Friday, February 2, 2018

Bernardino Ortega: The Sad and Tragic Life of An American Dreamer

Bernardino Ortega
By Roy Ortega

Long before the issue of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) became a common part of the American dialogue, one part of my family was dealing with the same worries and fears that many young Mexican immigrants who were brought into this country as children are dealing with today.

My second cousin Bernardino "Bernie" Ortega was brought to the United States in the summer of 1959 by his parents Eustolio and Victoria Ortega. Eustolio was my father's first cousin and had made his way to Ciudad Juarez to escape the dreariness and hopelessness of poverty in Southwestern Mexico. Eustolio and Victoria had dreams of starting a new life in Texas for themselves and little six-year old Bernardino.

Upon arriving in Juarez across the Rio Grande from El Paso, Texas, Eustolio promptly contacted my father Salvador in San Antonio to ask for his assistance in securing the proper immigration documents. In the late 1950s, the immigration process seemed far less burdensome than it is today and the paperwork was often processed rather quickly. As Eustolio's American sponsor, my father agreed to help him by guaranteeing employment and a permanent residence in the U.S.

Eustolio Ortega in Ciudad
Juarez Circa 1958
My father loaded our family into our Ford station wagon and drove 600 miles to El Paso where we met Eustolio, Victoria and Bernie at the international bridge. For little Bernie, it was the beginning of a long and varied life in America that sadly ended not in ultimate success and happiness, but in sadness, failure and tragedy.

Life in America

From the beginning, life in San Antonio for Eustolio, Victoria and Bernie was not easy. My father arranged for Eustolio to work as a laborer on construction sites around San Antonio. The work was brutal and difficult. Victoria began work almost immediately as a domestic worker. Living in a small rented house on the south side of San Antonio, the family seemed happy and eager to build a life together full of opportunity and promise.

But for Eustolio, the American dream seemed to fall way short of his expectations. Although he wanted desperately to succeed, he bitterly complained that his employers were often abusive and discriminatory toward him. He lamented to my father that his meager pay and disrespectful treatment by his supervisors were not worth the effort.

One day, he announced he would quit his job and return to Mexico. "Es mejor vivir en Mexico con respeto y dignidad que vivir en America como perro." "It's better to live in Mexico with respect and dignity than to be treated like a dog in America," he said.

Eustolio made his decision. But Victoria made it clear she was not on board. Victoria recognized that little Bernie's future was best assured by staying in America. The couple fought bitterly over whether to go back to Mexico but Victoria held her ground. Frustrated and angry, Eustolio raced back to Mexico alone.

Victoria Ortega
Abandoned and hurt, Victoria felt devastated. My mother Rebecca convinced my father to take Victoria and little Bernie into our home. Bernie quickly blended into our family of four kids.

For all practical purposes, Bernie was a bonafide member of our family. My parents enrolled him with us at Rayburn Elementary School. In Mrs. Steigal's second-grade class, Bernie and I both received certificates for being the best spellers. We all played together, studied together and traveled to the beach at Corpus Christi together. I always considered Bernie as my "brother from another mother." 

Several years passed. One day, word arrived that Eustolio had died while living alone in Ciudad Juarez. Family members said he had found work as a street musician but had lived such a lonely existence that he literally drank himself to death.

The Mid-Years

For Bernie, life continued full of hope and optimism for the future as he entered high school. As a brilliant, straight-A student, Bernie became popular at Harlandale High School in South San Antonio. He excelled in every subject including English, Science and student politics.

By the time he graduated in 1971, Bernie was definitely on a sharp trajectory upward. There was no doubt he was headed toward great things in his life. My mom organized a wonderful high school graduation party for both Bernie and me where we were honored by our entire family. I was beaming with pride not just for my own high school achievements, but also for Bernie who had managed to overcome so many obstacles in his young life.

Bernie as my Best Man during my wedding to Jo Anne
November 24, 1979
Our often-friendly academic competitions had paid off and we were both looking forward to continuing our educations at nearby colleges. The crowning achievement for Bernie's school career was a scholarship offer to attend St. Mary's University. My mother was just as proud of him as she was of me and all of my siblings.

