By Ashley Hitson
Without prior understanding of the war or its impact on the world, young Herminia Cadena watched her brother leave home to join the Marines.
"I didn't recognize the importance [of the war] until my brother went in," said Cadena, who was only 9 at the time, unfamiliar with the events that were changing the world.
She entered the world in the Hill Country southeast of San Antonio, but her birth remained unregistered throughout her childhood. She received her official birth certificate after marriage to get a passport for a trip outside the United States.
While in Texas, Cadena and her siblings attended a segregated school, where students were allowed to speak only English on the playground. Still, many of the children communicated in Spanish. As punishment for breaking the rule, violators were relegated to sit by a fence post, an area known as a breeding place for snakes and other pests, she recalls.
Economic troubles frequently plagued the family, of which the patriarch worked as a sharecropper. They migrated to Saginaw, Mich., in search of better economic opportunities and wages. Cadena's biggest dream was to eventually have beds for each person in her house, a luxury unfamiliar to her.
Despite their poverty, her parents were known for their generosity, Cadena says. Her mother fed homeless people and expectant mothers frequently used the few beds owned by the family to prepare for birth, prompting Cadena and her siblings to spend many nights on the floor. The door was always open for those who needed assistance, she recalls.
World War II left Cadena with memories of rationed food, a lack of workers for harvest and a missing brother. Because of its large size, her family, unlike many of those times, was sometimes able to qualify for ration stamps to purchase food.
Work in the fields was made easier for the children during the war, as Cadena and her siblings had the new option of pretending the biggest weeds were Nazi or Japanese soldiers. She says she still conjures visions of German prisoners of war, held in the fields around where she and her siblings were put to work. She remembers their imagined uniformity of height, light hair and eyes reflecting in the sun.
Cadena’s future husband's uncle, Eluterio Estrada, would later return from being an actual prisoner of war, coming home a gaunt figure with some of his teeth missing.
Cadena learned about the war in Mercedes, Texas, when uniformed visitors came to the door. At the time, the family was celebrating the Christmas holidays and a homecoming. The visitors were air wardens directing the family to close all of the blinds and keep the lights off. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor earlier that day and, to the government, the mainland was vulnerable. Though unsure of what had happened in Hawaii, Cadena was beginning to wake up to the events around her.
Other members of her family threw themselves into the war effort: Her sister worked in a firearms plant and her father left the fields to labor in one of the many foundries.
A tiny flag on the family's window symbolized a brother's participation in the war. He was scheduled to leave with the first drive to Guadalcanal, a battle Cadena described as "a slaughter." In one letter sent home, he said he believed his mother was praying often for him, because he wasn’t sent in during the casualty-ridden first wave of troops at Guadalcanal. Toward the war's end, his duties switched to cleanup, searching for Japanese soldiers hiding in caves and armed with a flamethrower.
Cadena’s brother returned after the war ended, his only noticeable change being a difficulty speaking and understanding Spanish after his immersion in an English-speaking unit. Proud of her brother's involvement in the conflict, Cadena brought him to school with her to talk to her sixth-grade class in a type of show-and-tell session. He never talked about his experiences while in the war, but kept the horrors tucked away into the corners of his mind. She remembers only two instances he willingly talked about his past involvement, both times when his inhibitions were suspended by alcohol.
As the war wound down, factories returned to their original production goals; the country began its transformation back to peacetime. Later in Michigan, Cadena became the first in her family to receive a high school diploma. At the Anglo-dominant schools, people called her the easier-to-pronounce nickname of Minnie throughout her childhood, a name she hated.
The teacher said it was too hard to pronounce Herminia, Cadena says.
One time, she filled out a form for a certificate, writing out her family-given name to ensure Herminia appeared on it.
Her sister, returning from service in the U.S. Air Force, announced to the family that she was going to marry a "gringo." The news upset Cadena, who thought cross-cultural marriages improper. A commonly held belief at the time was that the Mexicanos were at a lower class level, and she concedes she bought into this notion. A trusted priest advised her it was time to start "mixing the races" and there wasn’t any reason people should be segregated. And at that point, her mind began to open to the possibilities of equal opportunity.
At 21, Cadena got married, to a man on whom she first laid eyes at a baseball game. The two eventually would have six children together. During this time, the Chicano movement was gaining momentum and she was an active participant, picketing, writing letters, fasting on Thanksgiving Day and even taking her children on civil rights marches. She says she regrets not having participated more in the civil rights movement, but her young children required her care.
Although Cadena believes the relationship between Anglos and Latinos has greatly improved, she thinks Latinos should continue to press for more opportunity. That belief is strengthened by haunting memories of the word "nigger," hurled at both Latinos and blacks, she recalls.
The more tolerant attitudes of today are reflected in her own family, Cadena says. For example, her son-in-laws aren’t Latino, "but embrace all things Mexican," she said with pride.
The economic status of Latinos in America has also greatly improved, Cadena says.
"We went from living in houses with dirt floors, no indoor facilities of any kind, to our children having $250,000 homes … from my parents never going to school to [our children] having college degrees," Cadena said.
Her advice to younger generations of Latinos:
"Educate yourselves. It can be so much more. Have faith in self, others and God."
Mrs. Cadena was interviewed in Austin, Texas, on June 25, 2002, by Erika Martinez.