The Houston Metropolitan Research Center (HMRC) is proud to announce we were awarded the National Endowment for Humanities (NEH) Latino Americans Grant. HMRC will use this funding for our Hispanic Heritage Month fall series “Hispanic Heritage Heroes: From War and Peace to Prejudice and Pride.” The month’s activities began with the opening of Remembering World War II: Houston’s Latino Veterans on display August 29, 2015 through November 14, 2015 at the Julia Ideson Building.
World War II was a major turning point for U.S. Latinos. When the United States declared war on December 8, 1941, thousands of Latinos were among those that rushed to enlist. An exact number of Hispanic veterans that served during this war does not exist due to the military’s inconsistent method for tallying Hispanics. Some were categorized as “white” while others “Mexican” and still others “Not Applicable.” Additionally, Latinos, with the exception of Puerto Ricans, were not segregated into separate units as the African Americans were. Still, estimates state that roughly 350,000 Mexican Americans served during World War II, and they served with distinction in every arena of the war. Thirteen Medals of Honor were awarded to Latinos for their service, the most Medals of Honor to be won by any ethno-racial group during this war. Latinas also served during WWII as linguists, nurses, and Red Cross aides, and in the WAACS, WAVES, and Marine Corps Women’s Reserve. On the home front Latinos were among those selling war bonds, working in the shipyard and airplane factories, and collecting newspapers and scrap metal. Their experiences in the military and on the home front provided a new lens with which to view the world.
With over 50 archival items on display, the exhibit offers a glimpse into the diverse experiences of Hispanic veterans of the Second World War. Along the gallery entrance is a sketch drawn by Porfirio “Pete” Navarro. Navarro, native Houstonian, was a cartographer in the Pacific Theater during World War II. When he wasn’t sketching maps of enemy terrain, Navarro took pencil to paper and captured his experience at war, including portraits of the men in his unit. Further into the gallery, President Harry Truman places a medal on Staff Sgt. Macario Garcia of Sugar Land, Texas. Upon returning home from war Sgt. Garcia entered a restaurant in Richmond, just south of Houston, not far from his place of enlistment, and was denied service because he was Mexican American. Outraged that he was treated like a second-class citizen after having risked his life for his country, Garcia fought with the owner until police were called in. He was arrested and charged in the incident. Word of Sgt. Garcia's treatment at the Richmond restaurant quickly spread and numerous groups rallied behind him. During 1945–46, the case was repeatedly postponed, until all charges were finally dropped. Sgt. Garcia’s story is representative of the many Latinos and other minority groups who continued to face discrimination despite their efforts and sacrifices in uniform.
Exhibit visitors will also find oral histories playing on loop inside the gallery. Hispanic voices from HMRC’s Oral History Collection offer first-hand accounts of the war. Some, like veteran Joe Silva who volunteered for service at age 16, recall their mother’s angst and how hard it was to leave her behind: “My mother called the Red Cross. She was worried about me.” Others, like veteran Jesse Garcia, share their faith during the toughest times: “Wherever I was, God was helping me.” Through archival documents, photographs and oral histories this exhibit reflects those varied experiences and hopes to pay homage to Houston’s Latina and Latino veterans of World War II.
Other activities during this fall’s Hispanic Heritage Month include a supplementary exhibit Braceros: Paintings Inspired by a History of Labor to be on display at the Jesse H. Jones Central Library August 31, 2015 through October 31, 2015 and a day-long World War II Lecture Series to be held Saturday October 3, 2015 in the Julia Ideson Building. The lectures series will begin with the screening of the PBS Documentary Latino Americans, Episode 3 “War and Peace,” followed by a scholar-led discussion of the film’s portrayal of Hispanic veterans.
For more information please visit Remembering World War II: Houston’s Latino Veterans.
-- Mikaela Selly, Houston Metropolitan Research Center