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Interview with Matthew Casillas

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Matthew Casillas was born Aug. 24, 1931, the fourth of ten children. He was educated locally and entered the armed services. For ten years he lived and worked in California, where he went to college and earned a degree. He returned to St. Paul and went into business for himself in 1965. SUBJECTS DISCUSSED: St. Paul's West Side community - Our Lady of Guadalupe Church - the Neighborhood House - new programs by and for Mexican Americans in the local community - family history - family ties - and community cohesiveness. COMMENTS ON INTERVIEW: Much traffic noise from Concord Street. Three or four interruptions from customers entering to do business required recesses from the interview.

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TRANSCRIPT OF AN ORAL HISTORY INTERVIEW WITH MATTHEW CASILLAS JUNE 23, 1975 INTERVIEWER: GRANT A. MOOSBRUGGER

This interview was conducted as part of a series on the Mexican American in Minnesota. Matthew Casillas is a West Side St. Paul businessman. Matt, known and loved by all on the West Side, keeps attuned to prevailing thoughts and attitudes in the community. He is a thoughtful man and keeps his finger on the pulse of current events as they affect us in our daily lives. After a ten year sojourn in California, during which he picked up a bachelor's Degree in teaching, Matt returned to St. Paul to be with his family and friends, and to enjoy a full life in the community he knows and loves so well, the West Side. This is a transcript of a tape-recording interview edited to aid in clarity and ease of comprehension for a reader. The original tape recording is available in the Audio-Visual Library of the Minnesota Historical Society.

INTERVIEW WITH MATTHEW CASILLAS June 23, 1975 INTERVIEWER: Moosbrugger:
?

GRANT A. MOOSBRUGGER

This is Grant A. Moosbrugger interviewing Mr. Matt Casillas, owner of The Mohawk Tire Shop on Concord Street, for The Minnesota Historical Society Mexican American History Project. by asking you, where were you born? Maybe we can start out, Matt,

Casillas: Moosbrugger: Casillas:

I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, on August 24, 1931. And you went to school in St. Paul? Yes, I went all the way from grade school through high school. in 1950 from Humboldt High School. I graduated

Moosbrugger: Casillas: Moosbrugger: Casillas:

Which grade schools did you go to? I went to Lafayette, and Roosevelt Junior High School. Can you tell us a little about your family? Are you an only child? I am

I come from a family of ten, twelve with my mother and father. the oldest of the boys, there are four boys.

I am the fourth child, there

are three girls older than me and three girls younger Llan I am. Moosbrugger: Casillas: Did your folks come to St. Paul, or were they from St. Paul? No, my folks came to St. Paul shortly after the turn of the century. think it was either 1920 or 1919. They came from Mexico. I

My father was

born in Aguasca1ientes, Mexico, and my mother was born in Vi11agarcia, Mexico. Moosbrogger: Do you know what brought your folks to St. Paul? or relatives here? Casillas: My folks, after having a hard time looking for work, heard this was the land of opportunity. way of life. Moosbrugger: I see. Did they hear from friends? They came to St. Paul to look for work and a better Did they have friends

-2Casillas: My aunt and uncle were living here. name is Calletano Hernandez. Her name is Francisca Zamora, and his

They wrote to my parents and told them that That's when they came up.

there was more opportunity here in St. Paul. Moosbrugger:

are most of your brothers and sisters settled in and around the Twin Cities, or have they moved to other states?

Casillas: Moosbrugger: Casillas:

No, all my brothers and sisters are living here in St. Paul. What type of work did your father do here? Who did he work for in St. Paul? He worked at the During the

My father was a laborer and he worked on the railroad.

packing companies, and he also worked for the City Transit. depression we did a lot of sugar beets. in the suger beet fields. Moosbrugger: Casillas: Moosbrugger: Are your folks still living here? Yes. They live at 140 E. Delos.

The family went out and worked

It really would be a great pleasure to talk to them. also be able to talk with them.

Hopefully we will

You mentioned you graduated from Humboldt

in 1950, what did you do after high school? Casillas: After high school I went into the service. I was inducted in 1951. After

the service I went into business for myself for about a year. went to California. Moosbrugger: Casillas:

In 1954 I

I went to college and stayed in California for ten years.

Now, you had a business here for one year, was that the Tire business? No, I had a delicatessen and sold ice cream and things like that. I went to

college in California and worked more for pleasure, than out of necessity, in the fields picking grapes, peaches and plums. I was very fortunate that I was liked out there. I generally drove a truck. I didn't really do hard I went to Reedley Jr.

work, the kind that is normally done in the fields. College and to Fresno State. that teaching wasn't my ah ••• Moosbrugger: Cup of tea?

