By Maria E. Garcia
Jose “Pepe” Villarino is an icon in San Diego’s Latino community, where he has been known for over four decades as an educator, activist and musician.
Pepe was born in Winslow, Arizona, on March 19, 1930. He is the second youngest son born to Rosa Rios and Leocidio Layva. When Pepe was seven years old, just a few days after Rosa gave birth to his sister Rachael, his mother died.
After the Mexican Revolution, Leocidio came to Winslow to work for the railroad. Pepe says his father was light skinned and he believes this trait was crucial for being selected for a better job. Because of this job, the family lived in a house with indoor plumbing. Leocidio paid ten dollars a month for their two-bedroom house.
Between 1941 and 1943, Pepe’s sister Isabel married Jimmy Reyes from Brawley, California. With his father’s permission, Pepe went with Isabel and Jimmy to live in Brawley. He attended Hidalgo Elementary School. Like many of the young kids there, Pepe earned money in a variety of ways. His favorite job was shining shoes. He not only made good money (ten cents a shine job) but also a few extra cents as a tip.
Pepe returned to Winslow for junior high, and he went on to high school. He loved playing football and running track. In his senior year he was chosen as the starting fullback. Unfortunately, his senior year was also the year he turned eighteen, which made him ineligible to play football. He spoke to the coach and decided not to stay in school if he couldn’t play.
Pepe and two of his friends enlisted in the Air Force. His basic training was at Lockland Air Force Base, and he was sure his next assignment would be Korea. But a change of orders sent him to William Air Force Base in Chandler. Then he was sent to Lowry Air Force Base in Colorado.
Colorado introduced Pepe to something new. For the first time he was exposed to Tex-Mex music. His mom had introduced him to the guitar, and Pepe had been teaching himself to play. While attending Mexican movies at the Chief Theater, Pepe would listen to and watch the musicians. At the Duck Inn, where he liked to dance, he would watch the musicians and replicate what they were doing.
Pepe’s next assignment would be Robins Air Force Base in Georgia. Pepe says that he had a very traumatic experience there: his first tornado. His eyes widen as he talks about walking where the tornado had demolished the buildings.
His next assignment was overseas at Nassau Air Force Base, located a few miles out of Casablanca. In 1953, when an early out was offered, Pepe left the Air Force.
In high school there had been a young girl named Maxine to whom Pepe hadn’t really paid attention. Upon his return to Winslow, Pepe started dating a friend of Maxine’s named Bea Chavez. Maxine had been asked to baptize a baby but did not have a partner for the baptism. She asked Pepe to be her partner; he agreed and soon after Maxine and Pepe were dating. They married in 1955.
Pepe decided to take advantage of the GI Bill and attended college at Arizona State University at Flagstaff. In 1959, he graduated with a degree in education.
Pepe applied for a teacher position available at Brawley High School. He and Maxine were soon living in Brawley. They had three sons: Joe, David, and Bobby. While at Brawley, Pepe started a Spanish for Spanish speakers class. Pepe also taught English as a Second Language and was making a name for himself in the field of education.
The Association of Mexican American Educators was forming, and Pepe and other educators started a group in Brawley. In its early days, Mexican American and Chicano educators were leading the way because of their concern for bettering education for their students.
Pepe became involved in community activities. On September 15, 1965, he took students to Longfellow Park (today Hinjosa Park) to witness a recreation of El Grito. El Grito was the cry for independence by Father Miguel Hidalgo during the war with Spain. Three men, the late Poli Gloria, Joe “El Nino” Rodriquez, and Gilbert, whose last name Pepe was unable to remember, wearing red armbands with a black eagle, jumped onstage and yelled, “Viva la Huelga y viva Cesar Chavez!”
This piqued Pepe’s interest in the plight of the farm worker. Whenever there was a demonstration or a picket line, Pepe would join them. The Reverend Ralph Abernathy, a civil rights leader, came to support a march from Coachella to Calexico. Abernathy had yelled to the marchers something like, “Am I welcome here?” Pepe jumped onstage and hugged him. The next day, a picture of Pepe hugging the Reverend appeared in the newspaper. The caption read, “Reverend Abernathy is given a welcome hug by an unidentified grape strike marcher.”
Pepe’s activism increased. He brought two busloads of students to a conference at San Diego State. A button was given to each of the students. When the students returned to Brawley wearing their buttons, the administration and the school board insisted that the students not wear their buttons. The students insisted on their rights, which kicked off a firestorm of controversy in the small town.
Pepe was called to the administrative offices and read the riot act. The students eventually sued the school district. The judge ruled in favor of the district, saying that, even though it was a soft issue, he could not go against the district.
Not long after, Pepe received a phone call from Gus Segada asking him to come help form a Chicano Studies Department at San Diego State University. Pepe turned in his letter of resignation, which the school district gladly accepted. Maxine was probably more open to the move because their son Bobby was already living at the Home for Guiding Hands in San Diego. Bobby was a special needs child, and, to this day, calls the Home for Guiding Hands his home.
While with San Diego State, Pepe became involved with Rondalla, a group of musicians that performed protest songs.
A Chicano Studies Department was soon formed, created with the support of Dr. Love, the president. MeCHA played a major role in the hiring and firing of the instructors. Pepe remembers Felicitas Nunez, a Chicana activist, was one of the members of the hiring panel. The first chair of the department was Carlos Velez. Pepe became the third chair.
After Pepe’s retirement from San Diego State, he and Maxine enjoyed traveling. On a trip they took to Russia, Pepe presented a talk to a group of doctors and medical students. Out of respect for the Russians he learned a few phrases in their language. He spoke about American and Mexican folklore, and he focused on three songs about dark eyes: “Ojos negros” (Spanish), “Dark eyes” (English), and “Ochi Chernye” (Russian).
Pepe and Maxine have now been married for sixty-three years and live in the same La Mesa home they bought when they first arrived in San Diego. He says music is good therapy and a wonderful companion, adding it “has been my life.”
He is very proud of the fact that Rondalla is now made up of men and women, now including: Linda Buffington, Carmen Villadolid, Bertha Hernandez, and Cynthia Alvarado. This group showcases not only the changes that have come to Chicano music, but also the progress Chicanas have made since the day Pepe arrived at San Diego State.
Today Pepe is a proud grandfather of four. When I asked him how he would like to be remembered, he says “as a giver, not a taker,” adding “Viva la musica!” I would add, “Viva Jose ‘Pepe’ Villarino!”