IN AMERICA’S DEFENSE: MEXICANS AND MEXICAN AMERICANS
By Felipe de Ortego y Gasca
At almost 92, World War II seems like a world and a half ago. I had just turned 17 in 1943 when I enlisted in the Marines during the dark days of World War II and 20 when I was mustered out at war’s end in 1946. My role in that conflagration was nominal. Its heroes fell on far-flung battlefields.
Best estimates indicate that of the 16 million American men and woman in uniform during World War II almost a million American Hispanics served in the armed forces from 1941 to 1946, most of them Mexican Americans. Among that number, I was just a speck.
Though I enlisted in the Marines in Pittsburgh, San Antonio was home base for the Gascas where a root branch of my mother’s family settled in 1731. The San Antonio of 1941 was a place of “brown blood and white laughter” as I wrote in a poem years later, remembering the city’s segregated schools and its English-only rules. Though the war transformed the city economically, a different kind of war would vanquish the barriers that had made San Antonio a divided community and strangers of Tejanos in their own land.
At war, American Hispanics showed their mettle. Boys became men. On the Day of Infamy, I prayed, wondering if I could pass for 17, hoping the war would wait for me.
What seems lost in national memory is that American Hispanics played significant military roles in that conflagration, recipients of more Medals of Honor during that fray than any other ethnic group. But they came home to a country that disdained their service, continuing to treat them as foreigners in their own land.
During World War II, Hispanics served in the Army, the Army Air Corps, the Navy, the Marines, the Coast Guard, the Merchant Marine. They were pilots, navigators, bombardiers, gunners, grunts. On the home front they were Air Raid Wardens, led War Bond Drives, served at USO’s, handed out donuts and coffee to American GI’s at train stations and military bases, scores of Hispanic mothers placed Gold Star on their windows, and dutifully covered their windows at night in compliance with “blackout” requirements.
Across the country American Hispanics played crucial roles in the victory of World War II by working in defense plants building planes, tanks, jeeps and other military equipment. In Pittsburgh, Mexican American women from the Ohio Valley communities of Mexican Americans built gliders in the Heinz plant which converted its ketchup machinery to the war effort.
After the War, I returned to Pittsburgh, hung up my uniform with its plastron of medals, and went looking for America. The first part of that odyssey carried me to the University of Pittsburgh where—with the help of the G.I. Bill—I matriculated with only one year of high school. I went on to achieve the Ph.D. in English (British Renaissance studies and Chicano literature) at the University of New Mexico with only one year of high school and no GED.
More than half a century later, PBS added insult to injury by its ill-advised decision to air Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s 15 hour mini-series on World War II despite the fact that the series did not include the significant participation of Hispanics in that War. Ironically, Burns’ documentary was originally scheduled to be aired on September 16—a commemorative day for Mexican Americans during Hispanic Heritage Month, the day Mexico declared its independence from Spain in 1810. That sparked considerable controversy since the documentary did not include any of the contributions of Hispanics to the war.
However, after an intense “Defend the Honor” campaign of public protest by the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Hispanic vet organizations like the American GI Forum, Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez —associate professor of Journalism and director of the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project at the University of Texas—and Gus Chavez (founder of “Defend the Honor” campaign). PBS president Paula Kerger agreed to emendations of the documentary. How extensive remained unclear even after word leaked out that Hector Galan, the Hispanic film-maker from Austin, Texas, who produced the 1996 series “Chicano! History of The Mexican American Civil Rights Movement” for PBS, had been contracted to provide supplementary Hispanic footage for the series. Burns stood firm that he would not “re-cut” the film
When asked about the Defend the Honor campaign by Matt Lauer on the Today Show on Friday morning (September 21, 2007), Ken Burns disingenuously told Matt Lauer that “Latinos never came forward to be part of the documentary.”
In Orange County, California, the PBS affiliate (KOCE) responded vituperously to the Defend the Honor steering committee which sought to meet with the station management with the accusation that “you all belong to a fringe group who refuse to be satisfied and who seem to enjoy the attention you are receiving by continuing to attack PBS.” Adding that “PBS and KOCE have been true friends to Hispanic Americans and deserve far better than the treatment they are receiving from an unreasonable few.”
I’ve long thought that congressional funding for PBS and NPR should be eliminated since both are disconnected from the realities of American Hispanics and seem to be impervious to the demographic presence of Hispanics in the U.S.