I thought I want to teach, but, I found out

-3Casillas: Moosbrugger: Casillas: Moosbrugger: Casillas: Cup of tea is right! So you finished up, you went all the way for a teaching degree? Yes, I went in for teaching. Is that Reedley, California? Yes. That's when I found out that teaching was not what I wanted to do, I taught a little bit in Reedley.

how I wanted to make a living. Moosbrugger: Casillas: Moosbrugger: The rewards just weren't there? No, they were not. That's interesting. So then you lived in California for ten years? What

made you decide to pick up and come back to St. Paul? Casillas: Well, the truth of the matter is, I was in a rut over there and I wanted to come back. I was living with my uncle. My uncle had supported me and I He

lived with him.

I wanted to come back, but I didn't want to leave him.

didn't want to give up w@rking and he couldn't take care of himself.

I had

been with him through school, I just stayed there, I couldn't get away and I always wanted to come back. him into coming to visit here. to California. Moosbrugger: Oh, that's great! in St. Paul before? Casillas: Yes, he had lived in St. Paul. He went to California during the war in 1942 So your uncle had been living in California? Had he lived Then he became very ill and I finally talked We came to St. Paul and we never went back

to seek his fortune and was going to work in the ship yards in San Francisco. He got as far as Reedley and stayed there. He felt that he could make a

living there and that's what he wanted to do. Moosbrugger: That's interesting. have been about 1964? Casillas: Moosbrugger: 1965. In 1965, you came back. Was it then you decided to go into the Tire business? So then both you and your uncle came back; that would

-4Casillas: Moosbrugger: Casillas: Yes, that's when I decided to go into the Tire business. And you've been here, in this building, since 1965? Something like that, yes. made it .... Moosbrugger: In 1966. You've been here a good long time. Could we investigate a little What were Well, I think a year later, after I got here I

further some of your feelings when you were out in California?

some of the things that drew you back to St. Paul, other than perhaps, having gone to school here and having a lot of friends? Casillas: Well, I had only gone to California to visit. I was kind of restless after I went to college as

going out of business and coming out of the service. an afterthought.

The opportunity was there and I had the G.I. Bill paying I think a

it, so I felt that I could go and that I might learn something.

lot of the young people that were going to college while they were working in the field the first year I was there, gave me the motive and incentive to go to college. I didn't feel that I wanted to go, but then, I felt that these

young people didn't really have an outlook on life other than going to the field to work. They look toward bettering themselves a lot more than we do I think we have too many outlets. Out there, there is

here in the city.

only field work and that's it. field the rest of your life. My family ties were always good. wanting to leave him.

So, you have to go to college or be in the

I think I've mentioned my uncle, my not

And I think this is the way I feel about my family. We're very closely knit. Even as a child we'd The

I don't want to leave them. always visit our relatives.

My mother talked to the parents in Spanish.

kids always hung together, even when we worked sugar beets during the depression. They'd travel miles just to go visit one another, always stuck toI think even today we find that we have We all have a get-together and we are all

gether, always helping one another.

,
something, we all go to together.

-5Casillas: family. We talk about cousins and everybody who is related. I think that

we still have a tremendous family tie. parents.

We just built a new home for my It cost a bundle, but we were They got new furniture We know

It didn't cost my parents anything.

very, very fortunate to be able to do that for them. and everything.

My dad is very, very old and very sick and weak.

that we're going to lose him some day, but, I feel we have to do all that we can for him. The family feels the same way. It's hard to put it into words,

how we feel or how we act. Moosbrugger:

You have to see us in that respect. A

You have to see that the person's actions, more or less, show loyalty.

fantastically strong loyalty is a phenomanon that we see commonly, typically, amonst the Mexican American and amongst the people of Mexico. selflessness amongst family and a desire to help one another. Casillas: I think from that point of view. Even today, my father has a birthday on A tremendous

St. Patrick's Day and we get him all decorated up in a St. Patrick's costume. He looks forward to it. them for that day. He can't stand the noise of the kids but he tolerates He looks forward to this. So, I So

Christmas is the same way.

does my mother, on her birthday.

Everybody goes over and sees them.

do know we have tremendous family ties.

I feel I can call any of my brothers

or sisters, nieces or nephews, and ask for help and they will give it to me without one moment's hesitation. feel that's the way it is. as much. I say that about my family because I really

I also have tremendous friends here that do just I think that they do it for people when

It's not my personality.

the people need help.

And of course, if you haven't gotten in too much I think there's respect for people. This

trouble, or kept your nose clean, is what counts.

I was in a hospital a little less than a year ago.

