This interview was conducted by Maria Hernandez on April 11, 2002 in San Antonio, TX. as part of Palo Alto College’s History 1302 – Spring 2002 class.
Mr. Zacarias Pena was born in Tyler, Texas. His parents were raised in Mexico and later moved to the United States for a better life. Pena’s childhood was one of constant work with intermittent periods of going to school. He received the equivalent of an eighth grade education. He started working at age six in the agricultural fields in many places including Minnesota. During World War II, he enlisted in the Navy and was stationed in the South Pacific islands. For the past 22 years, Pena has been retired from Kelly Air Force Base. For the past nine years, Pena has been a neighbor of Maria Hernandez, a student at Palo Alto College. They never conversed with each other until this interview.
When and where were you born?
I was born in Tyler, Texas in 1924 September the 6th.
How about your mother and your father, where were they born?
My father was born in Aldama, Mexico and my mother in Durango, Mexico. They met when they were here in Texas.
Do you remember how old they were when they got married? Were they like teenagers now, you know how teenagers get married very young?
(pauses and laughs) No my father was not. My mother must have been like 17 or 18 and my father was like 23 or 24 years old.
Were you the first child, sir?
No I had a brother 10 years older than me.
How many were in your family?
That lived just two boys and two girls. There were some more in between but they died.
You did not get to meet them?
Just one the last one that was born in 1938.
Do you know what reason led your parents to come here to the United States being born in Mexico?
Probably for a better life, better living.
How did they immigrate here?
By walking, my father I know he walked across the river in 1909.
Did they ever become citizens?
Yes, my father did, my mother never did. She died when she was young, she was 44 years old when she died.
How old were you when your mother died?
When your mother died, did you stay with your dad or who did you go with?
Well I lived with my father and my sister. My sister was married at that time.
Did your father remarry?
Ok, sir, the reason that I am here is because we want to know about the time that existed way before we were here. I’m very interested to know and for you to share with us the things that you went through in your life. Things that are now very different from what we are used to and how we live. So I would like to ask you a little bit more detail going into your personal life.
What kind of childhood did you have? How far do you remember?
I was about six years old, we were working in Minnesota at that time.
What would you do, sir, being six years old?
We were working in the sugar beets.
How come you weren’t in school at that time?
Well I never went to school a whole year in all my life. I used to start school in November or December and then I would have to get out in March.
To go out to the field and work?
Yes to go out to the field and work.
Was that the only provision you had for your family?
Yes ma’am because my father never had a steady job here in the city. He was either selling ice cream during the summer or cutting the wood. Everybody used wood at that time.
What was the wood used for?
For cooking and heating in the wintertime.
So you are actually telling me that they weren’t any stoves then.
Nope we had a kerosene lamp tool to light up the place at the house.
So that’s what you would use at your home. Would you cook outside like how we do now barbecue?
No sometimes we did when we were working in the fields. We used to go and work in the fields in March and then by the time we came back it was November or December and it was cold, then we used to cook outside.
How much would you get paid, sir?
I don’t know, my father used to take care of that.
Do you think they would pay you the same as your dad, being that you both worked the same or they would pay you less because you were a little boy?
No we would get paid the same because they used to pay us like for certain amount of work. We worked in the cotton fields, we used to take the weeds out. We worked from morning to night until it got dark.
Did you enjoy doing that?
I guess I did, I didn’t have no other choice laughs)
What about school, I mean you were a little boy back then?
Now that I remember I think it was a better life than what some of these kids have right now, because all the family was together at that time. Even though we were working in the field, but we were together.
Would you come home very tired?
(laughs)I don’t remember because I was too young at that time.
Will the little time that you went to school, how was the discipline at school how was the teaching, how were the children?
Well I would say that they are like it is right now you know. The discipline I think it was hard at that time. If you did anything wrong they would put you out in the hall. The teacher and the principle would go by there every so often and anybody out there would get a spanking.
What would they spank you with?
The one I remember they used palm tree branches. They either had two or three I think, but that’s what they used to spank you with in your rear (laughs).
Oh my God imagine if they would allow that today.
