By Dr. Ricardo Romo
Latinos have fought in every American war dating back to the American Revolution in 1776. They also fought on both sides of the Texas War for Independence in 1836, the Mexican-U.S War in 1846, and the American Civil War in 1860. Like other American veterans, Latinos returned from war to tend to their injuries, restart careers, or begin new lives with the skills they learned in military service.
During World War II, the U.S. Congress passed legislation to reward those who had fought to defend American democracy and freedom. With G.I.Bill benefits veterans could count on medical care, burial rights, housing assistance, and free college tuition.
Segregation and discrimination, however, prevented African Americans and Latinos from taking full advantage of the war benefits. In South Texas, Dr. Hector P. Garcia emerged in the late 1940s as the first champion of Latino veterans. The founding of the American G.I. Forum by Dr. Garcia and his related achievements are the topic of this essay. The American G.I. Forum became one of the early influential Mexican American civil rights organizations.
Dr. Hector P. Garcia had completed his medical residency in 1942 when he joined the Army. With degrees from the University of Texas Medical School at Galveston and residency at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, he was well trained in the field of medicine.
Despite his excellent credentials, his first assignment was command of an infantry followed by command of a company of combat engineers. Finally the Army got it right and transferred him to the medical corps in his last two years of service. He served with distinction earning the Bronze Star Medal and the World War II Victory Medal. Dr. Garcia grew up in Mercedes, Texas but upon his discharge from military service, he opened a medical practice with his brother in Corpus Christi, Texas. He made friends with many of the returning veterans and learned of the many difficulties that Latino veterans encountered in applying for G.I. Bill benefits. Alarmed by the many problems veterans reported with government agencies, Dr. Garcia started the first chapter of the American G.I. Forum in 1948.
The American G.I. Forum was in its inaugural year when Dr. Garcia learned of the fate of Pvt. Felix Longoria who grew up in the small town of Three Rivers, Texas. Longoria had been killed by a Japanese sniper in the waning years of the war in the Philipine Islands. In late 1948 Longoria’s widow received notice that his body was in transit to his Texas home. His widow’s request to use the Three Rivers, Texas funeral chapel was denied by the director on the basis that “whites won’t like it.”
The Longoria family reached out to Dr. Garcia who informed the newly elected U.S. Senator, Lyndon B. Johnson, of the blatant discriminatory treatment of an American serviceman. Senator Johnson secured permission to bury Pvt. Longoria at Arlington National Cemetery where he became the first Latino to receive this distinguished burial honor.
Over the next decade, the American G.I. Forum fought for the desegregation of schools, helped to win a jury discrimination case in the U.S. Supreme Court, gained better wages for farmworkers, and won the elimination of the poll tax for voters.
Dr. Garcia is also credited with the founding of Viva Kennedy clubs across the nation in the 1960 presidential campaign. He became the first Mexican American to be appointed as a U.N. Ambassador and also served on the United States Commission on Civil Rights. In 1984 Dr. Garcia was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.