Folklore Springs From Lives Like That of Pedro Gonzalez : S.D. Man's Trials Are Stuff of Film

Times Staff Writer

It's all part of the past for 93-year-old Pedro Gonzalez. The work as a telegraph operator for Mexican rebel Pancho Villa. The career as a controversial radio announcer in Los Angeles. The years spent in San Quentin prison on trumped-up rape charges. The eventual deportation to Mexico.

Yet, seated beside his wife, Maria, in his daughter's home in Nestor, the old man with thick white hair recounts his adventures as a sort of folk hero for Depression Era Mexican immigrants, as if they had just occurred.

That episode in Gonzalez's life was first chronicled in the Emmy winning 1984 PBS documentary "Ballad of an Unsung Hero," and is about to get more airing in a feature film titled "Break of Dawn."

"Break of Dawn," made by independent San Diego film makers on a budget of $1 million, follows Gonzales from the rainy evening in 1928 when he and his wife paid $1.50 to cross the U.S.-Mexico border through his imprisonment in San Quentin.

Gonzalez, with "Break of Dawn" director Isaac Artenstein interpreting, said he saw the film on video several months ago, but doesn't remember it well enough to comment. He seemed to have a clearer memory of his impressions of the PBS documentary, which he said he enjoyed.

He did recall several chapters of his colorful and sometimes violent past that were not dealt with in the film. One was about working as the youngest telegraph operator in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. At 16, Gonzalez almost lost his life when the rebel Pancho Villa suspected him of using his telegraph key to report his movements to the government.

Gonzales said Villa offered him a choice: to be executed, or to become the revolutionary leader's personal telegraph operator.

Thus began Gonzalez's part in the Revolution. Carting a battery-operated transmitting and receiving unit in a small pouch, he traveled with seven other operators through the Mexican Sierras as Villa pioneered guerrilla tactics that would be used by succeeding generations of revolutionaries.

Gonzalez's duties included rustling cattle with Villa's men. The Mexican army wasn't allowed to cross the border into the United States, but the revolutionaries went across at will to barter for supplies.

"We traded cattle for arms with the Arizona rangers," Gonzalez said. "It was a very good experience. When you're a kid, you think you're going to live forever, so I didn't think about bullets. I graduated from throwing rocks to shooting bullets. I was very close to Villa, so I was especially protected.

When Gonzalez was later captured by the Mexican army in the pro-Villa Chihuahuan town of Camargo, he had his second brush with execution. This time, he said, he was spared by the intervention of a group of little girls.

"They were about to execute me," he said, "when 10 little girls ran out. Five were facing the firing squad, five were facing me. There were kids all over."

The delay, organized by the teachers at a local school, allowed time for someone to reach the governor and get a pardon sent by telegram. Later, Gonzalez met a woman at a dance who told him her daughter was one of the children who saved him from execution. Gonzalez asked the girl to dance with him, and three months later--Pedro was 22, Maria Salcido, 14--they were married.

69th Wedding Anniversary

Pedro and Maria celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary Thursday. Maria, also speaking through Artenstein, jokingly attributed their long marriage to "a woman's endurance."

The revolution that brought the couple together eventually drove them out of Mexico. While they were fleeing, Pedro was wounded in the chest. He said they were fleeing with their seven children during a battle in the center of their town of Juarez.

"The only way out was through the cross fire," Gonzalez said, as Maria unbuttoned his shirt to show the faint pink scar in the middle of his chest.

Gonzalez worked as a longshoreman for a while after they were settled in Los Angeles. But, after listening to an independent station operated by a Mexican who called himself Don Pedro, Gonzalez decided that he wanted to become a radio announcer.

"Break of Dawn" shows his successful efforts to convince a shrewd radio station manager to let him read commercials in Spanish and his eventual formation of "Los Madrugadores," a 4 a.m. wake-up show aimed at Latino listeners throughout the Southwest. Gonzalez's program discussed issues concerning Mexican workers in Southern California and aired live music, including romantic ballads that he sang.

"The competition started up real soon, but at that time I became very well known," Gonzalez said. "After three or four months, they'd go out of business."

Said Maria: "Pedro's fans would write to competitors asking, 'Why waste your time on the air? We're all listening to Pedro.' "

In the film, Pedro's confusion over his sudden fame as a radio show personality in Los Angeles leads him into an affair with a Mexican nightclub singer. It is dealt with very directly in the film, but Artenstein refused to relay questions about the affair to the couple.

"She's very private about that," Artenstein said. "There's a recognition from her that he was very popular, that he was a ladies' man."

What the plot of the film hinges mostly on is the trouble Gonzalez ran into when his broadcasts began protesting the deportation of Mexicans, who were seen as a threat to American workers at a time when jobs were scarce. Workers for a corrupt district attorney, who was fearful of Gonzalez's growing political influence, eventually arranged to have a young girl accuse Gonzalez of raping her. Gonzalez was found guilty in an apparently politically orchestrated 1934 trial and sentenced to 50 years in jail.

300,000 Signatures

Gonzalez said that he had not expected his broadcasts to have the outcome they did.

"I didn't really stop to think about it," he said. "It was too late before I realized the consequences."

Maria went on the air for several months after Gonzalez was imprisoned.

"The audience was really proud of Maria," Gonzalez said, glancing at her affectionately. "Immediately they liked her more than me."

Maria also managed to mobilize fellow Mexicans to fight for her husband's release in groups called "Pedro Gonzalez Defense Committees." The groups gathered 300,000 signatures on a petition demanding Gonzalez's freedom and delivered them to the California governor's office.

Eventually, the girl who had sent him to prison recanted her testimony, saying she had been forced to testify against him, and after six years in San Quentin, Pedro was paroled. Attempts to have Gonzalez pardoned have consistently been rebuffed because the girl's admissions were made in private and not during a formal court proceeding.

Gonzalez said he is not bitter about his experiences. He said it "was a foul case," but he doesn't want to want to discuss it too much for fear of hurting people who were involved and who may still be living.

After his release, Pedro and Maria were deported to Mexico, where they were soon joined by their seven children. He operated a radio station in Tijuana for 30 years, then obtained a green card and moved back to the United States in 1971. Pedro became an American citizen in 1985, the same year his latest appeal for a pardon was denied.

Though age and hearing problems have distanced Gonzalez somewhat, he remains an advocate of the rights of Mexican-Americans.

"The deportation issue," he said, "is still very much present."

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