Joseph H. Medina was hesitant at first when Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s office invited him five years ago to come to Washington to tell his story about being brought across the border when he was 5 and not discovering he was undocumented until he joined the Army during World War II.
He had always been a quiet man who didn’t seek the spotlight. He was 99 years old at the time, in a wheelchair, and couldn’t see or hear too well. But he decided to go with his son, Michael. And he was glad he did, surprised by the reception he received, especially at an event packed with young people, some of whom were undocumented.
“As we walked in, they started clapping,” said Michael Medina of St. Paul. “It was like, wow, my dad didn’t expect that.”
And while Joseph had insisted earlier he didn’t want to speak, after hearing so many stories of other young people at the rally, he changed his mind.
“He kind of took the microphone away from me,” his son said. “He spoke to the kids from his heart, in English and in Spanish. He told them not to give up hope, to keep having courage and keep fighting and good things will come. The place just erupted. I think we were both crying.”
Medina — who served in Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s Eighth Army in the Asia Pacific during World War II and whose story has been a point of pride among Mexican-Americans aiming to get more recognition for their service during various wars — died Nov. 30. He was 103.
“It’s beautiful,” he told the Star Tribune in 2013 when visiting the National World War II Memorial during that trip to Washington. “I never dreamed I was going to be here.”
Medina was born in Mexico and lost both parents before he was 1 year old. He was taken in by an aunt and her husband. Looking for work, they brought him into the U.S. when he was 5 — at a time when the border was more relaxed.
His aunt picked cotton in Alabama while his stepfather worked in the coal mines. They made their way up to southern Minnesota to the town of Sleepy Eye where they worked in the sugar beet fields before moving to St. Paul’s west side around 1926.
Medina was a founding member of Our Lady of Guadalupe Church in St. Paul. He made deliveries for a grocer in St. Paul and later took a job at a meatpacking plant.
When he joined the Army during the war, the military realized he didn’t have proper documents. So they sent him across the border to Canada with other recruits in similar situations to get immigration papers and cross back into the United States. He became a U.S. citizen when he returned from the war.
“That was really important to him,” Michael Medina said. “He was so proud to be an American.”
After the war, he went back to his job at the meatpacking plant. When those started shutting down, he did a number of other jobs, including being a wedding photographer and joining his late wife, Sarah, to run Monterrey, a bar on St. Paul’s west side that served 3.2 beer and Mexican food. He also worked as a truck driver for a printing company and the nonprofit CLUES, taking Latino senior citizens to events and to go shopping.
“My dad was kind of a Renaissance man,” his son said. “He loved music. He played saxophone, clarinet, trumpet. He started a band” and mentored many musicians.
He was involved with the American Veterans Post No. 5, which was predominantly Mexican-American, and was the grand marshal of the Cinco de Mayo parade in St. Paul in 2004.
Besides his son, survivors include daughter Gloria Mendez, 14 grandchildren, 28 great-grandchildren and 17 great-great-grandchildren. Services have already been held.