Felix Longoria's Wake

[ Latino/a Studies ]

Felix Longoria's Wake

Bereavement, Racism, and the Rise of Mexican American Activism

By Patrick Carroll

How a controversy over a slain Mexican American soldier contributed to the rise of Mexican American activism.

2003

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6 x 9 | 288 pp. | 25 illustrations, 2 tables

ISBN: 978-0-292-71249-2

Private First Class Felix Longoria earned a Bronze Service Star, a Purple Heart, a Good Conduct Medal, and a Combat Infantryman's badge for service in the Philippines during World War II. Yet the only funeral parlor in his hometown of Three Rivers, Texas, refused to hold a wake for the slain soldier because "the whites would not like it." Almost overnight, this act of discrimination became a defining moment in the rise of Mexican American activism. It launched Dr. Héctor P. García and his newly formed American G.I. Forum into the vanguard of the Mexican civil rights movement, while simultaneously endangering and advancing the career of Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, who arranged for Longoria's burial with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

In this book, Patrick Carroll provides the first fully researched account of the Longoria controversy and its far-reaching consequences. Drawing on extensive documentary evidence and interviews with many key figures, including Dr. García and Mrs. Longoria, Carroll convincingly explains why the Longoria incident, though less severe than other acts of discrimination against Mexican Americans, ignited the activism of a whole range of interest groups from Argentina to Minneapolis. By putting Longoria's wake in a national and international context, he also clarifies why it became such a flash point for conflicting understandings of bereavement, nationalism, reason, and emotion between two powerful cultures—Mexicanidad and Americanism.

  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • 1. Only in South Texas: Working and Educational Conditions in the Nueces Strip
  • 2. The Incident
  • 3. The Principal Actors in the Drama
  • 4. Mobilization of Nueces Basin Mexican and Anglo Towns
  • 5. State, National, and International Politics
  • 6. The Burial
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Works Cited
  • Index

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"Fearfully and Wonderfully Made"
—Proverbs 139:14

As a general rule death brings oblivion, an end to the joy and pain of living, a cessation of facing tedium and danger intermixed with contemplation and pleasure. Not so with the story that follows. Felix Longoria was killed by a Japanese sniper on the Philippine island of Luzon, and if his body had never been brought home to Three Rivers, Texas, in the southern part of the state, he would have been an object of grief for a generation or two, and then generally forgotten. And Dr. Héctor García of nearby Corpus Christi, who never knew Longoria but probably felt as close to the deceased soldier as one man can to another, would not have thought of this young man every day of his life from January 10, 1949, to the doctor's own death forty-seven and a half years later on July 26, 1996.

The account that follows evokes such disparate personalities as Andy Warhol (every person should be famous for fifteen minutes during his life) and Shakespeare, who, in Julius Caesar, wrote a phrase of continuing relevance that has almost become a cliché: "There is a tide in the affairs of men, which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune." Felix Longoria had his fifteen minutes of fame, once in Three Rivers when word reached home that another son of the community had fallen to war. But tens of thousands from other towns and cities and farms were likewise killed between Pearl Harbor and Nagasaki, and the only difference for Three Rivers residents in young Longoria's case was that this was a local body. As soon as proper mourning ended, all except his wife and his family could go back to their routine, thinking of him only on Memorial Days or at special times when his fatherless child passed some benchmark in her life. The widow and parents would grieve, but most of the community would dry their eyes and get on with their lives.

The scenario didn't work out that way, and the events that followed ushered in Felix Longoria's greatest moment of fame. Three Rivers' only funeral home refused to handle Longoria's wake, for, you see, Longoria was an American but of Mexican origin. Dr. García reacted promptly and spent a weekend telephoning, telegraphing, and writing quick notes that built a bonfire of protest which attracted the attention of national and international presses, divided Longoria's home state, and mobilized the veterans' rights group that the doctor had just founded.

