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Veterans Win OK of Statue to Honor 39 Latino War Heroes

April 05, 2000|GEORGE RAMOS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Climaxing a six-year struggle, local veterans have persuaded the governing board of the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, the site of the city's founding in 1781, to approve a statue in honor of the 39 Latinos who have received the nation's highest military award, the Medal of Honor.

The monument, which will cost an estimated $1 million, will be named after Eugene A. Obregon, a Marine from East Los Angeles who was posthumously awarded the medal after saving the life of a fellow Marine during the Korean War.

Veterans who supported the honor were overjoyed at the decision last week by the nine-member El Pueblo commission to approve the memorial's location in Father Serra Park, a one-acre parcel just south of Olvera Street. At one time, the veterans had sought to put the memorial in Pershing Square.

"We've been wanting for this for a long time," said ex-Marine Bill Lansford, a Chicano from East Los Angeles who spearheaded the effort. "This is a perfect example of the kind of unity [the military can promote] that we need."

The action is particularly significant, the veterans say, because Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans and other Latinos have been awarded more Medals of Honor, in proportion to their numbers in the military, than any other ethnic group.

Their patriotism should not be questioned, they say, pointing out that among Mexican Americans alone, there were 17 Medal of Honor winners during World War II and Korea. A book about the Latino Medal of Honor recipients, "Among the Valiant," by Los Angeles author Raul Morin, was the impetus for the memorial, Lansford said.

"This is a great day" for Latino veterans, said Morin's son, Eddie, who is updating his father's book.

Groundbreaking for the monument--a statue of Obregon aiding fellow Marine Bret Johnson, mounted atop an Aztec-style pyramid--is tentatively scheduled for this summer, said Lansford, who said fund-raising for the memorial is underway.

The approval is also considered important because the city has rejected other proposals to honor famous individuals in the small park, believing that only historic figures who played a role in establishment of the city should be honored there.

Several years ago, the city rejected a proposal for a statue honoring Cesar Chavez, the late farm workers leader.

At present, a statue honoring Father Junipero Serra, who founded many of California's missions in the late 1700s, is the only one in the park, which is across Alameda Street from Union Station.

The commission's president, Los Angeles attorney Philip W. Bartenetti, said the panel's decision was appropriate, although he said it was an exception to the long-standing policy of honoring only historic figures.

With the blessing of Obregon's mother, Lansford and other veterans began lobbying for the monument in 1994. After Pershing Square was rejected as a site, the veterans focused on El Pueblo.

"This monument is about history, too," argued Gulf War veteran Dan Ortiz, who is active with the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Eventually, after the City Council agreed to donate the land for the monument, the commission relented and approved its inclusion in the historic district.

Three parks, an American Legion post and a school in Southern California have already been named for Obregon, who was 19 when he was killed in 1950.

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