Hector P. Garcia
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Dr. Hector Garcia Perez (January 17, 1914-July 26, 1996) was a Mexican-American physician, surgeon, World War II veteran, civil rights advocate, and founder of the American G.I. Forum.1 As a result of the national prominence he earned through his work on behalf of Hispanic Americans, he was instrumental in the appointment of Mexican American and American G.I. Forum charter member Vicente T. Ximenes to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1966,2 was named alternate ambassador to the United Nations in 1967, was appointed to the United States Commission on Civil Rights in 1968, was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation's highest civilian honor, in 1984, and was named to the Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope John Paul II in 1990. In 1998 he was posthumously awarded the Aguila Azteca, Mexico's highest award for foreigners, in a ceremony in Corpus Christi Texas.
A descendant of Spanish land grantees, Dr. García was born in the city of Llera, Tamaulipas, México, to José García García and Faustina Peréz García, both schoolteachers. His family fled the violence of the Mexican Revolution in 1917, legally immigrating to Mercedes, Texas. His father's professional credentials were unrecognized in this new country, so he went into the dry goods business. His parents instilled a love and respect for education in all of their 2 and expected them all to become medical doctors. Indeed, Hector and five of his siblings, José Antonio García, Clotilde Pérez García, Cuitláhuac Pérez García, Xicotencátl Pérez García, and Dalia García-Malison did become physicians.
In 1929, he joined the Citizens Military Training Corps, a peacetime branch of the United States Army. He graduated from a segregated high school in 1932, and in the same year earned a commission from the CMTC with a rank equivalent to a second lieutenant in the U.S. infantry. He began attending Edinburg Junior College, to and from which he had to hitchhike thirty miles daily. His father had to cash in his life insurance policy to finance young Hector's education. In 1932, García entered the University of Texas at Austin, graduating with a degree in zoology. He was one of the top ten of his class. He went on to study at the University of Texas at Galveston, earning his doctorate in medicine in 1940. He accomplished his residency at St. Joseph's Hospital at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska.
Upon completing his internship in 1942, García volunteered for combat in the army, where he was placed in command of a company of infantry. Later, he commanded a company of combat engineers before being transferred to the medical corps. He was stationed in Europe, where he rose to the rank of major, earned the Bronze Star, and six battle stars. While in Italy, he met and fell in love with Wanda Fusillo of Naples, who he married in 1945. His first child Daisy Wanda was born in 1946.
In 1945, with the war over, Dr. García and his family returned to Southern Texas, settling in Corpus Christi, where the League of United Latin American Citizens had been formed to defend the rights of Hispanic Americans seven years earlier. He opened a private medical practice with his brother José Antonio, where he treated all patients regardless of their ability to pay. In 1947, he was elected president of the local chapter of LULAC. In the same year he was hospitalized with life-threatening acute nephritis. While recuperating, he heard the local superintendent of schools bragging about the segregation in his district. At that moment, he made a private oath that if he recovered he would dedicate his life to the equality of his people.
After being discharged from the hospital, he began helping other Mexican American veterans file claims with the Veteran's Administration. He helped veterans to obtain services from the VA since the administration was slow to respond to the Hispanic American veterans' needs. In 1948 he began an investigation of conditions for migrant laborers in Mathis, Texas. He found the impoverished workers to be ill-clothed, malnourished, and diseased from lack of basic sanitation. On March 26 of the same year, he called a meeting to address the concerns of Mexican American veterans. This meeting developed into the American G.I. Forum, which soon had chapters in 40 Texas cities and became the primary vehicle by which Mexican American veterans expressed their discontent with the official discrimination against them and asserted their right to equality. The name was chosen to emphasize the fact that the Forum's participants were American citizens entitled to their Constitutional rights. Later, the Forum's patriotism would exempt them from FBI infiltration at a time when many Mexican American organizations were accused of having Marxist sympathies.3
In 1945, a Japanese sniper killed the Mexican American private Félix Longoria in the Philippines. His body was returned to Texas in 1949, where his widow's request of the use of the funeral chapel in Three Rivers was denied, the funeral director claiming that "the whites won't like it". Dr. García and the G.I. Forum intervened, petitioning then-senator Lyndon B. Johnson for redress of the outrage. Johnson secured the hero's burial in Arlington National Cemetery, where he became the first Mexican American to be awarded the honor. The issue garnered national attention after being published in the New York Times, and propelled the G.I. Forum to the forefront of the movement for civil rights. Following the incident, the G.I. Forum expanded into New Mexico and Colorado.
