By Celina Moreno
World War II veteran Epigmenio Caraveo valiantly served his country as a paratrooper in the legendary 101st Airborne Division, overcoming the sting of discrimination and poverty of his youth.
As a young boy growing up in the West Texas town of Van Horn -- near his birthplace of Candelaria -- Caraveo labored for a few nickels a day, chopping cotton at a nearby farm. At age 11, he lived "a cowboy life," branding cattle and greasing the windmills for a ranch in Van Horn, 120 miles from El Paso.
Caraveo gave his earnings to his adoptive mother, Teresa Chacon, who raised him after his parents died in 1922 when he was 2. He had an older brother, Santana Caraveo, whom he didn’t meet until he was 17 years old, and who lived in Mexico until his death.
Caraveo said even though Van Horn's population consisted of a balanced mix of Anglos and Latinos, the town had segregated schools. As a student who attended school up to the fifth grade, Caraveo remembers being teased because of his poverty. He was the only child without shoes, so when other kids saw him approaching, they'd say, "Here comes the trampita [tramp]."
"When you don't have parents, you suffer, because no one is going to take care of you," he said. "I'm 82 years old, and I still wish I had a mother or a father. I'm happy for the ones that got them. I hope they take care of them, because you need your parents."
During the Great Depression, Caraveo's adoptive family accepted government relief -- eggs, rice, beans and butter -- from the local courthouse. Caraveo expressed delighted with former President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal initiative, which provided jobs and aid to a country reeling from unprecedented financial crisis.
"FDR opened up jobs for people, and the country started picking up real beautiful," he said.
Roosevelt also formed the Civilian Conservation Corps, which provided jobs to the unemployed. At age 20, Caraveo joined the corps, where he earned $30 per month and learned how to march as well as raise and lower the U.S. flag.
Caraveo was drafted at age 21 into the U.S. Army Air Corps on Dec. 10, 1941 -- the day the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. First stationed at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, he later was transferred to protect the Delaware River from a potential Japanese attack. In 1943, he left for North Africa to join British, French and other American troops in fighting Germany's African Corps.
In 1944, he said he "got crazy" and volunteered for a paratrooper's unit after seeing a recruitment notice on a bulletin board. Graduating from the 90-day training program in the Italian island of Sardinia is one of his most cherished life accomplishments. On graduation day, the unit displayed its jumps for "the big shots" -- General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Gen. Omar Bradley and British Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery.
"That's a tough outfit," he said. "You're a different kind of fighter altogether. You die like any soldier, but you train to be a little tougher than the rest."
As a paratrooper in the 101st Division's 327th Glider Infantry, Caraveo served in Belgium's Battle of the Bulge, where he suffered leg and head wounds. He was among 120 soldiers from Company F who fought in that legendary battle.
After the battle, Belgium deemed Caraveo and his comrades heroes; schoolchildren even asked to take pictures with them. As a result, Belgium officials awarded Caraveo, who was one of only seven survivors in the division's F Company, a medal for bravery. He added the honor to his collection, which included a Bronze Star, a combat star and a Purple Heart.
Caraveo jumped into Normandy, France, on D-Day as part of his airborne duties, fighting until the capture of Saint-Lo on July 15.
After the war, Caraveo was faced with another harsh reality -- economic hardship in his hometown.
"When we came back to our country, we didn't know which way to go. There were no jobs," he said. "I came home, but I didn't have a home."
Caraveo returned to find that Van Horn had an abundance of elderly males, but a shortage of young men. To his surprise, his former girlfriend had married a man several years his senior -- a "senior citizen," in Caraveo's words.
In 1946, the 26-year-old Caraveo married Lilia Ramirez, a 15-year-old waitress from Sierra Blanca, Texas. The couple has been married for 55 years.
But times were still tough. He used the little money he had to buy his bride a wedding dress and a temporary home -- a yellow two-door 1937 Ford sedan, from which he removed the back seats to make a bed for him and his wife.
"She loved to read 'funny books,' so I took the tail light from the back and put it inside so she could read," he said.
After a month, Caraveo took advantage of the GI Bill to help finance a move to an apartment and to attend El Paso Tech to take body shop for 18 months. Unsatisfied as a mechanic, he persuaded a former paratrooper in the war to hire him as a truck driver -- a career from which he would retire 30 years later.
In 1958, Caraveo and his wife bought a home in El Paso, where they raised three children: Leo, Isabel and Cynthia. He noted his children attended college, and each has succeeded in business.
Discrimination was another hardship Caraveo faced. One incident at a San Angelo restaurant rings clear in his memory. He and his wife noticed their waitress continuously passing up their table, prompting Caraveo to confront the manager.
"The boss told us, 'I haven't served Mexicans in this restaurant, and I'm not going to start with you two, so get out,'" Caraveo said. "The whites didn't treat us right . . . I'll never forget that."
Caraveo said although he faced discrimination, he’s gratified that society has progressed during his children's generation.
"We didn't have any Mexicans as bosses. Most were whites, and Texas was hard for Latinos to be involved in politics. Now, one is even running for governor," he said, referring to gubernatorial candidate Tony Sanchez. "Things have changed a lot."
Mr. Caraveo was interviewed in El Paso, Texas, on February 2, 2002, by Celina Moreno.