Draft boards, one of the least visible governmental bodies, have had an immense effect on the Mexican American community over the years. Draft boards oversee the registration and selection of persons of military age in the event of a national “draft,” i.e., compulsory enlistment into the U. S. armed forces, and they grant deferments or exemptions from military service. In short, in times of war, Draft boards literally determine who goes to war and who doesn’t.
Note: The three wars I discuss (WW I, WW II, Vietnam) were complex and multilayered events and have been covered in depth by scholars and others. I discuss only a sliver of those wars’ dynamics as they relate to Draft boards.
Mexican Americans “draft” themselves…
Historically, Mexican Americans have done the work of Draft boards during wartime. For, often Mexican Americans did not wait to be drafted. They enlisted. They “drafted” themselves, as it were. These enlistees were motivated by a variety of reasons. For example:
Many felt it was their civic duty to serve. Others felt they had to “prove” their loyalty to the U.S. And others did not understand the paperwork they received and did not apply for exemptions they qualified for. Others wanted to expedite their quest for U. S. citizenship. Others “enlisted” because a judge gave them a choice: enlist or go to reform school. Some enlisted so as to help their families financially.
So they figuratively showed up at the Draft offices, suitcases in hand. But Mexican Americans were targeted anyway by the Draft boards.
World War I…
Scholar Carole Christian, in an article focusing on Mexican Americans and World War I, suggests that Mexican Americans were overrepresented in the WW I ranks due to Texas Draft boards being very aggressive in getting Mexican Americans into the military. Christian focuses on Texas, but what she describes occurred in California, New Mexico, and other states.
The Texas Draft boards used Spanish- and English-language newspapers to inform the Mexican American community of the Draft registration requirements. Many Mexican Americans were functionally illiterate in English and had not submitted the Draft forms, prompting some Draft boards to issue warnings, in Spanish-language newspapers, that those failing to return draft forms would be jailed.
The upshot of the aggressiveness of the Draft boards was that many Mexican Americans who were eligible for exemption from service were drafted and served. There was a strong feeling within the Mexican American community that the local draft boards preferred to draft more Mexicans than whites. Some protested by refusing to register for the Draft.
Christian contends that World War I represented the first time the government and American society sought active involvement of Mexican Americans in national life. While many Mexican Americans resented being asked to serve in the military after being treated as “foreigners” and second-class citizens, others hoped that participating in the war effort would increase opportunities for the Mexican American community. Thus, Mexican American participation in World War I can be seen as the start of a struggle for equal rights in the twentieth century. (Source 1)
World War II…
As in WW I, Mexican Americans were probably over-represented in WW II. Many scholars and others posit that the WW II era was an existential defining moment for the Mexican American community in that WW II and its dynamics finally made Mexican Americans feel like Americans.
That white society saw Americans of Mexican descent as foreigners is well documented. Carey McWilliams reports that up through the 1940s the unit of the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department that focused on the Mexican American population was named the Foreign Affairs Bureau. (Source 2) In Arizona, Tucson school superintendent C. E. Rose, in his 1920-21 report, informed the school board that a school the district had just established was made up entirely of children of “foreign blood,” Mexican and Indian. (Source 3)
Dr. Lorena Oropeza (Professor of History at The University of California at Davis) recounts an illustrative anecdote by a WW II Mexican American veteran. As an Army private in the 1940s, he was reprimanded during basic training for putting his hands in his pockets on a cold day. The officer who rebuked him told him that American soldiers stand at attention and not with their hands in their pockets. Decades later, the Mexican American veteran remembered this exchange fondly, for he said that that was the first time anyone had called him an American. (Source 4)
About 750,000 Mexican Americans served in the military during World War II. As in WW I, many of these didn’t wait to be drafted—they enlisted. Dr. Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, Director of the University of Texas Latino/a Veterans Oral History Project, notes that, “Many Mexican-American families had two, three, four—and even, in the case of the De Los Santos brothers of San Saba [Texas], eight—sons in the military during World War II.” (Source 5) In Silvis, Illinois, Hero Street is named after 57 Mexican American young men who lived on Second Street in Silvis and who served in WW II and Korea. The U.S. Department of Defense determined this constituted “…the largest number of servicemen from the same ethnic group to come from any area of comparable size during these conflicts.” Six of these men were killed in action during WW II. (Source 6)
Lora M. Key, a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at the University of Arizona, published an article focusing on draft-board dynamics in Tucson, Arizona during WW II. In a speech to a civic group, a Mexican American member of one of the local Draft boards, Andy P. Martin, asserted that Mexican Americans were being drafted into WW II disproportionately. Martin noted that Mexican Americans comprised 25 percent of Tucson’s population but represented 60 percent of the new draftees and those in military service from the Tucson area. In contrast, the white population of Pima County accounted for only 15 percent of the draftees but comprised about 70 percent of the county’s population.