While Dr. García would continue to minister to the health of the less fortunate, he would spend even more time addressing the civil rights needs of Mexican Americans throughout the nation. After his involvement in the 1949 Longoria controversy his workday expanded to between twelve and sixteen hours, an overwhelming pace for the staff, volunteers, friends, and family that rotated in and out of it. That was the only way everyone else could keep up with him. One memorable day I spent with Dr. García illustrates this dual commitment and the dedication it required.

May 5, 1990, began for Dr. García at 7:45 A.M. when he stepped into his Bright Street office on Corpus Christi's west side, where the majority of the city's Hispanic population still lives. He immediately started seeing the patients already in chairs lining the walls of the waiting room. Almost all were poor or folk who seldom paid by check or credit card because few of them had these mediums of exchange. In fact, in my fifteen years of visiting that office I never once saw cash exchanged either. If patients did not have insurance or government assistance, they probably did not pay at all. No matter, he saw and treated each of them anyway. I arrived at noon, we talked about the Longoria incident and about an investigation the doctor was beginning that concerned living conditions in colonias, underdeveloped settlements on the U.S. side of the Rio Grande. We ate a quick lunch at Rosa's on Morgan Street, a half mile from his office. He drove in his aging car; he never bought new ones. García had better ways to spend the money he had. In the parking lot we came upon a young man of fourteen or so; the doctor did a double take as he walked by us. "Raúl, where's your cast?" The young man shrugged, said, "It itched, so I removed it." Dr. García told him to go to the Bright Street office and he would put a new one on. We ate in fifteen minutes. The waitresses all knew what the doctor wanted: unos taquitos, a glass of Big Red, and a small dish of Bluebell ice cream. I was a bit of a holdup because they had to wait for my order. There was no charge. He or one of his siblings had delivered most of the people working and dining in the establishment.

We returned to his office about a half hour later. He saw patients until nearly two, and replaced the cast for Raúl, who had been sitting in the air-conditioned office watching TV for over two hours by then. The doctor made several quick calls to various health care facilities on behalf of his patients, then we hopped into his car for the three-and-a-half-hour drive from Corpus Christi to Houston to attend a statewide meeting and banquet for the Texas branch of the American G.I. Forum (more on this later). Dr. Héctor was to give a speech; I was going to meet and interview Beatrice Moreno de Longoria, Felix's widow, the first interview she had granted since 1949. We arrived at 5:30, just in time for the opening ceremonies and seating at the table for special guests: Dr. García, founder of the American G.I. Forum, Felix's widow Beatrice, and the Longorias' daughter Adela Longoria de Cerra. The organization was honoring its founder and the family that had launched the organization into the forefront of the post-World War II Mexican American civil rights movement.

Dr. García gave his speech outlining the work yet to be done—improvement of colonia living conditions, opposition to the "English Only" movement, and the potentially adverse effects on the Mexican American population of the government's crackdown on undocumented Mexican immigration. Beatrice and Adela were introduced, and they acknowledged the crowd's applause, but did not speak. Beatrice, a shy person, expressed discomfort at all the attention. Over dinner, we then discussed the by-then forty-year-old Longoria controversy that had brought none at the table together, and I recorded the conversation.

At about 9 P.M. the meeting ended. By then we felt comfortable with each other, and Beatrice and Adela promised additional interviews during future family visits to Corpus Christi; I was very pleased. The two women then left, and Dr. García began conversing with several Forum leaders from across the state. We finally left Houston for the return trip to Corpus Christi at about 10:30 P.M.

We arrived at one the morning of the sixth, and went directly to Memorial Hospital so that Dr. García could make his rounds. He threw me a lab coat and told me to come along; after all, I was "a doctor" wasn't I? I pointed out that I was not "that kind of doctor." He shot back, "put it [the lab coat] on," handed me a name tag that read "DR. PAT CARROLL, SPECIAL ASSISTANT TO THE FOUNDER, DR. HECTOR P. GARCIA," which I still have, told me to pin it onto the lab coat and come along—I "might learn something." It took just over an hour to complete the rounds, mostly checking charts at nursing stations, although he did awake several patients he was concerned about to examine them. Afterwards he drove me to my car, which was still parked at his office, and we departed. I arrived home at nearly 3 A.M. I called just before lunch that morning to thank him for arranging the interview with Beatrice and Adela. He had arrived fifteen minutes or so late that morning, around 8 A.M., and was "catching up." I asked him if all his days were like that. He laughed and said no. He only worked from about nine in the morning until about six in the evening on Saturdays and Sundays.

