the condition that he relinquish his U.S. citizenship. He told them, "I didn't spend the last three years of my life fighting for America to give up my citizenship." and turned them down.
He went to work instead at the Sunkist Packing House down the street from where he grew up. It was there that he met Della Ruiz, a beautiful young woman and sixth-generation descendant of the Yorba clan. They quickly fell in love and married. She had a son from a previous marriage, David, that my dad raised and loved as his own son.
He eventually left the packing house for a janitorial job at Knox Hardware in Santa Ana. It was a long way from the highflying life of a pilot. Yet he was a bright man and a hard worker, and this dedication paid off over the years, as he was promoted to salesman, purchasing agent and eventually vice president of Knox Industrial Supplies. He spent 44 years of his life at this job.
I remember going into work with him on the weekends. I would just roam the aisles looking at hardware and asking him endless questions about how all the tools and gadgets worked. He was always very patient with me and seemed happy to satisfy my curiosity. To this day, walking into a hardware store seems sort of familiar and comforting to me.
Joe and Della settled in Santa Ana and had two other children, Cathi, in 1948 and Elaine in 1954. He was a devoted family man and a very kind and loving father.
As a child, I eagerly waited for him to come home from work, I'd run down the driveway to greet him and he'd pick me up (sometimes putting me on his shoulders) and carry me into the house. I loved his strong arms, laughter and comforting smile. He was the "rock" of our family and seemed to never falter.
I only remember seeing him vulnerable once, when my mother died in 1967. She had suffered a long illness for three years prior to her death, and when she died he was devastated. But in true "Joe Martinez fashion" he rallied to be both mother and father to our family for many years to come.
He soon became a grandfather and relished that role as well. He loved babies and would enjoy a "dance" with them, holding out his hand until their small fingers joined his for a spin around the room.
He met and married a long-time friend and golf partner Chris in 1981 and they moved to Orange Park Acres. This large house with a lot of land became the focal point of fun family gatherings and a place they could "raise" horses and dogs and enjoy their life and retirement together.
I will remember my dad, Joe Martinez in many ways…
By his example he instilled in his family the importance of hard work, honesty, dedication and loyalty. He didn't have the easiest life, but he learned to work through it.
He was a religious man and committed to Mass every Sunday and daily prayers. Although he certainly liked to have fun, have an "Early Times" now and again and enjoy his friends.
He didn't gossip, but rather lead by example and hoped you would follow his lead.
If he disapproved of your action, he would sort of "growl" and either reprimand or give his advice calmly.
He always told us how much he loved us and still checked in with family members weekly to make sure we were OK…or just leave a phone message saying that he loved us very much. He was generous with his unconditional love and wanted our lives to be a bit easier than his had been.
He gave us both roots and wings, and that is the best you can ask for in your life. He had a special song, "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You." That to us embodied his loving spirit.
We decided that this was so much a part of him that we had this song title etched into his headstone. He passed away on Dec. 6, 2007, however, we will never forget him, his love for us, and our Orange County story.
Article posted in the Orange County Register, Monday, Sept. 29 http://www.ocregister.com/articles/life-family-years-2161140-orange-loved