I had Like I say, I'm saying

many people who rushed to see me and I think that was tremendous. it's hard to explain, people pour out their heart to one another. this of my own family and of my friends.

It's great how we can help each other.

-6Moosbrugger: Casillas: Yes, it is heartwarming. It isl You really know who your friends are and you really realize how nice

they are. Moosbrugger: Could you tell us some of the things that are done to keep alive the Mexican heritage and the Mexican tradition in your family? nieces, and nephews too. Casillas: During Christmas, or the holiday season, the family gets together and we all make "Tamales". We do the whole thing; starting by grinding the corn. Everybody does this, my brothers and sisters too. It "Family" meaning cousins,

is a family project.

Another thing we do is whenever we have any kind of social event, like a baptism or a wedding or a confirmation, we all get together. expected to go and participate, and we all do it. We are all

Moosbrugger:

It's just a matter of doing things together. back or holding out.

There's nobody that's holding

Casillas:

Right.

That's what I would say.

I like to feel that we do it together and

we are all better for it. Moosbrugger: Matt, being in business here on Concord Street, you get an opportunity to talk to a lot of people eve-y day as they come and go in their daily business and daily lives. Perhaps you could tell us about the philosophies of the

Mexican American Community here in the West Side? Casillas: Well, it's hard for me to think of myself as a Mexican. "Matthew ll and that t s it. lIve always been a I never I've always

I never thought,'of myself as a Mexican.

thought of myself as being Indian, Aztec, or anything like that. been American as far as I was concerned.

I think the first time somebody My senior

made me feel a little different, was when I was in high school. year someone referred to me as a "Mexican". He said.

"How do you feel being Mexican?" I

I said "I don't know, are they supposed to feel differently?"

-7Casillas: had never thought of it. That was the first time this happened to me. After

that you do find prejudices, but none that ever interfered with me.

I always

felt part of the community, part of the people here, whether they were Mexican, Jew, Polish, or German. Mexican. I never thought of myself as a Mexican, but I am a I think one of the things we did to keep that

I never denied it.

in mind was that, my parents, and a lot of people on the West Side, would have Mexican skits. We celebrated very strongly and with a lot of diligence.

Not I, but I'm sure my folks celebrated our independence, the 5th of May. We celebrated tremendously the 15th and 16th of September. of celebrations of Mexico's Independence. Spanish, though I speak it very badly. We had all kinds

And of course my family spoke

So, I knew that I was a Mexican, but I never

I always played outside of the house, and I always spoke English.

thought of it until I went to a function that pertained particularly to the Mexican Culture and we sang the Mexican Anthem. I remember one day my mother

scolded me for not taking off my hat in the gymnasium when they were singing the Mexican Anthem. I said "Oh, I didn't know that." It never occurred to

me that as a patron, you'd take off your hat.

But, I think the Neighborhood

House, where we had the gymnasium and a lot of the functions, and the church Our Lady of Guadalupe had a tremendous influence on me, on my life. We had

a tremendous priest, and we had a tremendous Director, at the Neighborhood House. Moosbrugger: Casillas: She seemed to sense our needs and everything.

The Director at the Neighborhood House? At the Neighborho,od House. She did a lot to keep the young boys and girls They formed clubs; a Spanish young people's

occupied and off the streets.

group, a sewing club for the ladies. Moosbrugger: Casillas: Who was the director that you mentioned, what was her name? Mrs. Constance Currie, everybody knew her. Neighborhood House. We had all our dances at the WE had

Whether they were weddings or baptisms.

-8Casillas: tremendous social gatherings there. Our church, I say "our church" because I We are very,

think it's the only Mexican Church in the state of Minnesota. very fortunate to have built it.

My parents, and every parent on the West We needed it, and we got

Side, gave out of their pocket to help the church. it.

Today, it's unbe1ieveab1e how the church has grown in proportion to the Less than forty years

people that go there and where and how it started.

ago, Father Ward, who had a tremendous influence on me, always talked very kindly to me. his eyes. He was a good listener and nobody could pull the wool over He set the example,

He believed in the faith and he taught that.

always set the example.

I think there were a lot of differences of opinion, Father Ward was

there were a lot of different ways of wanting to do things.

very, very good, in that he did what he thought was best for the. community as a whole. The elders of our church would always be guiding our functions, The

whether it was the 15th of September or any other function we had. membership did take an active part in all these functions.

