Stephen E. Chiapella: Ready for Change

Stephen Chiapella grew up in a Spanish-speaking household in Los Angeles, and did not speak a word of English when he started school. The colorful story of his family’s adventures in Mexico and the United States is a classic California saga. It’s about ethnic diversity and the need to accept and embrace change.

“I’m 75 years old but I don’t feel as though I am old. If I had my way, I’d live forever. I’m here because of modern medicine – if it hadn’t been for modern medicine, I think I would have died about two or three times already. But you guys will probably be living up to a hundred and fifty years old because of good medicine, good food, good environment, and especially genetics. Scientists are learning how to modify genetics and they’re figuring out what makes us get old. Scientists are asking the questions and going after answers.”

“I was born in Los Angeles, but I wanted to tell you about my parents, whose story is an interesting one. On my father’s side, I have Scotch, Irish, French, and English; my mother’s side is Spanish, French, and Austrian. My mother was born in Mexico and my father was born in New Orleans, and they met in a little mining town in northern Mexico. My mother was lucky; her father owned a big silver mine, and she lived a very privileged life. She wore French gowns. She didn’t even know how to comb her hair when she first got married, because she had always been dressed by servants, and one of them would comb her hair. Her family hired peons –actually, they were slaves. That’s why they had a revolution down there. Mexico had two kinds of people – the very rich, and the very poor. My mother’s family was the cause of the revolution, at least in part.”

“So how did it come to pass that my Spanish great-grandfather had a silver mine in Mexico, and was married to an Austrian woman in Mexico? His family probably came to Mexico around the mid-1500s, and they went north from Mexico City in the 1700’s. Most of the people in my family came to the New World very far back. My great-grandfather traveled north in the 1840’s to be a cattle-raiser, and he established a huge hacienda, a huge tract of land. But he had to go to Mexico City in the 1860’s for business, and he got caught in an invasion of foreign troops into Mexico. These were United States troops. So he was on a stagecoach in Mexico City and a lot of people were evacuating. While we were busy fighting the Civil War, Napoleon had sent a contingent of troops over and set up an emperor. He was an Austrian, and he and his wife brought a lot of people over from Europe to be in the court.”

“When the Civil War ended, the United States went down and invaded Mexico City, and drove out the Austrian emperor and his court. The French were so tied up in Europe they couldn’t help, but the Europeans who had come over there began to leave. There was a big flow of people streaming out, and this young Austrian girl asked my great-grandfather to help her. He helped her by marrying her, took her to northern Mexico, and they had a daughter, who was my grandmother.”

“They set up camp in a little town. After kicking the French out, Mexico became self-governing, and sold land to anyone. It was blatant. My grandparents stumbled upon the silver mine and made a lot of money from it. My father came down to help run that mine in 1910, and he met their beautiful blue-eyed daughter, whom he married. Meanwhile, the country was being given away. There was a revolution and my parents were caught right in the middle of it! Pancho Villa would come in and shoot up the town, and finally they decided that it was time to get out.”

“My mother was a fantastic storyteller. I don’t know how truthful they were, but they were good stories. She told about the revolution in Mexico, and how Pancho Villa came by and shoot up the town. Pancho Villa wanted to marry her, but she said, ‘No. I’m married.’ He said, ‘I don’t care. You’re mine from now on.’ My father had to come down with guns to take her away from Pancho Villa. At least that was her story.

“But she really did meet him. There was a young American selling machine guns to both sides, and he got caught by revolutionaries in her town. Pancho Villa got the whole town outside and executed the American right there on the spot. That’s when my dad decided to leave. It was getting out of hand. The only law was a gun.”

“Prior to that, my father had been chasing bulls in Peru and he contacted yellow fever and was given up for dead. Three men with him all died, and he managed to crawl back and survive. When he got well, he set out for Mexico. He was taking a stagecoach on dirt roads in the high desert, where there are flash floods. Everything was absolutely dry, but then a huge wall of water came down. He was with eight other people in the stagecoach, and he was sitting on top because he wanted to be outside and get some air. This enormous wall of water came and tumbled the whole thing over and killed everyone but him! He led a charmed life.”

“This was my father – an awesome person, little guy, spindly legs, never said a swear word in his entire life; I know he knew them but he never used them. He was amazingly resilient and strong. Okay– that was two brushes with death. Then, when things got so bad in northern Mexico that he could no longer ship the ore out, he decided he better leave, and in the short time that he made that decision, Pancho Villa came in and demanded everything – all the gold, all the ore, everything of value. Through a little diplomacy, my father got safe passage. If you were an American, you were dead, but somehow, he and my mother managed to leave. They left everything behind, but were glad to get out with their lives. All they had was the clothes on their back.”

“They were put on a train and they had to sleep on the floor in the dark because bullets could go through the windows. They arrived in El Paso in 1911, but my mother didn’t like it. They went to Hollywood, where my father had lived earlier. It wasn’t even a town then. My grandmother had a house on Hollywood Boulevard and my dad used to shoot rabbits from the front porch. One thing I want to impress upon you is how much in my short lifetime things have changed — dramatic change. You guys are going to have to get used to it, because things are going to change even more dramatically.”

