In June 1962, JFK and Jackie Kennedy are greeted by 2 million people in Mexico City and later visit the Shrine to La Virgen de Guadalupe
In June 1962, JFK and Jackie Kennedy are greeted by 2 million people in Mexico City and later visit the Shrine to La Virgen de Guadalupe
A school bus, snowy mountains and deep sky in Westcliffe, Colo.
Dr. Hector P. Garcia, right, later founder of the GI Forum, is shown here in North Africa providing medical care to the poor while he was serving in the US Army and preparing to enter Italy. “(These) three long, weary years of suffering…pain…hardship and heartaches have taught me how to be tolerant and how to be patient,” Garcia wrote. “I have seen poverty and have seen cruelty and I want to place myself above both of them.”
Day of the Dead, La Catrina and the Prez on Olvera Street in Los Angeles
While few recognize Orange County for its history of civil rights activism, all Americans are indebted to the actions of Gonzalo and Felicitas Mendez, and four other Santa Ana families, who challenged segregation in local schools.
Mission San Diego de Alcala, oldest mission church in California. Dropped by on Easter.
A Republican Congressman is facing heat for using the racial charged term “wetback” to describe Latinos during an interview this week.
But epithet was once commonly used among Latinos, and even among some civil rights organizations, as a way to distinguish U.S.-born Latinos from recent immigrants.
In an interview with a community radio station KRBD on Tuesday, Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, referred to Latinos working on his father’s ranch as “wetbacks.”
“My father had a ranch. We used to hire 50 or 60 wetbacks and…to pick tomatoes,” the 79-year-old Young said. “You know, it takes two people to pick the same tomatoes now. It’s all done by machine.”
Bloggers and social media immediately picked up on Young’s comments and attacked the conservative congressman just as the GOP is embarking on efforts to woo Latino voters. By Thursday, the congressman’s office issued a statement and said he “meant no disrespect.”
“During a sit down interview with Ketchikan Public Radio this week, I used a term that was commonly used during my days growing up on a farm in Central California,” Young, who has been in office since 1973, said in the statement. “I know that this term is not used in the same way nowadays and I meant no disrespect.”
The pejorative term refers to illegal immigrants from Mexico who reached the U.S. by swimming through the Rio Grande along the Texas border.
“We are outraged that in 2013 political leaders are still using racial slurs and insulting terms to refer to our community,” said Arturo Carmona, executive director of Presente.org, an online Latino advocacy group. “Rep. Ron Young needs to publically apologize for his careless and hurtful statement.”
During the late 1940s and early 1950s, as a new generation of Mexican American civil rights leaders began to emerge, U.S. Latinos began to complain about illegal immigration and the strain it was putting on wages among Mexican Americans. At the time, Mexican Americans were among the poorest group in the nation and the population’s middle class was still small. Unauthorized migration from Mexico, some civil rights leaders argued, was being used by growers and businesses to stop Mexican Americans from demanding equal protection under the law and undermining efforts to halt racial exploitation.
The idea of “illegal immigration” also was only 30 years old (the U.S. Border Patrol was created in 1924).
Still, beginning during the Truman Administration, some Latino civil rights leaders began complaining about “the wetback problem” to federal officials. In fact, legendary civil rights lawyer Gus Garcia met with White House officials on behalf of the G.I. Forum to discuss the matter.
In 1953, Immigration and Naturalization Services (INS) embarked on an effort to militarize the agency and launched “Operation Wetback” — a mass deportation effort that removed 3.6 million people of Mexican origin from the U.S. (some were U.S. citizens). At the same time, G.I. Forum leader and journalist Ed Idar Jr. wrote a report on behalf the G.I. Forum and the American Federal of Labor that argued “wetbacks” were a direct threat to the health and culture of American society. The report, entitled “What Price Wetbacks?”, also painted U.S. Border Patrol agents as unsung heroes, according to historian Ignacio Garcia.
The report was a reflection of some Latinos at the time. Still, it sparked outrage among others. Idar had sought show how undocumented immigrants, who he called “Guanajuanto Joes,” were being exploited but instead repeated old stereotypes. The report split members of the G.I. Forum and its leader, Dr. Hector P. Garcia, distanced himself from it. The Mexican-born Garcia had long been critical of illegal immigration but blamed it largely on the growers and businesses who were exploiting poor immigrants.
