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Saluting our Latino Soldiers

Military: It shouldn't take an incident in Kosovo to recognize Mexican Americans' contributions to our defense.

April 02, 1999|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an associate editor of The Times and a regular columnist

Even before I learned that two of the American soldiers taken prisoner in Yugoslavia on Wednesday were Latino, I'd been thinking that it was time to write once more about all that Mexican Americans have contributed to this country during wartime.

It started when I made a few telephone calls inquiring about a small item at the bottom of the 1998 California Form 540. It allows one to donate to a "Mexican American Veterans' Fund," among other worthy causes.

I learned the fund is a result of legislation introduced by state Senate Majority Leader Richard G. Polanco (D-Los Angeles) to establish the rather awkwardly named California Mexican American Veterans Beautification and Enhancement Memorial Commission. I mistakenly assumed the commission would create such a memorial.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered the memorial already exists. The $1 million Polanco hopes to raise will be used to make it more visually prominent. I can attest to the fact the memorial is easy to miss. I've visited the Capitol building in Sacramento dozens of times and never even noticed it.

My belated discovery of that Mexican American memorial hit me because of two letters I received recently that made me realize how easy it is to take Latino veterans for granted.

The first was not addressed to me, but rather was a copy of a letter sent to film director Steven Spielberg by a Belmont High School history teacher named Sal Castro. It takes the famous director to task for a "glaring omission" in his Oscar-winning film "Saving Private Ryan."

I haven't seen Spielberg's film, but I know it is set against the backdrop of the Allied invasion of Normandy in June, 1944. According to Castro, no Latino soldiers are portrayed in the film. That oversight struck a chord with me because I greatly admired a Mexican American who landed at Omaha Beach on D-Day.

He was my uncle, Frank Rojas of Pacoima. I last wrote about him in 1983, just after he died in a veterans' hospital at the age of 65. He was a sergeant in the 1st Infantry Division, and fought in North Africa as well as in France.

After D-Day, my uncle won a Silver Star for single-handedly turning back an enemy attack during the Battle of the Bulge. He was also shot in the spine by a German sniper and spent the rest of his life confined to a wheelchair. But he was my first hero and the role model I chose as a boy being raised by a single mother in the 1960s.

Maybe if more of us knew the exploits of Mexican American heroes like my Uncle Frank or two other uncles of mine who also saw action in Normandy, film and TV executives like Spielberg would be more likely to include Latinos in their portrayals of World War II.

And maybe it would help counteract an insidious attitude I saw reflected in another letter I got from a reader who challenged statistics I used in a recent column endorsing a move by Secretary of the Army Louis Caldera to increase that service's recruitment of Latinos by allowing school dropouts into the Army. This reader claimed to be an ex-Marine, and insisted that he did not recall running across that many Latinos in the Marines.

I wrote back to explain that all my statistics came from the Department of Defense. And I cited one more that I had not used in my column about the Army: Of all the armed services last year, only the Marines recruited more Latinos proportionally (12%) than are found in the general population (11%).

If this former Marine really didn't notice that many Latino gyrenes in his era, he would surely see them today.

I sometimes wonder if all the Mexican bashing we've heard in California recently, epitomized by the ugly campaign for Proposition 187, hasn't convinced non-Latinos that my people are nothing but a drain on this state, contributing nada.

Well, we've been there to help in wartime. How many Southern Californians, for instance, know about three Latinos that Mexican Americans here take special pride in: Ysmael R. Villegas, David M. Gonzalez and Eugene A. Obregon?

All were Southern Californians who won the Medal of Honor.

There are parks named after all three of these heroes in their hometown barrios. But the fact most Californians don't know about them suggests that we need to do more than just spruce up that veterans' memorial in Sacramento.

The memorial should be made as prominent as possible, to stand as a firm reminder to anyone who might ever try to diminish, dismiss or simply ignore the sacrifices of this country's loyal Latino sons.

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