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Chicanos fight on multiple fronts
 
Shown above are Crusade for Justice activist and founder, Corky Gonzales, his widow Geraldine Gonzales their son, now Executive Director of Servicios de la Raza, Rudy Gonzales, and numerous others protesting the Vietnam War. (Photo courtesy: Denver Public Library)
 

By James Mejia
news@lavozcolorado.com
 
10/14/2015

El Chicano Movimiento Series
Part V of V

George Autobee was asked to deliver mail to the “brig” where military personnel were jailed for wartime violations. He was surprised to see many African Americans imprisoned because they refused to fight. The year was 1968 and Martin Luther King Jr. had just been assassinated in Memphis. The stateside tension was mirrored in Vietnam with race riots amongst U.S. troops breaking out in Da Nang and other spots in Vietnam.

Autobee enlisted out of a sense of civic pride and tradition with generations of family members having served in the U.S. military. He anticipated doing his time and returning home to improve his lot with the aid of the GI bill. He actually enjoyed bootcamp before deployment.

Autobee was the exception. Most young men were drafted to serve; the vast majority coming from poor ethnic neighborhoods across the country. Urban areas full of black and brown young men were often called first along with poor rural Americans. Because Latinos were not tracked separately by the federal government but often considered, “Caucasian” the statistics regarding Vietnam service vary widely. All data however, points to over-representation of Latinos in both service and casualties. One of the few academics to study Latino involvement in Vietnam was Cal State LA political scientist Ralph Guzman, who in 1969 cited that Latinos comprised 11 percent of the troops, and over 19 percent of the war time deaths. [1]

The same racial and socio-economic injustice experienced stateside was not only present but sometimes emphasized in Vietnam. While Chicanos protested in U.S. streets for an end to ethnic discrimination, to promote equal rights for women, and to end the war, Chicano soldiers found themselves carrying out the war policy of a racist government. Education or not, military training notwithstanding, color of skin often dictated your war experience and Chicanos were typically sent straight to the front lines.

Autobee went to the front lines after a week-long orientation, “We were cannon fodder. Chicanos often had to walk point, go out at night for ambush patrol, and stay out longer than other units.” Returning to camp also presented challenges and segregation, “There was the African American camp, the white camp, and then our camp where Puerto Rican and Chicanos would congregate. Imagine passing tents with the Confederate flag outside and then having to fight alongside those guys.” Twice injured in combat and hospitalized, Autobee was sent back home with multiple Purple Heart awards.

The irony of fighting for wartime policies of a racist government combined with the Catholic tenets with which they were raised spurred the Cordova brothers of Denver to resist the draft. Art Cordova challenged the draft citing its discriminatory policy of first and disproportionately drafting black, Latino, and poor. He was convicted for not reporting to serve but his conviction was overturned on appeal, “…on a technicality because they didn’t want to discuss the real issue of discrimination,” according to his brother Patricio. Meanwhile Patricio moved from job to job in Colorado to serve his time as a conscientious objector. From the CU Medical Center to Penrose Hospital to the Children’s Asthma Research Hospital, Cordova couldn’t get promoted in any of his jobs because of his conscientious objector status, and only made minimum wage.

Cordova’s decision to become a conscientious objector revolved around his religious schooling and upbringing, “I was taught the 10 Commandments and don’t believe in killing. Jesus said love thy enemies.” Political considerations were also at play, “The U.S. spends more than the next 17 countries combined… My father served in World War II in the Philippines and in that war there were clear aggressors in Germany and Japan. In Vietnam, everything was murky.”

Staying in Colorado also allowed Cordova to immerse himself in the burgeoning Chicano Movement. He lived and worked at the Crusade for Justice, was a founding member of the Ballet Folklorico Chicano and as a young adult, was in charge of food for the wildly successful and widely attended National Chicano Youth Liberation Conference of 1969. Eventually his pacifist ways facilitated a departure from the more militant Crusade for Justice.

When asked about those who served in Vietnam, Patricio Cordova expresses sympathy, “Latinos have had a tremendous loyalty to the country despite the country’s betrayal. I feel sorry for all those people. They are victims of the system.”

The fight continued when soldiers returned home. Called “baby killers” and denigrated for serving, Chicano soldiers often had to fight through inordinate rates of PTSD in silence; even their own communities were unreceptive to their plight. Because of the difference in wartime duties, rates of PTSD were higher for Latino soldiers – 28 percent, compared to 21 percent for African Americans, and 14 percent for white soldiers. [2] For Autobee, “Remembering the war was taboo. No one wanted to hear it and fewer still had any understanding what we had been through. We had to just keep quiet.”

Many Chicano soldiers returned to join in the anti-war movement and the numbers of young men refusing the draft grew so large that the U.S. government eventually stopped pursuing and prosecuting those who didn’t answer the call up. Eventually, the military failure and anti-war voice at home grew so loud that President Nixon had no choice but to begin a pull out of Vietnam in 1973. Brown and black soldiers bore the brunt of the war effort and returned home to the same racist policies that those working in the Chicano movement were meanwhile fighting so hard to change. The late 1960’s and early 70’s was war time with multiple fronts for Chicanos – some deployed to Vietnam, others fighting for rights in the barrio.

[1] Vietnam War, 50 years later: Giving a voice to Latino veterans, Liset Marquez, Inland Valley Daily Bulletin, 3/21/15

[2] U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, PTSD Among Ethnic Minority Veterans, Chalsa M. Loo, PhD

Part 1 www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8071
Part 2 www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8082
Part 3 www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8093
Part 4 www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8102
Part 5 www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8112
Epilogue www.lavozcolorado.com/detail.php?id=8111

 

 

 

 

 
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