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Rivas-Rodriguez: World War II Generation of Mexican-Americans Made Huge Strides in Civil Rights Movement

By Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez 

For the Mexican-American World War II generation, the call for action arrived at different times:

In Corpus Christi, physician Hector P. Garcia, recovering from a serious kidney ailment in 1947, listened to Spanish-language radio as veterans complained they were refused veterans services, and grew incensed. Enough.

San Antonio attorney Pete Tijerina was forced to settle out of court in a personal injury case in 1966 (a woman from Charlotte whose leg was amputated in a car accident) that should have netted his client a good settlement. Instead, he was forced to accept a fraction - only because there was not a single Hispanic on the jury. No more.

In Alpine, Virginia Dominguez knew, in the '60s, that the segregated local schools kept Mexican-American children from reaching their potential. Not good enough. 

Finally, in El Paso in 1960, attorney Albert Armendariz, appointed to that city's civil service commission by the first Hispanic mayor, Raymond Telles, viewed the list of eligible applicants for the police and fire department. He became suspicious when he found that the heads of those department routinely eliminated applications from Spanish-surnamed applicants, and those who appeared they might be African-American. Basta. 

These are only a few examples of the homefront battles fought by the World War II generation of Mexican-Americans. The Mexican-American civil rights struggle did not begin at the end of the war: There had been strong activists protesting and resisting before then. Some of them were veterans of World War I. But World War II was different in this way: Among the 16 million men and women who served in the military were as many as 400,000 Latinos. The war affected all. Many Mexican-American families had two, three, four - and even, in the case of the De Los Santos brothers of San Saba, eight - sons in the military during World War II.

In their youth, they confronted racism that had been woven into everyday life for so long that, for some of them, it was unrecognizable. That's just the way it was. World War II changed that, transporting young men, and some young women, far from their communities, broadening their horizons. These Mexican-Americans found that in Europe, in the Pacific, in every theater of war, they were considered Americans. Some, like Armando Flores of Corpus Christi, noted after being reprimanded by an officer (American soldiers always stand at attention!) that he had never before been called an American.

Postwar, the federal government's G.I Bill also opened doors to colleges, universities and training that would have been unthinkable otherwise to these largely low-income veterans. And so it was that men like Pete Tijerina and Albert Armendariz, and former state Sen. Joe Bernal, a Democrat of San Antonio, got their educations. 

They tested their mettle and, if they didn't know it before, that skin color and language was unrelated to ability and intelligence. Mexican-American women went to work for defense contractors, wearing pants for the first time, earning serious money beyond their wildest dreams. These women learned the system, understood what their rights were, and what they could - and did - insist on.

Collectively and individually, the World War II generation of Mexican-Americans mounted efforts that would desegregate public institutions and open doors for equal opportunities for those who came after: Dr. Hector P. Garcia would go on to found the American G.I. Forum, which advocates to this day for veterans' rights and Latino education. Pete Tijerina led a small cohort of WWII-era Latino veterans to create the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, with the financial backing of the Ford Foundation. Virginia Dominguez was among the 200-plus Alpine parents who successfully integrated the public schools in Alpine in 1969. After Albert Armendariz proved to his fellow El Paso civil service commissioners that minority applicants were been dismissed without cause, the commission changed the rules so that department heads had to have a strong reason for disqualifying an applicant.

The Mexican-American civil rights movement is ongoing. But one thing is clear: the World War II generation of Mexican-Americans made tremendous progress, against formidable obstacles, to make their communities, their states and their country live up to the ideals of equality for all. We, the children and grandchildren, can do no less than take up the torch.

Rivas-Rodriguez, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Texas at Austin, founded and directs the Voces Oral History Project, which has recorded interviews with 630 World War II-era Latinos and Latinas, as well as another 300 of other periods.

Dr. Hector’s Birthday 
By Daisy Wanda Garcia 

My father was an exceptional person and I consider him the embodiment of the American Dream. His life was one of service to his country and fellow man. Born in Llera Tamaulipas, Papa migrated to this county with his parents during the Mexican Revolution. He grew up in Mercedes, Texas, graduated with honors from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston, joined the army and was awarded the Bronze Star with five battle stars, became a citizen, founded the American G.I. Forum, served his country through his Civil Rights advocacy work and then the United States through many appointed positions, received recognition from many foreign countries and finally was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan. 