A medical doctor in the fifty-eighth-largest city in the United States, Corpus Christi, Dr. García, or Dr. Héctor as many affectionately called him, would become a political force as a result of his involvement in the Longoria controversy, and through his later organization of the "VIVA KENNEDY!" campaign, a movement he would extend to presidential candidate Lyndon B. Johnson. García would become an ambassador to the United Nations, a special presidential envoy to inaugurals of leaders in other nations, a signatory to international treaties, and a recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor that can be bestowed, made more notable by the fact that President Ronald Reagan, a Republican, bestowed it on him, and Dr. García was a staunch Democrat. While he was an outwardly humble man, he was aware of the fact that national politicians regarded him as a political force from 1949 to his death in 1996.

Either instinctively or thoughtfully, Héctor García realized in 1949 that his tide had reached its flood with the Longoria travail and burial, as he followed Shakespeare's admonition to ride that tide on to fortune, in his case a wealth of civil rights accomplishments. The Felix Longoria controversy represented that tide.

Felix Longoria was a war hero; he had posthumously received a Bronze Star for his bravery in combat. His body and memory deserved better treatment than the undertaker in his hometown gave them. That is why his widow and Dr. García decided to fight this act of Anglo discrimination in the arena of public opinion. Their stand quickly gained support from others in South Texas and across the nation.

Dr. García's actions, although courageous, are more understandable than Beatrice's. He was a man, a well-educated professional who already had a record of civil rights activity in January 1949. Beatrice was not and had no such record. The public voice she exercised during the course of the three-month controversy over her husband's wake seemed out of character for her and extraordinary for the setting and the time. She was a naturally shy person who avoided others' attention. According to her, this introversion had actually predisposed her attraction to Felix. He was just the opposite, outgoing and jovial, comfortable in his interaction with people. When they were alone he lavished attention on her; he made her feel important and good about herself. When they were with others he diverted attention away from her and toward himself or toward them as a couple in a way that made her more comfortable in public. Felix could no longer speak for them both in 1949; she had to do that, so she openly defended his and her honor by expressing her frustration with Anglo discrimination directed against her and her dead husband. She gave press interviews, she spoke at town meetings, and she testified before a state legislative investigative committee. These experiences proved terrifying and painful for her, but she suffered them anyway.

Gendered politics in South Texas represented a second factor inhibiting Beatrice's involvement in civil rights protest over her husband's wake. The region was not a place where Mexican American women commonly exercised a public voice in 1949; nor, for that matter, was anywhere else in the broader Hispanic border zone on both sides of the Rio Grande. Mexican and Mexican American men might contest in public arenas, but women were supposed to remain silent outside their own homes. Such traditions made Beatrice's actions in this controversy all the more remarkable.

Nearly overnight, public media across the hemisphere turned this private family dispute over discrimination and family honor into a national and international incident with implications for local and regional civil rights, statewide politics, national questions of patriotism, and international concerns over U.S. versus Mexican access to cheap labor and American economic and cultural imperialism. Within days Beatrice found herself caught up in this expanding and increasingly more complex affair. Because of the nature of the incident, once she committed to open protest there was no turning back, no time for reflection and reconsideration. Virtually all major U.S. and Mexican newspapers carried a series of articles on the dispute. Walter Winchell and Drew Pearson did a series of radio commentaries on it. It was debated in university classes, and in civic club meetings all over the country. It even appeared in correspondence between uninvolved private individuals. This shy woman was thrust into the middle of a traditionally male-dominated public arena, one she would only discuss, forty years later, reluctantly and privately. Her extraordinary courage, dignity, and perseverance during the dispute remain a testament to her personal character and to the illogic of gender biases like the ones prevalent in South Texas in 1949 that discouraged women's public voices.

