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

August 26, 1988|ELAINE POFELDT | Times Staff Writer

SAN DIEGO — 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.' "

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