Death of Hero Recalls Anti-Discrimination Struggles

When historians write the civil rights history of the United States, Dr. Hector Garcia, founder of the American GI Forum, will no doubt be included.

When he died on July 26, he was described by the media as the "Hispanic Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." That's not who he was, but how else could the media portray him if they knew nothing of him? The truth is, Garcia embodies what the media has done to Latinos--kept them invisible except in the politically charged contexts of alien invasions and criminality.

"He was a leader unto himself," says Martin Ortiz, director of the Center of Mexican American Affairs at Whittier College in Southern California.

Above all, his fighting spirit was always felt by those around him.

The brief media stories about Garcia noted that he was a civil rights champion, yet did not explain what struggles he participated in. Most Americans have probably never heard of the GI Forum. Worse still, and sadly most Americans probably can't name--out of the dozens that exist--another Latino or Latina leader with the equal stature of Garcia.

The GI Forum was formed by WWII veterans in 1948 to combat discrimination against Mexican Americans. It came into prominence in 1949 when Felix Longoria, a war hero, was refused burial in his hometown of Three Rivers, Texas because of his race. At the behest of Garcia and the GI Forum, and thanks to the intercession of then Congressman Lyndon B. Johnson, Longoria was buried at the Arlington National Cemetery.

But Garcia didn't stop there. He spent his entire life fighting against discrimination. In 1968, he was named to the U.S. Commission on Civil Right and in 1984, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

We predict that when any of those other leaders die, if they get any media coverage at all, they will be similarly described as "the Hispanic version" of someone else.

When Cesar Chavez died in 1993, we saw kids go into shock, thinking that their "boxing hero" had passed away. Of course, boxing legend Julio Cesar Chavez lives, yet many Americans still don't know who the other Chavez was. Incidentally, Cesar, along with his wife, Helen, and Dolores Huerta founded the United Farm Worker's union in 1962.

Another aspect of this story that few Americans seem to know is that Latino were still being subjected to Jim Crow laws long after WWII--even after having served in the war with distinction. Few seem to know of their historical struggles, from coast to coast, to do away with segregation and discrimination.

Martin Ortiz himself faced much discrimination after the war in his home state of Kansas and adds that it was not atypical of what other people of color faced. A few years after the war, Ortiz, who had been a U.S. Marine, ended up at Whittier College, where he encountered more rampant discrimination. In the town of Whittier, he couldn't get a haircut, enter hotels or be served at restaurants. Today, a $3 million scholarship fund at the college is named in his honor.

Frank Bonilla, professor emeritus at Hunter College, New York, experienced racism firsthand in the South, where he lived as a teenager, he was forced to drink from "Colored" fountains, ride in the back of the bus and attend a segregated black Catholic high school.

During World War II, Bonilla served in a segregated regiment composed of Puerto Rican soldiers and white officers. After the war, the soldiers spent two weeks in Puerto Rico where they were received as heroes. "They gave us the fanciest reception and dinner," says Bonilla. However, when they arrive back on the U.S. mainland, "We were given a five-cent dixie cup ice cream."

The racism they encountered after the war spurred Puerto Ricans to organize. The alliance between the Puerto Rican Young Lords organization and the Black Panther Party of the 1960s was not accidental, says Bonilla. The groundwork had been laid the previous decade by returning veterans.

Pete Sandoval reminds us that when he came home after the war, segregation was alive and well in Garden City, Kansas. After forming the Latin American Club in 1945 and after struggling for three years, the organization helped dismantle the segregation there, even before the founding of the GI Forum. He and his wife were the first Mexican Americans permitted into the city's swimming pool and its theater: "Somebody forgot to tell the white theater-goers [that the era of segregation was over], because they chased us into the balcony."

In a sense, that's how we sometimes feel--that the struggles of Garcia and his contemporaries have been relegated by society, and particularly the media, to the balcony, if not the basement.

We look forward to reading about those other leaders who also anonymously helped change the political landscape of this country.


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Compiled by: Glenn Welker




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