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Mexican Americans and World War II

Mexican Americans and World War II

A celebration of the overlooked contributions of the 750,000 Mexican American veterans of the “Greatest Generation”

March 2005
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336 pages | 6 x 9 | 14 b&w photos |

Up to 750,000 Mexican American men served in World War II, earning more Medals of Honor and other decorations in proportion to their numbers than any other ethnic group. Mexican American women entered the workforce on the home front, supporting the war effort and earning good wages for themselves and their families. But the contributions of these men and women have been largely overlooked as American society celebrates the sacrifices and achievements of the "Greatest Generation." To bring their stories out of the shadows, this book gathers eleven essays that explore the Mexican American experience in World War II from a variety of personal and scholarly perspectives.

The book opens with accounts of the war's impact on individuals and families. It goes on to look at how the war affected school experiences; how Mexican American patriotism helped to soften racist attitudes; how Mexican Americans in the Midwest, unlike their counterparts in other regions of the country, did not experience greater opportunities as a result of the war; how the media exposed racist practices in Texas; and how Mexican nationals played a role in the war effort through the Bracero program and through the Mexican government's championing of Mexican Americans' rights. As a whole, the collection reveals that World War II was the turning point that gave most Mexican Americans their first experience of being truly included in American society, and it confirms that Mexican Americans of the "Greatest Generation" took full advantage of their new opportunities as the walls of segregation fell.

  • Preface
  • Introduction (Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez)
  • Chapter 1. The Five Sanchez Brothers in World War II: Remembrance and Discovery (Rita Sanchez)
  • Chapter 2. The Beating of Private Aguirre: A Story about West Texas during World War II (David Montejano)
  • Chapter 3. On the West Side: A Portrait of Lanier High School during World War II (Julio Noboa)
  • Chapter 4. Lost Momentum: World War II and the Education of Hispanos in New Mexico (Lynne Marie Getz)
  • Chapter 5. The Mexican American Dream and World War II: A View from the Midwest (Dionício Valdés)
  • Chapter 6. Zoot Violence on the Home Front: Race, Riots, and Youth Culture during World War II (Luis Alvarez)
  • Chapter 7. What a Difference a War Makes! (Maria Eva Flores)
  • Chapter 8. Framing Racism: Newspaper Coverage of the Three Rivers Incident (Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez)
  • Chapter 9. Mexico’s Wartime Intervention on Behalf of Mexicans in the United States: A Turning of Tables (Emilio Zamora)
  • Chapter 10. Rosita the Riveter: Welding Tradition with Wartime Transformations (Naomi Quiñonez)
  • Chapter 11. On the Nation's Periphery: Mexican Braceros and the Pacific Northwest Railroad Industry, 1943-1946 (Erasmo Gamboa)
  • Selected Readings
  • About the Writers
  • Index

Maggie Rivas-Rodriguez is Associate Professor of Journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. In 1999, she launched the U.S. Latino and Latina World War II Oral History Project, which has so far gathered more than 450 interviews. This book is, in part, an outgrowth of that research.


Sixty years after the conclusion of the Second World War, a distinct sense of awe of the period remains undiminished. It was a time of high drama, as our country displayed a remarkable ability to rise to a daunting challenge—the Germans and the Japanese had already demonstrated their military cunning, as well as their resolve to ruthlessly vanquish their foes. Even today, in analyzing contemporary international wars and events, World War II is frequently used as the vantage point, the compass that grounds us, that situates the international community in somewhat of a unified history. The war served as the great turning point for many countries, and for their peoples.

To gauge the continued fascination with the war, one need look no further than the continued output of books and documentaries related to World War II, works which seek to apply new information or new perspectives to historical events—how aware were Catholic Church officials about atrocities toward the Jews in Germany, and could the Church have protested more vigorously? Were the commanders at Pearl Harbor unfairly scapegoated for being caught off guard on that "day that will live in infamy"? Did British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's controversial policy of appeasement toward Germany in the late 1930s actually work to his country's advantage in the long run?