South Texas was a remarkable place by the mid-twentieth century. Although most in the state agree on its general boundaries, there is little consensus over its precise borders. This study defines the zone as stretching from Del Rio to Brownsville in the south and from Del Rio through San Antonio, Seguin, and Victoria to Lavaca Bay in the north. Historically, this area, called the Nueces Strip, was the disputed land that precipitated the Mexican-American War in 1846.

South Texas was a complex region in 1949, and still is today, a human frontier where different sets of people came together to cohabit the same physical space. One group, Mexican Americans (Tejanos, or just plain Mexicans, to some), defined Mexico as their ancestral home. The other group, Anglos (whites, Americans, and Texans, as they and others labeled them), traced their ancestry to other parts of the United States or to northern Europe. Within each of these two populations were subgroups. After 1890 and onward, ever-increasing numbers of Mexican nationals crossed the Rio Grande and added to the ranks of Mexican-descended individuals living within South Texas. From about 1910 onward growing numbers of Midwest farmers relocated all over South Texas, but in especially high concentrations within the northern half of the region, where Three Rivers lay. I sometimes refer to the easternmost quarter of this subzone in the text that follows as the "Longoria corridor," because Three Rivers and Corpus Christi, the two settlements which spawned the dispute, anchored its western and eastern ends.

Persons of Mexican origin were most concentrated in the southern reaches of the Nueces Strip. Anglos, and especially Midwest Anglo transplants, were most common along the greater Nueces River basin. Mexican Americans and newly arriving Mexican nationals sought employment opportunity and ethnic community in the lower two-thirds of South Texas. Anglos in the Longoria portion of the Nueces River basin, in towns like Corpus Christi and Three Rivers, sought inexpensive agricultural land, but also access to cheap and malleable "Mexican" labor, for the expanding agro-economy and the emerging petrochemical industry.

Thus, throughout the first half of the twentieth century, leading up to the Longoria controversy of 1949, an already pluralistic population in South Texas became even more complex as locale after locale redefined itself on the basis of ever-changing mixes of old Hispanics and new Hispanic arrivals, old Texans and new Anglo arrivals. This made harmony among the ever-increasing variety of competing groups in local settings like Three Rivers increasingly difficult.

The remote likelihood of cooperation and amicable interaction was made even more unlikely by a history of conflict between Tejanos and Anglos dating all the way back to at least 1836, when Texas broke away from the Mexican Republic. Thus, a combination of continuity and change led to an increasingly conflictive and less integrative South Texas environment from about the turn of the twentieth century onward as communities throughout the zone modified their respective economic, social, and political orders in response to the evolving human and structural conditions within the region. Relationships between each set of parochial subgroups changed by varying degrees within the region's evolving workplaces, social orders, and political cultures with each passing decade.

Yet, broad general trends did emerge between about 1900 and 1949 across South Texas. Generally, Anglos became owners and administrators of the area's economic units, Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals became workers on these production sites. Anglos eventually distinguished themselves as whites, as Texans, as Americans. They came to see Mexican Americans and Mexican nationals as one and the same: "Mexicans," brown, alien, and economically, socially, and politically retrogressive, to be segregated from "Americans," because they were "un-American" and "unfit" to become American. This made them unqualified, incapable, and unworthy, in most South Texas Anglos' eyes, to exercise the rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizenship.

Developing attitudes within the Mexican heritage community proved more complex. Twentieth-century middle-class Mexican American leaders became preoccupied with their racial identity. They came to see themselves and other Mexican Americans as progressive "whites" of dual ethnic heritage, as Mexican and as American. In contrast, the rank and file of the South Texas Mexican American-Mexican national community seemed to think of themselves less in racial terms and more in terms of their ethnicity, their Mexicanidad. They were far more concerned with fending off Anglo discrimination than defining their distinctiveness from Anglos.