No they couldn’t do that today.
Did that in any way help you to be a better teenager?
I think it did because I was afraid of doing things that were wrong and now there is no discipline. The way I see it you know the kids grow up by themselves or on the TV. Most of them not all.
So we talked about the discipline that you received in school, but what about the discipline at home. Did you have any discipline at home?
Yes my father was pretty strict about that he had everybody in the family under control. He was pretty strict.
What kind of discipline did you get?
Spanking will until we started crying (laughs) which wasn’t too much you know well he was strict he was nice if you didn’t do anything wrong. He was a good father but if you did something wrong he thought you had to be corrected.
Can you describe me the home you lived in as a child?
Yes when I was about six years old we used to live in a farm, after we left Tyler we came to Floresville and that’s where my grandparents on my mother’s side were farming. They had a house for I don’t know how many years. During that time that’s when we went to Minnesota to work the field sugar beets and the house we had over there was a box’s train car it was fixed real good that’s where we lived. I was six years old at that time.
You have told me that you always lived from one house to another because you were always renting a home, but did your dad ever bought a home?
No he never did, the reason I think that he did not buy one was because my mother being that she died when she was young and we were all grown up at that time. Since he did not know any English I think he did not wanted to get a job here in the city he was always working selling ice cream during the summer or cutting wood which every one used at that time. That’s the only reason I think my father did not buy a house. I know we had the money you know, but he never did.
What was your transportation, did you all have a car?
Yes we always had a car (he laughs) old cars but at that time we always had a car because my father never wanted to go with no one else. They had trucks that would take people out to the field from San Antonio and they would go, but they had to stay with the men at that time and my father never liked that, so we would have an old car. It would run and take us all over Texas mainly to the West, Amarillo.
What would you do for recreation when you were away from school and you were over with your job, were there times where you had a chance to play?
Yeah I would play, play like the kids now a day on the street. Some of them had bicycles and we used to share the bikes but I think I enjoyed my childhood even though I had to work all the time.
The next question I would like to ask you is, were there any grocery stores?
Yes they had some grocery stores small ones, but they had everything. Everything…
The only thing I remember buying at the grocery store was meat. You go buy a
big round steak for .10 cents.(showing with his hands) About that big round and that thick for .05 cents or .10 cents you get that much.
Oh boy how much would that last you, a whole month right?
(laughing)No you couldn’t keep that, we didn’t have any refrigerators we had iceboxes and we used to get ice every day for the ice chest and we couldn’t keep everything that long.
Was there anything else fun that you would do? Did you ever attended theaters, and were theaters available back then?
Yes we had some. I remember the first one that I went to on Zarzamora and Guadalupe Street. At that time the movies didn’t have a voice. I think we used to pay about .05 cents to go in. Then they open another theater on the street of Guadalupe and Brazos. It was called the Progresso. You know the kids off no school, we used to spend all day long watching…We used to spend all day long watching the movies. At that time they had variables cartoons before they start the movie.
Sir, but these movies did not have any voice? How would you understand them?
Will we just look at them and laugh whenever the people in the movie would laugh. It was fun.
I liked to ask you a very important question, and this is something that you lived and I did not have that chance, but I want to hear from you. In the time of the Great Depression, I would like to know how did it affect you and your family or other people?
Well let me see I know it was hard for everybody because nobody had any work that was the worse part of it. There was no work around and nobody had money to buy groceries or food. That’s when President Roosevelt started giving food to the people.
But why was it that there were no jobs, what happened?
Well there was no money around for nobody. Everybody went broke and people with money the rich people most of them went broke and that’s what caused the depression. There was no money to buy anything and no jobs either. But we never depended on that because our father would always take us out to work in the fields. We got a little bit of money to buy what we needed. What I do remember is that people would get sick and they stayed sick because you didn’t have money to go see a Doctor and there weren’t many Doctors either.
How long did the great depression last?
I think it lasted about three or four years, because I remember back in ’35 or ’36, we were doing very good. We had automobiles, money and a good house even though we rented it, but it was good.
But that was because your dad would always find a job elsewhere.
