By Claire Carroll
“Pinda!” a corporal yelled.The young Mexican American soldier stood quietly in line. He did not address the corporal or any of his peers.
“Pinda!” the corporal bellowed out once more.
The young soldier felt nervous. It was his first day, and he couldn’t speak English proficiently.
“P-I-N-E-D-A!” the corporal spelled out impatiently.
The young Latino finally stepped forward. Before he could correct the pronunciation, the corporal screamed at him, “Wake up, soldier!”
After several failed attempts during basic training to teach his peers the correct pronunciation, Albino R. Pineda settled for being called “Pineeda.” It wasn’t ideal, but he thought it was better than “Pinda.”
Years later, however, Pineda looked back on his days in the Army with fondness. As a Mexican American soldier, he experienced many unique barriers. Even though the men in his unit, the 261st Field Artillery Battalion, couldn’t pronounce his name, Pineda says the Army gave him two of the most profound experiences of his life.
The first experience came just a few weeks after that corporal had called him “Pinda.” Pineda had originally joined the Army to earn steady wages. As a soldier, he made $30 a month. He kept $10 and sent $20 back home to his mother.
However, that often left him short, so he took on other soldiers’ duties for extra money. One day, he heard that the government was hiring paratroopers for $50 a month. So he put in an application with his commanding officer.
His battalion commander, a colonel, asked Pineda, “Why do you want to be a paratrooper?” Pineda wasn’t sure how to respond. He didn’t feel comfortable telling the colonel that he only wanted to be a paratrooper to make more money. Instead, Pineda lied and said the other soldiers teased him because of his accent and his inability to speak English.
The officer leaned forward. “Paratroopers are tough guys, guys that fight anywhere. I’m looking at your records and you’re not that type of a person,” he told Pineda. “You better stay where you’re at. You’re better off there.”
It was a short conversation, he recalled, but it moved him, and it would have a long-term effect.
“Never in my life had I had anybody give me counsel, and to this day I haven’t forgotten,” Pineda explained.
Pineda was born on Dec. 22, 1923, and grew up taking care of himself. His father, Emilio Pineda, had gall bladder surgery and later died of peritonitis, in Arizona in 1931, when Pineda was just 8 years old. His illiterate mother, Dolores Rivera Pineda, moved the family -- which included Pineda, three brothers and three sisters -- back to Mexico, and they lived in Nogales.
Pineda didn’t go to school regularly. Instead, he spent his day earning wages to buy bread.
“It was the most unbelievable poverty you could ever think,” Pineda says.
At first, Pineda chopped wood and did odd jobs around town in order to pay for his food each day. He even had to beg on one occasion.
Then he started began working regularly for the railroad, cleaning silverware in one of the cars. It was there that Pineda earned his first real money. But it wasn’t by polishing forks. Pineda started smuggling women’s underwear and hosiery across the border. Silk products were in demand in Mexico City, and he made money by bringing them into Mexico as contraband. Pineda learned to take the light fixtures out of the Pullman cars and hide packages of silk products in the hollow walls.
One night, Pineda was given three sacks of silk hose to carry into the city. He decided to try to carry them around the edge of the city, through a canyon, where the border consisted of just a fence.
“Low and behold, there was a customs officer there in the cactus,” Pineda says. “That ended my experiences passing contraband.”
Pineda spent a week in jail and was released early because he was a juvenile. After that experience, Pineda decided to move to the U.S., where he became a migrant farm worker. After that, in January 1943, at age 18, he joined the Army.
In the military, Pineda educated himself. He learned English through a correspondence course, by looking words up in an English-Spanish dictionary, and by listening to the radio.
He remembered the day he signed up for the correspondence course as one of the most beautiful days of his life. Through that course, Pineda was exposed to a variety of literature ranging from William Makepeace Thackeray’s “Vanity Fair” to W. Somerset Maugham’s “Razor’s Edge.”
“I read those books like eating a dessert,” Pineda said. When Pineda left for war-torn Europe, he filled half of his duffel bag with books.
Pineda served in France and Germany, battling his hunger more than the Nazis. “I was always hungry, and the Army never gave me enough to eat,” Pineda said. On one occasion, Pineda literally ate crumbs off the bottom of his trench to survive. He left the Army weighing about 130 pounds.
He was honorably discharged from the 261st Field Artillery Battalion as a private first class in November of 1945.
Back in the U.S. he moved to California, where he worked as a lemon packer, a trench digger for the Bachtel Pipeline Co. in Santa Paula, a longshoreman and a driller.
He also married Naomi Solace and had two sons and a daughter.
In 2006, after Pineda retired, he began an autobiography, “Among the Repatriated,” to share his experiences as a Mexican American. It was published in 2008. Pineda also traveled throughout the United States, Europe and Central America. He remains attached to his community by attending a Methodist church and serving on several school boards. He joined the Veterans of Foreign Wars, he said, in order to unite the national veteran community.
Mr. Pineda was interviewed on July 13, 2010, in San Antonio, by Laura Barberena.