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A Veteran's Cause Paved the Way

Dr. Hector Garcia started the G.I. Forum in 1948 to fight for VA benefits, but the battle soon extended to righting other wrongs.

September 22, 1996|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is assistant to the editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Dr. Hector Garcia, a family physician in Corpus Christi, Tex., died July 26 after a long illness. He was 82, and his death was hardly noted outside his home state.

But major Texas newspapers put his obituary on the front page. Journalists in the Lone Star state, to their credit, remembered better than their colleagues elsewhere the important role Garcia once played in American history.

In 1948 he founded one of the country's first Mexican American civil rights groups, the American GI Forum. A couple of Latino activist groups had been established before then, and probably hundreds have been founded since. But with an estimated 160,000 members in 24 states, the GI Forum remains among the biggest and most influential.

Some proud GI Forum members say it is also the most important, and it's hard to dispute them. When the GI Forum speaks out on behalf of Latino rights, it has a moral authority other activist groups can't match, and that even virulent anti-Latino bigots must respect.

As its name suggests, the GI Forum represents the thousands of Mexican Americans and other Latinos who have served in the nation's armed forces, many in armed conflicts from World War II to the Persian Gulf. At a time when the political rhetoric about this country's illegal immigration problems has a distinct anti-Latino tone, the history of the GI Forum is worth remembering.

Garcia came to the United States in 1918, at the age of 4. His family fled the chaos of the Mexican Revolution like millions of other refugees who wound up in California, Texas and the other Southwestern states. Not long after graduating from the University of Texas Medical School in 1940, he volunteered for the U.S. Army. He served in North Africa and Italy as an infantryman, combat engineer and medical corps officer, earning a Bronze Star.

When the war ended, Garcia opened his Corpus Christi medical practice, where he "delivered thousands of babies," according to a relative, and helped many a returning GI as a contract physician for the Veterans Administration. His experience with the VA bureaucracy convinced Garcia to organize other Latino veterans to fight for the benefits due them. But before long, an incident occurred that catapulted this small-town doctor to national notoriety.

In 1949, a funeral home in Three Rivers, Tex., refused to allow its chapel to be used for the reburial of Army Pvt. Felix Longoria, a local Mexican American who had died fighting in the Philippines. The funeral home director told Longoria's widow that the local Anglo community "would not stand for it," Garcia would later recall.

Garcia and the new GI Forum took up Longoria's cause, raising a fuss that eventually came to the attention of Lyndon B. Johnson, then a U.S. senator from Texas. Johnson intervened and Longoria was reburied, with full military honors, at Arlington National Cemetery.

Longoria's plight convinced Garcia that the GI Forum needed to fight for more than VA benefits. The group had to struggle against discrimination in housing, jobs, education and voting rights. And it did, helping desegregate everything from schools and hospitals to theaters and swimming pools throughout Texas. By the 1950s, Garcia was the first nationally recognized Latino civil rights leader, widely enough known that novelist Edna Ferber used him as a model for a character in her best-selling novel about Texas, "Giant."

But Garcia won far greater honors than that. In 1968, Johnson, by then president, made him the first Mexican American to serve on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In 1984 he became the first Mexican American awarded the Medal of Freedom.

How could such a prominent Latino die without being more widely noted?

It is partly the fault of those of us in the news media who focus more on the big news of the day rather than on the historic context of that news. But it was also a result of Garcia's own decision to fade into the background in recent years, as a younger generation of Latino leaders came to the fore.

The leadership of the GI Forum has begun to shift from veterans of World War II and Korea to Latinos who served in Vietnam and the Persian Gulf. But they're still fighting the good fight that Garcia began.

Just last week, leaders of the local GI Forum announced that they will help organize a Latino consumer boycott of any business whose political action committee donates money to members of Congress who vote for the so-called Gallegly Amendment. This is a provision in a pending immigration reform bill that would allow states to exclude the children of illegal immigrants from public schools.

"If young Latinos are good enough to fight for this country, they are good enough to get an education," said Ruben Treviso, a Vietnam veteran who is a leader of the GI Forum in Southern California.

Dr. Hector, as GI Forum members respectfully called him, couldn't have put it any better.

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