Commentary: He left Mexico for the draft. His 11 children served, too

Swept up in transnational efforts to relocate Mexicans and Mexican-Americans south of the border during the Great Depression, Francisco Chapa Alvarado returned to the U.S. to answer its call to arms during World War II. Later, all but one of his 12 children would also serve in the U.S. military.

Alvarado was born in Bexar County, on Sept. 16, 1910; he died in 1988, but his children keep his and their mother’s memory alive.

“These are stories I never want to forget,” his 75-year-old son, Felix Alvarado, said. “So, I go over them in my mind – and I don’t embellish them. This is what my father said. If he said 10 words, I repeat 10 words.”

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Francisco Alvarado’s story is dramatic: In the 358th Regiment, part of the 90th Infantry Division, he was in the second wave at D-Day, trapped in a foxhole, gripping a bazooka. He would later say he watched as the U.S. soldiers and the German soldiers, confused about who had the upper hand, originally surrendered to one another. But the Germans prevailed and Alvarado surrendered. For 10 months he was assigned to various POW camps in occupied Czechoslovakia. When Russian troops liberated his camp, the Americans went wild, looting nearby towns; some even drank gasoline, seeking a high, he told his children later.

He was in Mexico when his draft notice arrived for him in Orange Grove. His wife, Bonifacia Ortiz Rodriguez, received it and sent the government notice to him in Mexico. Francisco Alvarado abandoned his homestead there to answer the call.

The couple had moved to Ejido 18 de Marzo – now Valle Hermoso — in June 1938. Both were U.S. citizens: Bonifacia Rodriguez had been born in Realitos, Texas. The couple was married in Port Lavaca. In 1939, Bonifacia Rodriguez said in a recorded interview with her son Felix that they learned that the Mexican government would provide free land, tents, food.

They signed up for the program at the Mexican Consulate’s office in Houston, and the family drove to Mexico with their two small sons, Silvestre and Antoñio.

“It was a repatriation for people who wanted land in Mexico,” Rodriguez told her son.

The “repatriation” was a misnomer; both Francisco Alvarado and Bonifacia Rodriguez were U.S. citizens. The Alvarados went willingly, perhaps even eagerly. They would be escaping devastating unemployment.

Mexicans had become scapegoats and in several areas; laws were passed to prevent their hiring. Nonprofit groups and some localities organized transportation to Mexico for thousands of families.

Meanwhile, south of the border, a new president, Lázaro Cárdenas, was making wholesale social reforms. One of his programs was to cultivate cotton in undeveloped areas – including at the Ejido 18 de Marzo, named for the date that Cárdenas had expropriated assets of foreign oil companies. For a few hundred U.S.-based Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, the Mexican government’s program represented hope for a better future.

But conditions were not what they had expected. The ejido — a collective — was beautiful and wooded, Rodriguez said. But it was only undeveloped land – no infrastructure, no running water, no services. The family lived in a tent and cooked food outdoors, Rodriguez said.

“We didn’t have anything, anything,” Rodriguez said. “Your father started to build the house.”

But if the lack of any infrastructure was hard, the worse came in September: “And then our baby died.”

Toñito’s body was buried beneath a tree; there was no cemetery nearby.

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Rodriguez, pregnant again, resolved to return to the U.S., where conditions were better. She and 3-year-old Silvestre returned to Orange Grove. In September 1943 , her husband’s draft notice arrived. Rodriguez sent it to him in Mexico. Francisco Alvarado returned — and by that fall, he was in uniform. By June 1944, he was in that second wave on Utah Beach.

Felix Alvarado sometimes shakes his head when he considers his father returning.

“Once in a while, I say he was either the bravest man in the world, or he was a complete fool,” Alvarado said. “He knew he was going off to war. And he did not have to come back.”

After his time in the military, Francisco Alvarado returned to his wife. The couple would have 14 children; two died before they reached adulthood. Eleven of his 12 children who survived to adulthood served in the military. All 11 became military veterans of their country.

Rivas-Rodriguez is a journalism professor at the University of Texas. She is director of the VOCES Oral History Project.

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