Yeah when we went out there, there was always work in the fields. They did not pay much but it helped what ever they did pay you.
Enough to support the family.
What about someone in your immediate family, maybe you were lucky because your dad was always out working, but what about maybe an aunt or uncle or a grandfather someone who barely made it through those years of the Great Depression?
Well I remember that where we lived at that time back in 1933 we didn’t have anything to eat. So we would go to this pecan shelling factory and we would get those pecan shells. You know when you break a pecan there is always a little bit of pecan that stays in the shell. So we used to pick up those pieces of pecans. I was little at that time, but I remember drinking coffee with them because I was hungry and that was all to eat at that time, and it was good. It tasted real good pecans with coffee.
Did it fill you up?
Yes it did, maybe two or three hours, but you were filled up.
Do you remember anything you desired to eat as a child, but for reasons it was hard?
Well I don’t know because at that time you did not see very much. You stayed at home most of the time and when we were living here in town we didn’t see very much. There was nothing to see anyway because nobody had anything different than the other people.
Were you involved in World War II?
Yes I was I joined the Navy in 1943, and I was in it for two and a half years. I was sent to the South Pacific Islands.
Were you married at that time?
No I was single I was 18 years old. I was not drafted I volunteered me and two other friends.
And you had a brother too?
Yes my brother was in the service too. He was sent to Alaska for two years. Then to Germany for a few months. I don’t know how long because he never talked about it. People don’t want to talk about that, you know things that happened, but other people will talk about it.
You were lucky because you survived and it’s obvious because you’re here, but did you have any friends who didn’t survive?
Not that I know of, all the ones that I knew came back. Some of them were hurt, they were wounded during the war, but they came back.
What were your duties, sir?
My duties well I was in the Navy and I was called a Land Sailor. I was never aboard a ship I was always on the islands. We used to take care of the airplanes at that time.
You mentioned to me that you remember the time of Pearl Harbor because you said it was back in 1941, what can you tell me about that?
Well I remember when it first happened the men selling the newspaper hollering all over the street that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. That the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor. Nobody knew what was happening at that time they just said that Pearl Harbor was bombed. Then when I got to the service I got to see the ships that were sunk. They were laying out in the bay, so we got to see everything that happened back in 1941.
Was this very painful sir, like what we had in September 11th?
Well I would think so, you know everybody was seeing what happened at that time. Like in the September 11th. Now at that time it was only in the paper. But when the war was over, everybody was excited. It was over in 1945 when I was 21 years old.
The war is over and you are 21 years old, how did your life change from there?
Well when I got out of the service December of 1945, five months later I got married. I was going to be 22 years old and it took us two years for the first child to arrive, but we did have family and that changed my life. From there on I had to keep on working. I had a beautiful wife a wonderful wife and children, we had five children three girls and two boys and they all have good jobs right now and I was lucky to get me a good job even though I didn’t have a school, but I still got a good job.
And this was where?
I started working at Kelly Field at that time back in 1951, and I worked there for 32 years until I retired at 55. I think I’ve done pretty good after going through all that I’ve been. Having been a migrant worker I think I did pretty good for myself and my kids. I don’t have too much, but I’m not hurt either and I have a little bit saved.
Are you in good health?
I am in real good health and I got all my teeth to start with (laughs).
We are coming to the conclusion of this interview and I have two last questions on top of all the other ones I have asked and that is, if you had the chance to live again, what changes would you make?
Well I think that I would try to be a better husband to my wife and a better father to my kids. I think I could have been a lot better than what I’ve been as a father.
What advice would you give the future generations?
I would advise to them to stay in school and to go to college because you need a lot of school nowadays for everything that you do. Get yourself a good job with a good retirement, so that you can live well the rest of your days.
Mr. Pena is a man who lived through the Great Depression. He recalls that in times of hunger he ate pieces of pecans with coffee in order to survive. His childhood was harsh because he had to work at a very early age. However, we can learn that Mr. Pena is a happy man. Interviewing Mr. Pena has been wonderful. He opened the door of his home, but also the door of his heart so that we may come in and know the things he went through in his early years.