At St. Mary's, Bernie made a name for himself engaging in various student activities in conjunction with his area of study, Political Science. He participated in spirited political debates and was credited for offering intelligent, reasoned and logical points of view to just about every political point he argued. I admired Bernie for his articulate and well-informed conversational ability. I was convinced Bernie was headed for greatness because he made it known to me that he aspired to be an attorney someday. I thought he was well-positioned in his life to become an excellent lawyer. I could not be any happier for my cousin.

Signs of Immigration Trouble Emerge

Short of college graduation in 1975, the first signs of immigration trouble began to appear in Bernie's life. The truth was that his immigration status was never clarified. His mother Victoria was actually an American citizen by birth, but Bernie's status was never established. Victoria had mistakenly thought that her American citizenship would automatically extend to her son. It did not.

Without an America birth certificate to prove his legal standing, Bernie was hard-pressed to prove he belonged in the U.S. Undeterred, he quickly embarked on what he thought would be a fairly uncomplicated process. An immigration attorney he hired assured him his application for citizenship would be expedited by virtue of his mom's citizenship. But that too was wrong. In order for the documentation to be filed properly, Bernie was informed he would be required to go back to Mexico and apply through the proper channels. That's a process that would have taken several years to accomplish.

Needless to say, Bernie was crushed to learn that in the eyes of the federal government, he was deemed to be an undocumented immigrant subject to deportation at any time. Bernie confided in me at the time that he was afraid and worried.

Things became even more unsettled when he learned that without a resolution of his immigration status and without an American birth certificate, there was no way he could further his ambitions.

A Career in Insurance Appraisal 

Conscious of his illegal status, Bernie sought employment anywhere he could find it. He lucked out when he was hired as an independent insurance appraiser for a firm in San Antonio. Assuming he was an American citizen, the company's human resource office never asked him about his immigration status.

For almost 20 years, Bernie enjoyed a successful career as an insurance expert performing insurance appraisals for several firms in both San Antonio and Houston. His salary was more than he ever dreamed of and he lived, loved, worked and played as if nothing was amiss. He even bought a car and a home in Northeast San Antonio. The house was a fixer-upper for which he paid cash and which he lovingly restored over a period of several years.

By all appearances, Bernie lived the American dream. But in reality, he lived in a state of immigration limbo not knowing what turn his life would ultimately take. He often expressed fears of being deported to a country he knew little about and where his security, hopes and dreams would certainly go to die.

Hope For Resolution

By the 1980s, immigration issues in the U.S. had become a major political fight. A huge
Ronald Reagan
conservative backlash had swept President Ronald Reagan into office and many Americans began urging the government to deport millions of undocumented immigrants. Needless to say, Bernie became very worried that his time in the U.S. was coming to an end.

But a sudden burst of hope appeared when Reagan announced that he would grant amnesty to millions of undocumented immigrants already in the country. Again, Bernie made an attempt to establish his American citizenship. He hired an immigration attorney and restarted the process for full legalization. For Bernie, this was the gift he was hoping for. He thought with absolute certainty that he was finally headed down the path toward full citizenship only to see his dreams dashed once more.

Bitter Disappointment

A key provision in Bernie's formal application for citizenship was a critical signature from his mother Victoria. For reasons that to this day elude us, Victoria declined to sign the documents needed to push the process forward. Numerous times, Bernie begged and pleaded with his mother to help him but she refused to sign.

No one knows why Victoria betrayed her own son this way. I have often speculated that perhaps she mistakenly thought her own immigration status would be affected negatively if she signed. Sadly, the mystery has never been solved and attempts to speak with Victoria about her decision have always failed.

Without Victoria's signature, the process stalled. The deadline to apply for amnesty passed and all hope for a final resolution faded. Bernie was devastated. Once more he was left with little or no hope of ever becoming an American citizen.

Living in Hopelessness and Despair

Bernie continued to live and work under the constant threat of deportation. He was heavily burdened by a lack of opportunities due to his illegal immigration status. His inability to fully function in his community weighed heavily on him. With no proof of U.S. citizenship and no credit rating, there was little more he could achieve. It became clear that his inability to accomplish anything for himself would continue to limit his dreams.

