My Grandpa, Ramon Padilla, was born in Brownsville, Texas in 1914. His family had come over from Mexico during the Mexican Revolution and he lived there until he was three. In 1917, Ramon and his family moved to Matamoros, Mexico. He lived with his mother, who worked many odd jobs to support their family. His uncle, a carpenter, also helped to take care of them, but the family lived in poverty. When Ramon was about 4 or 5 years old, his mother gave him a little guitar and it changed his life forever. He would walk through the neighborhood singing and strumming along on the little guitar, although he didn't really know how to play. When he was 13, his mother passed away and he lived with his grandmother and uncle, going to school and helping out with the carpentry work. Around this time, Ramon had the opportunity to learn to play the guitar from a teacher in school. But he needed a proper guitar of his own. He was working in a grocery store at the time and the owner had a guitar to sell. It cost 36 pesos. So Ramon made a deal: he would take the guitar and give his boss a peso a week until it was paid off. After about 6 weeks of this arrangement, the owner asked Ramon to show him what he had learned to play so far. After Ramon played for him, his boss was so impressed that he told him he could have the guitar for free. It was already plain to see that Ramon was talented and passionate about music. From the ages of 14 - 19, Ramon experienced what he described as "many adventures." It was during the time of the Great Depression and he dropped out of school to earn money for his family. He picked crops as a migrant worker and joined a traveling troupe, singing and playing his guitar. When he was 18, he went down to Mexico City to take a test, certifying him as a high school graduate. After that he attended the National Conservatory of Music in Mexico City, where he studied for three years. He taught himself English by reading books, and he eventually ended up in Pittsburgh, PA where he attended the Pittsburgh Musical Institute.
At 24, Ramon was drafted into the Army and went overseas to fight during World War II. He deciphered Morse code, was a short order cook, and performed as a bugle boy. During this time, he met my Grandma, Gloria, through mutual friends and they were married in 1944. Ramon went back overseas until 1946 when he returned to Pittsburgh to live with Gloria, her sister Rose, and their mother. They ran a hotel of sorts, taking in boarders to earn money, and Ramon resumed his life as a musician. He supported his growing family by traveling to Chicago, New York, Texas, and Florida. He performed solo and in various bands, singing, and playing the guitar, piano, and accordion.
Music was his true passion in life. Not many people can say that they spent their life earning a living doing what they love, but that's what Ramon did. He never went anywhere without his guitar and nearly all my memories of him involve him playing and singing. He would entertain my sister and me with classical songs like "Malagueña", and more whimsical songs like "El Paso" and "La Bamba." For every birthday, he would play and sing - first "Happy Birthday" and then "Feliz Cumpleaños." I remember visiting their condo in Florida every summer and sneaking to the back patio, where he kept all of his guitars and music stands. He practiced his music every single day of his life until his stroke in 1999.
He was a caring and loving Grandpa. I have many fond memories of going to the little park near their home in Florida to feed ducks. Whenever we got together, we would make homemade tortillas. I loved watching him roll out the dough to paper thin discs and then cook them on the griddle. We'd eat them fresh and warm, slathered with butter. To this day, they're the best tortillas I've ever had.
My love of foreign culture and language comes from him. Growing up in a small town in Ohio, I loved watching him prepare "exotic" foods like tamales and guacamole. I loved to listen to him speak Spanish, giggling at his nickname for me, flaquita. Because of him, I've always had a desire to learn foreign languages, to travel to distant lands and have adventures like him. And I can't think of better passion to pass onto my daughter. When I was young, my Grandpa gave me a little guitar to play along with him. It was one of those little guitars that you can probably get anywhere these days, but it was very special to me. I still have it, packed away safely with the rest of our belongings back in the U.S. Someday I hope to place the little guitar in Ramona's room. I'll tell her all about her Great-Grandpa, for who she is named. Her Great-Grandpa who overcame poverty and discrimination to create a life and a family in the U.S. Her Great-Grandpa would have sang her songs and taught her to make tortillas. Her own personal Guardian Angel.