Development of twentieth-century political culture within and between South Texas' Anglo and Mexican communities proved equally complex. Some locales witnessed the emergence of South Texas "bossism," or patrón politics, wherein local Anglo political bosses accommodated Hispanic client-dependents with patronage in return for political support. Other areas developed less accommodative political climates wherein Anglo political leaders worked to disenfranchise Tejanos of their political rights and power. And still other areas vacillated between the two arrangements over time. Nevertheless, the end result of these inclusionary or exclusionary political dynamics proved the same: Anglos sat at the top and Mexican Americans sat largely at the bottom or stood outside of local South Texas political orders by the middle of the twentieth century.

Again, the degrees of the above economic, social, and political changes differed from community to community, but these overall trends did come to permeate life with one level of intensity or another throughout the region. Generally, the northern zones of South Texas experienced these changes in workplace roles, social attitudes, and political culture first. Similar shifts came to communities along the zone's southern half last.

Thus, Beatrice Longoria confronted local social convention in 1949, and those that came to support her pushed the issue into the political arena as well. Her family, and especially her sister Sara, extended unreserved backing from the outset. Further, Sara enlisted the help of Corpus Christi's Dr. Héctor Pérez García. He quickly galvanized and politicized virtually the entire South Texas Mexican American community behind her. García managed to enlist support outside the region as well. The newly elected U.S. senator from Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson, entered the fray on the widow's side, as did U.S. and Latin American public opinion. Moreover, driven by concerns over potential political and economic reverberations emanating from international attention directed toward the Longoria affair, the U.S. State Department provided behind-the-scenes backing and encouragement to Beatrice's cause.

Beatrice, Dr. García, Lyndon Johnson, and the rest of those that took great personal risks to thrust the controversy surrounding Felix Longoria's wake out into the open reaped rewards for their efforts. To Beatrice and other Mexican Americans' long-term overall advantage, it thrust the inequities of Anglo (Texan) and Tejano (Mexican American) relations in South Texas before the eyes of the entire nation and Latin America. For Anglos the affair opened a new front in the ongoing battle between Texas Regular Dixiecrats and Texas National Democrats. Felix Longoria's wake also introduced new players into the contest—Mexican American civil rights activists like Dr. García and the organizations they represented. These developments within the Anglo political environment first threatened to undermine, but in the end advanced, the political career of Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The controversy surrounding Felix Longoria's wake in post-World War II South Texas provides a compelling story about individuals and groups in confrontation within a rapidly changing and complex socioeconomic climate during uneasy political times. The actions of these people deserve note in their own right, but also for the lessons they can teach us about our own behavior under similar circumstances. This study addresses five basic questions. What happened? When did it happen? Why did it happen? What processes were involved, or put another way, how did it happen? And what were the significances of the event? The what, when, and why questions are standard fare for most historical scholarship, so I will not dwell on them in this introduction. The question of how, or of the processes involved, is more interdisciplinary in nature and requires a bit of explanation. With respect to the Longoria affair, the "how" inquiry translates to what made this racist social slight, this affair of honor, so special that it moved people from Buenos Aires to Massachusetts to respond so intensely? In 1949, as throughout the century leading up to that date, South Texas was a place where violent and/or institutionalized discrimination against Mexican Americans took place on a daily basis. Civil rights activists like Dr. García had brought these injustices to public attention on numerous occasions with very little result. What made the Longoria incident so different? How did it "touch" Latin Americans and North Americans living in places far distant from the controversy's Nueces Strip, whereas other incidents of discrimination had not?

The answer to this question of process, this "how" question, in part lies in the structural conditions that provided the physical, demographic, economic, social, and political backdrop for the controversy. The 1949 South Texas setting generated structural forces that logically elicited rational responses from the actors involved in the drama. But this structural explanation based on rational decisions alone cannot adequately explain all that went on during the Longoria controversy and in its aftermath for decades to come. The intensity and the breadth of the reaction to this particular incident of Anglo discrimination were the result of more human and emotive forces as well. Indeed, the processes—the how involved in the making of this affair implicating honor, patriotism, racism, ethnocentrism, civil rights, politics, and economics—were moved by a combination of reasoned actions and felt emotions.

