Monday, June 17, 2024

Documentary Examines Discrimination Against Mex.-Amer. Veteran in Texas Town

A new PBS documentary brings to the national spotlight, the story of a Mexican-American World War II veteran and the struggles against racism and discrimination in a small Texas town that his family encountered when they tried to bury the fallen soldier. What ensued lay the grown-work for Latino involvement in the burgeoning civil rights movement and a struggle that continues to this day.

Felix Z. Longoria, Jr. was a 25-year old Texan, married and the father of a young daughter when he was drafted into the US Army in 1944.  Serving in the 27th Infantry Regiment in the Philippines, he was killed by a sniper’s bullet.  In the turmoil of the aftermath of World War II in the Pacific region, it took until 1949 for his remains to be returned home to the small town of Three Rivers, Texas.

As in the rest of the South, the Texas of this era was a segregated state for Blacks and Mexicans.  When Longoria’s widow, Beatrice, asked the town’s only funeral home to hold a wake for her veteran husband, she was told by owner Tom Kennedy, “the whites won’t like it.”

In response, Longoria’s family reached out to Dr. Hector Garcia, a surgeon and founder of the Latino veterans’ organization, the American G.I. Forum.  Garcia contacted Kennedy on behalf of the family and according to archived records at the Texas A&M University was told,

“It doesn’t make any difference,” (that Longoria was a veteran).  You know how the Latin people get drunk and lay around all the time. The last time we let them use the chapel, they got all drunk and we just can’t control them – so the white people object to it, and we just can’t let them use it.”

Not willing to let the issue die, Dr. Garcia called a local reporter.  Kennedy maintained his stance saying, “We never made a practice of letting Mexicans use the chapel, and we don’t want to start now.”

An experienced community organizer, Garcia spread the word and 1,000 people protested in the town. The issue garnered national attention with the New York Times picked up the story and brought to light a long history of discrimination against Mexicans and Mexican Americans in Texas.

The intervention of one of the state’s newly elected US Senator, Lyndon B. Johnson, raised the profile of the dispute even further.  Sen. Johnson telegrammed the family and said he had arranged for Longoria to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  The following day, Kennedy sent a letter to the widow stating, “We are only too glad to be of service.” 

Beatrice chose Arlington as her husband’s final resting place making him the first Mexican American to be buried there.

The legacy of the struggle to bury this veteran extends far beyond his small hometown.  The alliance formed by Dr. Garcia and Lyndon Johnson would be a catalyst for Mexican American and Latino involvement in what became the civil rights movement.  For the first time, Latinos were on the national stage politically.  A decade later, the 1960 election would see “Viva Kennedy” clubs, and a few years following that, then-President Johnson would sign the historic legislation, the Civil Rights Act.

For his part, Tom Kennedy and others denied that he made those comments. They try to pin blame on a dispute between Longoria’s widow and her in-laws.  To this day, many in the town resent the implications of racism and the still-lingering bad memories the incident invokes.  An initiative to rename the town’s post office after Private Longoria has been thwarted by local officials. 

During the month of November, PBS is airing a documentary, The Longoria Affair, which examines the issues surrounding the controversy, their impact on history and the lasting legacy of discrimination against Mexican Americans and other Latinos.  Filmmaker John J. Valdez directed the documentary which is airing on various markets around the country.  He is a founding member of the National Association of Latino Independent

 San Antonio News

PBS documentary, The Longoria Affair

Arlington Cemetery, Felix Longoria