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Thursday, November 27, 2014

Dual memorials promise closure to families

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Part two in a series

The National Hispanic Cultural Center has announced the construction of two memorials for two local men who lost their lives during the Vietnam Conflict.

New Mexican sculptor Sonny Rivera will be joined by artists Cristina Gonzales and Jacob Sisneros in creating memorials for Pfc. Manuel Mora and Sgt. Pete Padilla.

The families of the two men have been waiting more than 15 years for the memorials.

Gonzales said she and Sisneros have been working on the design for the steel-and-bronze piece for a year and a half.

Their design, called “The Warrior’s Repose,” will stand just a few yards from Rivera’s life-sized bronze statue of the two men, but there’s no rivalry among the artists, Gonzales said.

“One of the misconceptions a lot of people have is that we are competing with Sonny Rivera,” Gonzales said. “We are not competing; our proposals are totally different and our goal is and has always been to do right by the families.”

This project is not just to honor Manuel Mora and Pete Padilla, but is a symbol to honor all Hispanics who have served in the military, she said.

“(Sisneros and I) are Chicanos, and both of us have had family members who served in Vietnam and other branches of the military,” Gonzales said.

All of the work that has led to this memorial has been a stepping stone for Gonzales, she said.

Sisneros, who has a formal background in design and architecture, said he has worked with numerous museum exhibit designs and has studied various war memorials from around the world.

“One of the things I make a part of my travel is to visit national monuments and national monuments of a war nature,” Sisneros said.

Sisneros began his study of fine arts in UNM’s architecture program before finishing his degree at Rhode Island School of Design, he said. As an Albuquerque native, Sisneros said he jumped at the chance to work on this memorial.

“I was raised in the south valley — I was raised about a mile and a half from Barelas,” Sisneros said. “Barelas has always been a part of my life and my family’s life.”

For Albina Mora, mother of Manuel Mora, finally seeing the memorial move forward has been a bright spot.

Her son volunteered to go to Vietnam right after his high school graduation out of his sense of duty.

“He was always a leader, he was captain of the patrol boys when he was 12 years old,” Albina Mora said. “He was one of the youngest to get his Eagle for the scouts and was a member of DECA (A high-school honor society).”

Out of four children, Manuel Mora was the oldest and the only boy in the family, she said.

There was always a light around him everywhere he went, Albina Mora said, and when a Major came to her home with news that her son was dead, she did not want to believe it.

“I didn’t want to answer the door … the news hit me bad just by seeing the car in the driveway, and I told my daughters, ‘Don’t open that door,’” Albina Mora said.

Shortly before his death, Manuel Mora sent his family a black-and-white photograph of himself kneeling beside a machine gun. It was the last item the family received from him, Albina Mora said.

“As parents we were always proud of him,” she said. “He always made us proud.”

The park that had been erected to memorialize Manuel Mora and Pete Padilla had been a point of pride for the Mora family, she said. It was after the family returned home from a trip to California that she and her husband, Manuel Mora Senior, saw that the park was gone.

“No one notified us about the park being torn down and the NHCC being built in its place,” Albina Mora said. “At first I thought, ‘No, they’re going to replace it,’ because I know that they have to replace memorials, but time went on and on and on.”

The park was considered run-down by the city, but she had love for the park, she said.

“It wasn’t (run-down), it was a beautiful park where we held a big reunion, where people came from all over the community to show their support,” Albina Mora said.

The following years of broken promises have made Albina and her husband apprehensive about any progress toward completing these memorials, she said.

“If these pieces are completed we can have closure, and that makes up for all the years of struggle,” Albina Mora said. “Seeing is believing at this point … All we want is to see this thing actually happen.”

Sisneros said he’s confident that the memorial will happen and wants to share the memory of these two heroes through his work, he said.

“I want to honor the sacrifices that they’ve made — the families have made — and the larger community of Barelas that was so displaced in the 1970s and 1980s,” Sisneros said.

Stephen Montoya is the culture editor for the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at culture@dailylobo.com or on Twitter @StephenMontoya9.