On January 17th, 2014, year the American GI Forum of the United States and other groups throughout the nation will celebrate the anniversary of my father’s hundredth birthday. His memory is being honored by awarding scholarships to deserving students. This is most appropriate to the memory of Dr. Hector. Education was extremely important to my father. The American GI Forum adopted my father’s motto, as theirs: “Education is Our Freedom and Freedom should be everybody’s business. I strongly support the efforts of the GI Forum in awarding scholarships to deserving students. My father is surely looking down and applauding the GI Forum’s leadership. 

I know he would be pleased by all these activities. For fifty years of my life, I celebrated Dr. Hector’s birthday until his death in 1996. The celebration was always simple and his family and friends were in attendance. 

He was a humble man enjoying the company of family members and friends. Papa believed in including everyone and respected and valued each individual. Papa’s friends ranged from Presidents to the average individual. All of these events took place in Papa’s medical clinic.  

I hope the reader will be able to join some of the festivities and learn about my father’s legacy. In Corpus Christi, I will be attending the ceremony sponsored by the Beatrice Perez Women’s Chapter along with the AGIF of Texas, Inc. Nothing gives me greater satisfaction as to know my father will be remembered. 

The event is being held on Friday, January 17, 2014 at the Harold T. Branch Academy located at 3902 Morgan Avenue, Corpus Christi, Texas 78405 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.  

Happy Birthday, Papa. I love you!

CHRISTMAS circa 1990s
By Daisy Wanda Garcia

Every holiday season I reminiscence about the Christmases spent with my family in Corpus Christi, Texas.  I wish that I could return for one moment in time just to relive those moments.  The photo below was taken in 1959 at the house on Ohio St.  My mother Wanda F. Garcia and father Hector P. Garcia standing behind my brother Hector Garcia, Jr and me.

Christmas was always a special season for me.  It was special because it meant gathering with family, friends, and the observance of the family Christmas rituals. With the passing of the years, my family’s traditions changed to accommodate a growing family and the coming and goings of extended family members.  Even with these changes, family was at the heart of the Christmas season. This holiday season draws me to the past, to my roots.  For fifty years of my life, I drove to Corpus Christi from Austin Texas to spend these holidays with my family.  

I remember my Papa, Dr. Hector P. Garcia, in his big Cadillac driving around the corner and honking his horn twice to signal he was arriving-followed by the sound of the garage door opening.  I knew that I better go to the garage to help unload because his car was filled to the brim with pan dulces and other pastries and cheese and ham. Papa brought home all the cakes, cookies and gifts he received from patients to share with us.  Papa also bought champagne for the Christmas meal and give us each a bottle.  I was never disappointed.  Meanwhile my mother, Wanda, was in the house preparing the holiday meal.  Mama decorated the house with a beautiful flocked tree from Currie Seed Nursery and nativity sets and displays of old Christmas villages’ made with Department 56 houses. It was like being in a magical world. Both my sisters  drove from other destinations to join in the festivities.  

On Christmas Eve we waited until midnight to begin the distribution of gifts.  We took turns playing “Santa.”  “Santa” handed each person a gift. The spectators commented while the chosen one opened the gift.  With Papa, we handed him his gifts and he had to guess what was in it and the color.  I enjoyed studying my father’s actions during the guessing game. He turned the gift around and then concentrated. He was a mind reader because he always guessed what the gift was. We enjoyed watching Papa at work.  These were silly traditions, but the important thing was that we were all together.  

On Christmas Day we attended mass at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church. One of the highlights was going to Dr. Cleo’s house on Christmas Day to join the rest of the Garcias in celebrating the holiday.    Relatives came from all parts of Texas and Mexico to attend these gatherings.  Dr. Cleo had a beautiful home that overlooked Corpus Christi Bay. The holiday spread had the traditional Mexican holiday dishes like fideo, tamales as well as the eggnog, turkey and  ham. After Christmas Day lunch, the adults gathered in the living room while     house on Ohio St.  the kids played outside.  I enjoyed listening to my relatives discuss their family stories and tell jokes. The conversations were lively and filled with jokes and much laughter. Surrounded by Garcias, grounded me and gave me a sense of who I was.