One day, he learned that his work as an insurance appraiser was over. The firms for which he worked may have learned of his unsolved immigration status and he suddenly found himself unemployed.

Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, Bernie barely survived. He worked variously doing odd jobs and at one time worked as a clerk at a convenience store. But again, his questionable immigration status led to unemployment.

Finally the worst thing that can befall any human being happened. Due to his inability to pay his property taxes, he lost his home and he became homeless. Living in his car, his existence turned to abject misery and hopelessness.

Bernie's Self-imposed Isolation 

Sadly, our family was unaware of the desperation that had entered into Bernie's life. Many of us assumed he was doing fine. But without a telephone, cell phone, internet account or even a physical address, my family had no way of communicating with Bernie.

At one point, I contacted my sister Etna in San Antonio and asked her to make a visit to his last known address. We couldn't find Bernie and we feared the worst.

For weeks, we searched for Bernie. We scoured his old haunts. We called police departments,  hospitals - even morgues - from San Antonio to Houston, all to no avail. I even contacted the U.S. Border Patrol to find out if perhaps he might have been deported.

I concluded that Bernie did not want to be contacted by family members, ashamed of how far he had fallen in life. Throughout this horrible ordeal, his pride stood strong and not once did he ask anyone in our family for help. I understood the sentiment but I wanted desperately to talk to him and offer my help.

Finally, after several months, we learned from my cousin Ruben Martinez that Bernie had been living with a friend in self-imposed isolation somewhere in San Antonio. His friend had taken pity on him and offered him a bedroom in her house. But Bernie's life had not improved.

An End To A Life Once Filled With Promise

Tragically, Bernie died penniless and homeless on
May 1, 2015. He was buried at a pauper's cemetery near
Von Ormy, Texas.
At the age of 62, Bernie's health began to deteriorate. Years of living with constant worry, concern and fear of deportation had begun to take its toll. He avoided doctor visits and hospitals out of fear of being found out and deported. Without an ability to pay for health care, his health suffered tremendously.

On the afternoon of May 2, 2015, I received a heart-wrenching phone call from Etna. Between sobs, she informed me that Bernie had passed away the previous night at the home of his friend. We later learned that a bad tooth infection had spread to his heart and killed him.

For most of us, serious health issues are normally resolved through access to proper health care. But for someone like Bernie who was forced to live in the shadows of society, there is no protection from the threat of even the most curable of health conditions.

It was the end of a life that was once filled with endless hope and optimism.

I was devastated and cried all afternoon.

How Our Country Failed Bernie

After nearly three years, I still cannot fathom Bernie's unnecessary and untimely death. Beyond that, I am angry that he was systematically deprived of the happiness and security he richly deserved.

Cousin Bernie was a product of the best of what America had to offer. He made all of the right decisions for himself and his family. He educated himself and he worked hard. He paid his taxes and he became a productive, contributing member of our community. He was honest and kind and never committed a single crime in his life. He was an incredibly smart and compassionate man. Those of us who knew and loved him are better human beings for having known his spirit.

But our country failed him. In my heart, I know that our government has it in its power to correct a monumental failing in the way it treats good people. Immigrant children who were brought into this country through no decision of their own should be granted full citizenship if they exhibit good character and contribute positively to the fabric of our nation. To me, it is what has always made this country great.

Just as the Dreamers of today are fighting for the right to pursue happy, productive lives filled with hope, liberty and a chance to help make the world a better place, Bernie tried desperately to overcome the political limitations that were so arbitrarily and so cruelly placed upon him. He tried as hard as he could to make things better for himself and everyone around him. Bernie was as much an American as those of us who were born in this country. The fact that he was born on the other side of an artificial political line on a map means nothing.

Bernie was a good man and he deserved much better.

Roy Ortega is a retired journalist and media specialist living in El Paso, Texas. You may reach him at


Thursday, September 17, 2015

Is There A Direct Link Between The Ortega Family and the Jewish Faith?

By Roy Ortega

Several years ago, I raised a question about my heritage that caused a major stir among my siblings and paternal cousins.

Are we Jewish?

Without a doubt, the question shocked a few family members and probably caused them to question my sanity. As far as everyone knew, the Ortega family history has always been deeply rooted in the Christian faith.