And the G.I Forum wasn’t the only one to use the term. Sociologist Julian Samora, a pioneer in Mexican American Studies, even published a book in 1971 called “Los Mojados: The Wetback Story.”
But overtime, the term ceased being used in public as Mexican Americans soon realized the term was being used to describe all people of Mexican origin in the United State, regardless of immigration status or citizenship. Soon the term was tucked away and banished among other offensive terms rarely used in public (expect by mainly racist who mean to use it.)
So when Young says he was using the term “commonly used” during his time growing up, he’s right. But it begs the question: was he using it to describe all people of Mexican origin regardless of status? Or was he using it to refer to illegal immigrants working on his father’s California ranch?
If it’s the former, the term is based on racism, intended or not.
If it’s the latter, Young is admitting that his family acquired its wealth, allowing him to eventually run for Congress, by hiring undocumented workers, and by breaking the law.
World War II is often credited with producing the first generation of U.S. Latino civil rights leaders.
But it was the Great War 30 years before that planted the seeds for a movement that would change the lives of U.S. Latinos.
In 1917, the United States intercepted the Zimmerman Telegram. The communication was a invitation by Germany to Mexico to join the war effort against the U.S. in exchange for Texas, New Mexico and Arizona—territories lost in the U.S.-Mexican War. President Woodrow Wilson released the telegram to the public who then supported the nation joining the war.
Congress quickly enacted the Selective Service Act and required all men between the ages of 21 to 30 to register for duty. Those classified as “foreigners” were required to register with a local agency and prove their nationality.
Because of vigilante violence and regular lynchings by mob, some Mexican Americans in South Texas feared that being forced to join the U.S. military might make them join a group they hated — the Texas Rangers. In South Texas, the Texas Rangers ruled by violence and fear, often killing innocent Mexican Americans at random under the pretense that they were working to fight “bandits.” As a results, tens of thousands of Mexican Americans fled Texas to Mexico to avoid being drafted. Some saw the draft as another Texas Rangers roundup.
Others stayed and participated in the draft seeing the war as a opportunity to show the rest of America that, despite the discrimination and charges that they were un-American, they would demonstrate just how American they were on the battlefield.
And others even volunteered.
“We are proud of (our Mexican heritage) but ten times more proud that we are American citizens,” San Diego Constable Ventura Sanchez said at the time.
One corrido, entitled “La Guerra,” even had these lyrics: We Tejanos also know how to die for a great nation.
David Barkley Hernandez (pictured above), even tried to downplay his Mexican heritage because of fears that the San Antonio draft boards might not let select him to join the U.S. Army. So, using only his father’s name, he enlisted as “David Barkley.”
As a member of Company A, 356th Infantry, 89th Division, Barkley and a sergeant swan across a dangerous river in France to get behind enemy German lines and gather information. Returning with key information, Barkley was “seized with cramps and drowned.” It was two days before the armistice went into effect.
Barkley was later awarded the Medal of Honor, becoming the first Mexican American to win the award.
Other Mexican-American soldiers who served were overcome by hope after seeing some fellow white soldiers treat them with respect, unlike the treatment they saw back in Texas and California. “I shared a tent with three Anglos and they treated me just like everyone else,” said Joe Garza. “Growing up the way I did, I can’t describe what this meant to me.”
Returning WWI vets, however, were shocked that situation had not changed when they came home. Despite their service, some restaurants and businesses still refused to serve Mexican Americans. In facts, some vets thought they saw even more “No Mexicans Allowed” signs than before.
At a Falfurrias, Texas July 4th celebration sponsored for the American Legion and Mexican-American businesses, one Mexican American soldiers reacted angrily when he saw that the barbecue was integrated but the dance later that evening was “whites only.” The soldier snatched a decoration from his coat lapel, tossed it on the floor, then stomped on it. “If shedding blood for you Americans does not mean any more than this,” he said, “I do not want to ever wear your color, from now on I am ashamed of having served in your army.”
Some decided to fight back.
Ten years upon returning, a group of Mexican American veterans in Corpus Christi, Texas, founded the League of Latin American Citizens, a group that would later become the largest Latino civil rights group in the nation and would help dismantle Jim Crow throughout the Southwest years later. The advocates wrote essays, organized letter writing campaigns, even challenged elected officials to fight discrimination. The roaring 1920s also brought the roaring Mexican Americans.
One vet, Jose de la Luz Saenz published a memoir “Los Mexico-Americanos en La Gran Guerra” in 1933 to highlight his experiences and others in the war as to let other know what happened.
