By Christina Tran
When he became vice chairman of Houston’s Metropolitan Transit Authority in 1990, Alfonso Matta would recall his closest experience with a railcar, when he was a 14-year-old on a bike.
“The railcar – we had rail then – it turned on Houston Avenue, and I came and bumped up into it, and I fell onto there and hit something, and it stopped the streetcar, and the streetcar driver was like what are you doing there, and get off,” Matta said. “It was electric. I thought the wheels were gonna get me.”
Matta wouldn’t come close to death again until his stint as a truck driver with the 3576 QM Truck Co. (Heavy) in the European Theater during World War II.
“They asked me what I could do. I could drive. OK, they put me in a truck company,” he said. “It was a very nice job. I liked it very much.”
Matta recalls going from New York to England before being sent to France and later Germany.
“[England] was a nice country. I enjoyed it, the stay there,” he said. “They were very nice to us, [but] we didn’t stay there too long. Pretty soon they took us off into Normandy, and I remember well driving off the boat and the water to the beach. Oh boy, during the Normandy invasion. There were planes flying, bombs, everything, oh boy. There was a lot of action. Actually, after the beach landing in the water, some of the guys got killed there. I was really lucky.”
Coming out unscathed, luck was apparently on Matta’s side the entire war.
“I got shook up a lot of times on the truck, off the road or whatever. I still got a bump on the back of my head here,” he said. “Not shot at, just bumped, bumped. Crashed. But I didn’t get shot at. I didn’t get that close. Just close enough to get a view of the bullets come out of the way and strays. But not real close.”
The closest Matta came to the German soldiers was when he mistook one for being Latino.
“He looked Hispanic to me. We used to carry prisoñeros [prisoners] back and forth. … “That was the closest I got to one of those guys. I didn’t get too close to the Germans other than firing from a distance, I guess. And shells firing overseas, overhead,” recalled Matta, adding that his ears still buzz from the shelling.
Matta was born in Monterrey, Mexico, in 1920 to José de la Rosa Matta, an electrical engineer, and María del Refugio Arispe Garza, a teacher and musician. He had three brothers and five sisters. The family moved to Houston in 1926, for, among other things, “better job opportunities,” he wrote after his interview.
In 1942, he was drafted into the Army, even though he wasn’t a U.S. citizen. He was naturalized in New York before heading to combat in Europe.
Mostly, Matta tries to remember the good experiences from his time in the service. His father, who played the violin and died when Matta was 9, influenced him in learning the violin, accordion, guitar and piano; Matta brought that knowledge with him to Europe during the war.
“I kept the guitar with me all the time when I was in the service,” he said. “There was this guy from Minnesota who played harmonica, and we played all the time. We had a great time.”
All the same, Matta was as thrilled as everyone else when the war drew to a close.
“I was real happy to get out, I tell ya.’ Real happy,” he said. “I didn’t complain about anything. I was real happy to get back home. It was such an experience. I corresponded with my wife while I was in the service, and I wanted to get married as soon as I got back, and we did.”
He was discharged in December of 1945 at the rank of Technician Fifth Class, earning in proper order a Good Conduct Medal; European, African and Middle Eastern Campaign Medal with three bronze campaign stars; and WWII Victory Medal.
In 1946, he married Mary Ruth Medellín. He’d return to the printing job he had had since he first started working at Texan Printing Company as a teenage dropout in Houston.
“I passed [it] on my way home from school, and I saw these people working in there, and I wanted to go in there, and I got a job and became a press printer,” he said. “I’ve loved printing.”
The long hard hours of the printing trade would be a constant in Matta’s life. He’d later become the owner of Al’s Print Shop, having worked previously at only two other printing companies: Jackson C. Hinds and Texan Printing. His consistency didn’t go unnoticed, Mary reminds him.
“Remember when we bought this house,” she said. “The lady who was filling our papers said, ‘You know, I have never seen a record like this, with just two jobs.’ Usually when they’re buying a home, they usually have a big long list of places they worked.”
Though politics and political activism would become a big part of his later life, Matta says he didn’t experience severe discrimination in either his work or during his time in the Army.
“When I went to work, I was treated like anybody else,” he said. “When I was in the service, I was just another guy. … I was in an outfit with people from all over the country – all different states.”
Mary, however, remembers many occasions Latinos faced discrimination when she was growing up, and reminds her husband of what they faced when they were trying to buy their first house.
“The man talked to us and said he couldn’t sell it to us because we’re Mexicanos,” she said. “We wrote a letter to the paper saying, you know, not to think that because you were a war veteran, you could get into any house, because you couldn’t.”
Matta was more open later about the topic of discrimination:
“There is no doubt I experienced discrimination. I am an 88 year old man and I have seen it all. And no matter how bad people think they have it today, previous generations had it much, much worse,” he wrote long after his interview.
Getting involved with civic organizations, with the initial primary goal of registering Latinos to vote, is how he chose to deal with injustice, Matta says:
“I felt by working together in a group, united in common goals, we would have a better chance at being successful in fighting for better rights for our Mexican-American community,” he wrote.
His list of achievements and involvement is long and impressive: He was a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the G.I. Forum, he served on the Board of Directors and as treasurer for SER-Jobs for Progress, he was one of the founding members of the Harris County Political Association of Spanish-Speaking Organizations (PASO), he went to the 1976 Democratic National Convention as a delegate and he became an election judge for Harris County’s Precinct 75.
“I enjoyed life later, much later, when I became involved in politics,” Matta said. “I love politics.”
He elaborated in writing that he got politically involved “to be a good citizen and improve our living conditions. I fought a war for this country and felt we at home should be given equal opportunity to succeed as well. I wanted to work to better our community and the future of our country.”
With his appointment to the Metropolitan Transit Authority Board in 1984, he’d return to Europe, this time to survey its modes of public transportation and use those experiences to push for a railway system in Houston. In 1989, he was the only board member to oppose then-Mayor Bob Lanier’s attempts to kill the city’s rail plans.
“When the mayor became chairman for Metro, he had no use for it. He killed it,” Matta said. “But thank God they got it back. It’s still going, and it’s going to continue.”
His eight consecutive years of work on the board earned him a dedication and plaque at the Heights Transit Center, in a part of the city in which he raised his family.
Although he’s proud of his own achievements, he boasted instead about his son, who is an attorney, and his granddaughter, who graduated from both Harvard and Stanford Law School. Though he dropped out of school as a teenager, later earning his GED, Matta and Mary stressed the importance of education to their four children and seven grandchildren.
“My advice is to get educated. By all means, go to school, and go as far as you can,” he said. “Work hard to become an educated person, because that’s what it takes – an education. And that’s what my kids [have] done, and I’m so proud of them. I’m real proud of them.”
Although Matta’s career in the Army consisted of driving, his wife and children won’t let him drive anymore.
“I had a car and gave it to our daughter,” Mary said. “If he wants anything, she can come and take him. I’m afraid he’d run over somebody.”
Now that Matta is retired, he doesn’t care to go out much anyway.
“I just watch TV,” said Matta, who noted in writing that he particularly liked CNN and CSPAN, and that he was enjoying the 2008 presidential race and planned to support and vote for the Democratic nominee.
“Voting is very important. It is a right that we have that we must exercise,” Matta wrote. “Freedom and the right to vote are reasons why I fought in WWII. We need to cherish and exercise both.”
Mr. Matta was interviewed in Houston, Texas, on April 1, 2004, by Paul R. Zepeda and Ernest Eguia.