As children, my father Salvador and my mother Rebecca made sure my siblings and I were thoroughly indoctrinated into Catholicism. My older sister Etna, my little brother Ruben and I all began our early schooling at St. Joseph's Catholic School in Southwest San Antonio, Texas. My dad, who was as devout as any Catholic parent, and my mother, although raised as a Methodist Christian,  insisted we receive all of the basic sacraments afforded us by our faith.

But as I grew into adulthood, I began to feel a distinct tug in my soul that told me something about my religion didn't quite fit right. I began taking an active interest in my family's history and was surprised to learn some interesting facts that ultimately confirmed some of my suspicions, at least on the periphery of things.

Froilán Ortega

The basic facts about my father's recent family history were well known to us. We were aware that Ortega family ancestors inhabited an area of Southwestern Mexico near the small "ejidos" of La Cienega and Jalpa in the state of Jalisco near the border with Zacatecas, but very little is known about the family members who lived there.

We knew that my grandfather, Froilán Ortega and his four brothers migrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s. Froilán later sent for his wife Dolores Valenzuela and began a life in the Midwest. My dad Salvador Ortega was born in a beet field in Arkansas in 1927.

But when Froilán died in 1932, Dolores made her way to Texas to join daughters

Dolores Valenzuela Ortega
Consuelo, Amparo, Adela and Hortencia. My dad's older brother Blas remained behind and settled in Des Moines, Iowa where he raised his family. Another brother, Luis, accompanied the family to Texas.

But as we found out, the task of tracing our Ortega family history beyond the late 1800s proved to be quite difficult.

Several years ago, I researched the origins of the population of the Ortega ancestral homeland in Southwestern Mexico. What I learned turned the tide into what I now believe is our family's connection to the Jewish faith.

Southwestern Mexico was a place that was heavily populated by Spaniards dating back to the late 1400s. Many of the Spanish people settled there during the height of the Spanish Inquisition that began in 1478.

Most of the Spaniards who fled Spain became known as conversos, or Crypto Jews, who were run out of the country for their refusal to be Christianized.

After they settled in Southwestern Mexico, many of them continued to practice their Jewish rituals for several generations after they arrived. Many of them eventually converted to Catholicism, but many continued to practice the Jewish religion openly. Others pretended to be Christians but secretly observed their Jewish customs to avoid a repeat of the discrimination their ancestors had suffered.

Most of the conversos were easily identifiable by their light-skinned European appearance. Some had green, blue or hazel colored eyes. If you are a descendant of Froilan and Dolores, you or a close relative might be a light-skinned "guero" or "guera" with light colored eyes.

After learning this, I queried some of the older members of the Ortega family including my dad Salvador and my cousins Jesse Mireles and John Ortega (now all deceased). They all recalled vaguely as children seeing some of their elders lighting candles and observing the Sabbath. They were also familiar with some of the foods and other customs that were not part of the Mexican culture. Apparently, this was happening as recently as four or five generations ago in the Ortega family. Indeed my dad, who was known to tip a few glasses of wine from time to time, always kept a bottle of kosher wine our refrigerator. As a child myself in the 1950s and 1960s, I remember visiting relatives in Mexico where we played with a simple Jewish toy that looked like a spinning top known as a “dreidel”. In Mexico, the toy is known as "pirinola."

Another piece of the puzzle stood in obvious display: My grandfather's first name, Froilán, was definitely not a common name in the Mexican culture.

My research revealed a very telling fact. The name Froilán was also the name of a city in Spain that was the center of a large Sephardic Jewish population during the Inquisition period. When the Christian rulers started persecuting Jews in Froilán, tens of thousands fled to the new world.

To this day,

Church of Froilán
the Jewish faith is celebrated every year in the Church of Froilán located in the city of Lugo, Galicia in Northern Spain.

Recently, the government of Spain passed legislation that granted dual citizenship to the descendants of Jews who were chased out of Spain during the Inquisition period. You guessed it: The Ortega name is prominent on that list.

As you can see, there is some evidence that points to a Jewish connection in the Ortega family.

Of course, much more work needs to be done in order to definitively verify some of the historical and cultural links I have uncovered. But I submit to you that a Jewish connection in our family is a real and distinct probability.