In fact, it was

later on that the church's membership took over celebrating all the Mexican functions. We left the Neighborhood House. I think we were better for it We had

too, because when we went to the downtown auditorium, Stem Hall.

gotten to the point where we couldn't get all the people who wanted to go into the building. Moosbrugger: It got too packed at the Neighborhood House, to the point where you had to hold the dances in the auditorium downtown? Casillas: Yes. We started on Harriet Island, and from there we went to Stem Hall. The

functions were handled by the church's Ments Club, and the Anahuac Club. They did the planning for whatever function was going to be. very active in the selling of food. at the Neighborhood House. The women were

Alcohol was never sold at these functions

At Christmas time every year we would have a To me, the pinata looked as big as a

pinata at the Neighborhood House.

-9Casillas: buildingl customs. We also would have a pinata at the church. We always had these

But, going back to what I feel, and how I am, although I had these I wasn't confused about

things as a Mexican, I never felt myself a Mexican. it either. I was just Matt.

Unlike today, when we have a lot of young I never thought of that. Militance is

militants who feel that they're Mexican Americans. I never think of myself as a "Chicano." not my cup of tea.

I despise the word.

I think what is happening to our country is that our

young people, because our fathers had worked so hard in getting us so much, now they feel they can go out and get it free. Their parents owe them a

living, the community owes them a living, and the government owes them a living, this is how I think the young people feel. There's always some way

we try to get money out of the government for, I hate to say it, our own little projects. I can see that more and more people are organizing, not so

much, I would say, to help others, but more to help themselves in something. I see disobedience being taught indirectly by "If you're having trouble in school, come over here and we will help you." They're being disobedient to They are telling the

the authorities, and to their parents in this respect.

young people, "If you are arrested by the authorities, just give them your name and we'll get a lawyer for you. then they have to charge you." That is all you have to give them, and

We don't have civil obedience like, "My name Now it's,

is Matthew, I was here, I didn't do anything", or "What happened?" "We'll get you out." Moosbrugger: Casillas: These are supposedly legal aid societies? These are people that are "doing good for the community." aren't doing any good.

Actually, they

These are people that are supposed to be our leaders, These are people that come new to the community, These are people These

which aren't our leaders.

whether they come from Texas, or from another part of town.

that really don't understand the family background and the family trust.

-10Casillas: are people that want to help you, as they say, "Oh my, you poor people, you have never had a chance, you've always been down." Yes, but so have the We talk about

Irish, the French, the Polish, the Jews and everybody else. things like bi-1ingua1, bi-cu1tura1 education. cause we're in this country. our children good English.

To me, I can't stand it be-

We are American, and we ought to first teach Yes, keep up the Mexican customs. But what is

bad about it is that we force it upon everybody. Jewish school.

The Jewish had a little The French had their The Polish

After school they all went to Halder.

own little school and on Saturday they all went to French School. had their school too.

But we are forcing the Federal Government to do this. But, they don't want to

Not ''we'', but the people that want to "do so much." do so much. They are helping themselves, too.

Ninety-nine percent of the

people that have been living here would pay for their own child to go to school and be educated. But then we get a lot of outsiders and they say,

"My child doesn't know how to read because you don't know how to talk to him. We are Mexican and need our own people." Moosbrugger: That is a bunch of bo10gnal

Would you say that most of the people that push these projects are those that come in from other states; rather than people like yourself who were born and raised here in Minnesota?

Casillas:

I can't speak for everybody of course, but I can speak for my family. a sister, Alberta. thing like that. doesn't like it. She has children and they're married.

I have

She never push a

My sister Lupe, she never pushes a thing like that, she She had a few children that are now married. She doesn't

like bi-1ingua1 education.

I know Catherine kind of has mixed feelings, I But I know that she doesn't

don't think she really knows what she wants. push it.

I know that my brother Felix, who doesn't even want his children

to belong to any of these radical groups in school, where you take them out of a class to teach them Spanish or Mexican History. He says he went to

-11Casillas: school to Humboldt to learn. any of these other functions. it. Let them teach his children the curriculum, not Generally speaking, I think people don't want I think

A lot of people are misled and say, "There's an opportunity."

Spanish or a foreign language is beautiful.

You learn more about your own I believe this. But to

English language by learning a foreign language.

force it on everybody, I think that a lot of it comes from outside, not from within. Moosbrugger: Do you think that any Spanish American heritage or any Mexican history is something that would be more properly taught by the family and at home? Casillas: Yes. I think there's room for formal education in the foreign language. Do we need it as a project? I can think
Guadalupe~'.

What I'm trying to say is:

~f

an

organization down here who uses the name of "Our Lady of body thinks they're with Our Lady of Guadalupe Church. sell it under that title, Our Lady of Guadalupe. church. She is building a false economy.

