Hola America and Hola Iowa present the Hispanic Heritage Month Special Series: Orgullo Hispano, Latino trailblazers that inspire us in the communities of Iowa and Illinois.
By Marc Wilson
Today we take for granted the beautiful park, the stellar monument, and the frequent visits of generals, governors, members of Congress and tourists from all over the world to Hero Street U.S.A.
But none of that existed in 1963 when Joe Terronez was first elected to the Silvis City Council.
The street was largely ignored, even though eight Mexican-American soldiers from 2nd Street – Tony Pompa, Frank Sandoval, Willie Sandoval, Claro Solis, Peter Masias, Joseph Sandoval, Joseph Gomez and Johnny Muños – had died in combat in World War II and Korea. No one disputed that the eight deaths is the most of any single block in America.
But for the first decades after the wars ended, no one seemed to care much, except for family members and close friends who mourned the heroes’ deaths all the days of their lives.
In fact, in 1963, the ramshackle homes on what is now Hero Street had no city sewers and limited access to public water. Amazingly, it was the only block in Silvis that wasn’t paved.
“When it rained, the street turned to quicksand. You just sank into it,” Terronez said as we recently walked Hero Street in the autumn shadows.
The mud sometimes was so bad that when the heroes’ bodies – those that could be found — were returned for wakes in their families’ homes, the caskets had to be carried up the street by hand — the street was too muddy for a hearse’s weight.
Discrimination showed its ugly head in other ways than an unpaved street and no sewer lines.
The 90 or so Mexican-Americans veterans who returned to the neighborhood from service after World War II and Korea were blackballed — denied membership in the Silvis chapter of the VFW. They had to form their own VFW chapter, Post 8890 in nearby East Moline (which survives today after the Silvis VFW closed for lack of members.)
Into this breach of discrimination and poverty stepped the then 34-year-old Terronez.
He was one of 17 children born to immigrant parents who had fled the chaos of the Mexican Revolution. His father worked as a blacksmith at the Rock Island rail yard in Silvis. The huge family lived many years in a boxcar in the rail yard before moving to a small house on 4th Street.
Joe, born Feb. 15, 1929, was perhaps the last person born in the boxcar settlement in the rail yard. Later in the year he was born, the Mexicans moved from their boxcar settlements into small houses on 2nd, 3rd, and 4th Streets in Silvis. Some of the Mexicans – too poor to build, buy or rent a house — lived in boxcars they dragged from the rail yard.
Joe says his family was one of the luckier ones. “My Dad always worked – he was a great black smith – and never went hungry, and even during the Great Depression no one who came to our door went away hungry. My Dad remembered that in Mexico he had to beg for food. He knew what true hunger was like, and neither he nor my mother would let anyone go away hungry. The hobos from the rail yard knew where to find us, where to find something to eat.”
Joe said he decided early on that he wanted to be successful. “While my brothers and friends were out playing, I was studying. If the teacher assigned three or four pages for us to read, I read 20 or 30 pages. Pretty soon, I had the whole book read. I wanted to know how things worked, and I read anything I could put my hands on. My Dad would see me studying all the time and nod his head and tell me ‘you’re going to be somebody.’ And I knew he was proud of me.”
After graduating from East Moline High in 1948, Joe went to work at the assembly line at the nearby International Harvester plant. He became active in the United Auto Workers union, rose to steward before being elected to the full-time job as grievance arbitrator.
In my book Hero Street U.S.A., I quote Joe as saying: “I learned a lot from the union. I learned how to be tough and not get pushed around. I learned that you’d better not let your own people get away with things, because all of us would get hurt. Mostly, I learned how to get things done the right way, and that I didn’t have to take nothing from nobody, if it wasn’t right.”
He got involved in politics. He and his great friend Nick Trujillo studied immigration and election laws, and helped the Mexican-American residents of Silvis 1st Ward (2nd Street to 7th Street) to become naturalized U.S. citizens, and registered voters. “We wanted to do things right – through the system.”
The newly enfranchised voters helped him win a seat on the city council, and one of his first missions was to help the impoverished residents of 2nd Street. He faced open hostility when he showed up at City Hall, but “I didn’t care if they liked me, so long as they respected me and treated my people right.” He quickly gained respect by out-working all the other aldermen – by attending every council meeting, committee hearing, and public event, and by reading every word of every document the council needed to review.
