|Last checked links: 8 December 2007
Copyright © 1994 Alfred Avila, rev. © 2008 Kat Avila.
Alfred Avila was born in Los Angeles, California, on January 25, 1933, in the late evening to José Avila and Maria Guadalupe Arciniaga (maiden name). He would be the fourth-born of 15 children. That same year José received a letter from a Los Angeles city bureau telling him to report for repatriation to Mexico on a Mexican government boat. Mexican nationals were being blamed for the lack of jobs during the Great Depression (1929-39). Many were forced to return, taking with them their U.S.-born children. Guadalupe, who was born an American citizen, helped her husband fight repatriation. They remained in the United States with their four sons.
Alfred Avila & father, 1933
Avila kids, late 1930s(?)
Alfred Avila is second from left.
Hidalgo del Parral, 1967
Alfred's father José was from Hidalgo del Parral, a city in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico. In 1908, when José was seven years old, he moved to El Paso, Texas, with his older brother Maximo Avila who was looking for work and a better life. José went back and forth between his aunt's home in El Paso and his mother's home in Parral. When he became a father, José would tell his children about how he ran small errands for Pancho Villa and his men when they came into Parral.|
Alfred's mother Guadalupe (Lupe) was born in El Paso, Texas. Her father Romualdo Arciniaga was from Zacatecas (capital city of the Mexican state of Zacatecas), and her mother Felipa Amor was from Aguascalientes (capital city of the Mexican state of Aguascalientes [trans. hot waters]); her grandfather Barbaro Arciniaga once traveled from Aguascalientes to the U.S. border for three months by donkey, and is buried in Orange, California. Lupe was known as a curandera (folk healer) in her community. People really liked her and she loved people, said one of her daughters about her. After José and Lupe married in 1920, they moved to Los Angeles, returning later to El Paso for only a brief time.
|Alfred grew up mainly in Los Angeles, their last house there was on Gless St., in an area known to the local Mexicans as "Flats," below Soto St. and off 1st St. (on the other side was Little Tokyo), and he witnessed the cementing of the Los Angeles River. Little Tokyo and Chinatown in Los Angeles were Alfred's first experiences with Asian culture as a young boy. Most of the Jewish people lived in Boyle Heights (now popularly known as East L.A.) around Brooklyn Avenue (now Cesar E. Chavez Avenue).|
During that time, the Boyle Heights area was home to one of the largest Russian populations in the U.S. There was the elderly woman caretaker of the Russian church next door who always gave the Avila family Russian pastries left over from church services the night before; the old long-bearded Russian grocer across the street who gave the family a kitten, "Mitchi," who was with them for many years; Katya, a Russian girl who always picked on him; and Bonnie and Donald, a Russian brother and sister who were like family and were left behind in the neighborhood when the Avilas moved away.
His love of the sea came from his father José who loved surf and ocean fishing. José often took Alfred and his three older brothers to the beaches of Southern California for surf fishing. Saltwater fishing was Alfred's favorite activity.
He started school in 1939 at Utah Street Elementary School. The school is still there, but the old three-story brick building is long gone.
The Avila family moved to El Monte, still within Los Angeles County, in the summer of 1942, just after the forced evacuation of Americans of Japanese ethnicity to internment camps in places like Manzanar and Tule Lake, California; Poston, Arizona; Heart Mountain, Wyoming; Topaz, Utah; and Minidoka, Idaho. Due to U.S. government pressure and Latino racism, Latin American Japanese were also rounded up and deported to U.S. camps. Japanese Brazilians were protected because their government refused to cooperate.
• A Japanese American's recollections of the WWII era, Gardena Committee for Redress and Reparation packet, Gardena, California, 1981.|
• The Ten World War II "Relocation" Camps, Eastern California Museum Manzanar Project, Shi Nomura, Independence, California. Dates opened, dates closed, and maximum population figures.
• "NCRR Marks 10th Anniversary With 'Day Of Remembrance'; Estelle Ishigo Film Will Debut," Kashu Mainichi (California Daily News)(Los Angeles), February 8, 1990. Estelle Peck Ishigo was an American of Dutch-English-French ancestry who spent 3-1/2 years with her Nisei husband at the Heart Mountain camp.
• Re-imaging Collectivities: The Mexican Japanese during World War II, by Selfa Chew, a paper presented at the 35th National Association of Chicana and Chicano Studies Annual Conference, 2008.
"Who Was Ralph Lazo?", by Janice Harumi Yen. Lazo was a teenager of Mexican-Irish descent who was voluntarily interned with his Japanese American friends at Manzanar. He was the subject of the 30-minute short film Stand Up for Justice: The Ralph Lazo Story.