Afterwards, we returned home for Mama’s meal which was so delicious because Mama prepared it with love. Mama cooked her delicious turkey with the special sausage dressing and giblet gravy.  The children set the table. At the meal, Papa said a special blessing and then we began to eat. The ritual was sealed when we girls had to help wash the dishes and put away the remains of the turkey.  For several days later we snacked on the leftovers. Now I realize these were the best times of my life…to be with my parents who are both gone, my dear aunt Dr. Cleo and uncle Xico and his wife Yolanda…with sisters, aunts and uncles, cousins, nieces and nephews. 

Since Christmas is the end of the year, it is natural that we assess our accomplishments of the past year.  One of my dreams is to publish these articles about my father and family in a book and to expand my circle of readers.  Since January 2007 until now, I have written one article each month for Somos Primos about my father, Dr. Hector P. Garcia. In addition I am now writing a monthly column for the Corpus Christi Caller Times-all of this with the intention of keeping my father’s legacy alive. I was fortunate enough to meet Delia Huffman who will be working with me on this project.   I wish all of the Somos Primos readers many blessings this season.  

Daisy Wanda Garcia of Austin is the daughter of civil rights pioneer Dr. Hector P. Garcia. She writes monthly for the Caller-Times. Email her at Wanda. garcia@sbcglobal.net.

The Hispanic Art Contest 
By Daisy Wanda Garcia 

AGIFTX: AUSTIN, Texas —Every year since 2007, the Victoria Alliance for Latino Education (VALE) organized by local organizations in Victoria, TX, sponsors a Hispanic Art Contest.  Middle school students in Victoria, TX and Port Lavaca, TX can enter this contest.  The purpose of the contest is to raise appreciation for art, show students the advantages of higher education, and bring awareness about the Hispanic Culture.  The stipulation is that the artworks depict some aspect of the Hispanic culture.

Blanca Sanchez, an art teacher in one of Victoria’s Middle Schools, encouraged her students to participate.  One of her 7th grade students Donivan Vecera decided to enter the  art contest and had to create a piece about Hispanic Heritage. He asked his art teacher Ms. Sanchez what topic he should use and she suggested veterans.  As a follow up,   Donivan contacted Angel Zuniga, Commander of the American GI Forum, a veteran’s organization to get information about veterans.   Angel Zuniga recommended that Donivan select Dr. Hector P. Garcia as a topic because of his activism for veterans.  After researching Dr. Garcia, Donivan found that he stood up for Hispanic heritage and he was a physician who treated people even if they couldn’t pay.

Donivan decided to create a collage depicting the life of Dr. Garcia for his entry. Donivan, Ms. Sanchez and Donivan’s Mom Cindy went on the internet and found pictures of Dr. Hector Garcia and other relevant information about Dr. Garcia’s life.  Donivan made the collage over black drawing paper and used prisma colors for the visual effects. Donivan used symbols in his collage to depict key events in Dr. Garcia’s life.  For example, Dr. Garcia graduated from the University of Texas at Austin so Donivan looked for pictures of the UT mascot the longhorn.  

The search was on to find the appropriate symbols to depict Dr. Garcia’s life. Dr. Garcia founded the American G.I. Forum (AGIF).  Since the flag is the emblem of the AGIF and the organization has chapters in many states,   Donivan used the U.S. flag as the background for his collage.  The bronze statue at Texas A&M University of Dr. Garcia symbolized education. This was the key to Dr. Garcia’s success because he came from obscurity and rose to help the Hispanic Community.  

Donivan learned from the PBS documentary “Justice for My People,” that Dr. Garcia drove a blue Cadillac because the Cadillac was large and he could transport many people to meetings and AGIF conventions.   Donivan found a picture of the blue Cadillac and placed it in the collage.  Dr. Garcia was heavily involved in Hispanic fair labor rights and added the picture of Dr. Hector and his sister marching to the Texas Capital in support of the farm worker’s strike.  The caduceus symbolized that Dr. Garcia used his medicine to help and heal people

The army helmet symbolized of Dr. Garcia’s military service and helping injured men. Donivan selected four medals which Dr. Garcia received to portray in his collage. These were The Medalla al Merito, 1952, for his work with Mexican American veterans, The U.S. Army’s Bronze Star and six battle stars, 1942–1946, The Equestrian Order of Pope Gregory the Great from Pope John Paul II, 1990, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Reagan in 1986 symbolizing Justice, Freedom and Education.

