Rafael Parrilla was 21 years old when he received the news he would be drafted into the military to fight in the Vietnam War. Parrilla, who was born in Mexico and raised in Boyle Heights, wasn’t sure what was going to happen.
“At one point I didn’t know what we were fighting for but I knew we were taking care of each other.” said Parrilla, “It was about fighting for your brother who was right there with you.”
As a veteran and adjutant for Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) Post 1013 of East Los Angeles, Parrilla supports other members in hosting events such as the annual Veteran’s Day Ceremony on Saturday at Cinco Puntos. The VFW is a national non-profit organization with chapters across the U.S. that connect veterans with a variety of services.
The local event, which is held on the national holiday recognizing U.S. veterans, will start at 11 a.m. The festivities are held on the center median of the five-point intersection where Lorena and Indiana Streets meet with César Chávez Avenue. This median also serves as the site of the Mexican-American All Wars Memorial, originally established in 1947 to honor Mexican-American heroes of World War II. An iconic Mexican restaurant named after Cinco Puntos is located adjacent to the memorial.
The event will feature appearances by public officials, a rendition of the national anthem by singer and LAPD detective Chris Reza as well as words from LAPD Captain and army veteran Alfonso Mendoza, and motivational speaker and author Julie Sands.
“We all come together on that day as a community to respect the veterans, and we become one. That is priceless to me,” Sands told Boyle Heights Beat.
Sands has co-organized the event with VFW commander Tony Zapata for more than a decade and the holiday holds a lot of meaning for her. She is the author of “War Dad”, a memoir chronicling her experience growing up with her veteran father who struggled with PTSD and addiction.
“I used to walk those streets [of East LA] as a little girl with him looking for his next fix,” Sands said. “My reasoning for doing this ceremony is to give back to the veteran community, to reach out to any veteran who might be suffering with PTSD, and try to direct them in the right direction.”
For Parrilla, this celebration is about honoring generations of veterans who faced challenges when returning home from conflict. “Veterans in many cases go through things that most people can’t comprehend so I want to make sure that people remember we do sacrifice in many ways,” Parrilla said.
Last year’s ceremony was the subject of some minor controversy.
Los Angeles plans to convert the Cinco Puntos intersection into a roundabout. Community group East Los Angeles Boyle Heights Coalition showed up to the ceremony to protest the potential relocation of the memorial located on the center median.
As of now, the roundabout has not been constructed.
This year, the focus is on bringing the community out to this historic corner of the Eastside to celebrate neighbors who are still facing challenges from serving in the military. Part of Parrillia’s work involves connecting with fellow veterans in the area and letting them know about the federal and local resources that are specifically allocated for them such as therapy, help covering burial costs for loved ones, and more.
“The biggest thing we can do for veterans is let them know what services are available. I realized when I started working with organizations (like VFW) that our veterans don’t know about this stuff. We want them to know what’s out there,” Parrilla said.
As a Vietnam veteran, Parrilla hopes that these sorts of celebrations and services continue to benefit younger military officers who continue to face the stark realities of foreign conflict. “The younger kids who are just coming back from Iraq, from Afghanistan, current wars, we need to let them know who can help them. They need to know they’re not alone.”