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They Called Him Papu: The Life of a Beloved Grandfather

During World War II, Ricardo Ovilla came from Chiapas, Mexico as part of the Bracero Program, the largest guest worker program in U.S. history. He went where the work took him, travelling across the country to pick fruits and lay railways. It was hard labor, but Ricardo hoped to build his family a home in a new country. Eventually he did just that, bringing his wife and kids to the United States. 

In those early days, things were tough. Ricardo’s whole family worked alongside him in the fields picking fruits amidst thorny branches. But no matter how hard things got, Ricardo refused to be demoralized. He’s remembered by his granddaughters Martha Escutia and Marina Jimenez as an eternal optimist — a man “whose mission was just to bring joy to his family and his kids.”

At StoryCorps in July of 2020, Martha and Marina took time to reflect on Ricardo’s incredible journey. He was born of the Zoque People in Southern Mexico, and joined the Mexican Navy at 18. He crossed the border in El Paso, Texas and picked fruit in fields where Disneyland stands today. 

A young Ricardo Ovilla, who served in the Mexican Navy when he was just 18. Courtesy of Martha Escutia.

Ricardo passed away in 1999, shortly after naturalizing as a U.S. citizen. But he lives on in his granddaughters’ stories. To them, he will always be the tender hearted, marimba-loving, menudo aficionado who stopped at nothing to see his children laugh. They knew him simply as “Papu.”

Ricardo “Papu” Ovilla with his wife Marina “Mamina,” surrounded by their grandchildren. Courtesy of Marina Jimenez.

This story was recorded as part of American Pathways, StoryCorps’ new initiative to record, preserve, and share the stories and experiences of immigrants, refugees, asylees, and Muslims living in the United States. Learn more here.

Top Photo: (L) Ricardo “Papu” Ovilla with daughter (R) Martha Sandoval and their family’s first car. Seated inside are Ricardo’s children Aurelia and Rodolfo Sandoval. Photo taken in 1949 at a labor camp in Escondido, CA. Courtesy of Marina Jimenez.

Originally aired August 21, 2020, on NPR’s Morning Edition.