I will continue my search for family historical truths and I hope you will accept this information with an open and inquisitive mind.


Saturday, September 5, 2015

God, Religion and Me

By Roy Ortega

I know my occasional musings about God and religion may give the impression that I hold anti-religion or anti-God sentiments. Or worse, that I have become an atheist.

You should know that I am not an atheist. I consider myself a Secular Humanist who believes, like many people, that we have a connection to something "out there." But unlike my religious friends and family, I do not believe in the existence of an invisible, father-like figure in the sky who controls everything in our lives. Humanists believe that the human perspective, not divine providence, is the only way to view and understand our existence.

As a person with a deep love of science and discovery, I know that our physical presence on Earth has a true and objectively verifiable connection to the rest of the universe. In the words of one of my heroes, Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, "The atoms in our bodies are traceable to the stars that manufactured them in their ingredients across our galaxy billions of years ago. We are chemically connected to all molecules in the Universe." The most simplistic way that I can put it is to say that my "God" takes a much different form than the God you were probably taught to believe in.

So, let's talk religion.

I happen to be faith neutral. Being faith neutral does not mean I am anti-religion. I will admit I am critical of many religious people, but I am not anti-religion.

There is no question that there are countless of good and honest religious people on Earth who use their religion for the greater good of humanity. I count my late cousin Jesse O. Mireles, a Christian pastor, and some members of my mother's family including Pedro and Velia Garcia, among those who have humbly devoted their lives to spreading the good word of their God to others. I have a deep and infinite respect for good religious people in this world. But I do not believe you need religion to be a good person.

For reasons that are my own, I no longer ascribe to the tenets of Christianity. In my older age, I have found it almost impossible to intellectualize religion. I believe religion is an invention of man - and nothing else. However, my spiritual core, my ability to love and my compassion are perfectly intact without religion. I love the teachings of Jesus, the same way I love and respect many of the teachings of the Dalai Lama, Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr. and my own beloved and dearly departed mother Rebecca.

Unless a person wantonly casts judgment against me or someone I love, I have no interest in casting judgment against anyone. I believe people should be free to believe what they want as long as they don't use their religion to harm others or discriminate against them. Unfortunately, our world is filled with people who defy the basic teachings of their own religion in order to justify their political agendas and hatred of others.
I will admit that I am put-off by religious zealotry and extreme religiosity. When religion begins to inject itself into the lives of people who do not welcome it, the calm and peace of the world invariably suffers. I strongly believe in the concept of separation of church and state because no single religion should have authority over government policy. That's a dangerous and slippery slope that has proven historically to be contrary to the benefit of mankind. We should forever guard against religious tyranny of every stripe.

In these contemporary times, issues such as abortion and homosexuality have unnecessarily ignited strong emotions that have often led to hate and violence. For the record, I am strongly anti-abortion. But a woman should consult her doctor and ultimately her own conscience - not religion or government - to make decisions about her own body. Regarding homosexuality, it is a natural part of human sexuality and always has been. There is no reason - biblical or otherwise - to condemn my gay son simply because he happens to love another person of the same sex.

The most reliable estimates show that there are more than 4,200 recognized religions in our world. Each has its own "holy" book and its own distinct set of beliefs. So, the obvious question is, "why would someone believe that their religion is the only true and chosen religion, and not the others?" Not all religions are good and not all believe in a good God. Many religions, especially the ancient ones, are characterized by occasional periods of unspeakable violence and intolerance toward others who do not share their beliefs. The historical record is absolutely clear about that. More humans have died over religious differences than perhaps any other reason.

As a logical, rational-thinking and pragmatic person, I find many religious beliefs and customs to be truly bizarre. The biblical story that Jesus turned water into wine or that Moses parted the Red Sea with a wave of his hand are examples of man's capacity to concoct crazy notions and disguise them as religious dogma. Creationism to me is as goofy as a Looney Tunes cartoon. Sure, many will argue that these biblical stories amount to mere metaphors and symbols that explain larger, more meaningful messages. Beyond that, I find many harsh religious customs especially those that subjugate women or enslave humans to be cruel and inhuman. Even innocuous religious customs such as meatless Fridays seem trivial and stupid to me.

