Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of posts profiling the individuals whose stories make up Fighting for Democracy: Who Is the “We” in “We The People”?, the National Constitution Center’s featured fall exhibition. The exhibition, which runs through January 16, includes a world premiere theatrical production that brings to life the stories of men and women who fought discrimination while serving their country during World War II.
“Education is freedom and freedom should be everyone’s business!”
Dr. Héctor P. García’s legacy is the founding of the American G.I. Forum, an organization established in 1948 to fight for equality and better opportunities for Mexican Americans. It is a fitting legacy for a man who immigrated to American with his family when he was four years old, was once told “no Mexican will ever get an A in my class” by his High School English teacher, and who would later hitchhike more than 30 miles a day to attend medical school.
Dr. Héctor, as he was called by the devoted community members whom he served, learned the power of education from his father. Héctor was sent to a segregated “Mexican school” as a child. In the evening after dinner his father would teach his children about history, literature and their Mexican heritage. “My father was a historian. We learned about the Iliad, and Homer, not in school, but at home. You have to understand his love for Mexico and the fact that he named three of his sons after the last three Mexican emperors – Cuauhtemoc, Xicotentactl, and Cuitlahuac. He loved his country that much, he felt proud to be a Mexican.”
That love of learning and respect for his heritage struck a chord. When he returned to Texas from his service overseas in World War II to find that there was still rampant discrimination in the school systems Héctor García chose to step up and make a difference. He documented the poor state of the schools by taking pictures and rallying the community to petition the local government for change.
As this movement grew it drew national attention and Dr. Héctor became a stand-out leader, famously standing up for the rights of Mexican-American veterans and the families of Mexican-American soldiers who were killed serving their country. Many of these soldiers and their families faced hardships and discrimination after the war. One case, involving the family of fallen soldier Felix Longoria, helped the American G.I. Forum gain national support and recognition.
Longoria’s family had been refused burial services at the only funeral home in their town. When Dr. García spoke with the owner of the funeral home he was told that “they had never let the Latin Americans use the Chapel and were not starting now, even if he was a soldier killed in action.”
In the face of such discrimination, Héctor alerted the media and the Longoria’s struggle caught the attention of then Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson. The future president rallied to the cause and arranged to have Felix buried at Arlington National Cemetery for his service to the country.
Dr. Héctor García continued to work for equality throughout his life, serving as an Alternate Ambassador to the United Nations and becoming the first Mexican American to be appointed to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In 1984 he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the first Mexican American to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor.
To learn more about Héctor García, visit Fighting for Democracy: Who is the ‘We’ in ‘We The People’? on view now at the National Constitution Center.
Allison Heishman is the Theater Programs Manager at the National Constitution Center and a member of the Fighting for Democracy creative team.