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War & Locale: World War II -- European Theater
Date of Birth:
Paul R. Zepeda
By Noelle Pareja
Eighty-one-year old Houston resident Andrew Tamayo clearly remembers the day World War II broke out. And the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, the 19-year-old Mexican American proudly enlisted in the Army.
Even though he volunteered to serve, Tamayo eventually harbored some doubts about his purpose as a Mexican American in the military. It was during a battle in Sicily in 1943 that he became most conflicted about his status as a Latino.
Since he and other Mexican Americans had suffered discrimination back in the United States, Tamayo says he wondered in the midst of battle why he was fighting so hard for a country that engaged in such treatment of his culture. It didn't take long, however, for him to realize larger issues were at stake, primarily, winning the war and staying alive while fighting alongside gringos he’d learned to befriend, he says.
Tamayo was reared in San Antonio, Texas, barrio Las Matanzas by his mother, Brigida Sidano, in a single-parent household. His mother earned a "dollar a day" salary as a housemaid at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Tamayo says, while he worked as a paperboy during the evening at the San Antonio Hotel, a downtown inn that catered to businessmen.
It was during his job as a paperboy that Tamayo first began interacting with white co-workers.
"All the guys started liking me," Tamayo said. "They could trust me. I would look after the baggage and look out when the captain bellboy was coming, so they could take a smoke."
Tamayo moved to Houston when he was 14 to live with his father, Andrew Martinez Tamayo. The elder Tamayo had been separated from his wife following bouts with alcoholism. Andrew told Tamayo and Brigida he’d move them to Houston, with the promise he’d stop his heavy drinking and find a good job.
Tamayo relocated to Houston while his mother stayed in San Antonio to prepare for a move later on; however, Tamayo says his father got drunk and took off, leaving him alone.
"He was making us think he was going to do the right thing," Tamayo said. "He left me here all by myself."
The 14-year-old was forced to start his own life in Houston until his mother moved in with him in 1938. Over the next five years, he held a number of jobs, including one as an assistant mechanic.
Tamayo says Pearl Harbor Day is unforgettable for him.
"As soon as we found out that war had been declared," he said, "I told my mama I wanted to enlist."
Brigida was opposed to her son volunteering, but Tamayo was determined to fight and defend his country. Uncle Sam sent Tamayo to Camp Roberts in California for basic training. He was ultimately assigned to the 39th Field Artillery Battalion (105mm Howitzer), 3rd Infantry Division.
A few Mexican Americans were in his unit, he says, men who’d become like his family during the war.
On Nov. 8, 1942, he and his division assaulted North Africa at Fedala and won the campaign in Tunisia.
On July 10, 1943, Tamayo's battalion assaulted Sicily. It was while fighting there that Tamayo says his reservations about the war began to creep into his mind.
"This is when I began changing my mind about helping these gringos," Tamayo said. "I remember how they used to treat us over here [in the States]."
He recalled the racist treatment his family had experienced back in San Antonio and Houston, as well as how his mother couldn’t get a better job because she told people she was Mexican.
"My mother was not Mexican," Tamayo said. "She was half Italian and half Spaniard. She was white, but because she told people she was Mexican, she could not get a better job."
According to historian Ronald Takaki, author of "Double Victory," this feeling of injustice and confusion was common in ethnic minorities during WWII. Mexican Americans, Indian Americans and African Americans often began asking themselves why they should fight for America, particularly in light of the discrimination they’d experienced.
Despite his doubts, Tamayo fought in the war for another three years. He was transferred to France and served under the 100th Infantry Division, getting wounded during a battle near the German-French border when he was struck by fragments from a mortar shell that landed near him.
That’s about the time Tamayo's tour of duty ended. He returned to the U.S. in May of 1945, where he was discharged on the 20th at the rank of Private First Class. He earned the Purple Heart, a Bronze Star Medal and eight bronze campaign stars.
Tamayo returned to Houston, where resumed his role as an automobile mechanic and settled down to have a family. He also attended the University of Houston under the GI Bill.
He recalls meeting a friend at a war ceremony in Houston several years ago, and that the friend asked him if anyone called him a hero for fighting in WWII.
"The heroes are the ones that stayed back there [in Europe]," Tamayo replied. "It is because of them that we are here."
Mr. Tamayo was interviewed in Houston, Texas, on September 18, 2002, by Paul R. Zepeda and Ernest Eguia.