Seferino Nino Gonzales

World War II

Military Branch: 
Air Forces

Date of Birth: 
September 26, 1927

Place of Birth: 


Interviewed By: 
Raquel Garza

Date of Interview: 
May 11, 2010

Place of Interview: 


By Diana Pena

Sitting in front of a disassembled cuckoo clock, Seferino Nino Gonzales’ demeanor gave little hint that he was a veteran of at least two wars, which he described as a “very pleasant experience.”

At the time of his interview, Gonzales worked on clocks in his own shop in Austin, Texas. But for 27 years he traveled the world, thanks to his service in the U.S. Air Force.

“My Dad did some special assignments,” his son, Enrique, who was born in Bolivia, said in a separate phone interview in 2013. “He worked with the embassy in Bolivia and in Santo Domingo, with the [government] of the Dominican Republic … From that he had two sons. One was born in the [Dominican Republic,] and one in Bolivia.”

Gonzales was born to a humble family in Karnes City, east of San Antonio. He did not start school there until he was 10 years old, because he had to help the family on the farm. By the time he was 13, he had to drop out of school to help support his family, and then the family moved to McAllen, Texas.

Gonzales’ family worked in sharecropping; they also sold eggs from the chickens they raised. Even for children whose families could afford school, education was unequal.

During the 1930s, many Texas schools were segregated. Latino students were categorized as “other white.” The U.S. Supreme Court, in the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson case, upheld state-imposed racial segregation as long as accommodations were equal. The students were separated, but the resources were rarely equal. The separate but equal doctrine remained in effect until the 1954 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in the Brown v. Board of Education case rejected it and put an end to state-sanctioned racial separation.

Gonzales, who was born Sept. 26, 1927, passed away in June 2012, when he was 84. He grew up with two brothers, Juan and Guadalupe Gonzalez, and a sister, Eufemia. She survived him.

Gonzales said that, when they were growing up, there were “two schools that were very far apart, but we didn’t think about it because that was the standard . . . the only time we would be integrated was at the high school level, but we didn’t think about that because we figured we would not go to high school.” Few Latinos that he knew went to high school.

“Our primary concern was survival,” he said during his interview. While talking about his early days, he mentioned several times how he couldn’t wait to be a soldier in part because it was the best way he could earn a living and help his family financially.

But his military service gave him more than a regular salary. Because Uncle Sam kept sending his checks to him with his last name spelled Gonzales, he finally gave up and changed the way he spelled his name from Gonzalez to Gonzales.

However, he also got the chance at an education and experienced equal treatment.

He said that, as the soldiers returned from World War II, changes began to occur. More Latino veterans could go to college because the GI bill helped pay some of the costs. Gonzales explained that in the military, specifically the mess hall where soldiers ate together, “they could get along together; it made no difference if we tried.”

His military experience and the access to higher education, he recalled, led him to the realization that while he and so many others were fighting for liberty and equality, those were not always well-received at home in the United States.

This inequality helped unite veterans and others and led to the creation of organizations, such as the American GI Forum, a civil rights organization founded in 1949. Its motto is “Education is Our Freedom and Freedom Should be Everybody’s Business.”

Gonzales trained as an apprentice clock maker while stationed in Germany and reached the rank of master sergeant. Although he was drafted into the Army during World War II, he later transferred to the Air Force, where he became a navigator and radio operator. He did not serve in Vietnam, according to family members, but his wife recalled his making flights to bring home the dead and wounded from the Vietnam War.

In 1949, he married Eulalia Valdez Gonzales, who survives him, and they had four sons.

Once he returned to civilian life, he was able to earn a Bachelor of Arts degree in Industrial Arts from Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University) in San Marcos, Texas.

“At one time, he was fluent in four languages: German, Japanese, Spanish, English,” Enrique Gonzales recalled. “This was from the work he did in Germany and Japan.”Eventually, he set up his own clock shop, where the interview took place.

“His specialty was repairing cuckoo clocks,” Enrique Gonzales added. “He did that for 30 years. Nino’s Clock Service. When he passed away last year, I took it over. So it’s continuing on with his son running the business.”

(Mr. Gonzales was interviewed in Austin, Texas, by Raquel Garza on May 11, 2010. Paepin Goff did additional reporting.)