And in our country, we saw how that one war struck our own social structures like a meteor; the dust is settling. American women's longtime participation in the lower levels of the nation's workforce had been largely ignored—until their labor became necessary to meet the gargantuan need for labor to build the thousands of ships, airplanes, and other armaments. The government responded with colorful posters depicting women factory workers as patriots doing their share for their country. By the end of World War II, nearly nineteen million American women were working outside the home—an unprecedented number.

African American men, serving in segregated units, distinguished themselves for their valor, although they were often relegated to the less desirable duties, such as loading explosives aboard ships. The 996 pilots and support staff of the Tuskegee Airmen, who served as pilots in the 332nd Fighter Group, escorted Allied bombers in the European theater. Back home the African American community galvanized a "Double-V" campaign—Victory overseas and Victory at home—victory, that is, against the racism that continued to oppress some Americans.

On the West Coast, 120,000 Japanese Americans were herded into internment camps, as alarmists worried that these Americans would sooner side with the Pacific Rim nation than with the United States.

And for Mexican Americans, World War II would indeed prove to be the war that led to substantial headway in the fight toward desegregating public institutions, and lessening, if not eliminating, the intransigent discrimination that had existed since the end of the Texas-Mexico war. Even in early 1940, there were small communities of Mexicans and Mexican Americans in the Midwest, the Northwest, and elsewhere in the United States. The largest concentrations were in the Southwest, home to 90 percent of Americans of Mexican descent. And it was in the Southwest, perhaps most notably in Texas, where discrimination and prejudice were rampant. Socially segregated schools were commonplace, in particular in the smaller, rural areas; it was not uncommon to see placards in restaurant windows stating that the proprietors would serve neither dogs nor Mexicans.

Consider an anecdote related by Armando Flores of Corpus Christi, Texas. Mr. Flores vividly recalled a chilly winter day in 1942, standing with a group of soldiers in Sheppard Field, Texas. The men had jammed their fists into their pockets against the frigid cold. Noticing it, a lieutenant rebuked them: "American soldiers stand at attention, on a cold day, or a hot day. They never keep their hands in their pockets."

Private Flores marveled at the officer's choice of words.

"The funny thing about it—and the reason that I remember that—was because nobody had ever called me an American until that time," he recalled many years later.

"I had been called a lot of things . . . wetback and spic, and greaser. . . . That was the first time in my life that I had been called an American," he said.

Mr. Flores's family, in fact, had lived in Texas since before 1846, when Texas became a state. And yet . . . and yet, no one had called Armando Flores an American until 1941. And, it might be noted, the citizenship of U.S. Latinos is routinely challenged. World War II, then, imparted to Mr. Flores and other Mexican Americans a sense of belonging. For once, there was inclusion, although it was fleeting and it would require the strongest efforts of this World War II generation of Latinos to reclaim any part of that inclusion.

General treatments of World War II, of the Great Depression, and of the postwar years in America routinely exclude stories of U.S. Latinos and Latinas. There is, in fact, even today, a lingering and curious dismissal of U.S. Latinos, as if Latinos had not lived here, had not served the country, had not, as a matter of fact, made the ultimate sacrifice for inclusion. It is as if, to apply Ralph Ellison's analogy to Mexican Americans, they were invisible men and women—part of the landscape, supporting actors in a drama that purported only to affect them, not to be affected by them, a history that denies them the recognition of the very agency they courageously demonstrated time and again.

It was not the actual battlefield experiences that set apart the Mexican American World War II experience, although Mexican Americans did have more Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group. Tens of thousands of Mexican American men—and some women—accepted military service as a way to a regular paycheck, just as tens of thousands of other American men did. Mexican American women on the home front likewise got good jobs with good wages and experienced the liberating effects of self-sufficiency, as did other American women.

What did separate the war-years experience for Mexican Americans, however, was that it would be the first time that they were participating fully in mainstream society, even working alongside Anglos as equals. They discovered, if there was any doubt, that white Americans were, after all, only humans, no worse and no better. Also, with the introduction of the G.I. Bill of Rights, many returning veterans were able to afford training and other schooling that would have been impossible otherwise. It is no coincidence that many of the founders of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund—men like Pete Tijerina, Albert Armendariz, and Ed Idar—were themselves returning World War II G.I.'s who availed themselves of the G.I. Bill.

