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 receive 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).