By Otto Smith-Goeke
Marcus Lopez Gomez has seen many forms of racial discrimination and difficult economic times throughout his life. As a veteran of World War II, Gomez's war experiences, family-oriented perspective and emphasis on work has helped him immensely.
"The war makes you think more like a man. It helped a lot of soldiers become men," he said. "Drugs were a big problem for some [before the war]. But after the war, they came back wanting to work and make money and get a better job."
Before Gomez began focusing on work and family, he had some ties to the Lemon Grove Incident, the first known successful legal challenge to school segregation in America. In the early 1930s near the Mexican border in Lemon Grove, Calif., school officials told 75 Latino grammar school students they must attend classes separate from other children. They wanted to isolate the Mexican American students in a two-room building the school district built, but parents objected.
Elisa Gonzalez, who would later marry Marcus Gomez, attended Lemon Grove Elementary at the time of the initial segregation. Her father, Juan Gonzalez, was an influential member of the group of parents who took the Lemon Grove School Board to the local courts and won in 1931. It would be another 24 years before the Supreme Court's Brown v. Topeka, Kansas Board of Education desegregation decision.
Gomez saw the effects of racism on his father's business at a young age. Frank Chavez Gomez owned his own business as a plastering contractor.
"It was a struggle for him because he couldn't get white plasterers to work for him because they didn't want to work for a Mexican. Whites would often stand there and give him this look. There was a prejudice against Mexicans," Gomez said.
Instead of bitterness, Frank extended generosity to those around him. He loaned money to various people and often didn’t receive the money back. As a result, he once had to sell his truck to help pay his federal income taxes.
Economic problems were fairly constant for the Gomez family through the years. Gomez said his father didn't want charity, preferring to work to meet his needs.
Gomez recalled seeing long lines of people getting food during the Great Depression. Times were tough for everyone.
"Everybody would go to a place and they would give them flour and rice and beans in sacks and they would take it home," he said. "The more kids you had, the more you got. Everybody was unemployed. Nobody was working. There were no jobs."
From the age of 12 until he was drafted for the war at age 18, he worked for his father as a plasterer.
"I learned the trade from him," he said.
During high school, he attended school for two days, working three days a week for his father.
"I went to San Diego High – I lived ... a good seven miles ... walked to school and never took the trolley or anything because you never even had 10 cents to get on the street car," he said.
Gomez said he wanted to improve his Spanish in school, but remembers teachers refusing to teach the language, saying he could speak Spanish at home. As a result, he improved his Spanish with his friends and from movies.
For recreation, he played football, basketball, baseball and track on an almost-daily basis. Saturdays were typically composed of various sports with other kids from different schools. He remembers one coach who influenced him and his friends to play sports and stay out of trouble.
"He kept us away from the streets," he said.
Tragedy struck the Gomez family in 1935, when his mother died of cancer when he was 11, leaving three sons and five daughters. Half of the family went to live with their grandmother; the other half with his father. Despite being physically divided, Gomez said the family, "stayed together," on a deeper level.
He recalls hearing the news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from his father's radio one Sunday after attending church. At 18 years old, he was the only one out of his group of friends to already be married. All of his buddies were soon drafted, entered the Army and sent overseas. Several of them were killed or returned wounded.
"They killed guys I used to play with as kids, 5 and 7 years old," he said.
For a brief time before entering the war, he worked at a civil service job as a gardener at a hospital. He initially wasn’t drafted because he was a married man and because of a clerical mix-up. As the war escalated, however, he was called up.
"I just wanted to do my part," Gomez said.
After six months of training in Salt Lake City he began serving in the 57 Fighter group of the Army Air Force as a cook. He was initially stationed in southern France and then moved to Ancona, Italy, where his group remained until the end of the war.
"We were shipped over to Italy and while the war was moving, we were moving behind it," he said.
While abroad, racial incidents would occur within the armed forces, just as they did at home. He remembers a white soldier shooting a black soldier in the arm, as well as recalls white soldiers and black soldiers segregated from each other within the same camp. The shooting incident almost escalated into further shootings between the races, he said.
Upon returning home, Gomez experienced discrimination at a bar close to his neighborhood when he was denied service because of his race. The bartender completely ignored him until several sailors and marines threatened to damage the bar unless he was served.
"They backed me up," he said.
When he returned home, his father wanted him to continue working for the family business.
"My dad wanted to put me to work right away, but I wanted to rest for awhile," said Gomez, laughing when recalling he only had five days of rest before returning to plastering.
Gomez began concentrating on raising his own family. He and his wife Elisa would ultimately raise 11 children. Throughout the years, he made a living working as a plasterer like his father.
During this time, Gomez and several of his friends joined together to charter a San Diego-area VFW hall. As a charter member, he attends annual reunions and often joins his fellow veterans for Sunday morning breakfast.
Gomez said Latinos are making great strides. For example, Latinos appear on television and radio more than they used to, and are getting more involved in their own businesses, he said, noting "They're really getting up there."
It’s clear that family and work are the most important aspects of life to him.
"I've been lucky that I always worked, was a good plasterer and able to help raise my kids," Gomez said. "I've had a good life ... have helped my kids and am even helping them now."
Mr. Gomez was interviewed in San Diego, California, on June 30, 2000, by Rene Zambrano.