World War II, then, imbued the ongoing Mexican American civil rights movement with new leadership and a new attitude of entitlement—Mexican American men had, in large numbers, served their country as Americans; now it was time to reap the benefits of full citizenship rights.

Not that there was a shortage of activism before World War II. One early chronicler—and battler—of the dual system was Alonso Perales, a veteran of World War I and a member of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). Perales collected depositions, letters, and newspaper clippings that documented instances of discrimination.8 His book, published just after World War II, gave voice to the many men and women, Mexican and Anglo, who were outraged by a system rife with unfair treatment for Mexican Americans. However, the persistence of the inequities indicates how futile those protests were.

This book considers the effect of World War II on Mexican Americans and Mexicans living in the United States, on several levels: the family level, within locales, and in perceptions of how the world viewed Mexican Americans and how Mexican Americans viewed themselves.

The essays presented here endeavor to appeal to a general audience, as well as an academic one; it is hoped that this volume will be of interest to the broadest possible readership. This is not the complete Mexican American World War II experience, but it is an effort to gather this group of writers and academics around this very important topic. It is hoped that future treatments—by these and other writers—will be representative of the larger Latino experience, as we compare and contrast this American Latino experience.

This volume opens up with the scene-setting essay by Rita Sanchez in which she writes about her own family's experience. Sanchez's essay centers on one Mexican American family's involvement in the war effort and how that was understood by a young child, now a woman. The Sanchez family journeyed from northern New Mexico to southern California for steady work after the Great Depression. But the distance between Bernalillo and San Bernardino amounted to more than 760 miles—it crossed the rural homestead with adobe buildings and Matachines dancing in the street, Christmas gifts of food, young boys riding horses, the clear, diffuse light that has enchanted generations of artists and photographers. The destination was urban, less welcoming to them. But the Sanchez family persevered, holding tight to those customs they had grown up with—the big busy Sunday dinner, with chiles serving as a staple. That generation of Sanchezes would not be self-conscious about its heritage: it was simply a fact of life. But in writing about that everyday existence, Rita shows us the ordinariness of this type of Americanness—families who felt they were Americans, who did all the things that many other Americans did, including grieve for a son who would not return from the war.

David Montejano's essay on his uncle illustrates a very different family legend—one awash in the ugliness of discrimination and division of that period. Montejano's family lore included an incident just after the war involving Ben Aguirre, a young soldier beaten nearly to death by a gang of white teenagers. Montejano's fascination with this tale leads him to travel back to Midland with his uncle, Fred "Lico" Enriquez, to search out the victim of the attack. What Montejano finds is different from the lore—in many ways, the embellishments make the story far worse than it was to begin with, the brutality even uglier. But in other ways, the reality he uncovers is even crueler, the injustice more outrageous. Montejano leaves it to the reader to decide whether justice was meted out by a Higher Power. In another sense, however, Montejano's piece reveals a social order that resisted change, that was threatened by these young brown men who were poised, perhaps, to make their own mark on the world.

Education, the mighty fulcrum to greater job opportunities, and generally higher incomes, looms large in three chapters within this volume. One, Julio Noboa's look at Sidney S. Lanier High School on the predominantly Mexican American West Side of San Antonio, paints a picture of prewar San Antonio's West Side that has little to recommend it as a beacon of patriotism. As part of that picture, he introduces the reader to a housing project that at once draws sharp attention to the poverty of the West Side, as well as the role of the Catholic Church in the lives of many of those residents. Noboa also examines Lanier's strongly vocational curriculum, and traces the educational theory that led many educators to adopt it as a savior for those young people apparently destined to follow their parents to blue-collar jobs. Lanier, for all the strikes against it, responded with a patriotic fervor. This was the school from which many of San Antonio's Mexican American boys left to contribute to the war effort and the community to which they returned. As such, it speaks volumes about the expectations—and about the transcendence of those expectations—the young Mexican Americans faced.

