August 28, 1998

Mexican-American Group Tackles New Issues

By Armando Villafranca

HOUSTON — When the American GI Forum was formed in 1948, the veterans advocacy group blazed a trail in defense of Mexican-Americans who returned to Texas after World War II to find the rights they fought for did not apply to them.

Led by its founder, Dr. Hector P. Garcia, the GI Forum fought to desegregate South Texas schools and hospitals and ensure state court juries were representative of the community. No other group rose in prominence as quickly or fought as hard as the GI Forum during a time when the poll tax, boss rule and discrimination kept Mexican-Americans in Texas from public office.

But after 50 years, the GI Forum, though still influential enough to court the attention of candidates running for national office, has been visibly absent while Hispanics nationwide have suffered some of the most critical civil rights setbacks in recent history.

Some, including its own leadership, believe the group must reassess its direction if it is to survive the next century. Others say the group reflected its time, when segregation and discrimination were clearly defined targets.

Regardless, the GI Forum is at a crossroad. Its membership, once wholly composed of World War II and Korean War veterans, is rapidly aging and dwindling, the issues are more complicated and the question of whether the GI Forum's legacy will be preserved is in doubt.

"I still see discrimination; it's a different type but it's there. I still see things like Hopwood," said D. Wanda Garcia, daughter of the founder, referring to the court ruling that ended the use of affirmative action in admissions and scholarships at Texas universities.

"I see all these people getting upset about affirmative action and bilingual ed programs. I see young Hispanics who sit there and say we don't need these programs and young Hispanics who do not know who Dr. Hector Garcia is and young Hispanics who don't even know they're being discriminated against.

"In that sense, the GI Forum still has a lot of work and it is still in a sense the same issues they had 50 years ago, they've just changed complexion a little bit," she said.

A changing of the guard was evident last week at the GI Forum's 50th convention in Corpus Christi. Francisco Ivarra, a 52-year-old Vietnam War veteran, easily defeated Dr. Xico P. Garcia, younger brother of the group's late founder, for the job of national commander.

Ivarra, a retired counselor with a master's degree in sociology, was the second Vietnam veteran elected to the Forum's highest post. He also represented a younger generation that the Forum had always coveted but that had always eluded the group.

"We're in a way saying, `Hey, look, you've been wonderful, it's great, we value your contributions,' but we needed to be able to open our arms to the younger veterans, and the Vietnam veterans have been historically left out of so many things," said Alma Riojas Esparza, former Forum national chairwoman.

"Sometimes it's so hard for people to let go. To a great degree it's very hard to change and sometimes it's hard to pass on the baton."

Antonio Morales, GI Forum executive director, said the turning point for the group came after the Vietnam War, when most returning veterans were not interested in joining a group steeped in an armed services tradition.

Morales said the GI Forum did not oppose the war until the early '70s and was not comfortable with the prevailing anti-military sentiment in the nation.

Mario T. Garcia, University of California-Santa Barbara history and Chicano studies professor, said the period also reflected a change in civil rights activism in the Hispanic community.

"With the ascendancy of the Chicano movement in the '60s and '70s, the generation of the GI Forum began to fall into a secondary role," in the civil rights struggle, Mario Garcia said. "It certainly began to take a little bit more than moderate stance."

Also, the issues were no longer clearly defined. Rather than segregation, the civil rights battle in the classroom turned to demographics, district boundaries and equal shares in school funding.

"In many ways those issues have become more complicated or are no longer issues that really exist," he said.

"The problem with a group like that generation of the GI Forum is that the nucleus has always been that group of World War II veterans and Korean veterans. The issues for that generation and for that period of time seemed to be more clear-cut," he said.

"They certainly were not radicals. They were people who believed in the system, but also believed the system could be reformed," he said.

Ivarra said the key is attracting younger veterans and younger people to join the group. The effort is not based solely on the need to curb the declining membership, but to ensure the group has a future. Currently, Forum officials claim more than 140,000 dues-paying members, but its convention last week drew only about 1,500, a liberal estimate by Forum officials.

"The only way we're going to be able to survive is obviously to go out and recruit new members, recruit the Vietnam, Gulf War, Panamanian and Bosnian era veteran," Ivarra said. "Our World War II veteran population is beginning to no longer be with us."

Morales said the GI Forum is experiencing the same problems as other groups such as Rotary and Lions clubs — a general apathy toward service organizations requiring heavy volunteer work.

Ivarra said the GI Forum also must become more visible and vocal, especially in the civil rights arena, than it has in the past. The early GI Forum fought to guarantee Hispanics their rights by breaking down the discrimination that existed in the '40s, '50s and '60s. The group strove for integration and working within the system.

"I think because we've been intimidated we've been put in a position where we have not strongly advocated and represented our community. We've lacked the leadership to deal with this issues. It's not aggressive leadership, I'm talking about assertive leadership, trying to resolve the issues within the system," Ivarra said.

The GI Forum also fears that if the group dissolves, so will the legacy of its founder. Though several buildings in Corpus Christi were named after Garcia and the Public Broadcasting System there is raising $250,000 to produce a documentary on his life, he is not as widely recognized as would be expected.

Garcia returned from service in integrated units during World War II and was appalled by the treatment of Mexican-Americans in Texas. It became a life-changing experience for the medical doctor.

Garcia and the GI Forum rose to national prominence in 1949 when the remains of Army Pvt. Felix Longoria were returned from the Philippines to his native Three Rivers. A local funeral home refused services for Longo-ria's widow because he was a Mexican-American.

The incident drew national attention and moved then U.S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson to intervene and have Longoria buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

"What people don't understand and fully appreciate was how much more difficult it was for Garcia to take on the system in those times; those were hostile times for Mexican-Americans asserting their rights," said Professor Garcia.

"It took a tremendous amount of courage that subsequent generations of Hispanic leaders have not appreciated," he said.

Hector Garcia went on to become personal adviser to three presidents and worked with President Clinton when he was a volunteer for George McGovern's campaign in Texas in 1972. In 1984, President Reagan awarded Garcia the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

His daughter has created the Dr. Hector P. Garcia Foundation with the hopes of one day having her father recognized with a national holiday. Next month, a new series of U.S. Savings Bonds will feature his image on a $75 bond.

Countless stories are told of his tireless devotion to the Hispanic community, particularly in Corpus Christi's predominantly Hispanic west side, where he kept his medical office. Up until his illness, Garcia dispensed medical treatment from his small office with little or no money exchanging hands from his indigent patients.

Yet, if schoolchildren across Texas were polled and asked if they knew his name, few would know of his contributions. Hector Garcia died in 1996 after a long bout with stomach cancer.

"He's an unsung hero of American history in some ways and I think he is deserving of greater national recognition, but that's so true of so many people of that generation. There's a lot of unsung heroes," Mario Garcia said.

"Whether specific groups like the GI Forum will continue is hard to say, maybe they will not, but for many people the spirit that Dr. Garcia helped to ignite, the spirit of fighting for social justice will continue."

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