TV network media and a majority of mainstream American newspapers don’t have a clue about American Hispanics. They don’t know who they are. The fault lies with American history, as Carlos Guerra correctly points out: how it’s written and how it’s taught. An old African proverb contends that “the history of the lion hunt will always favor the hunter until lions have their own historians Hispanics are not newcomers to the territory that is now the United States. Long before 1848 they were here with the Dutch in New Amsterdam (later renamed New York); they had established settlements on the Gulf Coast long before the arrival of the Puritans in Massachusetts; and in the Southwest they had established thriving cities like San Antonio, Santa Fe, El Paso, Tucson, San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara, Monterrey, and San Francisco long before the U.S. declared war on Mexico in 1846 and dismembered it, taking more than half of its territory as a booty of war.
Today there are Hispanics in every state of the nation, in every major city of the country. In many places they are the majority population. The current Census count indicates that there are 60 million Hispanics in the American population, not counting the 4.5 million Hispanics on the island of Puerto Rico. Two-thirds or 30 million of those of those 60 million Hispanics are Mexican Americans. In other words, two out of three American Hispanics are Mexican Americans.
In Texas, according to Steven Murdoch, the state demographer, Hispanics will be 65 percent of the state’s population by the year 2040. The U.S. Hispanic population is the second largest in the world after Mexico. According to current Census projections, by the year 2040, one-third of the American population will be Hispanic. Amid the current brouhaha over immigration, Americans seem to have forgotten that in America’s defense, Hispanics have played significant roles in every war starting with the American Revolution. Some scholars contend that without Spain’s help (principally Bernardo de Gálvez and Francisco de Miranda) in the war for independence, the revolting American colonists would not have won the struggle.
American history does not identify as an Hispanic Jorge Farragut who went to the aid of besieged Americans in New Orleans during the War of 1812. Nor that during the Civil War, Hispanics fought on both the Union side and the Confederate side of that internecine dispute.
Hispanics from Texas and New Mexico were with Teddy Roosevelt’s “Rough Riders” at San Juan Hill in Cuba. They were in China with the Boxer Rebellion; and in Shanghai when the Japanese invaded China. They served in significant numbers in World War I—the Great War to end all wars.
South of us, Mexico entered World War II in 1942 as America’s ally and by 1945 had a fighter squadron in the Philippines. More than 500,000 Mexican braceros (workers) were recruited by the United States to help fill the depleted manpower on American farms and industries.
The point is that from the founding of the nation, American Hispanics have served in the American Armed forces and have responded to America’s crises in overwhelmingly numbers. Currently, American Hispanics are on active military duty everywhere, most of them having already served in Iraq or Afghanistan.
American Hispanics have not only fought to defend the nation but they have fought for every inch of progress they have made. Mimi Lozano, publisher of Somos Primos, had it right: Ken Burns and PBS are lousy historians and blind to the history of American Hispanics.
Adding supplementary Hispanic footage to the first episode of “The War” consisted of 28 minutes at the end of the Guadalcanal sequence of the episode. Two Hispanic Marine veterans who were at Guadalcanal with Carlson’s Raiders were interviewed with intersticing clips of Carlson’s Raiders. This struck me as an amendable gesture but far short of delivering on the Hispanic contributions to World War II.
At the start of episode one, when the narrative focused on Sacramento, Burns could have spliced into the narrative that the first draftee of World War II was Pete Aguilar Despart, a Mexican American from Los Angeles; and that at the height of the war, just one month after Private Jose P. Martinez (U.S. Army) had been killed at the battle of Attu in the Aleutians (May 27, 1943), an action for which he was awarded the Medal of Honor posthumously, Mexican Americans were fleeing for their lives in Los Angeles in what came to be known as the Zoot-Suit Riots. Private Martínez, born in New Mexico and raised in Colorado, was the first draftee in the Pacific Theatre in World War II to win the Congressional Medal of Honor, distinguishing himself in battle against the Japanese by leading his pinned-down platoon through heavy Japanese rifle and machine gun fire to capture a strategic pass overlooking the harbor. His citation reads, “he was mortally wounded with his rifle still at his shoulder, absorbing all enemy fire and permitting all units to move up behind him and successfully take the pass.”
Other Congressional Medal of Honor recipients in the Pacific were Pvt. Cleto Rodríguez of Texas; Pvt. Manuel Pérez, Jr. (posthumously) of Chicago; Staff Sergeant Ysmael Villegas (posthumously) of California; PFC David Gonzales (posthumously) of California and Sgt. Alejandro Ruiz (posthumously) of New Mexico.