In neighboring New Mexico, where Mexican Americans enjoyed a relatively higher level of participation in civic life, changes were begun before the war to increase educational opportunities for Mexican American children. Lynne Marie Getz argues that the war retarded progress for Hispanic children's education in New Mexico. As Getz points out, caring educators had attempted to tailor an educational system that would be respectful of the Hispano culture and provide them skills that would prepare them for better employment. Those advances, carefully studied and planned for years before the onset of U.S. involvement in World War II, were derailed because of a powerful redirection of priorities and resources. So marked was the change that where once the Hispano culture was considered front and center an important cultural asset for the state, during the war, it was taught as a "foreign culture." In many cases, Getz notes, that "lost momentum" would never be regained. So it is that the New Mexico educational story runs counter to the prevailing understanding of World War II having leveled barriers for Mexican Americans. In this case, the war did not lead to better conditions, but actually halted improvements dead in their tracks.

Dionício Valdés also points to a war experience that brought hardship to at least one group of Mexican Americans, the early newcomers to the Midwest. Valdés writes of the Mexican American community of St. Paul, Minnesota, a community of about two thousand in 1940, that was the target of local social workers' assimilation efforts. Whereas in other parts of the country Mexican Americans were able to take advantage of better job opportunities tied to the war effort, in St. Paul, that was not the case. For various reasons, the better jobs did not materialize for many St. Paul residents. Valdés writes that many Midwest Mexican American families turned to local social agencies for help, thus becoming subject to probing, undignified home visits that, as reflected in the social workers' own writings, had little regard for the clients' culture. As in the Southwest, expectations of these men and women were low; schoolgirls, in fact, were strongly steered to learn skills that would serve them well as maids, or baby-sitters, regardless of their intelligence; white-collar jobs were not considered possibilities for these young girls. Valdés's essay provides the prewar context of these men and women, which offers readers a better understanding of how the war experience, so celebrated as the opening to unprecedented job opportunities, was not realized in that manner everywhere.

All was not rosy in other parts of the country and for other Mexican Americans. In Los Angeles and other major metropolitan areas, the war drew into sharp relief the divisions between Mexican Americans, blacks, and the dominant Anglo society. In his essay, Luis Alvarez considers the Zoot Suit Riots of 1943 in Los Angeles as a clash between a home front that called for homogeneity and a subculture of minority youth that was developing its own notions of self-identity. Alvarez calls the beatings and other humiliations heaped on the zoot-suiters a "figurative and literal slap in the faces of youth of color."

Before World War II in the Southwest, it was unusual for mainstream newspapers to carry stories about the common Mexican Americans, or the everyday experiences of that group. That changed during the war, as news from the battlefront often included Mexican Americans. Two chapters rely heavily on that newspaper coverage. The first, by Maria Eva Flores, concerns the societal changes in Fort Stockton, a deeply divided community in West Texas. Flores uses the newspaper as a gauge of the opening of the town to its Mexican American population. The local newspaper, as the chronicler of life in that community, in a flush of patriotic pride, carried several stories about Mexican American "boys" who were overseas, many distinguishing themselves on the battlefield. This would be the first time that Mexicans were included in regular coverage in the Fort Stockton Pioneer, a sign that perhaps the dominant society might adopt a similar inclusiveness. In Fort Stockton, the Anglos and Mexican Americans rarely mixed; yet overseas, young men from the two groups—from opposite sides of the tracks—would meet one another on equal terms. Flores provides the background on the dual treatment of Anglos and Mexican Americans, so the irony is thick when the Fort Stockton Pioneer notes that "Tiodoro Moreno and W. R. McKay have met at their new station in Camp Breckenridge, Ky." Those wartime experiences would embolden them to fight hard after the war for equal rights. It would be, Flores notes, several years before the actual desegregation would take root.

