We welcome Barbara Renaud Gonzalez (see her BIO below) as a guest on La Bloga today. She brings us a book review of:
The World War I Diary of José de la Luz Sáenz.
Texas A& M University Press, 2014
Originally published in 1933
A century ago, a great uncle of mine, born and raised on the King Ranch, brincó el río, to avoid getting drafted into the war: WWI. My tío apparently had witnessed his father, my great-grandfather, killed in cold blood, and decided he was not going to defend a country that didn’t value Tejanos: The Mexican Texans.
José de la Luz Sáenz looked at all this differently. He was a Tejano and a teacher of Mexican-American children and enlisted for military duty toward the end of the war, in 1917. Sáenz signed on to World War I believing that if he and other Mexicanos made the “ultimate sacrifice,” then surely we could claim equal rights for ourselves and our children.
He wrote down this dream, this fever, this ambition, repeatedly, in a diary, keeping a record of his sixteen months in the 360th Infantry Regiment of the 90th Division of the U.S. Army. The diary begins with his enlistment and ends in a last entry where he announces his release from the military.
The diary was published (funded by benefactors) in 1933 by the San Antonio-based Artes Gráficas at the cost of $4.00. The cloth-covered, 298-page book was titled, Los Mexico-Americanos en la Gran Guerra y Su Continente en pro de la Democracia, la Humanidad y la Justicia.
In writing down his experiences for sixteen months, Sáenz found his place in Mexican-American history, over a half-century after it was first published. If ever there was a reason for our mothers, fathers, and comadres to write down their stories, this is it. The bilingual Sáenz wrote in Spanish—and not just any Spanish, but the ornate Spanish of our grandfathers, a Spanish of silk, tissue-paper, and old-world protocols. Language is fluid, as my writer friends know, and the Spanish of that time is not the Tex-Mex of today with its swirly vocabulary – a multicultural graffiti to be reckoned with. All this makes the translation of such a book a masterpiece all by itself.
“I am aware of the pivotal role I play as a translator and editor,” writes Emilio Zamora, Professor of History at The University of Texas/Austin. Professor Zamora has had to translate a young man’s conflicted idealism about the war which makes for a deeply layered narrative.
“I have translated the diary because I recognize Sáenz’s masterful critique of these inequalities, his bold reconfiguration of the Mexican cause, and his sensitive treatment of Mexican people and their veterans. I also admire his expansive and far-reaching statements about a shared Mexican history and culture and his ability to speak prophetically about a Mexican cause that continues to draw on The United States’ foundational principles to justify itself.”
The diary begins on February 25th, 1917, when Sáenz reports to the “local board in New Braunfels.” He writes every day for sixteen months, until his return from serving in France and Germany on June 17th, 1919.
Sáenz was born in Realitos, Texas, near San Diego, Texas, in 1888. He was eight years old when his mother died. He attended public school in Alice. An exemplary student, Sáenz also completed studies in two independently operated community schools, taught by local intellectuals. At the time, private learning institutions were present in some communities to supplement the official curriculum because “the public schools either misrepresented or entirely excluded Mexican history and culture, even in places like South Texas,” says Zamora. His mother, Cristina Hernandez, was descended from The Canary Islands. His father’s family traced its lineage from the Aztecs who escaped the violence of the Spanish Conquest in 1519. Sáenz benefitted from a rich knowledge of his Mexican history, referencing Benito Juarez, the French occupation of Mexico (1861-1867), the Mexican War for Independence, the Alamo, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
As noted, Sáenz had been teaching Mexican schoolchildren in the segregated area of South Texas. He was married and had two children. But he wanted to prove his American love of democracy while still claiming his Mexican heritage. He was about twenty-nine years old.
For Sáenz, a patriot, World War I was also an opportunity and a journey. A man of his talents surely dreamed of so much more that he was already. From Camp Travis, one senses the wonder of a huge military camp in a city he’d never lived in before, on the brink of his departure to a global war zone.
While in the army, Sáenz applied for Officer’s School. His application was denied. Later, he learned French and some German. He began translating newspapers and telegrams to his superiors during the war, working in the Intelligence Office. In his spare time, he taught his fellow Mexican Americans how to read and write. Many were illiterate, yet this did not deter the U.S. from conscripting them.
Sáenz’s writing is often mundane, the naiveté of a young man, the imbibed language of the patriot, and yet it seems that in the sheer process of writing, his ghosts want to speak, and then the historical allusions appear, along with the questions rising from his sublime consciousness. Here’s a good example:
Saturday, August 24 (1918)
I started cleaning the typewriter after breakfast. I can see that I will now use this weapon to battle the subjects of William II . . . The German shells do not understand French or Spanish, but they have shown how one man’s failure required a replacement and the officers thought of me. Studying won out . . . The risk is everwhere on the front, but I came to fill a position that is more difficult than carrying a rifle. Millions carry rifles but few can make the typewriter keys click and send orders in Spanish, English, or French. I say this with confidence. My buddies look to me in the evenings so that I can tell them the news from around the world. This includes some of our soldiers of German descent.
The climax of his diary is witnessing the fall of Germany while he is fighting in Villers-devant-Dun, France, and being alive after so much death around him on Armistice Day, November 11, 1918.
Then in January of 1919, while in occupied Germany, Sáenz applies to French and English universities, only to be denied—ostensibly because he is only a private. Instead, he asks for an assignment to teach English to his fellow Mexican soldiers:
Tuesday, January 14, 1919
I accepted the responsibility of teaching my own because no one is interested in them. This reminded me of a newspaper notice that appeared before the war, that soldiers who did not know how to read or write would not be sent to the trenches. Clearly, bullets do not respect proclamations.
His family writes him. A brother is sick with the flu. His brother Eugenio dies. The 1918 flu pandemic was an unusually deadly illness, infecting 500 million people across the world, killing three to five percent of the world’s population, making the pandemic one of the deadliest natural disasters in human history. But WWI soldiers were not informed because their superiors wanted to keep up their morale. Later, his wife writes him to say she has been ill too. But he cannot leave, as he has no employment back in the states. Soldiers will have no employment once they return from war. He tells his sister not to try to have him discharged.
Sáenz visits Paris and dreams of seeing Rome. He makes friends with the local priests, teachers, and even German villagers who are willing to talk with him. He meets Oklahoman Indians who do not speak Spanish, but share a common hope for a better life. Yet, he evinces the standard prejudices against Blacks, Jews, Gypsies—people he does not really know.
Sáenz returned to a hero’s welcome in Boston and was honorably discharged from Camp Travis in San Antonio, Texas on June 21, 1919.
April 11, 1919
I am intrigued by the possibility that this place may have originated racial prejudice, the fuse that will no doubt set the globe on fire during the next world war. They tell their children of their racial superiority over all the other races on each much like they would teach the ABC’s.
Barbara Renaud Gonzalez is the author of Golondrina, Why Did You Leave Me?, the first Chicana novel published by The University of Texas Press, 2009. She has also published an interactive children’s book on the life of voting rights pioneer, Willie Velasquez. The book is entitled, The Boy Made of Lightning (Alazan Arts Letters and Stories, AALAS, 2013).