The story of Felix Longoria's wake provides a snapshot of competing, conflicting, and accommodating groups of people operating in changing social, economic, and political environments at the local, regional, state, national, and international levels. This drama offers a telescoping view from local to international perspectives of how intersections of race, nationalism, gender, and class combined with historical and structural conditions to shape people's lives. In this sense the controversy over Felix Longoria's wake laid bare the whats, whys, and hows of political economy and tradition affecting an evolving racially and nationally pluralistic transborder South Texas society. Just as importantly, it records some exceptional individual and collective human achievements in shaping these sweeping developments.

The overall significances of the Longoria controversy are tied to this question of processes. To be sure, the event held immediate significances for Beatrice and the rest of the Longoria family. It impacted upon their individual and collective senses of honor and self-esteem. The same could be said for the South Texas Mexican American community that supported them. It catapulted Dr. Héctor García and the mutual aid society he had founded just months earlier, the American G.I. Forum, into the national civil rights arena. It also provided Lyndon Baines Johnson greater national exposure than he had ever received to that date. It further divided an already fractured Texas Democratic Party that ruled the state. It forced Anglos in the Longoria controversy corridor, the Nueces Strip, the state, and the entire Southwest to reassess their attitudes and actions toward Mexican Americans. And it strained relations between the U.S. and Mexican governments.

Aside from these immediate consequences, the processes involved in the Longoria dispute held more far-ranging significances, ones that crossed temporal planes from the past to the present to the future. The "hows" of the Longoria affair, the processes that made this example of discrimination stand out in 1949, are the same ones at play today. They explained how relations between Tejanos and Texans operated within the Longoria corridor in 1949. Therein lies the greatest significance of this event: the insights it provides about our past, present, and future experience in this and like settings.

In order to examine the above issues and events, we have addressed two related sets of historical subjects. The first three chapters deal with the places, times, events, and actors in the Longoria drama. This level of analysis takes into account the "whats," "whens," and "whys" of the incident. The second set of themes deals more with "how" all this took place, the dynamic that gave this incident meaning and significance. Chapter 4 approaches these processes from a micro Longoria-controversy-corridor perspective: the actions, attitudes, and motivations of the Three Rivers and Corpus Christi Mexican American and Anglo communities. Chapter 5 examines the processes driving the dispute from a macro perspective, the state, national, and international interest groups involved. The last chapter focuses on Felix's burial ceremony and the emotive forces at work. The conclusion attempts to more clearly identify and explain the processes that drove the dispute and determined its overall significance.

Prejudice never quite seems to go away; quite the contrary. At certain times, when it appears to have been laid to rest, it reappears with infuriating and discouraging prominence. We in the United States look on the 1920s as an age of national immaturity insofar as social relations were concerned, a time of discrimination against women, ethnic groups, immigrants, blacks, and Orientals. Two generations later we viewed the 1960s as a time when great strides were made in attaining the so-called brotherhood of man. By the 1970s we were congratulating ourselves for having laid the inequalities of the past to rest. Afro-Americans had become sheriffs and mayors in Southern communities. Northern cities like Detroit, Chicago, and Cleveland had elected high-ranking black officials. Throughout the nation schools had become integrated. And women's groups appeared on the verge of pushing a women's equal rights amendment to the Constitution through state legislatures. We now realize that these accomplishments and near accomplishments fell far short of their goal to eliminate prejudices. The Felix Longoria controversy, which unfolded in between these two periods, describes one case of prejudice in a particular setting. The incident demonstrates both the resilience of discrimination and opposition to it. This dispute provides clear examples of the operation and effects of prejudice because the circumstances under which the conflict over Felix Longoria's wake took place were "fearfully and wonderfully made."

Patrick J. Carroll is Professor of History at Texas A&M University, Corpus Christi.

"Carroll provides abundant evidence of the importance of the Longoria incident for Mexican Americans, for a rising Lyndon Johnson, for Texas politics, and, indirectly, for U.S. society. His insights ...have the potential of appealing to both historians and general readers, particularly those interested in Mexican American and/or Texas history."
—Julie Leininger Pycior, author of Lyndon Johnson and Mexican Americans: The Paradox of Power

2004 Tullis Prize
Texas State Historical Association