By Ron Leir
This past weekend, Councilman Victor Villalta of Harrison had a distinctive honor.
As grand marshal of the 37th annual Hispanic State Parade of New Jersey, he led marchers as they stepped off at noon on Sunday from 80th St. and Bergenline Ave. in North Bergen, wending their way south on Bergenline through West New York and Union City to the reviewing stand at 32nd St.
“I feel very humble I was chosen as grand marshal,” said Villalta, a native of Peru who has made Harrison his adoptive home.
And he’s proud that this year’s parade is dedicated to the veterans of the United States to recognize the many people of Hispanic heritage that have served valiantly in the armed forces of this country, as noted in a congratulatory resolution passed by the Harrison Town Council last week.
The parade’s general purpose is to “keep the cultures of Hispanic countries alive in the United States, so that young people do not forget their roots, customs and ancestors ….”
Villalta’s family left Lima, Peru, in 1964 for a new home in the U.S. Villalta was age 14 when he arrived. The family settled in Harrison and young Victor attended Harrison High School where he excelled in soccer and was a member of the school’s 1966 state championship team.
In November 1967 Villalta enlisted in the Marine Corps but he admits pulling a fast one to do so.
“Me and my buddy Mickey Silver (later to become a captain in the Harrison Fire Department) went over to Newark to enlist but you had to be 18 to do that,” Villalta recalled. “Mickey was 18 but I was 17 – my birthday was March 12, 1949, so I was still a few months short of 18.”
But a Marine recruiter told him that if he could get parental consent to join, that would be acceptable to the Corps, Villalta said.
So Silver and Villalta returned to Harrison and Villalta approached his dad, who didn’t yet speak English, showed him the enlistment form “and I told my dad to sign the paper for soccer camp,” Villalta confessed. Villalta hadn’t told either of his parents of his true intention.
Once he’d gotten his dad’s signature, Villalta went back to Newark and signed up for military service.
“My older brother, Roger, had been drafted into the Army and he was already in Vietnam,” Villalta said. “So I figured I would end up in Vietnam. But I wanted to do something for the United States of America because they welcomed (my family) to this country. I wanted to show my allegiance … because this was going to be my home now.”
After completing basic training, Villalta was shipped to Okinawa for his final two weeks of preparation before heading for combat in Vietnam. “One day, I was going to the mess hall for breakfast and I saw a kid who looked familiar. It was Donny Scott, who I knew from Harrison High School. He said, ‘I’m leaving tomorrow for Vietnam.’ He never came back.”
U.S. Marine Lance Cpl. Donald Blue Scott, who was born on the Fourth of July in 1949, was killed in action on Aug. 2, 1968.
“He was an excellent swimmer and held some high school records still standing, I believe,” Villalta said. “The Harrison Board of Education is going to name its pool for him. We’re working on a plaque. It’s going to happen.”
Villalta served a 13-month tour of duty in Vietnam, in the process earning numerous medals and citations including the Bronze Star with “V” for valor, the Purple Heart and Good Conduct Medal.
“I’m proud to have served in the U.S. Marine Corps,” Villalta said. “In fact, my grandson, Ryan, is going to graduate from Marine boot camp at Parris Island in South Carolina in two weeks.”
Last Thursday, the parade committee held a “full-dress” induction ceremony at The Graycliff in Moonachie so Villalta got a haircut for the occasion. “I will wear my (Marine Corps) dress blues proudly,” he said.
When Villalta returned from service, he married his high school sweetheart, Eleanor, and the couple raised four children. He worked for the Keystone Automotive Industries for more than three decades until being laid off due to downsizing in 2004.
At that point, he got involved in politics, running successfully for a Second Ward seat on the Harrison Town Council. He lost the seat in 2007 but won it back in 2011 after besting incumbent Maria McCormick.
He also works as an inspector for the Passaic Valley Sewerage Commission, checking greasetraps at restaurants and delis where “most of the owners are Spanish-speaking.”
Villalta makes a point of visiting his alma mater to “talk to the kids about what we veterans did. I tell them, ‘You’re going to have to care for your country. Show your country respect.”
“I’m on a mission here in Harrison,” Villalta said, “to help veterans, children, senior citizens with issues like housing and jobs.”