By Jessica Propst
Pride runs through Leo Ortega’s veins. It was placed there by his mother, Rose Valdes Ortega, as a small boy in the 1930s amidst the backdrop of the Great Depression. Ortega watched her work day and night in Raton, N.M., to take care of her family.
“My mother was the nucleus of our family,” he said. “My dad was hardly ever home, poor guy.”
Ortega says his mother never took public assistance and always shared with her neighbors, and he was proud of her for that. He went to work when he was 13 years old at a ranch in Clayton, N.M., where his mother’s brother labored as a cowboy.
“I was a cowboy for three months,” Ortega said. “My pay was $90 and a new pair of boots. I was so proud.”
At age 13, Ortega thought he’d be a cowboy for the rest of his life. He didn’t know his life would change in 1941, about four years later. That’s when he was working in Denver, Colo., with the Civilian Conservation Corps, digging holes in rock for fences posts. One day, a buzz filled the camp: The Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor.
“I didn’t know what Pearl Harbor was,” he explained. “I didn’t know what Hawaii was, but I had a vague idea from geography lessons. I enlisted right there at the CC[C] camp.”
Ortega’s mother found out he’d joined the Marines via a military letter she received Dec. 31, 1941.
“I [gave] everything to my mother, my campaign ribbons,” said Ortega, smiling. “She was so proud.”
He was assigned to kitchen duty, or KP, after his officers had a great deal of trouble pronouncing his name.
“In those 23 months or there-abouts [in the Pacific] … I didn’t see a Hispanic or Latino or Mexican American until I was on the street of San Diego, [Calif.,]” Ortega said.
Once he earned his second stripe, he couldn’t be isolated on KP anymore, he says.
“But they did give me all the, excuse my language, the shit details,” he said, “supervising the [bathrooms], those things.”
After some time supervising bathroom clean up, Ortega was moved to instructing new recruits on the use of cleaning and disarming a 45 pistol. He walked in front of a table of five to seven young men “like a school teacher,” he said.
Ortega recalls one of the young men making a mistake, putting a loaded clip into the gun and then closing the firearm. As Ortega went over to tell the recruit to stop, the gun fired, shooting Ortega in the finger and nearly blowing it off. He was sent to the corpsmen and vaguely remembers them putting his digit back in proper position.
“It was only me and five to seven white guys, who said I was demonstrating and shot myself,” Ortega said. “They all lied and I couldn’t disprove it. It was in my record that I shot myself.”
Although his tone is no different while recalling this event from when he discusses his mother’s selflessness, he doesn’t want anyone to misunderstand:
“I’ve learned to deal with it. I still carry some bitterness,” he said.
After the incident, Ortega continued teaching recruits how to handle 45 pistols.
“I wasn’t privileged to serve in combat,” he said. “I think I would have liked that.”
Ortega’s last assignment with the Marines was to guard a naval radio station in Northern Ireland. Out of a group of about 20 Marines sent from the United States to protect the station, he thinks he was the only one who’d also served in the Pacific, he said in a telephone interview.
Even though he never saw a battlefield, he says the war helped him.
“It’s one of the greatest things that has occurred to me in my lifetime,” Ortega said. “I learned so many things in the Marine Corps. The most important thing I learned was pride.”
The Marines began drilling pride into Ortega’s head at boot camp in San Diego. They told him not to dishonor the Corps.
“That in itself changed me,” he said. “And possibly through my experiences there, which might have been discriminatory, it made me proud to be a Marine. It made me proud to be an American. That I believe is the biggest lesson I learned in my entire life.”
Ortega was discharged Feb. 9, 1946, at the rank of Corporal. A civilian once again, he became a painter. Then, while getting a drink with some friends on a trip to Denver, he saw a woman named Dulcie Nemecia, who he recognized from Raton. His friends suggested he ask her to dance, so he reluctantly approached her and inquired.
Back in Raton, they began to date; then Ortega asked Dulcie to marry him. He says she denied him because he was a mere painter, so he got a job with the Postal Service.
“Ninety bucks for an engagement ring and wedding rings!” he said.
The couple had three children: a girl and two boys.
Ortega’s sons didn’t join the military, and he didn’t suggest it to them. Despite not having pressured his sons to join, however, he’s clearly proud of other relatives who have.
“I am fortunate to have two grandsons and two grandsons-in-law to have served my country,” Ortega said.
When the Postal Service stopped using the railroad in favor of placing employees at stationary offices, Ortega says he was one of the last people to “bring the train form Phoenix[, Ariz.,] to El Paso[, Texas,] with the last run of mail on the train.
Just like the last Pony Express,” he said. “For 17 years, I had ridden those rails, worked hard. I mean very hard -- dirty and fast and no clock. But here we go [at the Post Office], ‘Punch the clock.’”
Ortega says the P.O. felt like a jail to him, so he began a new career as an insurance adjuster.
“I was the first Mexican American insurance adjuster in the industry in the 1950s.” he said.
But when his job took him away from his family, he says Dulcie became angry.
“She gave me an ultimatum,” Ortega said: “My family or my job.”
Although he was making a comfortable living as an insurance adjuster, Ortega finished the case file he was working on and quit.
“I came to realize how important it was to be with my family,” he said.
A friend had placed a bug in Ortega’s ear about starting a pest-control business while Ortega was still employed at the insurance company, so “$56 and I was in business,” Ortega said.
He quit the Postal Service and worked strictly in the pest-control industry. Dulcie worked with him.
“We survived, thank God for our perseverance,” Ortega said.
On August 21, 1964, the Ortegas had their first customer. They kept close relationships with their clients, as Ortega says he felt that was important.
Now, Ortega is retired from everything. Dulcie passed away in 2002 and their children are all married or divorced. At the time of his interview, Ortega enjoyed spending his time reading. Thanks to the Department of Veterans Affairs, which provided him with a pair of glasses, he was hoping to get back to going to the library.
“I would love to inspire at least one person in my life to read,” said Ortega, his voice filled with passion.
Education for Mexican Americans is clearly important to him.
“We could be the strongest influence in this country in history, only if we believed in ourselves and educated ourselves,” Ortega said.
Mr. Ortega was interviewed in El Paso, Texas, on September 1, 2007, by Delia Esparza.