Salvador Perez has stories for days. He sits in a chair in his sala and, over the hum of the television, draws you into tales about hopping freight trains as a child, the woes and triumphs of his time at war, and building his home and family in Santa Barbara.
Technically, Perez ― who goes by Sal ― has stories for decades. He just turned 102, but the detail and depth of his stories, and the spirit and humor in his voice, belie common assumptions about the capabilities of most centenarians.
So does 102 years old feel? “The same as when I was born,” Sal said cheekily from his chair Sunday morning, eliciting laughs from his daughter Yolanda; her partner, Ray; and his niece Katherine. While he’d typically be playing poker and gambling on slot machines in Vegas for his birthday, he celebrated this year at home, receiving family visitors and carrying out his normal routine. That routine includes exactly three shots of tequila a day ― one in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one before bed.
Sal’s as proud of his current pace of living as he is of the numerous adventures, challenges, and sometimes death-defying accomplishments that have marked his life. Born in Arizona in 1919, he and his family moved back to their native Jalisco, Mexico, soon after his birth, toward the end of the Mexican Revolution. He returned to the States sometime around 1927, crossing through El Paso, Texas, and eventually making his way to Oxnard, California.
Credit: Carl Perry
At around 12 years old, Sal was on his own. With other abandoned kids, he traveled throughout the West by hopping freight trains and made money by shining shoes, picking fruit, and eventually joining a conservation corps in 1937. He made it back to Santa Barbara, where he joined the army in 1940, lured by a $21/month salary and the possibility to travel to China.
Most of Sal’s stories are about serving in the U.S. military, particularly in World War II. Training was grueling, as was sailing to war on a food-rationed ship. As a paratrooper, Sal dropped into various locales around Europe, including Normandy, at the height of the conflict. The images of each jump are still fresh in his mind.
“It was a Sunday, a bright day, and people were coming out of church,” he said about parachuting into Holland for a mission. “It was beautiful.”
Sal was one of the only Mexican-American members of the 101st Airborne Division, widely known and revered for the D-Day landings and for beating the odds by holding a perimeter against unrelenting German soldiers who vastly outnumbered them for weeks in Bastogne, Belgium, during the Battle of the Bulge. He remembers the ensuing celebration with his division, where the champagne and liquor flowed.
Sal would go on to serve in the military for 30 years and was stationed in places such as Alaska and Venezuela, among other locales. In England, he met Queen Elizabeth II, who during that time was a princess in her twenties and an ambulance driver, he said.
Sal made it back to Santa Barbara around 1945. He frequented various pool halls, restaurants, and bars on the city’s Eastside, including the iconic Rose Café on Haley Street. There, he met his late wife, Mela, who was in town from Durango, Mexico, to visit her aunt, María Alvarez, the café’s original owner.
Sal and Mela were married in 1946 and bought their current Eastside plot for a mere $1,000. People teased Sal for purchasing what was then a holey tract of land surrounded by nothing, on what is now Alameda Padre Serra. But Sal had a vision; he built every part of his hillside compound, which includes a beautiful flowered courtyard, a separate hot tub unit, and a roomy two-story house with idyllic Santa Barbara beach views. Today, he’s one of the only original homeowners on his Eastside block.
Sal lovingly reminisces on his life as a family man with two daughters and five grandchildren. Flowing between English and Spanish, he talks about working as a baker at Cottage Hospital, a cook for a county facility, and even overseeing operations at comedian Steve Martin’s Santa Barbara home for over a decade.
He has many tales about blowing off steam with his drinking buddies at local watering holes, such as the Santa Barbara Inn, and about the delicious sights and smells that more fully populated Haley Street and the surrounding area back in the day. He’ll tell you about being a skilled poker player, as well as a dedicated churchgoer. Among his loved ones, whose pictures he has all over his home, he’s known to host wonderful family gatherings, sometimes with homemade filet mignon.
Today, Sal has a few simple pleasures, such as watching the Los Angeles Angels play ― and drinking his tequila. “[My doctor said] it’s not doing me any harm,” he said, “and maybe it’s doing me some good.”