The American G.I. Forum became a recognized voice for Mexican Americans in the post-World War II era. Besides providing veterans a social and political network, the forum also raised funds to pay the poll taxes of the indigent and campaigned against the Bracero Program, infamous for exploiting migrant laborers. Dr. García testified before the National Advisory Committee on Farm Labor, asserting that "The migrant problem is not only a national emergency, it has become a national shame on the American conscience." This work brought him into contact with such figures as Hubert Humphrey, Arthur Goldberg and George McGovern. The organization, and the attention it drew to poverty and discrimination in Texas, also got the attention of Look magazine, which published an article on the diphtheria, infant diarrhea, and tuberculosis affecting the neglected community.
In 1953, the G.I. Forum published its own study, "What Price Wetbacks", on farm labor in South Texas, as well as having Lyndon Johnson speak at their statewide convention. In 1954, attorneys funded by the G.I. Forum and LULAC argued and won Hernandez v. Texas in the Supreme Court of the United States. The decision, one of the Warren court's first, threw out the plaintiff's murder conviction on the grounds that he had not had a jury of his peers. Court records showed that there had been nobody with a Spanish surname had served on a jury in the county for twenty five years. The desegregating decision in Brown v. the Board of Education was handed down the next year, with its extension to integregated education for Mexican American citizens being pursued by LULAC and the G.I. Forum in the Texas Supreme Court cases against the Driscoll, Carrizo Springs, and Kingsville independent school districts.
In 1960, Dr. García became national coordinator of the Viva Kennedy clubs organized to elect John Fitzgerald Kennedy president. He is credited with delivering 85% of the Hispanic vote to the Democratic party in that close election. The civil rights agenda of the Forum, however, was not at the forefront of the Kennedy administration's platform, and Dr. García and his supporters were forced to content themselves with his perfunctory appointment as representative of the United States in mutual defense treaty talks with the Federation of West Indies Islands in 1962. The talks were successful, and the appointment was notable as the first instance that a Mexican American had represented an American president. After Kennedy's assassination, his successor Lyndon Johnson appointed García Presidential Representative with the rank of Special Ambassador to the presidential inauguration ceremonies of Dr. Raúl Leoni in Venezuela.
In 1966, through the efforts of the Forum and other groups, the Texas poll tax was repealed. The forum also undertook a march on the Texas state capital to protest the low wages of Mexican agricultural laborers. In 1967, President Johnson appointed Dr. García alternate ambassador to the United Nations.4 He was tasked with the improvement of relations with Latin American nations. He made history when, on October 26, he became the first United States representative to speak before the U.N. in a language other than English. Starting in 1968, Dr. García and the other members of the G.I. Forum began accompanying families of fallen soldiers to the airport to collect the bodies when they returned from Vietnam. He would often eulogize the soldier, and never refused a request to speak at any funeral.
In the same year, President Johnson appointed him to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. In 1972, Dr. García was arrested at a sit-in protest of the de facto segregation in Corpus Christi school district. He consulted with President Carter several times during the 1970s. In 1987, he became involved in the struggle against the campaign to name English the official language of the United States. His final project was to improve the standard of living in the colonias in the Rio Grande Valley along the United States–Mexico border.
Dr. Hector P. Garcia died July 26, 1996 in Corpus Christi, Texas at age 82, and was laid to rest at Seaside Memorial Park in Corpus Christi, Texas and eulogized at his funeral by sitting President Bill Clinton. Survivors include his wife, Wanda; three daughters, Wanda Garcia of Austin, Cecilia Akers of San Antonio and Susie Garcia of Louisiana; a brother, Dr. Xico P. Garcia of Corpus Christi; and three sisters, Dr. Cuitlahuac P. Garcia of San Antonio and Dr. Dahlia P. Garcia and Dr. Clotilde Garcia, both of Corpus Christi; and Emilia Garcia Garza of Matamoros, Mexico. His devoted wife Wanda Fusillo Garcia later died on September 20, 2008, and was interred beside her beloved husband. She was 87.
