In the Shadow of the Greatest Generation

03/06/2015 03:37 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015

Magdaleno (Leno) Díaz passed way on February 10, 2015, at the age of 95. His passing gave me pause to contemplate the significance and impact of what is often referred to as The Greatest Generation, a phrase coined by former newsman Tom Brokaw, referring to those who grew up during the deprivation of The Depression and then served in World War II.

Leno Díaz was born on May 6, 1919, in Ciudad Juárez, Chihuahua, Mexico. He crossed the border with his family at an early age, and after a short stint as migrant workers, the Díaz's settled in Los Angeles' Boyle Heights and Maravilla neighborhoods. Barrio life was not easy for this Mexican family of 12. Like many Mexicans of his generation, Díaz recounted numerous Depression-era struggles and racially motivated indignities, including having his mouth taped for speaking Spanish in the classroom. Fortunately, he was not deterred. He saw that there was a path forward, which was not going to materialize by shining shoes and doing other subsistence jobs. His enlistment in the military coincided with naturalization as a U.S. citizen. During WWII, he served as a "Grease Monkey," an airplane mechanic in the China Burma India Theater, and told harrowing stories of flying over the Himalayas, as well as walking bewilderingly through streets in India. Díaz's oral history is part of the archive of the University of Texas, Austin's VOCES, WWII Oral History Project, which preserves the stories of a representative sampling of the over 500,000 Latinos who served in WWII. He wore his WWII Veteran cap every day, and would swell with humble pride when people stopped him in a restaurant, at a museum, on the street and in other settings, to thank him for his service.

After the war Díaz returned home to Los Angeles, where he met Elisa González, an El Paso native who had recently moved to LA to become an escrow officer. Elisa González, born on Christmas Eve of 1918, had also served during WWII -- in Washington, DC, as a clerk for an Army officer in what was known then as the Department of War (The National Military Establishment led to the creation of the Department of Defense in 1949.) They soon married, whereupon Elisa convinced Leno to take advantage of the GI Bill and go to college. She saw that a college diploma was key to achieving social and economic mobility. Leno got his B.A. in Education, in three years no less, from Texas Western College (now University of Texas, El Paso), and taught in barrio schools in El Paso, TX and San Bernardino, CA. He later got a Masters degree from California State University, Fullerton and finished out his 25-year education career as a school administrator. Elisa would also get a college degree. She taught kindergarten for over 20 years, and, upon retirement, was elected to the school board in San Bernardino. Leno and Elisa were recognized and respected leaders in San Bernardino's Latino community. As teachers and community activists, they positively impacted the lives of hundreds.

Leno and Elisa are my parents and, sadly, it has taken the passing of my father to bring into full cognition the true measure of what they accomplished, their impact on the communities they served, and the legacies they have left for my sister, my children, our extended family, many friends and me. And, then, there are the more personal questions. Did I tell my father how much I appreciated all he did for me? How he was my hero? How much I loved him? I have a sense that I'm not the only Baby Boomer who has had to cope with these sharp, desperately sinking feelings. I know that he would not want me to dwell on this. Rather, he would want me to get a grip, love my family and be of service to community -- live an honorable life. To date, I've not performed to his expectations, but I've got a little more life to live and am determined to get as close as I can.

My mother survives my father and, at the rate she's going, she may make 100. Looks like I've got a few years to climb out of the shadow and into a light that may not be as richly imbued as that of the Greatest Generation, but hopefully close. In this context getting close is a pretty good thing.