Latino vets of WWII share stories
The Arizona Republic
Mar. 11, 2006
Yvonne Wingett


Ralph Chavarria sat next to his teenage grandson.

The 91-year-old leaned on a cane and talked about his experiences as a World War II firefighter and crash-crew worker in the Twentieth Air Force in the Pacific.

Ralph and 17-year-old Sean are close in large part through the sharing of stories. Ralph is a good storyteller, but this evening as he spoke, his voice broke and his eyes filled with tears. He was sharing memories of how he left his new wife and child to serve in the war and how proud he was to be a Hispanic fighting for his country. It was the first time Sean saw him cry during storytelling.

"There's a lot more (to it) than I knew," Sean said quietly, with his grandfather's arm wrapped around his skinny shoulders.

Sean will come face to face with experiences like Ralph's at the premiere of Voices of Valor at 7 tonight in Tempe. The two-hour play at Arizona State University's Gammage Auditorium recounts how American Latinos fought in WWII and returned home to build their lives in the face of life's challenges and ethnic discrimination.

The production is based on the U.S. Latinos & Latinas and World War II Oral History Project, a compilation of stories from hundreds of Hispanics who were touched by the war, including Ralph and 23 other Arizona veterans.

Voices of Valor also will take the stage in Austin, where University of Texas Professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez led the project.

Phoenix playwright James Garcia adapted her work for the theater.

Organizers hope that the play will raise the profile of Latino vets and the important roles they played in country's biggest war. Sean and his grandfather are separated by almost 75 years and many major military conflicts, but the production will expose younger generations to Latinos' role in American history.


A big project

During WWII, 500,000 Latinos served in the armed forces, experts estimate.

The crusade to preserve their stories began in 1999 with Rivas-Rodriguez. The associate professor of journalism set out to archive their experiences so that scholars, journalists and students could use them when writing about the WWII generation, now in their 70s, 80s and 90s.

The mainstream media, she said, often overlooks their contributions to the war.

"Most books rarely mention Latinos," said Rivas-Rodriguez, daughter of an Army veteran. "The only way to really address that is to create that primary source material. That's why we have to have those interviews unfiltered by no one, warts and all."

In 2004, Rivas-Rodriguez helped publish hundreds of the Latino veterans' stories, mostly of stints overseas and their return home. Texas students and volunteers from around the country interviewed more than 400 vets and collected family and wartime photos.


Fight for country, self

Ralph was drafted in February 1943 at age 27. He spent most of his service time as a firefighter on Tinian in the Northern Mariana Islands in Micronesia. He saw no combat but was called out when a plane crashed and caught fire. When the United States attacked Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945, and Nagasaki, Japan, on Aug 9, 1945, he was there for the takeoff of the bombers.

"We watched those planes taking off at 3:15 in the morning from the end of the runway," he remembered.

"At five-minute intervals, three planes would take off. All we thought was 'suppose the plane would not take off (and) crash here, what would happen to this island?' "

Ralph returned to Phoenix in 1946 to the love of his life, Consuelo Huerta Chavarria, and his son, Ernie. He went to the Arizona State Vocational School under the GI Bill. To celebrate his discharge, Ralph and his brother Paul went to a central Phoenix cocktail bar.

For them, a bottle of beer cost $2. .

For everyone else: 25 cents.

"So then, we ordered more," Ralph said, wearing a purple WWII veteran's hat and purple Phoenix Suns jacket. "And here comes a big, old, fat man. He came back without beer and said, 'Can't you read between the lines?' The prejudice was still there."

Certain restaurants, bars and stores refused to serve Hispanic veterans.

Their own brothers in war refused to open the doors of American Legion posts.

Property managers refused to rent them apartments.

Hispanics fought back, making gains in school desegregation, voting rights and basic social rights. Prominent and influential organizations grew out of their efforts, including the GI Forum and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.


Proud of his service

Ralph's story in the oral-history project includes photos of him playing with the Chapito Chavarria Orchestra at American Legion Post 41, a Latino post on Second Avenue and Grant Street in Phoenix.

He looked at the text of the story and said, "I want (Sean) to graduate from college and be a great man. I want his dreams to come true."

Sean, quiet throughout his grandfather's stories, said, "He puts it in a different point of view than when you learn about it (in school)."

Ralph, who lives in a west Phoenix retirement home with his wife, again embraced Sean and said: "I'm really glad he lives in a different world than I did. He's living in a wonderful country. He should be proud like I'm proud.

'It's a life I wouldn't trade for nothing in this world."

Reach the reporter at or (602) 444-4712.