The San Antonio Latino Middle Class: A Boost from
Kelly Air Base
The rise of a Latino middle class–almost non-existent prior to 1945–evolved slowly in cities with a sizable Mexican American population in the post World War II decades. San Antonio Latinos benefited from nearly forty years of large military spending at its four air force bases [Kelly, Brooks, Randolph, Lackland] beginning at the start of World War II and extending two decades beyond the end of the Vietnam War. Huge military expenditures in South Texas improved the job prospects and socio-economic status for thousands of Latinos.
During its first hundred years as an American city, 1846-1948, San Antonio’s Latino population and Latinos in South Texas worked in unskilled, low-paying dead-end employment such as service jobs, food preparation, farm work, and ranching. The industrial jobs, largely in railroad construction and later in urban construction, paid only slightly more than work on ranches or in agricultural fields.
Kelly Field, located on the western edge of the city, would change the employment equation for many Latinos
and their families. Kelly Field has a long history. It was one of thirty-two Air Service training camps created
nationwide when the United States entered World War I in April of 1917. The base began when military leaders viewed a cotton field southwest of downtown San Antonio as the ideal place for training pilots. Isolation and flat terrain made the site perfect for take offs and landings. Developers saw ample space for building aircraft hangers and fuel depots.
Kelly provided excellent skill development opportunities for new workers. Photo provided by Fred Herrera standing third from the left. Initially Kelly Field, as it was known prior to World War II, served as a pilot training facility. After the start of World War II, Kelly expanded to provide logistical support, principally the repair and maintenance of military aircraft.
With the beginning of World War II, Kelly Field became Kelly Air Force Base further expanding its war mission and thereby offering even more expansive workforce opportunities. Over the next fifty years Kelly Air Force Base enabled San Antonio Westsiders to buy homes and send their children to college.
Albert Curtis, author of the book Fabulous San Antonio, wrote of the World War II days when the base “reached a spectacular peak” and stationed 6,000 officers and enlisted men and employed 24,000 civilians, which included 10,000 women. Researcher Art Leatherwood estimated that during World War II women constituted at least 25 percent of the workforce at Kelly due to the high number of draft-eligible men who had entered military service.
San Antonio’s large Mexican American community, for many years largely concentrated in the southern and
western portion of the city, owes much of its rise and stability to the presence of Kelly Air Force Base on the
western edge of the city.
In the post World War II decades, the Kelly Base had the largest industrial workforce in the Southwest. Scholars estimate that Mexican Americans represented sixty percent of that workforce during the height of the Vietnam War [1967-70]. Even after the Vietnam War, Kelly employed a record number of workers. Leatherwood noted that in 1989 Kelly had more than 25,000 military and civilian employees, and its payroll exceeded $721 million. It was by far the largest employer in San Antonio.
To live in the San Antonio Westside was to know someone who worked or had worked at Kelly Field. In my household, which was not unusual, two brothers worked at Kelly. Both had done well enough to buy their first home in San Antonio, and both retired with benefits.
My first cousin, Fred Herrera, worked at Kelly for 40 years and rose to become the Deputy Chief of the
Industrial Systems Engineering Division. Herrera, who turns 93 this year, started working at Kelly Field at age nineteen. Kelly Field relied on the merit system for hiring and promotions and all aspirant applicants were given a test. In 1948, when he first applied to work at Kelly, Herrera scored in the top ten percent of the 1100 who were tested that year.
For young Herrera 1948 was an important year. He got married, started his career with Kelly Field, and built
his own house with the help of his dad. He and his wife lived in the same house for the 40 years that Herrera
worked at Kelly Field. Five of the Herrera children grew up in this house, near the Las Palmas shopping Center and in the Edgewood School District.
Jobs at Kelly Field over the period 1945-1995 made it possible for Mexican Americans like Fred Herrera to build a home, establish credit, and send their children to college. Kelly provided steady and well-paying employment. Herrera recalled that at the height of the Vietnam War Kelly Field employed 18,000 civilian workers.
When Kelly Field closed in 2001, the base was recognized as the oldest permanent air base in the United States. Kelly Air Force Base played a significant role in American military defense during the base’s 83 years existence. Moreover, the base served as a wealth generator for Latinos in San Antonio in the post World War II decades by allowing those who worked there to own their own homes and afford higher education for their children.
Copyright 2021 by Ricardo Romo. All photos courtesy of Fred Herrera. Mural painting used with the permission of artist Joe Lopez.