Before she died, my Grandma Rise told me about the time my Grandpa Carlos encountered discrimination just before heading to Europe in World War II. I was appalled, but not necessarily surprised. That was in 1940s Texas.
My surprise, and shock, came just last week when my own daughter – the great-granddaughter of my Grandpa Carlos -- was on the receiving end of some very nasty name-calling that focused on the color of her skin. Fortunately, I don’t think she understood the significance of the anonymous comments over the Internet. She just knew the language was vulgar and mean. I, however, was livid.
I guess some things haven’t changed in 70 years.
In my Grandpa’s case, his encounter with discrimination was unfortunately commonplace. Probably not so much in Las Vegas, NM, where dark skin and mixed bloodlines were the norm. In fact, the patch he wore on his Army uniform reflected the Spanish and Native American heritage of so many of the National Guardsmen from New Mexico and three neighboring states. But Texas was another story.
The story, as told my Grandma, was that my Grandpa and some Army buddies left the base at Fort Hood to go to see a movie in a nearby town. But they were told that Mexicans were not allowed. They apparently complained and the theater was closed, at least temporarily.
When I heard my Grandma tell the story, my journalistic instincts kicked in, and I was hesitant to write about the incident without trying to verify the facts. I tried to find a newspaper story about the incident, without luck. I went back and recorded an interview with my Grandma. She was sure the incident happened, but she couldn’t remember exactly when or where, which is understandable.
Still, the story was amazing to me, regardless of the details, because I couldn’t believe a soldier – an officer – who was about to put his life on the line for his country, would be treated that way. I’m quite certain that my Grandpa’s ancestors occupied this land for centuries before the racists who tried to deny him a seat at that movie theater.
I recently watched the PBS series called Latino Americans with great interest. The producers devoted an entire segment to the injustices suffered by many war heroes when they returned home from World War II.
Hispanics volunteered and served in record numbers, according to the program, and 10 Hispanics earned the Medal of Honor. Yet, they returned to restaurants in Texas with signs, sponsored by the Lonestar Restaurant Association, that read: “No Dogs, Negroes, Mexicans.” Other establishments had signs that read: “We Serve White’s only, no Spanish or Mexicans.”
“Denying Mexican-Americans service in a restaurant wasn’t illegal. And happened so often, it wasn’t even newsworthy,” according to the narrator of the PBS series. One incident in particular featured Macario Garcia, the first Mexican National to earn the Medal of Honor, who was denied service at a local diner. The incident raised this question: “How could a country that felt an enormous debt toward its veterans, treat some as second-class citizens?”
Playwright Luis Valdez told the following story to PBS about his experience in 1940s Delano, CA, where whites sat in the middle section of the local movie house, while Mexican-Americans were delegated to the sides.
“In 1946, there was a young guy by the name of CC, he was a pachuco, he was a zoot suiter, who went off to the Navy, came back, put on his civvies, and he went to the movies,” said Valdez. “And since he was serving his country, he felt that he had a right to sit wherever he wanted. So he came and sat in the middle. He wouldn’t move, so the police arrested him. There was no law that said you couldn’t sit in the middle. So they couldn’t charge him with anything, not even disturbing the peace; he was pretty peaceful. So they grilled him for a couple of hours and then released him. And everybody noticed. They said, hey CC got away with it. He sat in the middle. So the following week, everybody sat in the middle section. And the town movie house was desegregated. And that happened across the entire valley.
“Some 20 years later when I told my mom I was going back to Delano to work with the union, she said, oh, you’re going to work with CC. I said CC? Is that vato still around? And she said, Mijo, don’t you know who CC is? He’s Cesar Chavez.”
Fittingly, I took my daughter with me today to a Downtown church to draw attention to the need for Congress to pass comprehensive immigration reform. Isabella and I were with my boss, Congresswoman Michelle Lujan Grisham, who agreed to fast for 48 hours in solidarity with immigrants who are separated from their families during Thanksgiving. Isabella was touched by the stories and one of the mothers who broke down in tears at the thought of being separated from her family.
During the ceremony, I thought about Cesar Chavez, who was featured during a lengthy segment of the PBS series. The program showed footage of Chavez talking about immigrant farm workers who were being exploited in the agriculture fields of California: “They endure all the sacrifices and all the suffering so you can eat and I can eat. These men and women and children feed all of us, and they don’t have any food for themselves. And we’re going to change it. It’s going to be changed.”