Although I cannot fathom the myriad of earth-bound religions that humans have historically created for themselves, I actually understand why they exist. Clearly, many humans have a need to express their spirituality through religion. My own spirituality has been shaped by two things: Witnessing the births of my three sons and witnessing the deaths of my parents. Understanding the biology behind conception, birth, life and death is one thing. But the spiritual meaning behind those things falls into a separate category of understanding.

This is where humans tend to step into the realm of "faith". Faith is something that humans embark upon  when life occurrences cannot be explained nor understood by any earthly rationale such as illness and death.

Nearly everyone reaches this point in their lives. Throughout my own life, I have pondered questions such as "how is it possible for life to exist one moment when it did not exist the moment before?" or, "once life exists, how is it possible for it not to exist the next moment?"

I do not believe we need religion to find answers to those kinds of questions. I believe we need a greater empirical understanding of ourselves, of the Universe and of our place in the Universe. That's where all the answers lie.

Roy Ortega

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Old Man In The Mirror

Geez. I looked in the mirror this morning and I saw an old man looking back. Crap. This cannot be. I am not an old man. Ok, ok, I will stop with the denial nonsense now.

Life at 60 is actually not so bad. My physical health is still good. I said good not great. Admittedly, I could use a little more exercise and fewer glasses of vino. And I am proud to tell you I have reduced my Taco Cabana bacon, bean and cheese taco stops to only once a week.

But I wake up in the morning with plenty of purpose. I am blessed with endless family love and support. My marriage is strong as ever (34 years this fall), the boys are grown and mostly on their own and I have finally stopped trying to change things in my life I cannot control. I have more patience, more compassion and a larger capacity to love. I think I am more tolerant, but my views on many topics have been strengthened by wisdom and maturity.

I am not a religious man, but I have a much stronger spiritual core and a stronger faith in humankind's connection with the stars and the entire Universe.

My politics are more liberal and more fair-minded than ever before and I detest the growing amount of politically-inspired stupidity in our midst.

I think I write much better than I did when I was getting paid to do it and I finally accepted the idea that good writers avoid using contractions. As a writer, It's - pardon me, it is - one of the most difficult habits to break.

A few years ago when I ended my 34-year journalism career, I thought I had already achieved most of what I was destined to achieve professionally. But after a failed attempt at retirement, I was drawn back to the professional world. Today I find myself completely caught up in the upward trajectory that had mostly eluded me in my previous career. My days as a community relations specialist for a non-profit agency are a never-ending swirl of marketing strategy meetings, planning sessions, newsletter publishing, meetings with important people and ordinary people alike, after-hour banquets and frequent power-point presentations.

My acceptance of a promotion earlier this year came with a corresponding increase in executive responsibility. Luckily, my work does not create profit for a greedy corporation; My work creates help for people in my community who desperately need it. For the record, I have declined most of the executive privileges that come with the job. I do not want an executive assistant and I am perfectly capable of pouring my own coffee.

I dare say, my life is far more complicated yet far more fulfilling than I ever expected at this age. I can finally afford to travel a little, but I do not have a moment of spare time to do it.

I have heard it said many times that life begins at 60. I'm beginning to think that's true. Damn you, contractions.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

My Birthday Message to My Family and Friends

By Roy Ortega

Thank you all for your kind words and birthday wishes. I am deeply humbled by the love you have shown me all day. Truth is, I sometimes don't feel worthy, even going so far as to ask my family not to fuss too much. It's just another reminder of how old I'm getting, I tell them, and I don't want them to spend their hard-earned money (or mine) buying gifts for me. But I know my mother, rest her soul, would be horrified if I actually started behaving in such a curmudgeonly manner.

In my view, my birthday was not the most important thing that happened today. Far from it. On my way to work, I stopped at Albertson's to buy donuts for the staff. There, I ran into an acquaintance buying a birthday cake for his 3-year old son. I shook his tiny hand and told him it was my birthday too. I can't describe the immense joy I felt seeing this beautiful little guy's face light up when his daddy let him pick out his own birthday cake. I walked out of the store with a sense of glee I haven't felt since my own kids were little.

