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Hispanics Lose Staunchest Trumpeter for Fairness, Equality

By Rudi Williams American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON -- Hispanics have lost one of their staunchest, most vocal trumpeter for fairness and equality -- World War II combat hero and physician Hector P. Garcia. Garcia, who died in July, championed Hispanic civil and human rights for nearly five decades as head of the American GI Forum. He founded the organization March 26, 1948, in Corpus Christi, Texas, to fight against discrimination endured by Mexican-American World War II veterans in southwest Texas.

The forum soon grew into a civil rights advocate for all Hispanics and broadened its activities throughout the country to promote greater participation in civic affairs. The organization has been in the forefront of major civil rights struggles, such as desegregating schools, initiating school drives for students, voter registration, demanding fair judicial proceedings and speaking out against mass media stereotyping and distortions.

National Guard Bureau Chief Army Lt. Gen. Edward Baca said several organizations fight for fairness and equality for Hispanics in American society, such as Lulac, La Raza and Image, but the American GI Forum is a staunch veterans' champion.

"Veteran's groups look after the interest of veterans, active duty service members and their families," noted Baca. "These are people who put their lives on line, willing to die for their country.

When they come back, we as a grateful nation should try to ensure they're compensated properly.

That's what the GI Forum fights for and to ensure America never forgets the contributions and the price these people paid." Baca said Garcia wasn't as well-known as such Hispanic heroes as Caesar Chavez, founder of the United Farm Workers.

"But in terms of his impact for Hispanic veterans, he had the same kind of effect Martin Luther King Jr. had in the civil rights movement and Chavez in his fight for migrant farm workers' rights," Baca said. "So he probably did as much for Hispanic veterans -- Hispanics in general -- as King and Chavez did, mainly in erasing a lot of the stereotypes about Hispanics.

" Garcia's foray into the battle for Hispanic rights was sparked by denial of benefits to Hispanic veterans returning home from World War II.

Many expected to use the GI Bill of Rights, which guaranteed educational, medical, housing and other basic benefits.

Their Anglo former comrades-in-arms were using these rights to buy homes, get Veterans Administration medical care, go to school and so on.

But the benefits were denied to Mexican Americans, other Hispanics and minorities throughout the Southwest, particularly in Texas.

"Thousands of Hispanics -- Medal of Honor, Silver Star and Bronze Star recipients -- like Garcia (Bronze Star with six battle stars) returned home from the World War II with the same pride, patriotism and hope they exhibited on the battlefield," Baca said.

"But whites in their communities refused to acknowledge their contributions to the defense of this nation and victory in war," Baca said.

Many returning veterans faced blatant discrimination and were burdened with insidious stereotypes by their Anglo neighbors, the general said. "Hispanics tasted the bitter personal despair and frustration of those times; when stores and restaurants put up signs warning, ‘No Dogs or Mexicans,' " he said.

"But against that wall of hate, there rose a strong spirit, a positive voice of pride, dignity, respect and love for mankind and a willingness to act -- Dr. Hector Garcia." Being a war hero and physician, who undoubtedly saved many lives on the battlefield, didn't matter to the Mexican-American veteran's unrelenting tormentors, he said.

"When Garcia returned home to practice medicine in Corpus Christi, he encountered racism and hatred in his community," Baca said.

Whites volleyed the ultimate insult in 1949 when the only funeral home in Three Rivers, Texas, refused to allow its chapel to be used for a wake for the remains of Army Pvt. Felix Longoria. Longoria was killed in the Philippines in 1945, and it took nearly four years for his remains to be returned to his loved ones.

"That raised the ire of a lot of folks, especially Hector Garcia," Baca said. "So Hector decided to do something about it.

He couldn't get him buried in Three Rivers because discrimination was so blatant in those days. But he solicited the help of then-Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, who arranged for a hero's burial with full military honors at Arlington (Va.) National Cemetery.

" Tony Morales, executive director of the American GI Forum, headquartered in San Marcos, Texas, said, "In his time, he [Garcia] was a pioneer who set the stage in developing a social consciousness among Hispanics. Prior to his foray into human and civil rights, there was very little strong advocacy using radio and the print media to publicize issues.

"We had proven on the battleground that we're equal in all aspects; we fought as hard and alongside our black and white brothers on the battlefield," said the Air Force veteran.

"After the war, Hispanic veterans saw discrimination in a new light and decided they didn't have to accept it any longer," he noted. "In addition to the 'No Dogs or Mexican' signs, many places allowed Mexican Americans in theaters, restaurants and other public places only at certain times on certain days of the week.

In many places, realtors used special codes to identify people of Mexican decent to refuse them the right to buy property. The veterans had been all over the world fighting in defense of this nation; they saw it didn't have to be that way

." Hispanic veterans were fighting for many of the same rights as the rest of the Mexican-American community, Morales said. "Garcia made the burial incident in Three Rivers into an international incident and caused an embarrassment to the state of Texas," he noted.

"The story was picked up in the broadcast and print media all over the world." "He [Garcia] was also talking about a war on poverty in the late '40s and early '50s," Morales said. "He used radio and the print media to tell migrant workers to send their children to school instead of to the fields.

"So in those days, he was considered a radical; he was 15 years ahead of his time," said Morales. President Reagan awarded Garcia the Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor for his humanitarian contributions to the nation and his fellow man, and his deep belief in traditional American ideals.

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