Veteran’s story fights racial stigmas

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Felix Longoria died 65 years ago as a decorated soldier in World War II but was denied a wake by the only funeral home in his hometown, Three Rivers, Texas.

One of the only doctors in the Southwest, Hector Garcia treated many Mexican-Americans free of cost and organized the American GI Forum, a group of Mexican-American veterans who pushed for the same rights as white veterans. After Longoria’s death, Garcia wrote 17 telegrams to national politicians asking for attention to the issue. The only one to reply with sympathy, U.S. Sen. Lyndon Baines Johnson, organized a burial at Arlington National Cemetery.

The event gave rise to the early stages of the Mexican-American civil rights movement, which would press leaders in Washington, D.C., to address wide scale issues affecting the Mexican-American community, including poverty and representation in government.

Longoria’s story is the topic of a new PBS documentary, “The Longoria Affair,” which was showcased at the Texas Union on Tuesday night. Written, directed and produced by John J. Valadez, the movie has the capacity to help change the stigma that still surrounds Mexican-Americans, he said.

“When people walk down the street and see someone who is Mexican-American, it would be nice if they would reflect upon how Mexican-Americans fought to make this country a better place,” he said. “When I think of folks who I’ve met who are undocumented, the first connotation that comes to mind is not that of an outlaw or a criminal, but really it’s a refugee.”

Mexican-Americans still face discrimination and a lack of discussion of a racist past contributes to a sense of lingering racism in Texas communities such as Three Rivers, which have histories of segregation, said associate journalism professor Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez.

“People feel that by acknowledging that past, Anglos are somehow going to pay the price even though they weren’t around and had nothing to do with it,” she said. “That fear is a deep-seated issue we’re still dealing with today.”

Longoria’s story is unknown to many who do not study Mexican-American history, said Irene Garza, a doctoral student in American studies.

“Felix Longoria is one of the unsung stories of civil rights,” she said. “It speaks to the Mexican-American civil rights movement in a way, but it’s part of a larger national discourse about rights. We need to understand that racial discrimination and entrenched discrimination in this country happens to a number of racial groups, and those civil rights movements are all linked.”