Sunday, May 29, 2011
My father and step-father were part of The Most Honorable and Patriotic Generation Ever Produced by American Society - The Greatest Generation of all
We have all heard of "The Greatest Generation."
NBC-TV news broadcast journalist Tom Brokaw coined the phrase in his 1998 book of the same title. It is supposed to honor those young men and women who defended our country's honor while serving in the military during World War II. Generally, it included people born between 1901 and 1924. Most survived WWI, the Great Depression and then saved the world during World War II.
This Memorial Day, we pause to honor all veterans, especially those who served in WW II and are still with us. We honor all veterans. Today, May 30, however, I wish we could stop to honor the Hispanic veterans of WW II. I'll explain.
Brokaw said, appropriately, the young men and women in WW II fought not for fame and recognition, but because it was the right thing to do. I agree, but every generation has had its war and those who serve do it because they feel it is the right thing to do. But, yes, it was "the right thing to do."
Said Brokaw, "It is, I believe the greatest generation any society has ever produced." Strong words, but certainly, appropriate.
With no apologies to Mr. Brokaw, I would like to put forth the thesis that the generation he refers to had a distinctly Hispanic tinge and that those young Hispanic (mainly Mexicano) men and women who served their country deserve to be recognized as The Most Honorable and Patriotic Generation ever produced in American society. My father - Manuel Flores (photo top right) and my step-father Amando Saenz (photo top left) were part of that Most Honorable and Patriotic Generation ever produced in American society. It is estimated that more than 750,000 Hispanic men and women fought during World War II.
University of Texas professor Dr. Maggie Rodriguez has documented this in her magnificent project "Defend the Honor." She has made sure that an oral history of these proud "veteranos (veterans)" is documented for all to hear. Dr. Rodriguez's work is priceless. She even took on famed documentarian Ken Burns when he totally left out the Hispanic contribution in World War II in his PBS documentary. Burns made some changes to include the Hispanic contribution in WW II, but why did it take someone to point it out for him to make the change? We, too, are part of U.S. history. Hispanic have contributed to the U.S. military effort since the American Revolution. WW II was no exception.
While the contributions in the battle fields of Europe, Japan and the Pacific were numerous and honorable during WW II, what this generation of Hispanics did for the status of Hispanic citizenship in the United States is both remarkable and inspiring. Hispanics, though small in numbers in WW II, proportionately won more Medals of Honor and Purple Hearts in the Great War. Back home, however, they would change the landscape of the nation, initiate the nation's civil rights movement and let people of all colors understand that the Mexicano, Tejano, Puerto Ricans and Centro Americanos were as proud of being Americans as their white neighbors who ate apple pie and drank Coca-Cola.
These young Hispanics served with honor. They served with courage. Some had but an elementary school education, but they volunteered and said, "dale shine (Let's go)." Others volunteered even after they were denied their civil rights, often being denied service in restaurants or loans from a bank. Yet, they had the courage to fight and to say with honor, "We too are citizens of the United States. I will defend my country even though you do not want to grant me full citizenship. I will fight for our country." Others came from Mexico and Central America, gambling their lives for a chance at U.S. citizenship. All these things were "the right thing to do."
Thousands of Hispanics died. Every small South Texas town has a monument to these heroes. But those who survived, contributed even more. They came back with a pride and courage our country had hardly seen. They came back ready to be accepted as full partners into American society. When some found little had changed, they protested. Armed with the GI Bill, they forged forward to get high school and college educations. Yet, it was hard. Good jobs were hard to find. Loans were hard to get. Teachers said they couldn't succeed in college. But, they did not give up.
Then, when the family of a young soldier killed in the Philippines was denied to have a "velorio (wake)" in Three Rivers, Texas, everything changed. His name was Felix Longoria (Photo bottom right). He deserved to have a wake in his hometown. Someone said "no." That was the last straw. The veterans organized and formed the American G.I. Forum under the leadership of Dr. Hector Perez Garcia (photo center right), a WW II veteran himself. No one would push Hispanics around any more. This time, when someone pushed, the Mexicano would push back and point to their service in WW II and simply say, "How dare you deny us the rights of an American citizen since we fought to defend those rights?" It was and continues to be "the right thing to do."
This generation of Hispanics was outraged at the thought some people in our great country considered us to be second-class citizens. They wanted improvements in everything for us and fought valiantly in the courts, the political battle fields and in the halls of education to bring about change. They took on racist and discriminatory policies and practices at public schools all over Texas and asked the state, and the nation, to treat Hispanics equally. They were there before the NAACP and Brown v. Board of Education asking for integrated schools and fair treatment of students. Among the Texas heroes were Gus Garcia and James de Anda, two attorneys who changed the face of South Texas education and politics. It all started with their service in WW II. There were more, many more. The point is, these were honorable and courageous people who would no longer accept second-class citizenship for themselves or any Hispanic. They risked their lives and careers to make America a better place, not just for Hispanics, but for all citizens.
So, this Memorial Day as we honor America's military veterans, let's pause for a while and single out those Hispanics who served in WW II. They are our true heroes. They served with class, dignity and respect and they changed our country forever. Let's honor them with a simple salute at home, the wave of a flag or a visit to a grave site. It's "the right thing to do."
My father - Manuel Flores - was one of those World War II veteranos. He had a third-grade education. He fought four years in Europe and came back ready to change the world by working hard, being a good citizen and seeking the American Dream, El Sueño Americano. Yet, I remember distinctly how his dream of being a full American was denied several times. I remember he came home late on night from drive to Houston to deliver gasoline. It was late at night and he was hungry. He stopped in Three Rivers, George West and Refugio in search of a hot meal. At every restaurant he stopped, he was denied to sit down and enjoy a meal. By the time he got to Freer, where he felt he would be accepted, it was too late. The restaurants had closed. He got home furious. He hurt like I've seen few men hurt. He cried and hugged me and said to never let anyone push me around. Mom and I cried, too. He went to his bedroom opened the closet and took out his WW II Army uniform and just shook his head.
On another incident, we went to Corpus Christi to seek a home improvement loan for our home. He was a veteran and had, supposedly, veteran's benefits. At bank after bank after bank he was denied a loan. I could see the disappointment in his face. I could see and even feel his anger. But, he didn't give up. "Vamos para Austin la semana que entra (We will go to Ausin next week)," he said with confidence. He did. We got the loan and eventually added to our house.
That same commitment to being a good person, leading a solid life and raising a good family were followed by my step-father Amando Saenz. He married my mom two years after my father's death when I was 9. He is very proud of his service in the U.S military and considers his experience as a reason why he was able to achieve an education, attend college and support two beautiful young women - Lynda and Judy - and, of course myself. Citizenship is earned and his character help pave that reality.
Today, for the most part, Hispanics born in the United States enjoy the benefits of American citizenship. My father and his fellow Hispanic soldiers who served in World War II made that happen. While there are still many battles for Hispanics to fight, let's pause today and honor those who had the courage to fight for our American rights. It is "the right thing to do."
Gracias, papa y mi padrasto (step-dad) , for being part of the The Most Honorable and Patriotic Generation U.S. society has ever produced. Gracias. You both did the right thing. I hope I have made you proud.
(That's me with the gold bar on the Army cap. I was commissioned in August 1970 during the height of the Vietnam War. I, along with 6 others who received their gold bar to signify they were 2nd Lieutenants in the U.S. Army) were booed at the graduation and commissioning ceremony. I served 12 years in the U.S. Army Reserve and Texas Army National Guard and retired as a captain).