Hero Street U.S.A.
The Pride of Second Street
Written by Rita Simpson (Des Moines Area Community College student, 1991)
In Silvis, Illinois, not far from the Mississippi River, a proud Mexican community helped build a memorial park in honor of their friends and relatives who gave their lives in World War II and the Korean War. The park is located in the west end of town on a street that was once called Second Street. When the park was dedicated, in 1971, Second Street was renamed, "Hero Street, U.S.A."
In the 1940's and early '50's, the young men from Second Street went to war. While this, in itself is not unique, the fact that the twenty-two families from Second Street sent eighty-seven soldiers to war, is very unique! Even more remarkable is the fact that these eighty-seven soldiers were the children of Mexican immigrants who came to the United States to escape the turmoil in their native country.
During the years 1910 and 1917, Mexico was undergoing a revolution that could pit brother against brother because both sides could draft men. Those who did not understand the war and only wanted to provide for their families, would go where they could find jobs. The United States was a place that held the promise for a better future. At some border towns, like Nuevo-Laredo, a person could be admitted into the Unites States for a nickel.
The coal mines in Texas and Oklahoma provided work for some while others found migrant work throughout the Midwest and California. Many found work with the railroad lines. Those who came to Silvis came because the Rock Island Lines was building one of the largest repair facilities, for locomotives, in the world. The proud Mexican immigrants were hard workers so the Rock Island lines provided them with a place to live. Some lived in the boxcars in the rail yards. They built themselves a church by putting two boxcars together.
The rest of the community was not always ready to accept them. Their children sometimes met opposition and discrimination when they tried to enter local schools. The townspeople complained about the Mexicans living tax-free in the boxcars so they moved into homes they built themselves. Some moved to Second Street.
Anthony Terronez was one of the Mexican children born in Silvis. He was also instrumental in the Hero Street project. His cousin, Joe Terronez, then an alderman for the Silvis city council, asked him to be the engineering consultant. He was well-suited for the task. Anthony had received most of his engineering education through a program sponsored by John Deere and Company of Moline, Illinois.
Soon after he was discharged from the Army Air Corps, in July 1945, Terronez heard that John Deere was considering an educational program where they would help to send their employees to college. When he applied for a job, he was told that the program was not finalized but they offered him a job in the plant. Because of a chest injury he had received in the war, Terronez could not accept. Deere promised to contact him when the program was implemented. When they did call, Terronez was working for International Harvester. When they heard about Deere's offer, International Harvester offered Terronez a similar proposition. Terronez accepted Deere's offer because, as he put it, "They said they would call, and they did."
A handsome man, with strong features, Terronez sits relaxed but talks proudly when asked about the Hero Street Park, a project that is close to his heart.
"I felt honored to be the project manager...this...was the kind of work I was trained to do," said Terronez.
The project was a challenge in many ways. A member of the city council told Terronez, "I'm going to do everything possible to stop you guys from building that park!" Some opposed it because it would be for Mexican Americans. Originally, the park was meant to be a memorial to the eight Mexican-American men from Second Street, who died while serving their country in World War II and the Korean War. Some proposed that it should be built in honor of all veterans of Silvis. Some Mexican-Americans objected to that because when returning Mexican-American veterans of World War II approached the local V.F.W. post, they were not welcome and were told to start their own post, which they did. Ultimately, the park was built as a memorial for all servicemen.
Financial decisions alone posed an enormous problem. Design concessions had to be made to help alleviate it. The city had to conduct a door-to-door campaign to raise funds to match a federal grant. The contributions of land and equipment also helped. Terronez approached John Deere with a mutually beneficial solution. "I knew John Deere had some equipment in experimental stages," Terronez said. "I suggested that we could test the steep grader and an end loader in our project. They sent a guy to look at the land, (part of which is on a steep hill), and he said, 'It's gonna be tough but we're gonna do it.' We provided the labor with the rough grading. The young kids said, 'I can't do it.' I said, 'Look where we are now. You are not going to say you can't...!' That's what I call determination!"
A look at headlines from the Moline Dispatch summarizes some of the difficulties the supporters of the project overcame and the solutions they found:
"Tempers flare in Silvis over Hero Street Project."
"Cut Off Hero Street Park Funds."
“City Role In Hero Street Park Project Reinstated”
“Hero Street Park To Cost $185,000”
“Federal Grant Announced For Hero Street”
“City of Silvis Trucks Help With Construction”
By the time the park was finished, many would volunteer their time and efforts.
Terronez has fond memories of the games the children of Second Street played. He said, “We used to play rubber guns, a gun made out of a piece of inner tube. We played chinny, a game like hockey played with crushed Carnation milk cans… We play hoy. A hoy was a piece of broomstick handle about this long, (he holds his hand to show about five inches), that was sharpened at both ends. The hoy was placed on a brick and was hit so it would fly. We played Mexican tag with two teams.” This game was like a combination of hide and go seek and freeze tag.
The children of Second Street played some of these games on a hill affectionately called “Billy Goat Hill” because neighborhood goats were allowed to graze there. “It was actually an empty lot,” Terronez said, “but it was our playground. The owner was a grocer in the neighborhood. He donated it for our project.” A nearby canal provided the water for daredevils, who would jump off moving trains going over it. All of these games helped to develop the skills and agility these boys would use when they grew up and went to war.
Terronez is proud of his contributions in making the Hero Street Park a reality. He said, “I felt honored to be project manager. First of all, this was a project I was trained to do. Second, all of those boys were playmates. We grew up together. We were like brothers. There were eight who were killed. Three of us enlisted together and left together. Two didn’t make it back. I did. There was Peter Masias [sic], Willie Sandoval, and Claro Soliz. His nephew is a teacher in art. He draws many pictures of the war.”
He continues, but, it’s more like he’s talking to someone who knows the answers to his questions. “Three of us went together, two didn’t make it back. Why not them? Why me? I think it was so I could build this park. A park for my playmates.”
Rita Simpson dedicated her essay to the memory of:
Tony Pompa - Tail gunner who was shot down over Italy. Lied about his age so he could serve his country.
Frank Sandoval - Killed on the Berma Road.
Willie Sandoval - Could have been a professional boxer. His body was never found, in Holland, caught in German crossfire.
Claro Soliz - Not afraid of death, concerned about the children at home, those he was fighting for. Dreamed of a better life.
Peter Masias - Who lost his life in Belgium. Was a good singer.
Joe Sandoval - Good ball player.
Joe Gomez - Lost his life in Korea.
John Muñoz - Lost his life in Korea.