Another Mexican American to win the Congressional Medal of Honor was Staff Sergeant Luciano Adams of Port Arthur, Texas. On October 28, 1944, while bullets clipped the branches off the trees around him and hand grenades showered him with broken twigs, he dashed from tree to tree in the Montagne Forest in France and single-handedly knocked out three German machine guns.
Also receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor in the European Theatre were Staff Sergeant Macario Garcia, a Mexican-born farm laborer from Texas who, while wounded, crawled forward to silence two German gun emplacements; Sergeant José M. López of Brownsville, Texas, a machine gunner who killed more enemy soldiers than any other American in World War I or II—over l00—while protecting his company during a withdrawal; nineteen-year-old Pvt. José F. Valdez who bled to death while fighting off an attack from more than 200 of the enemy and directing artillery fire on their position; and PFC Silvestre S. Herrera who, after his feet were blown off in a minefield, pinned down an enemy position until his comrades silenced it.
In Episode 5, Ken Burns could have added that on April 24, 1945, Congressman Jerry Voorhis from California read into the Congressional Record: “As I read the casualty lists from my own state, I find anywhere from one-fourth to one-third of those names are names such as Gonzales or Sanchez, citizens of Latin-American descent in the uniform of the armed forces of the United States whose blood is being poured out to win victory in the war. We ought to resolve that in the future every single one of these citizens shall have the fullest and freest opportunity which this country is capable of giving him, to advance to such positions of influence and eminence as their own personal capacities make possible.”
Sad to say, American Hispanics continue to be the invisible minority, but that condition can change. Indeed we held Burns’ and PBS’ feet to the fire. But we can resolve to make our own documentaries about our contributions to the United States. Our absence in documentaries is like our absence in American textbooks.
Despite the history of Mexican America as an internal colony of the United States, I’m proud of my Marine Corps service during World War II. For it signifies that despite the colonial nature of Mexican America’s history more than 500,000 Mexican Americans served in that conflagration in defense of the nation.
Chicano Scholars must keep reminding the nation of that fact and the valor of the living and dead Mexican American men and woman soldiers, sailors, airmen / women, and Marines. That valor resulted in Mexican Americans being awarded more Medals of Honor during World War II and Korea than any other ethnic group. Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric is a slap in the face to Mexican Americans who sacrificed like the progeny of Mexicans whose country during World War II was one of the staunchest allies of the United States. In April 1943 Mexican President Avila Camacho and American President Franklin Roosevelt met in Monterrey, Mexico, to discuss military cooperation. By September Mexico entered the war as a full military partner of the United States, the only Spanish–speaking nation in Latin America to become a combatant in World War II (Miller 29). There were Mexican military units under their own command.
By 1944 the Mexican Air Force had Squadron 201 ready for combat in the Philippines (40 pilots and 350 ground crews) trained in San Antonio, Texas, in P-47 Thunderbolts—one of the planes is on permanent exhibit at the Nimitz Museum in Fredericksburg, Texas.
Nearly a century after a bitter defeat by the United States, Mexico sent a military force to fight against the Axis powers alongside U.S. military forces in World War II. It was the first time that Mexico sent combat personnel abroad and the first time both nations battled a common threat. This unique unit was the Mexican air force, Fuerza Aerea Mexicana (FAM). Its pilots provided air support in the liberation of the Philippines and flew long-range sorties over Formosa, earning praise from Allied theater commander General Douglas MacArthur and decorations from the U.S., Mexican and Philippine governments. – HistoryNet, 6/12/2006
In addition to the 500,000 Mexican Americans who served in World War II—in which I was a Marine Corps Sergeant in the Pacific—Mexican citizens joined the U.S. armed forces “in impressive numbers . . . taking their place along with other allies in the fight against the Axis powers” (Ibid. 35-36).
Given that 40 million Mexican Americans constitute ¼ of the 160 million Mexicans and Mexican Americans, it appears that in better times Mexico’s future lies with ligatures to the United States and its diasporic children.
President Trump needs to stop caterwauling about “Mexicans” and “the wall” and note the unflagging contributions “Mexicans” have made to the nation in times of peril and in times of peace despite becoming Americans initially by conquest and by fiat.
Copyright © 2018 by the author. All rights reserved. Cover of The War used under the “fair use” proviso of the copyright law. All other photos are in the public domain.