From a humble beginning on the west side of San Antonio, Pedro Ortiz’s life roles included those of migrant worker, soldier, husband, father, civil service worker and, ultimately, accomplished woodworker, gardener and folk artist. Pedro Ortiz was always on the move and working with his hands. A home full of creative hand-built objects and a colorful garden perennially free of leaves and weeds are proof that after a life of hard work, this San Antonio native kept his hands and his mind busy.
Ortiz was born Aug. 24, 1921, to Felix and Maria Valdez Ortiz, the third of eight children. Growing up, he attended schools on the west side of San Antonio. He went to Hillcrest and Barkley-Ruiz elementary schools. At age 10, he began to shine shoes at Downtown Market Square and Houston Street near the Alamo to help the family.
He attended Lanier High School but like so many “older brothers” during the Depression, he had to drop out of school to help support his family.
Every fall, the family of 10 traveled to eastern Michigan in a refurbished ambulance car to pick cotton, pecans, and sugar beets in the fields. The entire family took part, even when weather conditions were cruel.
Ortiz remembers one very cold and windy day when the family was working in the fields. His little sister, Elvira, was shivering and crying while working. He could see she was so cold and Ortiz told her to go wait in the house the family was staying in on the farm. “My father came to me and asked ‘Where is Elvira?’ I told him, ‘I told Elvira to go home. She was crying because she was cold.'” His father was angry and disciplined Ortiz for making the decision to send her home. Everyone had to work.
Working in the severe Michigan weather prepared Ortiz for the harsh conditions he later faced while training to serve in the U.S. Army during World War II. He was drafted while working in Michigan. He went home to San Antonio for induction into the Army on Dec. 30, 1942, at Fort Sam Houston then on to basic training at Camp Perry, in Ohio.
While the rest of his group departed for Kentucky for deployment overseas, Ortiz was sent to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he was promoted to the rank of corporal and was made a trainer with the Headquarters Company, 18th Armored Infantry Battalion. He was the only soldier of Mexican descent selected for that duty.
Ortiz spent a year and a half at Fort Smith, teaching and training recruits how to operate rifles and “half-track cars,” also known as armored vehicles during WWII. The group was then sent to fight in the European Theater.
Ortiz and his unit sailed from New York to the port of Cherbourg, in France, where they headed right into the heat of battle. Ortiz was part of the 16th Armored Division, assigned to the 3rd Army, under the command of Gen. George S. Patton. He remembers seeing soldiers drown because the boat ramps were lowered too soon and the water was too deep for the soldiers and the heavy packs they were carrying.
When the unit arrived in France, the war was almost over. Ortiz said, “When we got there, there were few Germans. They had already been killed or had escaped, but we went around and found they had caves and a good view of who’s coming in the water. But I was lucky that when we went in, we got in late.”
His unit crossed into Czechoslovakia, where he learned the war was over, and the Germans had retreated. He was assigned as an MP (military police) responsible for rounding up German soldiers for their return to Germany. Ortiz said, “The Germans quit and threw down their guns. The highways and roads were full of guns.” He recalls seeing piles and piles of German guns and weapons on the side of the roads.
He was assigned as an MP on a train that was to take Germans back home. He said he had a gun but never worried about using it because the Germans wanted to go home. They wanted the war to end, too. When they arrived at the German border, thousands of Germans greeted the soldiers.
Ortiz returned home safe and unharmed on March 28, 1946. He received numerous medals and decorations during his service including Good Conduct Medal, American Theater Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern (EAME) Campaign Ribbon with a Bronze Star, one Service Stripe, and two Overseas Bars.
Back in San Antonio, Ortiz returned to civilian life. He became a freight driver, driving a truck between his hometown, Dallas and Houston. He met Anita Mercado, who became his wife and who encouraged him to resume his education and earn a GED. Ortiz always regretted that he had not graduated with his high school class. Education was very important to him and his wife.
They bought a small lot on the west side of San Antonio near Woodlawn Lake after they were married, and he built their home on weekends and days off. The couple had three daughters: Thelma, Esther and Patricia. He was proud that all three children and his wife graduated from college.
After years as a driver for several companies, Ortiz found himself once again working at a military base. This time, though, it was as a sheet metal worker at Kelly Air Force Base, in San Antonio. He said his veteran status helped him get the job, and he retired as a project group leader. He received many commendations for excellent workmanship, and in 1969 he and his group went to Colorado Springs to receive an Air Force Logistics Command Gold Award of Excellence in the Zero Defects Program. He was a civil service worker until his retirement in 1985 at the age of 64.
Ortiz remained active. He and his wife, Anita, traveled in their RV to visit their daughters and grandchildren and to see national parks throughout the United States. When at home, he built furniture, crafted folk art, and worked on one of his masterpieces: the house that he built and took care of for decades.
When asked what he enjoyed most, Ortiz had one simple answer: “Working around the house.”
Ortiz passed away at his home in San Antonio on Jan. 12, 2018, at the age of 96.