ALBUQUERQUE (KRQE) – More than 10 years after a park dedicated to two local marines killed in Vietnam was destroyed, the families said they are still waiting to see a memorial in their honor.
Sgt. Pete Padilla and PFC Manuel Mora grew up in Albuquerque’s Barelas neighborhood and were both leaders in the community. Pete was a champion boxer, captain of the baseball team and senior class vice president at Albuquerque High School. Manuel was quiet, polite and well-liked. He was a boy scout and captain of his troop. Pete and Manuel enlisted in the Marines and fought in Vietnam.
Pete was killed March 28, 1966, just two days after his 25th birthday. Manuel was killed in combat on June 19, 1969 at age 20.
“What these young men might have been, never had a chance to do it,” said the boys’ elementary school principal Desi Baca.
The Pete Padilla Park and Manuel Mora Recreation Center was built in 1970 in Barelas, the same Albuquerque neighborhood the two men grew up. But in 2000, the family said the six-acre park was razed overnight without notice to make room for the National Hispanic Cultural Center.
The center promised the family a new space. Crews broke ground on a new memorial park in 2011 with funding from the city and county, but the family said work has stalled since then.
“It’s been awful because promises, promises,” Albina Mora, mother of Manuel, said. “They gave their lives. They honored them with the park, and they razed it and we get this.”
The new space sits on half an acre on the grounds of the cultural center. Unlike the old park, there are no open spaces to play, sit or gather.
“I wouldn’t even call this a garden,” said Joe Padilla, brother of Pete.
Chris Saucedo, President of the Board of Directors for the National Hispanic Cultural Center, said the memorial park is still a work in progress.
“This was a promise made many, many years ago and which now recently, the new board is keeping,” Saucedo said.
A lack of funding stalled development. In 2012, the families lobbied the state legislature and secured $250,000 toward the memorial project. Saucedo said that money will help complete the memorial park and add a sculpture.
Four artists submitted proposals in early 2013 to a seven-member selection committee, which included one representative each from the Padilla and Mora families. The families wanted a 7-foot bronze sculpture depicting an image of Pete and Manuel preparing for battle with their weapons, ammo and survival gear in tow.
“That’s their last moment you’ll ever see of those boys,” said Joe Padilla.
The families, however, were out-voted five to two in September for a sculpture that stands as a tribute to Pete, Manuel and all Vietnam veterans from the Barelas neighborhood in a subtle, more symbolic way.
“It will have images that are also very personal and that reflect the time period and the Vietnam War,” Saucedo said. “It is just a piece that fits very, very well within the Padilla Mora Memorial Park.”
The families are not happy with the winning design.
“We did the groundwork, got the money and they stopped us from getting what we wanted,” said Pete’s younger brother Dave Padilla.
Saucedo said the Department of Cultural Affairs is currently drafting a contract for the local winning artist.
Saucedo said the cultural center hopes the sculpture will be completed and installed by the end of the year. There are also plans to add park benches and meeting areas as well as outdoor classroom space around the memorial park.
“I believe the families will be pleased once the art is complete and the park is complete,” Saucedo said.
But the Padillas and Moras aren’t too hopeful.
“If they asked me, are you bitter? Absolutely. Did I lose faith in the system? Absolutely,” Joe Padilla said.