When I got to work, I got word that we succeeded in finding a new wheelchair for a disabled lady who had come to us yesterday in desperate need of help. The excitement in her voice when she called to thank us brought me more joy on top of the joy I was already feeling.

Countless messages of love from my Jo Anne, my boys, my dear sisters, brother, my in-laws, friends and my boss came flowing in all morning via phone, text and Facebook. Geez, I thought, I don't deserve this.

At noon, Jo Anne treated me to a great meal at Franky's but I thought she had gone too far when I saw the marquee at the bar next door loudly announcing my birthday (see photo). I quickly reigned in my ego accepting the fact that I'm clearly not the only Roy having a birthday today.

When I got back to the office, I got a call from an elderly yardman who last weekend got his lawn mower stolen in broad daylight. I informed him I would gladly give him my old mower. His gratitude and humility touched me deeply and put the topper on a already fantastic day.

So there you have it. A memorable July 19. Not because it was my birthday, but because it was a good day for a lot of other folks who are far more deserving than me. That's the way I prefer to look at things.

Monday, April 25, 2011

My Mother, Mexican Pride and Escuadrón 201

By Roy Ortega

A while back during a visit to McAllen, Texas, I made an interesting discovery near the city's convention center. The recently-built Veteran's War Memorial included a tribute to Mexico's Escuadrón 201.

Few Americans are familiar with this part of World War II history, but I first learned about this storied group of valiant Mexican Air Force pilots not from history books or news accounts, but from my own mother. I'll explain this later, but first I would like to describe how Mexico's Escuadrón 201 helped America defeat the Japanese and in the process helped boost Mexican pride and patriotism.

Escuadrón Aéreo de Pelea 201 (201st Air Fighter Squadron), known as the "Aztec Eagles," consisted of an elite group of 33 pilots recruited from all over
Mexico under the command of Colonel Antonio Cardenas Rodriguez. The entire unit included 300 support personnel and 25 P-47 Thunderbolt fighter aircraft that were organized in 1942 during the administration of President Manuel Avila Camacho. In the summer of 1944, the squadron was sent to Randolph Field near San Antonio to begin several months of training before shipping out to the war zone in support of Americans fighting the Japanese in places like the Philippine Islands and Formosa (Taiwan).

Upon arrival in the South Pacific, members of the unit quickly engaged the enemy and
eventually flew a total of 800 combat sorties alongside members of the USAAF's 310th Fighter Squadron. The unit also flew missions in support of the U.S. 25th Infantry Division fighting the Japanese onslaught around the Philippine city of Luzon. The unit became identifiable by its colorful mascot "Pancho Pistolas." During the fighting, a total of five Mexican pilots were shot down and killed.

After the war, General Douglas McArthur awarded the squadron numerous commendations and medals for heroism in support of the American victory over the Japanese.

The pilots of Escuadrón 201 returned to Mexico in November of 1945 as national heroes. During the following nine months, the surviving pilots toured dozens of
Mexican cities and towns where patriotic pride erupted everywhere. Town plazas were brightly decorated in red, white and green banners as local townsfolk gathered to catch a glimpse of the famed unit.

In the northern Mexican city of Monclova, a parade and a patriotic celebration were held in honor of the heroic pilots. Among the parade participants was my mother,
Rebecca Huerta Ramos, age 16, who proudly marched with her school's drum corps through the streets of the city. A faded photograph taken during the parade shows my mother beating her drum alongside her school mates as they marched past the Tampico Club toward the town plaza where local leaders had assembled to honor the war heroes. The photograph is the only image I have of my mother as a teenager.

Somehow, this single event made a big impression on my mother. During my childhood, she related the story several times but I never fully understood the strong sense of national pride the Mexican airmen inspired until I researched the topic in college. Clearly, the heroes of Escuadrón 201 became an important source of patriotic pride for the entire country.

It was not until much later that the unit's contributions were fully recognized by Americans. On March 3, 2010, the National Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio, paid tribute to the Mexican Air Force for the critical role it played during World War II.

To this day, Escuadrón 201 remains as the only Mexican military unit to have ever served in a combat role on foreign soil.