According to Donivan’s teacher Blanca Sanchez, Donivan did not win the contest, but there was quite a bit of conversation about this piece from the public that viewed it.  The poster is displayed at the University of Houston in Victoria, TX.  When asked Donivan what lesson he learned from researching the life of Dr. Garcia.  Donivan response was “You can go far in life if you choose too”.   [Bianca Lopez  bel1050@yahoo.com] 


Denial of a History is Denial of a People

By Wanda Garcia - For the Corpus Christi Caller-Times

Hispanic Heritage Celebration continues until Oct. 15. Among the many events celebrating the accomplishments of Hispanics Americans includes the release of the PBS documentary Latino Americans.

You may recall this documentary was a conciliatory attempt by PBS to placate Hispanic Americans because their stories were not included in the Ken Burns Documentary 'The War." The documentary "Latino Americans" does a good job of identifying the major political and sociological factors that shaped Hispanic history.

It captures to some degree the horrors and frustrations facing Hispanics because of their extreme poverty resulting~ from not having financial and legal equity under our system. Hispanics faced a harsh reality of life where death from tuberculosis and infant dysentery was commonplace because of lack of health care and sanitary living conditions. 

Latino Americans is a good first attempt to capture Hispanic history and PBS should be congratulated and encouraged to continue on this path. Hopefully, PBS will produce more documentaries and showcase other key figures in the Hispanic struggle. Some noteworthy figures are Gustavo Garcia, James DeAnda, Dr. George I. Sanchez, Dr. Carlos Castaneda, Willie Velasquez and many others.

Attorney Gustavo Garcia was instrumental in changing the legal classification of Hispanics. Garcia's arguments were so brilliant that Justice Earl Warren gave him an extra 15 minutes to argue his case.

Dr. George I Sanchez advocated tirelessly for reform in the educational system and opened academic doors for Latinos. James DeAnda, a brilliant attorney, fought for desegregation of the Texas school system.

Dr. Castaneda dedicated his career to historical research at the University of Texas at Austin.

Willie Velasquez devoted his life to registering Latino voters through his Voter's Registration Project.

Some may ask why all the fuss about inclusion and historical accuracy? My father, Dr. Hector P. Garcia, taught me a great deal about the dynamics of discrimination. Discrimination undermines a culture or group through under-representation or exclusion. This disregards the accomplishments and contributions of a group or individual. These practices and attitudes infiltrate into mainstream American society's belief system.

My father believed in the importance of history and education to a group's self-determination. On February 1, 1990, in an address to the University of Texas Hispanic Alumni, my father said, "We are a lost people. We are lost to ourselves. We don't know our origins. We do not know who we are and where we are going. We do not have a history. And a people without a history have nothing."

It never ceases to amaze me how shocked my contemporaries both Anglo and Hispanic Americans were about the historical incidents portrayed in the documentary. They did not know Hispanic history because it was never documented. Many apologized to me for the treatment of the Hispanics by the Anglos.

One Hispanic remarked that we (Hispanics) owe a lot to these individuals who struggled for us.

Another surprise to me was how many were outraged when they learned of the plight of the Valenzuela brothers and the other Mexican veterans facing deportation after serving this country honorably during this nation's wars.

For me, episodes five and six brought back painful memories of a turbulent era for Hispanic Americans when we were struggling to establish our identity in a hostile environment. Some Hispanic activist groups were very critical of my father and his work. This documentary succeeded in bringing public awareness to our struggle while focusing on the contributions of the Latino Americans.

Today our struggle continues. I was privileged to have witnessed the birth of the Hispanic Civil Rights movement first hand. A special thanks to John Valadez for his beautiful and sensitive portrayal of my father in the episode “War and Peace". I am grateful to John and the Caller Times for giving me the opportunity to participate in the work of preserving Hispanic American history.

Daisy Wanda Garcia of Austin is the daughter of civil rights pioneer Dr. Hector P. Garcia. She writes monthly for the Caller-Times. Email her at Wanda. garcia@sbcglobal.net.