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A 'Rosa Parks moment' for Mexican-Americans

BY GUEST OPINION | NOVEMBER 19, 2010 7:20 AM

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"The whites wouldn't like it …"

First, it occurs to me that if this were my guiding principle, I wouldn't write or say half the things I do.

Those are the words that were offered up, in 1949, by a funeral director in Three Rivers, Texas — a small town approximately 70 miles northwest of Corpus Christi — to explain one of the great injustices of the World War II era.

The victim was Felix Z. Longoria, a war hero who was killed by a Japanese sniper while on a mission in the Philippines. But also victimized were his wife and family — who wanted nothing more than to give him a simple burial in his hometown — and a Mexican-American community that had already put up with more than its share of cruel and discriminatory treatment by Anglos.

In the South Texas of the 1940s, Mexican-Americans were treated as second-class citizens. They were routinely turned away from barbershops, hotels, beauty parlors, and swimming pools. There were signs in restaurants declaring: "No dogs or Mexicans allowed."

And in Three Rivers, as in many towns in the Southwest, those indignities didn't end at death. As a Mexican-American, Longoria was to be buried in the "Mexican" section of the town's segregated cemetery. Instead, thanks to the intervention of Lyndon B. Johnson, his body is now interred at Arlington National Cemetery.

There's more. In Three Rivers, Mexican-American patrons could use the funeral home, but they had to hold the wake elsewhere because only Anglos got to use the chapel. When Beatrice Longoria, who lived in Corpus Christi and thus did not have a place in Three Rivers to hold the wake, asked that her husband be granted an exception; her request was denied. Why? Because, as funeral director Tom Kennedy remarked, "the whites wouldn't like it."

The press confirmed the account, and Kennedy acknowledged what he had done and why he had done it. This might not have been an act of out-and-out bigotry on Kennedy's part, but it was surely an act of cowardice — one that had the effect of giving in to bigotry. So it's not much better.

Mexican-Americans — from throughout Texas and around the country — were livid. When it comes to sending young men, and more recently, young women, off to war to fight for our country and not always getting them back, this community has met its obligations time and again. And so what happened to Longoria prompted Mexican-Americans to have a Rosa Parks moment in which they decided that enough was enough. Thanks to the efforts of Hector Garcia, a physician and activist who brought the case to the attention of public officials, a war hero finally received the respect that he had earned on the battlefield.

This is the story that drives The Longoria Affair, a compelling documentary airing this month on PBS. The film is an interesting mixture of history, sociology, and politics, and it should not be missed.

Writer and director John Valadez told me one reason he wanted to share this story is because one can't move into the future until one understands and appreciates the past. "If you move through life with no grounding, others can define you as worthless, and Mexican-Americans have often been defined that way," Valadez said.

For the New York-based filmmaker, whose family has roots in El Paso, the difficult journey that Mexican-Americans have taken in this country has only made them stronger. "It's been indignity upon indignity," he said. "We've gone through a very punishing crucible. And yet we survived it without hatred, with optimism, and as Americans who really love this country despite its flaws."

As the film makes clear, one of those flaws is our political system. Mexican-Americans are loyal Democrats. And yet, we learn how disillusioned many became with President Kennedy and, later, President Johnson for ignoring Latino concerns. Both men were reluctant to further antagonize Southern Democratic officeholders and other Anglo constituents by appearing to pander to Latinos.

These two presidents might have done more to advance the progress of Mexican-Americans, but they were afraid the whites wouldn't like it.

Ruben Navarrette is a nationally syndicated columnist and an editorial-board member of the San Diego Union Tribune.


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