“Always be careful of old people giving advice, but if I could give you any words of wisdom, it’s this: be ready to accept change, rapid change. Things are going to change dramatically, whether you like it or not. Don’t have the attitude, ‘That isn’t the way I did it yesterday.’ Sure –look at the way things were done yesterday, but if someone has a better idea how to do it, latch onto it. Learn. Be ready to change.”

“Anyway, back to my father in Hollywood. There were no paved roads, only dirt. My grandmother owned the first automobile in Hollywood; it was a 1911 Oldsmobile. My dad used to ride his bike to go to USC, a long ways away. He went there for one year, then transferred to the University of Arizona in the school of mines. My mother’s father was English. She was born in Mexico because he, too, was over there robbing Mexico. So my father met my mother when he went down to Mexico as a mining engineer, and they got married. And eventually they moved to Los Angeles, which had once been home to my father, and that’s where I was born.”

“My three older sisters spoke English at home, but until I was five, I stayed with my aunt and my mother, and all they did was speak to me in Spanish, so I learned only Spanish. When I went to kindergarten, it was culture shock. I didn’t know what the teacher was saying. I didn’t know what Ring Around the Rosie or London Bridge was. These were not in my culture. I felt very left out. I didn’t know what was going on. I immediately rejected everything about my Hispanic background that I got from my mother because that made me different.”

“Books changed my life. I had dyslexia. It’s when you look at print, and the words are there, but they are kind of backwards, and they don’t enter your brain. When I first started to read, I had this, and I couldn’t enjoy reading. Then, I don’t know what happened in second or third grade, but all of a sudden everything just popped into place. Now I am a compulsive reader. The first book I read was Dick Tracy. I loved it. My first hard cover book was Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift. I was nine years old, when I read that, in fourth grade, and I had an epiphany. I came upon this statement: ‘Nothing is large or small, other than by comparison.'”

“That was a revelation to me, because when you extend it, nothing is good or bad, other than by comparison. What is perceived is perceived only in the eye of the perceiver, and how you perceive it is based on your own experience. You are looking through your own eyes. It may not be the way it is, but it’s all you know. And that’s true of ideas as well as physical things.”

“As I got older, I realized that I had rejected an awful lot when I abandoned my Hispanic heritage. I went to Stanford and did Hispanic studies, and I became an expert on Latin American history. I wanted to go into diplomatic corps, but somehow or other, I learned that it is a zoo. You become a little clerk down in the bottom of some Podunk town in Honduras and you slowly work your way up, and the guys with the big jobs have all the money in the first place. I got discouraged. I met my wife, and she didn’t want to do this either. I worked for a music company in San Francisco selling pianos and organs; it was a fun job. Pianos were big things in the days before television.”

“My family owned an entire block along Hollywood Boulevard. There were no signals or stop signs in those days. People just drove slowly and carefully. I remember watching the Santa Claus parade from the rooftop. And I remember coming to the fiesta in Santa Barbara in the 1930s. I was about eight years old, and I got totally lost. My folks couldn’t find me, and I couldn’t find them.”

“Where I was born in L.A. is now an industrial site. Later, we moved out to West Adams, which was pretty much what California is becoming right now. There were all kinds of nationalities. My best friend was a young man named George who was Japanese. His mother made delicious rice cakes. The kid across street was Jewish. My sister’s best friend was Irish. We never worried about who was Jewish, who was Irish, who was Scotch, who spoke Spanish, who spoke Japanese, who spoke Chinese at home. The only questions we asked a guy were, ‘Can you play ball?’ ‘What kind of an arm do you have?’ ‘Can you hit?’ ‘Do you have a cute sister?’

“Los Angeles is much more of a melting pot than New York ever was. I was right in the middle of it. I still bear no prejudice. I look at everyone, and they are just people.”

“Of course, this was the Depression. We were all in the same boat. Everyone was struggling just to stay alive and make ends meet. It was kinda fun.”

“I volunteered in World War II right out of high school, 1944. War is scary and horrible and you want to forget it as fast as you can. I took my basic training in field artillery in Ft. Sill, Oklahoma. I was a ‘foreign observer’ in the Philippines- I go out in front and say, ‘Hey. There are people out here we need to drop the artillery on.’

“We landed in a large southern island and fought a lot of little battles in the Philippines; it would be very intense for a couple of days, and then you do nothing. Know why young people are drafted to fight wars? Because they are fearless. They think they are immortal. My son said we should pass an international law that you have to be 65 or over to be in the armed forces. It would eliminate war. Young people become warriors because they are fearless. I was fearless.”

“We had come into a town with no intelligence at all; no one could tell us what was going on — it was a town about the size of Santa Ynez. I looked down the street; there was a sugar cane processing factory. I didn’t know what was happening. We were a little foreign observer unit: a radio man, a sergeant, a telephone man. It was quiet. I just walked into town, down the middle of the street, and then I went back and went to the colonel and said, ‘There’s nobody there.’ So they called me the liberator of the town. It was really nothing. Sheer stupidity. I walked in and found there was nobody in town.”

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