The other chapter that relies heavily on newspaper accounts is one by this writer that considers the way newspapers in Texas and outside the state reported on the case of Private Felix Longoria, killed in the Philippines in the closing days of the war, in June 1944. The case made national headlines when his relatives were not allowed to use funeral home facilities in his South Texas hometown because of supposed objections by whites. The Three Rivers story—the first time that Mexican American civil rights were the subject of a national news story—has been examined time and again. In this essay, the framing of the news story is the focus. Rereading the newspaper accounts in Texas newspapers, sixty years later, in which both Hector Garcia and the dead soldier's wife and family are vilified, is a reminder of the deep roots of racism in many Texas newspapers as they resisted a segue into a fairer, more inclusive world. It is also, to a large measure, a reminder of how outraged major outside news media (Walter Winchell came out swinging and the New York Times, while calmer, painted a powerful picture of the outrage) can wield a powerful gavel in the court of public opinion—and begin to effect change in attitudes.

Emilio Zamora also looks at public opinion, but as it applied to Texas and the United States in the eyes of Mexico and other Latin American countries. Zamora considers the Good Neighbor Policy, established by the United States in the late 1930s to draw Latin American nations close and away from the Axis Powers, as the beginning of a tidal change in relations between the economically powerful United States and its poorer southern neighbor. News of the discrimination faced by Mexicans and Mexican Americans made headlines in Mexican newspapers; indeed, some of those incidents happened to Mexican government officials. Mexico, Zamora argues, successfully made Mexicans and Mexican Americans key players in that relationship—bringing pressure to bear on the problems of discrimination. With the U.S. need for braceros, or guest workers, Mexico's ability to make demands grew stronger, although that came to an end after the war.

Two writers look at the jobs created by the war effort: Naomi Quiñonez looks at the Mexican American women who were given entrée into the defense manufacturing plants, while Erasmo Gamboa considers the Mexican guest workers who were recruited as laborers to replace the worker-turned-soldier.

In the first essay, Quiñonez relies on oral history interviews with five Mexican American women who worked in defense plants in Southern California, about how that experience transformed their worlds. Gone were the chaperones, the docility of young women looking for husbands who would support them. Replacing them were self-reliant women with ambitions of their own. As a result, the Rosita the Riveters acquired new expectations of marriage and of men. This generation of Chicana workers, Quiñonez says, replaced old social constructions with new ones that better reflected where they had been and what they had done.

Last, Erasmo Gamboa introduces the reader to the Northwest Mexican American experience, particularly as it dates to World War II, when Mexican guest workers, or braceros, were brought in. The workers, many of whom remained in the Pacific Northwest after the war and formed a new community of Mexican Americans, faced a broad range of living conditions: the best were similar to dormitories for factory workers, the worst were akin to chicken coops. Gamboa also notes how Mexican officials, charged with visiting those camps to ensure sanitary living conditions, sometimes painted a far more positive picture than the reality dictated. Gamboa notes the hardships of these braceros, separated from family, living under sometimes undesirable conditions, subjected to discrimination. But he also allows that Chinese Mexican cooks hired to prepare meals were themselves sometimes subjected to the ridicule of these braceros; records show that some of these cooks walked off the job.

It is said that all research is personal at some level. And this is true, in large measure, for these essays. To many scholars whose work appears in the following pages, World War II was not strictly an academic subject. These scholars, now in their forties and older, are the daughters, sons, nieces, nephews, of the World War II generation. Because of that, many of us are entering into this research area with the advantage of having witnessed firsthand the changes and the advantages made possible by the war effort; we are also cognizant of the challenges faced by this World War II generation of Mexican Americans. Because of that, we are able to imbue our efforts with a certain passion that is born of personal investment; I believe that passion is evident throughout.


“This text makes a valuable contribution to the growing literature on the Mexican American experience.”
Western Historical Quarterly

“This book provides a much-needed resource for historians of World War II and as a historical backdrop to the generational origins of the Chicano civil rights movements.”
Hispanic Outlook

“Never in one book has the diversity of the wartime Mexican American experience been covered so fully.”
Military History of the West

“This book as a whole is a very valuable one and the first significant scholarship on Mexican Americans in World War II.”
Mario T. García, Professor of History and Chicano Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara