After the War, A Struggle For Equality; Latino WWII Veterans Needed Another Kind of Courage at Home

David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 22, 2007

Latinos came home from World War II to a different struggle. A Medal of Honor for bravery didn’t guarantee service in certain restaurants. A soldier’s body in a coffin and an American flag for his widow didn’t merit admission to some funeral homes.

Fast-forward to 2007. One of the nation’s premier documentarians is ready to unveil his opus on World War II. It’s mainly the stories of non-Hispanic whites, but Ken Burns made sure to include the experience of African Americans and Japanese Americans. Missing in action: half a million or so Latinos who served, out of the 16 million total.

“You mean he couldn’t think of a Latino or Native American to include in the movie?” says Roque “Rocky” Riojas of Kansas City, Kan., who fought his way through Italy, hill by bloody hill. “I may not be smart, but I’m not that dumb. . . . We should lick his boot because he added a piece at the end of a chapter?”

But the rhetoric flying over “The War” on PBS has obscured a richer story about the Latino experience in World War II, and the battlefield courage of those men is but the beginning chapter. In a sense, you can’t fully understand phenomena like César Chávez, Chicano power, Latino civil rights activism, those big immigrant-rights marches of last year, Daddy Yankee and the recent Democratic presidential candidates’ debate in Spanish on Univision without a feel for World War II — and the bittersweet homecoming.

“I always think of World War II as being the moment in history when the Latino American became acceptable as a full-fledged American,” Bill Lansford of Los Angeles, one of the two Latino Marines finally included as a compromise in “The War,” says in the telephone interview.

“It’s very hard to look at the guy in the foxhole and say, ‘Oh, he’s a Mexican,’ ” continues Lansford, 85, who raided behind enemy lines at Guadalcanal and landed at Iwo Jima. “That was the watershed, that was the turning point for Latinos. When we came out of the war, we knew that we were Americans.”

Latinos weren’t segregated in the service, as African Americans were. One of the few virtually all-Latino outfits, the 65th Infantry Regiment, owed its makeup to its origins in Puerto Rico. Several units drawing recruits from the Southwest also had a large Hispanic presence.

But Latinos did face discrimination.

“Our sergeant was killed and I was next in line,” recalls Riojas, 85, a former infantryman who fought in North Africa before invading Italy. “I had the most experience in combat. The second lieutenant in charge of our platoon was from North Carolina. He chose a young guy from Georgia to be sergeant. I went in a PFC and came out a PFC.”

“I think it was ‘little Texas’ in the Marine Corps, and as you know, Texans and Mexicans weren’t exactly bosom buddies in those days,” Lansford says in the episode airing tomorrow night. His mother was from Mexico, and she raised him as a single parent in a Latino neighborhood of Los Angeles until he was a teenager. His father was a gringo who himself was raised speaking Spanish. Lansford lied about his age so he could join the Marines at 17.

When the nation went to war, Latinos wanted to “show that they are as patriotic as anybody, as some blue-eyed, blond guy,” the former Marine continues in the documentary. War was a great equalizer. “These Texan guys began seeing that we weren’t what they thought we were, and we began seeing they weren’t what we thought they were.”

What was not equal was the welcome home. Oh, sure, there was dancing in the streets, kisses for everyone, V-E Day, V-J Day, blizzards of ticker tape, President Truman pinning medals on lads who looked as stunned at that moment of the camera flash as during a bombardment.

Latinos earned 13 of the 301 Medals of Honor awarded for service in World War II, according to records compiled by Virgil Fernandez, a Vietnam-era Navy vet and author of “Hispanic Military Heroes.”

Back home in Texas, two of those medal recipients were denied service in restaurants, according to Fernandez. Returning veterans also found public swimming pools, schools and housing segregated in some communities, especially in the Southwest and California. “Absolutely no Spanish or Mexicans,” said the signs.

A general pinned a Bronze Star on Riojas’s chest in Italy. Then he was refused service in a restaurant in his own home town. At technical school, on the GI Bill, he learned refrigeration repair and got a job with Montgomery Ward. After a stint at a Kansas City store, he was transferred to one near San Antonio. There, he tried to check into a hotel and was told, “We don’t rent rooms to Mexicans.” On one of his first assignments, he knocked at the back door of a customer’s house, and the woman inside told him, “I don’t allow Mexicans in my house.” Riojas quit and went on to a career with the railroad in Kansas and Missouri.

