Part 3 in a series.
Sgt. Pete Padilla and Pfc. Manuel Mora, Albuquerque natives who died during the Vietnam Conflict, are still very much alive in the memories of friends, mentors and complete strangers.
State Sen. Richard Romero said he grew up with Padilla and jumped at the chance in 2012 to help find the money to build the memorial for the two men.
“I was told that the families needed money for this, so I’m a lobbyist and there’s usually capital outlay, and there’s usually legislators that have an affinity for veterans,” Romero said. “That’s how the process started for this.”
Romero managed to appropriate $250,000 from legislators in Albuquerque, and more from southern New Mexico in the Cervantes area.
The memory of his friend is still fresh in his mind all these years later, Romero said.
“He was a couple of years older than me. He was a senior when I was a sophomore, but I knew him pretty well,” Romero said. “I remember walking with him to school … we kind of hook up downtown and head up together.”
Romero said he, alongside Albuquerque High Alumni Association Chair Desi Baca and sculptor Sonny Rivera, pitched the appropriations to his fellow legislators and they liked the idea.
“Veterans are an easy sell, and legislators usually give money to vets projects … it doesn’t take any arm twisting is what I’m trying to say,” Romero said. Baca, a Boy Scouts leader when Padilla and Mora were members, said while on his mission to fix the outdated reading and corporal punishment at the boys’ elementary school, he met Padilla and Mora as students just passing in the hall.
“I bought a bus for $500 and on June 15, 1962, we took 40 kids, including Manuel Mora, with me to Washington D.C.,” Baca said.
The group camped out along the route to Washington D.C., and while on the road the bus broke down, he said.
“When we stopped in Amesville, Ohio, on our way up a lady closed her drug store up so the kids could write letters home,” he said. “Later, when she bonded with Manuel out of the 40, she even asked me, ‘Could you give me the address, I would like to write to the parents,’ and she offered the parents to keep Manuel for the whole year.”
Mora took over the whole Boy Scout group as a captain at a young age — a trait that showed great leadership qualities, Baca said.
“I got to know Manuel when he was a second-grader at River View and I was the principal there,” he said. “I got to know the Mora family so well from meeting Manuel that they named their daughter after my wife.”
Padilla’s mother had died when he was about 15 years old, making his responsibilities harder at a young age, he said.
“He was connected with boxing at the Barelas Community Center and that’s how we met,” Baca said. “He was so good that he went to Chicago and competed in the Golden Gloves and came out as the number-one person.”
Padilla’s ambition was to come back from the war and continue to help the community, he said.
“When I heard the news that both boys had lost their lives — it was a blow that’s hard to describe,” Baca said. “Being in ‘disbelief’ I believe is the best word. I had gotten a letter from Manuel two weeks before saying that he was ready to come home in a couple of months. When I was told the news I just clammed up and went outside and got the lawn mower, the pusher type, and I pushed and I pushed.”
Baca got his family in the car and drove to the Moras’ house to console the distraught family for their loss, he said.
Larry Rainosek, who owns the Frontier Restaurant, said he didn’t know Padilla or Mora, but when he heard about the project he donated $10,000 to the memorial.
“[Baca and artist Sonny Rivera] showed me the proposal of the sculpture that they were going to put in and at that time they needed additional funding,” Rainosek said. “Being that it’s the Vietnam Veterans being honored, I said ‘Go ahead.’”
Rainosek said he knew the park that had been constructed to honor the two veterans had been replaced by the National Hispanic Cultural Center, and didn’t feel the families were being treated fairly by having a different memorial. He felt this to be an injustice, he said.
From what Rainosek understood, the turnover of management at the NHCC has slowed the completion of this project, he said.
“This is kind of what happens in some of the government agencies,” Rainosek said. “Lots of talk; very little action.”