Hero Street USA
With the Mexican Revolution of 1910, liberals and other groups that opposed the undemocratic rule of President Porfirio Diaz, a dictator since 1876, started a revolt led by Francisco I Madero, a wealthy land owner, in November 1910. Peaceful rural peasants from the Central part of Mexico began migrating to the Midwest seeking asylum from the bloody revolution that was taking its toll of human life and suffering. Railroad expansion was occurring at this time in the Southwest. Many found work at the huge locomotive repair shop being built by the Rock Island Railroad in Silvis, Illinois. The railroad not only gave the Mexican jobs, it let them live in box cars right in the yards. Elated, the Mexicans sent word back to relatives and friends that there was steady work for adults and uninterrupted school for children. It was a hard life. A railroad laborer was paid just 35 cents an hour. But the hardship was worth it. School meant a chance to learn English and to succeed in sports. And, in those days, success in sports was one of the few ways a Mexican-American could be accepted as an equal. There were three railroad “yards” in Silvis. The yard held three Mexican settlements. One row of box cars was home to eight families. Another was home to 21 families. The third yard had a scattering of 10 or so boxcar houses. But life in the yards fostered a strong community feeling. There were fiestas celebrating all sorts of occasions. A church, Our Lady of Guadalupe, was built from two boxcars with a roof overhead so it didn’t look much like a boxcar. By the late 1920’s, the railroad started forcing it’s Mexican population out of the yards and into the cities of Silvis and East Moline. Some Silvis residents were complaining the Mexicans didn’t have to pay taxes because they were living in the railroad yards.
By 1928, the Mexicans who lived in the boxcars had saved enough money to buy land that no one else wanted at the west end of town. Twenty two families built their houses on either side of Second Street – little more than a muddy stretch between Honey Creek and Billy Goat Hill. The hill had that name because the children said it was so steep that only billy goats and they themselves could climb. And climb they did, to play war games and hunt rabbits with slingshots.
When the United States was attacked and went to war, so did the Mexican Americans of Second Street. Six of their young men made the ultimate sacrifice during World War II and two in the Korean War.
After the wars, despite their sacrifices, the people of Second Street still hadn’t won acceptance by most of white Americans in Silvis. Second Street itself hadn’t won acceptance by most of white Americans in Silvis. Second Street itself had become a bitter reminder that the rest of the community still considered Mexican Americans to be second class citizens. Some of those who had come home in flag draped coffins had to be carried up the unpaved street by their military escort on foot because the hearses had bogged down in mud.
Joe Terronez, who lived on Third Street, grew angry at the sight of the men of Second Street who gave their lives in defense of their country and had to carried in Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church by men with muddy boots just because the town wouldn’t pave the street.
In 1963, the Mexican Americans of his ward in Silvis helped to elect Joe Terronez to the city council. Soon he was making a motion that Second Street be paved and renamed, “Hero Street, USA.” And that Billy Goat Hill be turned into a memorial park in honor of the men of Second Street that gave their all in defense of the country. On Memorial Day, 1971, Second Street officially became Hero Street, USA was finally paved in 1975 and Joe Terronez was elected Mayor of the City of Silvis.
Written by Joseph G. Gomez
Sources: City of Silvis Public Library and Reader’s Digest