Oral History Project:
Autobiographical Stories of Women From Chandler as Told to CGCC Students in partnership with Chandler Museum's Public History Program

Oral History of Melba Perez
Written by: Leanna Jones and Betsy Villicaña

Melba Perez Interviewed by Leanna Jones and Betsy Villicaña On October 11, 2004

 Melba’s maternal grandparents, Jesus and Ramona Durón, were originally from Sonora, Mexico. She does not know much about her paternal grandparents. All she knows is that they were from Italy. Melba’s father, Vincent LaPagila, was born in Italy and came to United States to work as a miner in Colorado. He moved to Arizona with two of his sons from a previous marriage and bought a 40 acre farm in Chandler. Her mother, Carmen, lived on a farm that was a mile away from her father’s farm. They met and married in 1918.

Melba was born in 1919. Her mother gave birth to four children: three boys and one girl. Melba’s father was a farmer who planted cotton and was one of the first lettuce farmers in Chandler. He also raised poultry and sold eggs. Melba and her brothers helped on the farm and with the household chores. They would take turns helping their father with the milking of the cows and with the rest of the animals on the farm.

Melba attended Cleveland School, which is currently known as Chandler High School. The school was all combined with elementary, middle, and high school students. Melba was segregated from the rest of the school; there were two classrooms at the far end of the school where the Spanish-speaking students attended class. Melba, and the rest of the Hispanic kids, were held in the first grade for two years to ensure their English skills were properly developed. They didn’t mix with the rest of the kids, and they certainly were not allowed to speak Spanish at school. Melba recalled an incident at school where she was playing jacks with some of her classmates. The ball bounced off to the other side of the school, where the English-speaking students were. Melba, without thinking twice, went after the ball. The principal practically ran to her and twisted her arm, dragging her back to the side of the school she belonged to. Melba and her classmates never spoke out; they just simply accepted it. She also remembers that at the age of ten she was taken out of school for a whole year. She was taken out to help her father pick cotton on his farm during the Great Depression.

School and farm work kept Melba very occupied. The only time she went out was to local dances in the community which were chaperoned by the families. It was through one of these dances that Melba met her husband, Frank Perez. Frank was also born (1921) and raised in Chandler, Arizona. He went to school in Ocotillo but he never went past the third grade. They married in 1941 and eventually moved to a house on Kesler Lane, where most of their children were born. They had nine children, four boys and five girls. During this time Melba’s husband worked as a self-employed trucker. Melba started working during World War II in the parachute department at William’s Field. She repaired and packed the parachutes through most of the war. Soon after the war ended, Melba had her family and during that time supplemented the family's income through various jobs, including selling Avon, freezers, and even china.

Soon all of Melba’s children were grown up; the youngest was attending high school. This gave Melba more free time. Melba began working at Denver Elementary school (currently San Marcos Elementary School), first as a cook and then as a teacher’s aide. Melba liked being with the kids and being in the classroom. She was then encouraged by the school principal, Mr. Wood, to go back to college and become a teacher. She first attended Mesa Community College in 1969 and earned her associates degree and later transferred to ASU, where she earned her degree in elementary education. Melba finished college in three years as an honor student and began teaching in 1971.

Melba is now retired, but holds no regrets. After working so much she was finally able to accomplish her greatest ambition in life--to visit Italy, her father’s country. Melba traveled to Europe twice and visited countries such as Ireland, Austria, and Switzerland. She also traveled to Alaska, Hawaii, and Mexico City.

The advice she wants to leave the younger generations with is that education is very important and necessary. She encourages people to finish school. It is never too late to go to college. If she could do it--anybody else could do it as well.

Photos courtesy of the family.

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