I come from a proud line of Latino war veterans. My father and two uncles are Vietnam War vets, and I have a relative who lost his legs in combat during World War II. I also have cousins who were West Point grads, Green Berets, Army Airborne, and National Guardsmen. As a Latino, I’m not alone in having a long tradition of family military service. More than 1 million Latino vets are alive and well in the United States today, and Latinos comprise 11% of the U.S. military.
Beginning with the American Revolution (yes, the war with the wig-wearing Brits more than 200 years ago), Latinos have bravely served in the U.S. military. Latinos have fought in every war since, including the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean “conflict,” the Vietnam War, Operation Desert Shield/Storm, Operation Iraqi Freedom, and Operation Enduring Freedom. Much to my surprise, Latinos even fought in China (and won a Congressional Medal of Honor) as part of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900! I wonder, did one of my Mexican ancestors fight in China one hundred years ago having no idea that one of his own would end up marrying a Chinese woman in Los Angeles 70 years later? :)
A higher percentage of Latinos fought in WWII than any other ethnic minority group. Latinos also won more medals during WWII, including Congressional Medals of Honor, than any other ethnic minority group. This led many of us to shake our heads in disbelief when Ken Burns failed to honor the specific military service of Latinos in his famous WWII documentary series which came out in 2007.
As proud as us Latinos are of our brave history of military service to the United States, there’s also a bit of tension which many of us experience when we talk about it. This is because, historically, though we’ve fought our hearts and souls out on the battlefield, we haven’t always found open arms when we’ve returned home.
The Felix Longoria incident is a tragic example of this which deserves commemoration this Veteran’s Day. Felix Z. Longoria, a Texas native, was killed in action in the Philippines in 1945. After fighting and dying bravely on the battlefield for his country, his body was transported back to his south Texas hometown of Three Rivers for honorable burial. Unbelievably, an Anglo funeral home in Three Rivers refused to allow his family to conduct funeral services for him there because of his Mexican ancestry. This raised a national controversy and spurred the political intervention of then Senator Lyndon B. Johnson and Dr. Hector P. Santiago, founder of the American G.I. Forum (a Latino veterans organization created to advocate for the civil rights of Latino war veterans). Justice was served , and Private Felix Longoria was granted an honorable burial in the Arlington National Cemetery.
Thankfully, things are much better today for our Latino veterans. Our country has indeed come a long way since then. I’m proud of that. But, unfortunately, many Latinos have recently come back from service in Iraq and Afghanistan and have not been given their just recognition. In fact, thousands of Latino veterans have faced deportation proceedings in the past two years in the United States. In 2011, ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) reported that 3,000 veterans were in deportation proceedings! This is a modern-day Felix Longoria travesty. May we remember Private Felix Longoria and these 3,000 veterans facing deportation on this Veteran’s Day.