By Erika Martinez
When Andres Chavez Rodriguez was 16 years old in a small village in the state of Nuevo Leon, Mexico, his father sent him to live with his uncle in Monterrey.
"From then on, my life changed," Chavez Rodriguez said.
Each time, it seemed there were better opportunities just ahead, so Chavez Rodriguez would migrate first to the Mexico-U.S. border, and later to Houston and Michigan. He would bounce between the United States and Mexico for several years. During the World War II, he registered for the U.S. Army because everyone else was doing it, he said, but was never drafted because he was too young. He was interviewed in Spanish last July.
The young Chavez Rodriguez worked for seven years making little money at his Uncle Enrique's hotel, Maravillas de Monterrey, which was a combination of hotel, bar, restaurant and theatre; he realized that to help his parents, he would have to migrate further north.
"One day I passed as a 'mojado' [illegal immigrant] to the [Rio Grande] Valley, through the river with others," he said.
Unable to find a job in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas, Chavez Rodriguez had no choice but to go back to Mexico. In Reynosa, Tamaulipas, he managed to obtain his local passport, which allowed him to re-enter the U.S. legally. In less than a year, he was in Houston, Texas, reunited with his brother, Guadalupe Chavez Rodriguez. In Houston, he worked in an assembly line making parts for the war.
"World War II was at its apogee; a lot of beautiful and sad things were seen. Many mothers would cry when they would say goodbye to their sons who were going to the battlefields," said Chavez Rodriguez sadly.
Chavez Rodriguez still reflects upon the attitudes many Anglos had toward people of color during and after WWII. Although a lot of Latinos went to fight for the U.S., many opportunities and doors were closed for Mexican Americans, especially those with darker skin, he said
"In those times, there was a lot of discrimination against blacks, and thank God my color is white, 'guero,' in those years," he said with a smile. "Blacks were sent to the back of the bus. I did suffer a lot, but not that."
After the war was over, Chavez Rodriguez remained in the U.S. until Feb. 25, 1949, returning to Monterrey briefly after his father's death. Then it was back to work in Houston. One morning his manager came and told him somebody was looking for him.
"It was the immigration," he recalls. "Everything ended. They allowed me to go change into different clothes. I showered ... and goodbye. Who denounced me? That question remained in the air."
Within days of going back to Mexico, he began working as a policeman in Matamoros, Tamaulipas, across the border from Brownsville, Texas; however, this job wasn’t what Chavez Rodriguez wanted in life.
"I had fun, but it was too dangerous. I could dress nice, but to be honest, I did not like that kind of job," he said.
But the job did allow Chavez Rodriguez to meet his future wife, Ernestina Trevino Garcia.
"She (his wife) was very pretty ... I fell in love with her, but I had to be very careful with her. She was very well behaved," he said smiling.
His job also helped him to get a green card, which became his "passport" to the American dream.
"I told Ernestina, 'Look my darling, I have everything ready. I leave for the United States,'" he said.
But this time Chavez Rodriguez didn’t want to settle for Texas. He decided to take a bigger step and made it all the way to Adrian, Michigan. There, he worked for Tecumseh Refrigerator Company, making parts for refrigerator motors.
Chavez Rodriguez considers himself a lucky man, because everywhere he went, a job was always waiting for him.
"The next day, I looked for a job and God helped me. I filled out the application and they told me, 'Come back on Monday. You're going to make $1.65 per hour.' Back then, that was a lot of money," he said.
As soon as he arrived in Michigan, he began saving money for he and Ernestina’s wedding. And on Jan. 29, 1956, he became "the happiest man in the world" by marrying Ernestina in Reynosa, across the border from McAllen, Texas.
Another important milestone for Chavez Rodriguez was becoming an American citizen in 1966: With his citizenship, he was eligible to vote. He remembers that people had to pay a poll tax in those days if they wanted to vote.
But Chavez Rodriguez also said that without God's help, he wouldn’t have made it back and forth between Mexico and the U.S.
His oldest child, daughter Yolanda, was born in Michigan in 1957, however, he eventually brought his family to the Rio Grande Valley. Chavez Rodriguez doesn't deny he struggled economically to support his family. Once in Texas, he and his wife had three more children: Araceli, Andres Jr. and Esmeralda.
Chavez Rodriguez had little education ("two or three years, I can't even remember," he said), but he was very smart and his hard work was the key to his success.
"I used to pay attention to how my manager used to do his job, and he got promoted and so I stayed in his place," he said.
His three daughters were able to attend prestigious universities and his son, Andy, runs his own small business. His oldest child, Yolanda Padilla, works as a professor of social work at the University of Texas at Austin.
Chavez Rodriguez said his children had a better life than his own because they all had the opportunity to get an education.
"The only university I attended was the University of Life," he said.
He added, however, that, with the support of his wife and children, he has been able to educate himself throughout the years.
Through reading, which he said he loves, he learned he has something in common with Pope John Paul II.:
"The Pope was born in May 18, 1920, and I was born the same day, but in 1921, a year after," he said.
Today, at the age of 79, Chavez Rodriguez continues to have a very active life, constantly volunteering at the Senior Citizens Center in McAllen.
"I go to the center and play dominos with other men my age," he said.
Chavez Rodriguez retired from his position as a janitor in the Brownsville public schools at 65. He said his best-paying job was one that paid $8.00 an hour. With his retirement money, he bought a house in McAllen, Texas, to be close to his daughters, Araceli and Esmeralda.
His house has a big yard for his vegetable garden. He also has a large storage room for his tools. However, he continues to tell his grown children that if at any point they need a place to stay, his house is always going to be theirs, too.
Being a father has been the greatest experience of his life, Chavez Rodriguez said.
Mr. Chavez Rodriguez was interviewed in McAllen, Texas, on July 26, 2000, by his daughter, Yolanda C. Padilla.
Date of Birth:
Yolanda Chavez Padilla
WWII Military Unit:
U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project