Joseph Sefarino (Sef) Torres was born 1917 in Crystallite, Arizona — an old mining town that no longer exists. Sef had one sister Louisa (b. 1914) who was blind. His father was Rafael Torres. He died when Sef was about five or six years old. Not much more is known about him, except that he was born somewhere in Mexico and came to the United States possibly around 1912 to find work. Sef remembers his father setting up tracks on the railroads while he looked on as a boy. His father also used to play cards with the Native Americans at the nearby Indian Reservation. Sef’s father contracted tuberculosis and in order to recover the family moved to San Bernardino County, but very soon thereafter Rafael passed away from the illness.
Sef’s mother’s name was Anita Valenzuela Torres. When Sef’s father died, she remarried Lucio Murillo. Lucio was an itinerant farm worker. Together they moved to Chino, California in 1925 where they lived for a few years at the labor camp. Sef began elementary school as an older child because he had to be in the fields with his mother and step-father for a time to help with the crops. He recalls that the labor camp had two rows of green cabins and he lived with his family in one room.
“I accepted the conditions. I was a good kid and didn’t give my folks any trouble. I went to work with them. They picked potatoes, planted tomatoes, berries, beans, everything. It was a farming community, so they had corn.”
At the age of seven, Sef explains that his mother enrolled him in the “brown school” for Mexicans. Those of Mexican descent in Chino went to the brown school, even if they lived closer to the white school. At the same time, his mother sent Sef’s only sister to the California School for the Blind at the age of about twelve. He would never see her again.
While at the all-Mexican school, Sef became a fairly good athlete. He played softball and basketball, and then he also started singing. In 5th grade, Sef’s teacher recommended that he be sent to the white school where he joined their big choir as well as the softball team. “I remember being in the classes with the white kids. It was a good experience primarily because as an athlete and singing, you could blend in pretty well. I had no problem with that.”
The city of Chino had only recently incorporated, so the High School was small and included students from 7th to 12th grade. He continued his singing and the music teacher became Sef’s voice coach. Sef was a vocalist early on, having parts in the operettas that were produced by his teacher. By senior year he became the lead in Lady of the Lake. At that time there was no popular music, so the students sang songs that were semi-classical. After he graduated in 1937, he was hired by the Little Theater in Padua Hills to sing in their productions. He did for that summer.
However, Sef was also an excellent athlete and after that summer, he was recruited by Riverside Junior College to play basketball. During that year, he lived in a rooming house and did janitorial services in order to pay his tuition. Thereafter, Sef was recruited by San Diego State College, once again to play basketball. He played for one year, but then was drafted into the war.
Sef explains that he thought he would only need to sign up for one year, but by necessity he ended up serving for 5 years, from 1941-1946. At first Sef was sent to the signal corp in New Jersey and became an administrative specialist for the army. Thereafter, he traveled to many places, including Alaska, the Aleutian Islands, Hawaii, Leyte and the Philippines. He was discharged in Okinawa.
Upon his return, Sef started working with Lockheed Aircraft, but he didn’t enjoy it. Using the GI Bill, he re-enrolled at San Diego State. The campus was very small at the time, perhaps 3,000 students. Upon graduation, he was hired by Sweetwater Union High School District and taught Social Science and math at Southwest Junior High. Sef recalled that he was the first Latino to be hired at a school district. “That’s what they claimed at the time. All along I was in the English speaking world. I left the Spanish speaking world when my mom left and so I was with the English speaking — from there on, my Spanish was forgotten.”
Sef worked at Southwest Junior High for almost twenty years, going from teaching to becoming vice principal and principal. In 1970 he was appointed principal of Montgomery High School, which he opened. He led the school for 10 years before retiring in 1978. On August 26, 2017, Sef turned 100 years old.