A major reason for this disparity, Martin maintained, was that defense industries discriminated against Mexican Americans in their hiring. This was significant in that working in the defense industry was the basis for a draft exemption. Martin also posited that many Mexican Americans lacked sufficient fluency in English to properly complete the questionnaire and therefore did not apply for exemptions they qualified for.
Martin’s speech was widely discussed and debated within the middle-, business-class Mexican American community, which generated suggestions as to how to address the issue. One was to lobby the governor to appoint more Mexican Americans to the draft boards. Another was to get Mexican American civic organizations to set up programs to help Mexican Americans fill out the draft forms and apply for exemptions they might qualify for and appeal draft board denials of exemptions. And another was to set up community-based boards to monitor the work of the draft boards.
By 1943, the discussion of the draft-board dynamics subsided. With the growing need of men in the military, draft deferments became rare, for everybody. When deferments dropped, the fight for deferments or representation became less important. (Source 7)
Draft Boards and deferments were also a major issue for the Mexican American community during the Vietnam War. The Chicano (aka Mexican American) community was much more outspoken and oppositional than was the case in WW I and WW II. A very active anti-war movement developed, led by young Chicanos/Chicanas. There were demonstrations and marches in various cities throughout the Southwest and elsewhere. In protest, some Mexican American youth burnt their draft cards, and a few refused induction.
The Chicano anti-war movement culminated with a march (organized by the National Chicano Moratorium Committee) on August 29, 1970 in Los Angeles. Over 30,000 people participated in the march. The demonstration became what was described as a “police riot” when local police attacked the demonstrators. More than 150 demonstrators were arrested, scores were injured, and four were killed, including LA Times journalist Rubén Salazar.
The Chicano activists were protesting the overrepresentation of Chicanos in Vietnam. According to Census reports, Mexican Americans comprised 11.8% of the population of the five (5) Southwestern states, yet the fatality rate of Chicanos from these states was over 19%. The Fall, 1969, issue of El Grito, a popular Chicano journal, published a partial list of Spanish‑surnamed people killed in Vietnam. This partial list takes up twenty‑six pages, each page containing two columns. (Source 8)
The 19% figure given above is an undercount. It includes only those with “distinguishable Spanish surnames.” However, there are many Chicanos with English last names who are not represented by this figure. Also, this figure applies only to fatalities from the five (5) Southwestern states and does not include those from other parts of the country.
Directly related to the inordinately high death rate of Chicanos in Vietnam is the fact that Chicanos were drafted disproportionately. The high Mexican American high-school dropout rate in the late 1960s, early 1970s made Mexican American youth “draftable” as soon as they reached their eighteenth birthday. The very low college attendance rate of Mexican Americans in that period was also a factor in that college students received automatic deferments.
Indeed, Draft boards are an integral part of our community’s history. Almost all of us have been impacted by the decisions of Draft boards. If not ourselves directly, then our parents, siblings, uncles and aunts, neighbors, friends, etc. c/s
Copyright 2020 by Salomon Baldeengro. All photos in the public domain. to contact Sal write: Salomonrb@msn.com
Special Thanks to Dr. Lorena Oropeza and Dr. Christine Marín for their invaluable assistance.
Source 1 Carole E. Christian, Joining the American Mainstream: Texas’s Mexican Americans During World War I, The Southwestern Historical Quarterly, Vol. 92, No. 4, April, 1989.
Source 2 Carey McWilliams, North from Mexico: The Spanish-Speaking People of The United States, Greenwood Press, New York, N.Y., 1968.
Source 3 Thomas E. Sheridan, Los Tucsonenses: The Mexican Community in Tucson, 1854-1941, University of Arizona Press, 1986.
Source 4 Lorena Oropeza, Fighting on Two Fronts: Latinos in the Military, National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior, 2013.
Source 5 Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez, Guest Voz: World War II generation of Mexican-Americans made huge strides in civil rights movement, Latina Lista The Smart News Source, Apr 11, 2014
Source 6 “A Brief Study of Hero Street USA!,” http://www.herostreetusa.org/htm/abouthsm.htm
Source 7 Lora Key, The Right to Represent: Mexican Americans and the World War II Draft Board in Tucson, Arizona, Journal of Arizona History. Vol. 60, No. 2, Summer 2019.
Source 8 Octavio Romano, Spanish Surname War Dead, Viet Nam, El Grito: A Journal of Contemporary Mexican‑American Thought, Quinto Sol Publications, Inc., Berkeley, California, Vol. 3, No. 1, Fall 1969. NOTE: Romano relied on the research of Dr. Ralph C. Guzmán, whose 1970 seminal study, “Mexican American Casualties in Vietnam,” showed definitively that Mexican Americans were disproportionately affected by the Vietnam War.