Some years back, the Department of Chicano Studies at Metro State established a student-led historical research program called “Beyond Chicanismo” with the intent of taking a second look at key figures who were ignored or not highlighted in the histories written about the Chicano Movement.
At the beginning of the program the faculty advisor of the group publically expressed that the historical stress on the contributions of the three great leaders in the Movement: Rodolfo “Corky” Gonzáles, Reies López Tijerina and César Chávez came at the expense of lesser known figures that nevertheless did as much if not more for the cause as those three.
At the time, I felt the effort reflected edicts of a post-modern era that seeks to deconstruct the worldview associated with the structure and meaning of the Chicano Movement and its main figures. Although I did not agree with some of the notions put forward by the faculty associated with the project, I found that Chicanos gave little credit to the precursors of the movement especially World War II veterans who came home to fight another war against injustice in America.
Among these veterans were Héctor Pérez García, a Latino Civil Rights leader and founder of the American GI Forum and César Chávez, the organizer of the Latino farm workers union community, especially in California. The first is an immigrant born in the state of Tamaulipas in northern Mexico whose family came to America to escape the violence of the Mexican Revolution and the second was from Arizona born to a family that lost its store and ranch during the Great Depression.
García recorded a history of great achievement, as he was one out six children in a family of 10 that became medical doctors. Yet there was racial discrimination in Texas, something that he did not experience until he came to the United States.
The feeling of being a second-class citizen despite his accomplishments was exacerbated when he and the other Latino soldiers that sacrificed so much for their country returned home to find that nothing had changed. In 1948, Dr. García began to bring veterans together under the banner of the American GI Forum in order to help right those wrongs.
García and the American GI Forum became national symbols during the Félix Longoria affair that involved a family wanting to use the chapel in Three Rivers, Texas for the funeral of their son, Félix, who had been killed in action in the Philippines and were refused because he was a Latino. The organization intervened and arranged for U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson to have the body buried in Arlington Cemetery.
Technically, Chávez was not an integral part of the Chicano Movement because he followed Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violence in his advocacy for farm workers at a time when Chicanos were taking to the streets, which sometimes saw blood and violence. Yet his type of advocacy and commitment to the notion of “Si Se Puede (Yes We Can)” and the use of the tools available to all Americans to organize and make changes captured the imagination of Latino youth and brought many volunteers to help in the fields.
History has selected Chávez to become the icon that publicly represents the aspirations of Latinos for justice and fairness and his birthday, March 31, is set aside to recognize his contributions. García is just as relevant today especially as the nation is at war and veterans are being created every day.