Every-

They make pottery and

She doesn't belong to our

She'll go and preach, and beg for

money for a Mexican American, for a West Sider, for a parishioner of our church. does. I don't want it, but, when she goes out and begs, this is what she She asks that you buy these things. She does represent me the moment Yes, I'm poor, but

she says, "These are for the poor Mexicans down here." I'm better off than a lot of other people are. I think we have to help one another. me.

I'm happier, too, for it.

Like I help my brothers and they help I'm talking about my

I'm not talking about "soul" brothers either. It's just something you do.

immediate family.

It's like if you see a man

out in the street, you go and help him.

You see a man get hit out there, you This is my way of

call up the authorities, "Somebody has been hurt here." thinking.

Not to give an impression that I am doing this for somebody, and We don't need it because we're causing the wrong inWe're giving a false impression of the needs.

they really need it.

fluence in the community.

-12Casillas: What we actually need is for the parent to give the child more attention, rather than the material things. As I see it, too many parents, in order to

make a living today, give their children material things rather than spendr, time with them. Of course, maybe my father didn't give me material things So in a way, I think

because he didn't have them, but he had more time to give me. it's understandable.

People are really trying to better themselves.

in doing so, they are ruining their children. Moosbrugger: I think what I hear you saying then, is that by moving in and creating a need for themselves, so that they are creating a slot for themselves, they're perhaps instituting a wrong mentality amongst the people that they are supposedly working for.
1

In other words, the kids, instead of learning survival

tactics in school, learning the things that they need to "make it", are learning instead, ideas on how to get around doing that hard work; getting out and digging for a living. Is that right? That's exactly what I'd say.

Casillas: Moosbrugger:

I think that's one way of putting it, yes.

Our group of people on the West Side associate and have a feeling of belonging due to a variety of reasons. Community. We'll call it The Mexican American

Do you see any.need, Matt, for the Mexican American to have an

identity that excludes other people; that keeps them to their own kind, so to speak? Casillas: Is that a healthy situation? Could you comment on our community? He's Lebanese. My

Yes, I'm in business here.

I rent from a non-Mexican.

business consists of about seventy-five percent non-Mexican. I don't think that we need a Mexican Representative.

I make a living.

I think that people

know people and they respect one another without having a Mexican spokesman. Mexican people are no different than any other nationality, in the sense that we all try to help one another. I grew up with Jewish kids and German kids. We went

I didn't think of them as a "dirty Naz:iR" when the war was going on. to school, Howard Feffer and I, and were the greatest of friends. are. I could go on and name other people.

We still

What I'm trying to say is that

-13Casillas: I think Howard has the same love and respect for my parents as I do for his parents. her. Every time he sees my mother he hugs her and is very happy to see We were like a big happy family, the community,

I think it carries over.

and nobody takes advantage of another person whether he is a Mexican or an Italian, or any other nationality. That is, to make a malicious, hatred, Everybody would go

wrong on someone, is not permitted within the community. to help that person be saved. They won't permit it.

They w'on' t permit it It's a

anymore than a parent abusing a child. community feeling as a human being.

It's not a Mexican quality.

If I didn't feel this way, if it wasn't The customers that I do have The attitude is that if I beNobody likes a "hot dog",

this way, I couldn't rent from a Lebanese. wouldn't corne to me because I want to rent.

came a "hot dog", then everybody would hate me. regardless of what nationality he is. I am, not for what somebody else is. communi ty • Moosbrugger: Casillas: Moosbrugger: Casillas:

I'm trying to say I'm loved for what This is the way people are within the

So you don't see any need to unite for defense purposes, is that right? That's right, yes. Is there anyone single thing that this community can be proud of? Yes. I think that there are many things. From a Mexican point of view, I

think one thing that I'm very, very proud of, and I think that anyone who is a Mexican who's been here would say, ItWe have a lovely church." Mexican tradition of going to church, of praying. and we don't pray any harder. We have our

We don't pray any different

But, we can honestly say, "This belongs to the This is

Mexican American, or the West Sider, whots lived here all his life." one thing the community has built; a place of worship.

I don't want to sound

like I'm pious, or we are holier than thou, or anything like that, I think we have as many hypocrites going to our church as any other church. have it, if nothing else, for our children. But, we do

So that they can have something.

-14Casillas: It's up to the individual to love and respect and support their church or community. I think that this is one thing which we have. If I remember I'm talking And then

correctly, we went from nothing, to the church we have today.
ab~ut an old pool room that was converted into a church for us.

we grew and grew into what we have now. away from us. on. Hoosbrugger: Thank you very much, Matt.

This is ours.

Nobody can take that

It was built on dimes and nickles and a lot of hard work later