Roy Ortega may be reached at

Friday, June 18, 2010

Honoring Father on Father's Day

By Roy Ortega

On this Father’s Day 2010, my thoughts are focused on the two things that have shaped my moral center as a father and a son. The first was witnessing the births of my three sons. The second was witnessing the death of my father.

My father died on November 1, 2007. Since then, I have spent a considerable amount of my time and emotion trying to make peace with his spirit. To my eternal regret, there were many things left unresolved between my father and me. There were many things left unsaid.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved my father dearly and I have many happy memories of him. When I was born in 1953, my mother said he was so happy he ran down the street inviting all of the neighbors to our house on Kendalia Avenue where everyone drank Falstaff Beer and smoked cigars all night.

By all measure, Salvador was a hard-working, dedicated family man who provided well for all of us. The happiest I ever saw him was when he was on his boat on the Gulf Coast casting a rod and reel into the water. Fishing was my father’s passion and his escape from the drudgery of everyday of life.

My father had a fleeting ability to be a friendly, affable man. He had a capacity for being kindhearted and generous, especially when it came to his six children.

But there was also a dark and brooding side to his personality that strained my relationship with him from the time I was a teenager.

To my family’s dismay, my father carried an inexplicable life-long anger and hostility in his soul. Where it came from and why he carried it has never been fully understood by any one in my family. I often wondered what single event or series of events in his life could have caused his anger. Thank God my father was never physically violent. But his words were just as hurtful. His hostility often manifested itself in a distinct form of mean-spiritedness aimed mostly at my mother. My father’s anger seemed to be constant - and for no reason. It’s the same anger I have witnessed many times in one of my nephews.

As an adult, my relationship with my father was tentative at best. Most of my visits with him often started out fine, but quickly deteriorated into angry disagreements over the most trivial of things. I lived in El Paso. He lived in San Antonio. We simply agreed to disagree.

Despite the strain, I always knew my father loved me. After a lifetime of watching my father, however, I vowed never to treat my loved ones so harshly.

When I married Jo Anne in 1979, I couldn’t wait to be a father. But the excitement of pending fatherhood was devastatingly dashed one day when our first pregnancy failed through miscarriage. Dazed with grief and disbelief, I called my mother from a pay phone in the hospital lobby and cried almost uncontrollably.

But a year later, Jimmy was born and I was so elated I couldn’t contain my happiness. Two years later, Justin came into the world and five years later Jared arrived.

Watching each one of my sons being born changed my life. It gave birth to a certain kind of spirituality in me I never knew existed. The birth of a child is nothing short of a true miracle. To me, It defies empirical logic. It is something I still cannot fathom. How is it possible for a human life to exist where it did not exist before? Understanding the biology behind conception and birth is easy. But understanding its spiritual meaning is way beyond my own comprehension.

As a father of three sons, my life has been highly fulfilled. My favorite times were when Hughey, Louie and Dewey , as I humorously referred to them, were little kids. Hanging out in the garage or the backyard teaching them about simple things and complicated things alike made me the happiest. I played the ultimate role of a father. Soccer, baseball and tying shoestrings were the best of times for me. First days of school and removing tiny tennis shoes from the toilet bowl made my life well worth living.

But in the midst of enjoying daddyhood while growing a journalism career, I regrettably made little time for my own father. In his waning years, he often asked me when I was coming home.

A few years after my mother died, I came home and found my father sitting alone in the dark. A deep sadness surrounded the empty house. I tried to chat with him about the family and his health, but the long and confusing stares told me I would never again have an opportunity to make things right between us.

As I watched him take his last breath, I again found myself trying to understand the spiritual nature of what was happening. I couldn’t fathom his death. How was it possible for my father to exist one moment and not the next? Once again, the mysteries of life and death were well beyond my capacity to understand.

One of my mother’s favorite inspirations during her life were three simple words: “Dios es amor” - God is love.

Surely, if there is a God, this is what He is. God is life. God is love. There is no other way to rationalize it.

On this Father’s Day 2010, it is my hope is that I have succeeded reasonably well as a father. I also hope that my sons and I continue to enjoy our strong bonds together in a happy relationship that is based on love, mutual respect and understanding. My vow on this special day is to never leave anything unresolved or unsaid between us.

It is my way of honoring my father on Father's Day.

Roy Ortega may be reached at