His first successes included getting improved water and sewer services for 2nd Street. But in 1965 he ran into his first great battle.
The city won voter approval to issue bonds to repair, repave and pave city streets. But the city council decided to leave 2nd Street unpaved.
“They (the other city officials) said the houses (on 2nd Street) were built all over the place, and on the right-of-way, so there was no real street there, and no way to get a straight street that could be paved,” Terronez said.
The city ran out of money before 3rd Street was paved. “I screamed discrimination out loud,” Terronez said, and the city found enough money to pave 3rd Street.
But it was a hallow victory — 2nd Street – the home of the eight men who’d paid the ultimate sacrifice – was left unpaved to Terronez’s consternation.
Terronez, VFW Post 8890, the local chapter of the American GI Forum, Moline Dispatch reporter Vi Murphy, and many others took up the cause of remembering the heroes of 2nd Street. They led an effort to rename 2nd Street as Hero Street U.S.A.
In 1967, the city council approved Terronez’s motion to rename the street, and the U.S. Postal Service also agreed to the name change to Hero Street. But still the street – grand name and all – remained unpaved.
Terronez and Jesse Perez, head of the local American GI Forum, recruited a heavyweight to help them. Vincent Ximenes – President Johnson’s chief of the Equal Opportunity Commission and a senior official in the American GI Forum – accepted their invitation to visit Silvis.
Ximenes, who won the Distinguished Flying Cross during 50 combat mission in World War II, had grown up in a poor Mexican-American village in southern Texas. He visited the residents of 2nd Street, and heard their stories of their lost hijos.
Ximenes returned to Washington and arranged for $44,450 federal matching grant to help fund a park on Hero Street. But the city council voted 6-1 against the park, with Joe casting the lone yes vote.
Ximenes sent the Silvis mayor a message – if you don’t match the grant and build the park on Hero Street, the city would lose other federal funds. So, the city council voted again, and the park won by a 5-2 vote. Terronez helped arrange in-kind donations of labor and materials – much of it from John Deere Co. – to build the park.
Ximenes came from Washington on Memorial Day 1969 to dedicate the park. He said: “If they died for democracy, (these eight heroes) did not die so that darker Americans would continue to face barriers in education and employment…They did not die so that thousands of Americans, brown, black, yellow or white, should suffer the pangs of starvation and malnutrition…They did not die so that Mexican-Americans, Negroes, and American Indians should fail to receive acknowledgement of a job well-done…”
But still the street was unpaved.
“At first,” Terronez said, city officials “used the old excuse that there wasn’t a proper right-of-way, and not enough setbacks” for a paved road. “But we told them we’ll have people from all over the county coming to see Hero Street Memorial Park, and it would be embarrassing to the city and its residents if the street wasn’t paved. So they finally agreed to pave it.”
Terronez went on to serve 28 years on the Silvis City Council, including the last four years as mayor – the first Hispanic mayor in Illinois.
He outworked everyone else, and almost never missing a council session, hearing, or committee meeting. He read all the fine print. He says he knows where every sewer and water line is buried in Silvis – plus most of the political skeletons in Rock Island County.
He and his wife, Rebecca, raised eight children. They have lived for many years on 3rd Street in a house that Joe built. In 1969, Joe was honored in Chicago with the National Hispanic Hero Award by the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Council. On Labor Day of 2014, the Democratic Party of Rock Island County honored him for his lifetime commitments and achievements.
Joe is 91 now, slower moving now, but still active and motivated.
But sometimes when the speakers gather on the podiums Hero Street, they forget to acknowledge Joe, — or do so only after someone whispers to them that they ought not forget Joe Terronez.
When we see Joe Terronez we should think “hero” and Hero Street U.S.A. And we should remember Vincent Ximenes’ plea that our heroes “should not fail to receive acknowledgement of a job well-done…”
Marc Wilson is the author of the book “Hero Street U.S.A.” which has won 3 awards at The International Book Latino Awards
Photos by Phil Cunningham for Hola America