Alfred's good friend and classmate Y. Yamaguchi, in the fourth grade at Utah Street Elementary School, was sent to one of the "relocation camps," as they were called. He wrote back to the class once and that was the last time Alfred heard from him. Yamaguchi had lived in a large tenement building at the corner of 1st St. and Pecan St. with many other Japanese families. Huge, bright orange koi (carp fish) banners used to fly on a flag pole at the entrance to the building on Boys' Day (May 5). After the evacuation, that section of Los Angeles died from closures of Japanese businesses in the area.|
Alfred's father and his three older brothers spent many hours picking vegetables for the local farmers, on farms that had been formerly owned by Japanese Americans who had been evacuated to the internment camps. He recalled, "I hated those farms. We worked so long out in the fields, sometimes as long as 10 hours a day. I was young, and it was very difficult for me. The summer sun was unmerciful, and the winter cold froze my fingers where I could hardly move them. That was a traumatic time of my life, changing from a city boy to a country boy, to live much poorer than we did in the city."
In April to May 1943, conditions for the Zoot Suit Riots ripened in Los Angeles. Many innocent Mexicans were beaten simply because of their ethnicity. Alfred's oldest brother Bill was about 12 years old and selling newspapers on Main St. and was chased, but he arrived home safely. Local press encouraged the situation—the "racial madness"—with inflammatory and racist journalism. Alfred experienced some of this racism while attending Temple Elementary School and the racially segregated Lexington [Grammar] School (for Mexican children) in El Monte in the 1940s.
• "Analyzing Segregation in El Monte: The Lexington School," by Olga L. Gutierrez. 30-pg. EDAD 554 class paper, (Name of college?), July 20, 1981. (Kat's note: I obtained a copy through the El Monte-based La Historia Society.)|
|"The grammar school I attended was filled with prejudice against the Mexicans. Some of the rules were stupid," he remembered. "They would not allow us to speak Spanish, but we did anyway, even with the threat of a paddling by the principal. We fought back in any way we could. They only made us stronger to survive as Spanish-speaking Mexicans. Even though many of our people [Mexican Americans] were fighting in World War II and dying for supposedly so-called 'Freedom,' freedom for whom?" He graduated from grammar school as an honor student in 1947.|
As a child, Alfred spent much of his time exploring and hiking the grassy fields, rivers, and marshes in the El Monte area with his brothers and their dogs. There were many empty grassy fields and marshes in that area in the 1940s. The huge cottonwoods and their seeds blowing in the wind like a snowstorm and the beautiful red-winged blackbirds in the marshes left lasting impressions on his mind. He hiked the local La Puente hills. Flat Top, the highest hill, had a very tall electrical tower. He and his friends climbed the tower and wrote their names on the girders. The area between the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo rivers was his youthful playground. This was years prior to the building of the Whittier Narrows Dam. Legg Lake now covers the locale.
|Alfred attended El Monte Union High School and Rosemead High School. About two weeks after his high school graduation and with the prospect of attending Pasadena City College on a football scholarship, he joined the U.S. Navy. The Korean War was about a year old.
He entered Navy boot camp at USNTC San Diego in 1951. Upon completion of training, he was assigned overseas (1951-December 1953) to the Korean Theatre (area around Japan and Korea). While Alfred was en route overseas, one of his best and closest barrio buddies Gilberto Aguilar was killed in Korea on October 5, 1951. Aguilar was only 18 years old and a member of the California National Guard activated for Korea.
Yokosuka, Japan, 1952
Alfred Avila & Japanese boys at
sandbag filling detail out of Totsuka
Radio Facilities at Shichiragahama
Beach, Kamakura, Japan, 1952.
|Two of José and Guadalupe's children passed away in 1952. Both were very young. Yolanda died of a brain tumor at the age of 12, and Lorenzo died of cancer of the lungs at the age of 13, only a year after having had his leg amputated. In a local newspaper article, Lorenzo was described as "the lad with a brave smile, who told the family priest [Irish American John V. Coffield who championed Mexican American civil rights] that it would be all right to amputate his leg…if it would help teach other persons bravery."|
• "Honoring the father who raised city spirits; El Monte to celebrate the Rev. John Coffield," San Gabriel Valley (CA) Tribune, January 7, 1999.|
• "Priest's book [Memoirs of Juanote] describes civil rights struggles," San Gabriel Valley (CA) Tribune, January ?, 2000. Page 2.
Alfred Avila with his twin sisters,
El Monte, California, Dec. 1953
|Upon his return to the United States in December 1953, Alfred reenlisted and was assigned in February 1954 to the attack transport USS Montrose (APA-212). He remained in the U.S. Navy as a Gunner's Mate (GM), working on guns and ordnance, until his release to the Fleet Reserve in September 1974.|
He participated in Operation Passage to Freedom in 1954 to pick up Vietnamese and Chinese refugees in the northern Hanoi and Red River delta areas of a dying French Indochina and to transport them to South Vietnam. North Vietnam was emerging under Ho Chi Minh. "We loaded them up [the refugees] at Henrietta Pass at the mouth of the Haiphong River from French landing craft (LSMs). Then we started our trip south stopping at Tourane [now Da Nang] and sometimes took them up the Saigon River to Saigon [now Ho Chi Minh City] or off-loaded them at Cape St. Jacques [now Vung Tau] located near the entrance to the Saigon River." Operation Passage to Freedom is described in a recollection by a USS Telfair (APA-210) crewman as "the largest evacuation operation by sea in military history."
