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Hero Street: Beautiful for patriot dream

Dispatch/Argus Photo By John J. Kim

Silvis Mayor Lyle Lohse, Sonny Soliz, Raol Gomez, Robert Gomez, Frank Soliz and Ald. Bob Zesiger are committed to completing the Hero Street Memorial Monument before the end of the year.

SILVIS -- Hero Street probably has sent more boys to war than any other street in the Quad-Cities area.

More than 100 residents from the 25 homes that lined 2nd Street -- before it was renamed Hero Street -- served in the military. Eight never returned home from World War II or the Korean War.

Large families on the street, some with as many as 10 children, encouraged patriotism, Guadalupe ``Sonny'' Soliz said. The parents mostly were Mexican immigrants who lived in railroad cars at a nearby railroad yard until 1929.

At the front of the neighborhood was Billy Goat Hill, a towering slope that was home to the antics of a tight-knit group of kids. It was where they built bonfires, flew kites, dug caves and had mud fights.

Then the war came. The kids played, and traded news of the war -- who had enlisted, who had written home, who was on leave?

While the kids continued their games, their mothers began praying for their older brothers, fathers and uncles.

``There was something going on all the time at our house because there were 10 of us,'' Georgia Herrera, who grew up on Hero Street, said. ``There was never a dull moment. Once the war came, it was a different story. My mother was always crying.''

Second Street in the 1940s was a special time and place, Mr. Soliz said. The families took care of each other as if they were one big family.

``The families would help each other in those days,'' he said. ``If a family was adding to their home, people would get together and go help. If somebody was sick, there'd be someone to visit and bring them food. You don't see that anymore.''

In those days, families were there for each other each time a son, brother or father died in the war. Neighbors comforted the mother, brought food to the house and they prayed together.

Each time another boy died, the children knew more and more what to expect.

``It was always a lieutenant or captain,'' who delivered the news, according to Raol Gomez, whose brother, Joe, was killed in Korea. ``A lot of people dreaded seeing which home he was going to stop at.''

Ms. Herrera wasn't home when military officers delivered the news her brother, Frank Sandoval, had died. When she got off a bus, after returning from a movie, other children on the street gathered and asked ``did you hear?''

They refused to tell her what they were talking about, but she knew as she approached her house something was wrong. ``I could hear the crying from outside the house.''

Even the deaths and mourning didn't discourage the boys of 2nd Street from enlisting.

Mr. Gomez tried twice, but was rejected because of lingering injuries from an accident. Frank Soliz, the last of the 2nd Street boys to fight in WWII, joined the Navy two months after his Uncle Claro was killed in the Battle of the Bulge.

Patriotism and pride had escalated to such heights, young men felt guilty if they didn't go to war, Sonny Soliz said. Four of his older brothers, including Frank, had fought for their country.

``I felt, I hope I pass my physicals so I'm not turned down,'' Sonny Soliz said. ``There was a sense of patriotism.''

Even after Korea, the patriotism continued. The boys came home, many went back to school, some moved to new neighborhoods. All were proud of serving their country, but frustrated with discrimination and lack of recognition for their deeds.

Some of the 2nd Street veterans tried to join the local VFW, but were rejected because they were Hispanic.

``One of the fellows at the post said, `There are enough of you. Why don't you start your own post?'|'' Frank Soliz said. ``Bang. That was all it took.''

They did start their own post, and when it ran out of money and shut down, many members transferred to the Ybarra-Gomez post.

``Second Street was our town,'' Mr. Gomez said. ``The Anglos wouldn't have nothing to do with 2nd Street. They wouldn't even pave the streets.''

The dirt road that split the street stayed dirt until Mexican-Americans helped elect Joe Terronez to the city council in 1963. Mr. Terronez and his childhood friend, Nicholas Trujillo, rallied support in the late '50s by helping Mexican-Americans apply for citizenship and register to vote.

Mr. Terronez proposed legislation that would help recognize and respect the heroes and their families -- 2nd Street should be paved and renamed ``Hero Street,'' Billy Goat Hill should be turned into a park in honor of the heroes.

One by one, the resolutions passed. Not easily. In May 1967 the street officially was renamed Hero Street. In 1971, it was paved and Hero Street Memorial Park was dedicated.

The Department of Housing and Urban Development paid half the $88,000 cost of building the park. The Mexican-American community in Silvis raised the other half.

A bronze monument commemorating the heroes stands on one side of the hill, a jungle gym on the other. A concrete monument styled after an Aztec temple was carved into the side of the hill.

``After these battles, the council finally accepted me,'' Mr. Terronez said. ``I fought them, I fought them clean. Although they lost, every one of them shook my hand after the count of the vote. From then on, things worked out a lot better.''

Mr. Terronez served 26 years on the council, then served as mayor from 1991 to 1993. He continues to lobby for Hero Street by researching grant opportunities to renovate the park.

``I have to give them credit,'' Mayor Lohse said. ``They've been working since the early '60s. It would have been easy for them to throw their hands up in the air and say, `Let's leave it Billy Goat Hill.' But they didn't.

Renovating the park is not enough, Hero Street residents said. In 1993, they launched the Hero Street Monument Committee to plan and finance a new monument.

The committee has commissioned a Mexican sculptor to create a 17-foot bronze and marble monument that includes a relief portrait and biography of each hero, a flag pole and U.S. flag, steps modeled after an Aztec temple, an American bald eagle, a neckchain and dogtag, a rifle and a G.I. helmet.

A retired art teacher, Mr. Soliz designed the monument. He also is instrumental in its financing: A series of 12 paintings he did as a graduate student at Western Illinois University are being sold as a calendar and separate prints. The paintings, from ``Supreme Sacrifice'' to ``Evening Prayer,'' represent Mr. Soliz' memories of growing up on wartime Hero Street.

Bob Zesiger, a Silvis alderman and WWII veteran, said he will help the people of Hero Street get the recognition they deserve. ``These people are a special group. They're way beyond veterans. They're combat soldiers. It's not just the boys who paid the ultimate price. It was the wives, the parents, the sisters.''

Even with Mr. Zesiger's support, getting the attention and respect of other Silvis residents is a struggle, Ms. Herrera said.

``Lots of people say they're tired of hearing about it,'' she said. ``It must not mean too much to them, but if you lived there, it was family. Any of us who have lost someone close to us knows the feeling.''

Ms. Herrera's husband, Raymond, said part of the reason Hero Street hasn't gotten the recognition it deserves is because Mexican-Americans are taught to be polite and not to speak up about discrimination.

``The wheel that squeaks the loudest gets the most grease,'' he said. ``A lot of Hispanic people are too softspoken; everybody's afraid to say something. If this street were Italians, Belgians, Irish - they would've had a monument a long time ago.''

One of Hero Street's biggest advocates isn't Mexican-American and never lived there.

Ted Malone, who lives in a Chicago suburb, noticed the Hero Street sign every time he drove into the Quad-Cities to visit his daughter, an East Moline school teacher.

The sign piqued his interest, and in the spring of 1996, he started researching the heroes who gave the street its name. He interviewed relatives, watched documentaries and read articles before writing his own article, which was published last May in American Legion magazine.

Mr. Malone, who is battling cancer, has kept in touch with the men and women of Hero Street, supporting their quest for a new monument. ``Hero Street is something that keeps me going,'' he said. ``I want to see it come to fruition.''

-- By Laura Oppenheimer (January 22, 1998)

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