Throughout his distinguished career, Dr. García was awarded multiple accolades from various governments and other organizations. They include:
- The U.S. Army's Bronze Star and six battle stars, 1942–1946
- The American G.I. Forum's Medalla al Merito, 1952, for his work with Mexican American veterans
- The Republic of Panama's Condecoracion, Orden Vasco Nunez de Balboa, with the rank of commander, 1965
- The 8th United States Marine Corps District honored him with a plaque in recognition of his service to the war deceased, 1967
- A humanitarian award from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People's Corpus Christi chapter, 1969
- The Distinguished Service Award from the National Office of Civil Rights, 1980
- The Presidential Medal of Freedom, 1984
- Honor Al Merito Medalla Cura Jose Maria Morelos y Pavon A.D.P.E., Mexico City, México.
- Corpus Christi Human Relations Commission's Community Service Award, 1987
- The Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services Organization's Humanitarian Award, 1988
- The National Hispanic Heritage Foundation's Hispanic Heritage Award in Leadership, 1989
- The Midwest/Northeast Voter Registration Project's National Hispanic Hero Award, 1989
- MAPA Award for outstanding service to Hispanics from the Mexican American Physicians' Association, 1990
- The National Association of Hispanic Journalists' Distinguished Lifetime Service Award, 1990
- The Equestrian Order of Pope Gregory the Great from Pope John Paul II, 1990
- Corpus Christi State University's first honorary doctorate of Humane Letters, 1991
- Hector Garcia Place is a short street named after Dr. Garcia, located in downtown Pueblo, Colorado.
As one of the early pioneers of Hispanic civil rights, García's activities foreshadowed much of the struggle of the Chicano Movement. As a figure of national and international prominence, the effects of his life have been felt at all levels of society, from the poor barrios that he fought to improve, to the highest echelons of government. The end of the 1950s desegregated Texan hotels, cinemas, and restaurants. Beauty parlors and barbershops were desegregated in the 1960s, with cemeteries and swimming pools not being opened to Mexican Americans until the 1970s.
In the realm of popular culture, in 1950, Pulitzer Prize winner Edna Ferber to get a sense of the Mexican American experience in Texas interviewed Garcia She later wrote the 1952 novel Giant, basing some of the incidents in the work on her interview. The book was later turned into a 1956 film starring James Dean, Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson, and Dennis Hopper.
In 1985, the Dr. Héctor Pérez García Endowed Chair was created at Yale University. In 1988, the main branch of the Corpus Christi post office was renamed in his honor. In 1996, a nine-foot statue of him was dedicated at Texas A&M's Corpus Christi campus. In 1999, his image was placed on the U.S. Treasury's $75 I Bond series honoring great Americans.5
A biography was written by Michelle Kells titled "Hector P. Garcia: Everyday Rhetoric and Mexican American Civil Rights".
In 2002, public television station KEDT in Corpus Christi, Texas produced a documentary on him entitled "Justice for my People: The Dr. Hector P. Garcia Story". The program was broadcast nationally on PBS.
Under Senate Bill 495, Signed on May 30, 2009 by the Governor of Texas, The State of Texas established the third Wednesday of each September as "Dr. Hector Garcia Perez Day."
In April, 2010 the United States House of Representatives passed H.CON.RES.222, recognizing the leadership and historical contributions of Dr. Hector Garcia to the Hispanic community and his remarkable efforts to combat racial and ethnic discrimination in the United States of America.
- Justice for My People: The Dr. Hector Garcia Perez Story Retrieved: 2010-03-31.
- Vicente Ximenes Retrieved: 2010-03-31.
- HOUSE HONORS AMERICAN GI FORUM ON ITS 60th ANNIVERSARY Retrieved: 2010-03-31.
- García, Ignacio M. Hector P. García: In Relentless Pursuit of Justice. Houston: Arte Publico Press (2002). ISBN 1-55885-387-1
- Ramos, Henry. The American GI Forum: In Pursuit of the Dream, 1948-1983. Houston: Arte Publico Press (1998). ISBN 1-55885-262-X
- The Hector P. Garcia papers at the Bell Library of Texas A&M Corpus Christi
- American G.I. Forum National site
- American G.I. Forum of California
- Justice for my People: The Dr. Hector P. Garcia Story
- A site about the treasury bonds
- From the U.S. Army