|In the same year, he did Operation Flaghoist which turned out to be the largest amphibious operation since World War II. Over 100 ships and several thousand men converged on the still-scarred island of Iwo Jima. Some of the men who spent hours on the boats—landing and retracting, loading and unloading—will never forget what Iwo Jima and Mt. Suribachi looked like from the surfline.|
Another remembered naval operation is Operation Sailor Hat. "Sailor Hat" was the code phrase for the first major U.S. Navy investigation since Operation Crossroads in 1946 of the effects of high-energy air blast on naval ships. Using 500-ton TNT charges to simulate the blast effects of a nuclear explosion, three separate tests were conducted in 1965 on the shore of Kaho'olawe Island in Hawaii. The converted USS Atlanta was the main target ship. After decades of bombing, Kaho'olawe Island is being reclaimed and restored to its former condition by indigenous Hawaiians for use as a cultural reserve. Bombing was halted in 1990, and cleanup of unexploded ordnance from 75 percent of the island ended in 2004.
Alfred Avila (rear right), the lone
American in a Japanese tour group,
Choin Temple, Kyoto, Japan, 1958
|Most of Alfred's naval career was spent in the Far East, aboard ships and at stations ashore. He preferred the Western Pacific regions, and he had the opportunity to visit Hawaii, Korea, Japan, Okinawa, Taiwan, Hong Kong, the Philippines, Australia, Samoa, Midway Island. He saw those countries grow during his 23-and-a-half years of service in the Navy. He especially enjoyed Japan, having spent his youth among the Japanese Issei and Nisei in Los Angeles. His parents had had many friends in that community.
One of his younger sisters remembers the descriptive letters and wonderful knickknacks Alfred would send home to California from abroad. Alfred served in Vietnam in 1954 and in 1968. His three older brothers (Bill, Henry, Edmund) and two younger brothers (Robert, Rudy) served in the U.S. Army at various periods during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.
Alfred married Sachiko in Tokyo, Japan, in 1957. Sachiko was from Nagasaki Prefecture, Kyūshū. They had three children. Upon his release from active duty to the Fleet Reserve in September 1974, he attended Santa Ana College and Orange Coast College in California, earning an A.A. in Liberal Arts and an A.S. in Business and Industrial Management. He last worked for the U.S. Postal Service. He passed away on February 1, 2001, and is buried at Riverside National Cemetery in California with his wife.
"I have been blessed to have seen so much in my life, and I thank the Blessed One who has brought me through the years," he would later write.
Interview photo by Michael Jones
for U.S. Postal Service's
Pacific Area UPDATE (April 1996).
Vietnam service medal
• Interview with Alfred Avila, "Preserving 'things that go bump in the night'," U.S. Postal Service Pacific Area Update, vol. 3, no. 4 (April 1996): 7.
• "The Legacy of Alfred Avila at the Tarbut V'Torah Library." Tarbut V'Torah Shabbat Shalom newsletter, December 11, 2009, p. 4 of 6.
"If you browse the Tarbut V'Torah Library, you may pick up a book and notice a bookplate explaining that this book came from the library of Alfred Avila. Readers may not know about the man who donated over 100 very fine Jewish books, ranging widely from halacha and Jewish practice, to kosher cookery."
(Kat's note: My father converted to Judaism from Roman Catholicism when he was in his 40-50s, probably due in no small part to the positive childhood experiences he had had growing up with Russian Jews in Boyle Heights. After he passed away, his Jewish library collection was graciously accepted by a local Jewish community day school in Irvine, California. Years later, as this newsletter brief shows, they still remember him.)
• The Passage to Freedom, 1954 by Alfred Avila, from the U.S.S. Montrose APA-212 Association website (http://www.ussmontrose.com/1950s.html).
(NOTE: The article is halfway down the page after the Hong Kong Standard article. He wrote this in December 2000, just before he passed away.)
"In January 1954 I reported aboard the U.S.S. Montrose (APA-212) in San Diego, California. We deployed to the Far East in February 1954. August of 1954 found us in Kobe, Japan, for R & R after amphib ops with the Korean Marines in Chinhae, Korea. The next morning found us in Pusan, Korea, where we loaded pallets and pallets of life jackets."
• Alfred Avila's artwork for U.S.S. Alamo (LSD-33) cruise book, WESTPAC 1974
Mexican Ghost Tales of the Southwest by Alfred Avila has been used in the following school programs:
• Denver Public Schools. Secondary Literacy Program (2006-2007). Unit 3. Grade 9: What Is a Monster? A Study of Monstrous Antagonists in Literature II.
• El Alma de la Raza Project, in partnership with the Denver Public Schools and Metropolitan State College of Denver, Goals 2000 - Partnerships for Educating Colorado Students, El Alma de la Raza Curriculum and Teacher Training Project.
The Spanish Conquest of Mexico and La Llorona by Leni Arnett, Grades 6-7. Included in "Instructional Materials and Resources" for Lesson 5.