He says he coped with injustice through his faith in God, looked past the slights and kept marching on to his American dream. Three years ago, at the dedication of the National World War II Memorial, he shook President Bush’s hand.

Other young WWII veterans, having proved themselves alongside Anglos in battle, refused to accept the pre-war social contract that made them second-class citizens. They played prominent roles in voter registration drives and lawsuits against the unequal treatment of Latinos.

“We fought it in battle and we got to fight it at home . . . the fact that there’s no super-race,” Louis Tellez, 84, recalls from Albuquerque. “It’s a hell of a feeling. There’s nothing you can do except prepare yourself and continue fighting.”

After serving in the Army in the Pacific, Tellez returned to Albuquerque, got a solid federal job, and was turned down for a $300 bank loan. People he knew weren’t allowed to buy houses in certain neighborhoods. The police treated Latino suspects harshly.

Tellez became an early member of American GI Forum, a veterans organization for Latinos that functioned as a civil rights outfit. It was founded by another Army veteran, a doctor named Hector Garcia, who saw his comrades facing similar obstacles on returning home. “Dr. Garcia liked the word ‘American’ ” — as opposed to say, Hispanic GI Forum — “because we always had to prove we were Americans,” says Antonio Gil Morales, national commander of the forum, which this year helped lead the charge against Burns and PBS.

César Chávez served in the Navy in the Pacific before he became a farm labor organizer. Pete Tijerina, who studied law on the GI Bill, told oral historian Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez that his war experience “taught me that I was a first-class citizen, that I was an American,” and he went on to found the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The treatment of Latino veterans appalled many Anglos on the home front. Some of the cases became notorious — none more so than a small-town Texas funeral home’s refusal to handle the remains of Felix Longoria, because “the whites might object.” Longoria had been killed in the Philippines. His family had the remains exhumed for reburial back in Three Rivers in 1949. Garcia and the GI Forum promoted the case, and then-Texas Sen. Lyndon Johnson commanded a national spotlight when he intervened to have the remains buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

The change in attitude forged on the battlefield began to work its way slowly through society.

Then came “The War.” Burns has said no Latinos stepped forward to participate in the six-year project when he was seeking people to interview.

Around the country — down at the American Legion hall, or at home surrounded by ghosts and pictures of grandchildren and yellowed snapshots of their younger selves — Latino vets shook their heads. The perceived snub felt familiar.

“It’s too late now, the damage is done,” says Navy vet Osvaldo Espada, 91, of Potomac, a commander of a local American Legion post that was a gathering place for Puerto Ricans.

He served on a transport ship carrying Marines in the Pacific, then stayed on for a full career, retiring as a chief petty officer. A proud Puerto Rican, Espada nevertheless sees little point in dwelling on differences among people. The Navy, and the war, taught him that. “I’m a Navy man, period!” he exclaims. To Latinos with grievances, his advice is: “Improve yourself. Vote. Don’t start complaining.”

Lansford says it’s not a matter of complaining, but standing up. That’s the essence of his role in the documentary tomorrow night, as he speaks of heroism and death in the jungle. He is also leading a project to erect a memorial in downtown Los Angeles to Latino Medal of Honor recipients in all wars.

After the war, Lansford went on to a writing career in his beloved second language — English. He wrote combat journalism, a biography of Pancho Villa, scripts for television series — including “Bonanza,” “Ironside,” “CHiPS,” “Fantasy Island,” “Starsky & Hutch” — and movies, including, “Villa Rides” (1968) for Paramount Pictures and “The Deadly Tower” (1975) for television.

He sees the huge marches of Latinos for immigration reform last year, as well as this year’s protest of Burns’s documentary, as extensions of the spirit that awakened within returning veterans two generations ago. “The fight continues, and will continue,” he says. “Latinos aren’t looking for notoriety, or any special treatment or anything. The fact of the matter is, Latinos are tired of being invisible in their own country.”

Riojas thinks about the immigration issue whenever he sees a police car in Kansas City. He wonders if the current spotlight on illegal immigrants heralds a return to the days of reflexive disdain for all Latino-looking people. If anyone dares question his status as an American, he has his answer prepared. One of the documents of which he is most proud is his lifetime membership card in the 34th Infantry Division Association. In a swelling voice, he reads aloud part of what’s printed on the card: “Among the greatest fighting units that ever carried the Stars and Stripes into battle.”

“That’s what I carry in my pocket,” Riojas says. “That’s what I’ll throw at them.”

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