At the height of their activism, Saenz and other Mexican American vets even got San Antonio Mayor C.M. Chambers on board with plans to erect a memorial on Main Street Plaza to WWI Mexican American soldiers.
But the memorial was never built.
And Saenz memoir went out of print.
Almost 100 years later, as a new generation of U.S. Latino advocates press for various reform and policy changes, it is important to recognize that the struggle for civil rights was planted by a group of brave vets who risked their lives, help build the intellectual argue for Latino civil rights but now are all but forgotten. The foundations they built helped the WWII generation continue the civil right struggle, who then helped open doors for later generations.
(for more information, please check out “No Mexicans, Women, or Dogs Allowed: The Rise of the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement” by historian Cynthia E. Orozco).
USA Today examines why the continued push for a “Latino” political identity in the United States comes as a cost as the nation’s largest segment of the Latino population — Mexican Americans — gets overlooked when more affluent Latinos enter the picture.
In 1943, John J. Herrera walked into La Virgen de Guadalupe Church in Houston’s East End a broke man. The 33-year-old had earned his money as a migrant worker, a city ditch digger and now worked as a cabbie. But Herrera, a descendent of a signer of the Texas Declaration of Independence, wanted to dramatically change his future and the future of his growing family.
The need to work had forced the Louisiana-born Herrera to delay his high school graduation by three years. Still, Herrera was somehow able to finish his course work at the South Texas College of Law. All that now stood between Herrera and his desire to become one of just a handful of Mexican American lawyers in Texas was passing the Texas Bar Exam. He had already taken it two previous times.
His fellow cabbies took a collection. They raised enough money for Herrera to take time off and study for six weeks for the bar. With the money, Herrera drove his family to Corpus Christi, Texas to drop them off so he could put himself in total seclusion.
He also paid a visit to La Virgen de Guadalupe.
The Houston church had played a key role among city’s growing Mexican American population since opening in 1912. In its early days, it served Mexican refugees escaping the violence of the Mexican Revolution and had since become the gathering place for one of the city’s most discriminated group of residents.
Once inside, Herrera knelt down and spoke to the Patron Saint of the Motherland. He asked for Her help to passing the bar. He had nowhere else to turn. In return, the Houston cabbie promised, he would always worked to serve the poor, the less fortunate, and “the people.” Grant me the strength, he pleaded, and he would always honor this vow.
Months later, his 8-year-old son, Mike Herrera, was outside the family’s home when the postman arrived. He grabbed the letters to hand to his father and mother who anxiously took the mail from his hand. “I thought my mom was just getting another letter,” Mike Herrera remembered. “She wrote a lot of letters.”
A postcard had arrive. Herrera and his wife hugged, then begin to cry. The son, confused, tugged his mom. No, she told him. We’re not crying because we’re sad. Sometimes grown people cry because they are happy.
The cabbie was now a lawyer.
Throughout his career, Herrera would largely serve Mexican American clients from Houston to South Texas. He’d work on Saturdays, since that was the only time workers were able to see him, and he’d become an active member of the League of United Latin American Citizens, then the nation’s largest Latino civil rights group. When he saw episodes of discrimination, he spoke out despite threats of violence.
Eleven years after making his promise to La Virgen, Herrera was standing before the U.S. Supreme Court as part of a three-lawyer team seeking to end a ban against Mexican Americans serving on juries in some parts of Texas. They were the first group of Latinos to ever argue a case of discrimination before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Twenty years later, Herrera would introduce President John F. Kennedy to an excited crowd of Mexican American civil rights leaders in Houston’s Rice Hotel in what would later be described as the first address by a sitting president to a Latino group. The introduction came just hours before the president was assassinated.
Some historians have often lamented the lack of religious conviction in the Mexican American Civil Rights Movement compared to the more well-known black Civil Rights Movement. But that assessment fails to consider the deeply religious inspirations of John J. Herrera, G.I. Forum founder Dr. Hector P. Garcia, and later, land grant activist Reies Lopez Tijerina (a former Pentecostal preacher). This ethos among key figures of the movement is what sparked them into action and kept them pressing despite immeasurable odds.
In 1943, a promise was made and fulfilled. And it’s what drove one civil rights lawyer to continue to press for change, even when the world around him let him know he likely would never see, nor fully understand, the effects of his work.