Thursday, November 11, 2021

On This Veterans Day, the Story of Felix Z. Longoria, A Veteran Denied


An Unlikely Hero, Felix Z. Longoria

     Journalist Carlos Sanchez’s sentence still resonates, even after all these years, “It has fallen to the Mexican Americans of the war generation to teach Longoria’s story; too often it has fallen to chance.” (Washington Post, 1989).

    In 1990, I was into my third-year teaching community college in Santa Monica, my place of birth. I don’t remember exactly how Sanchez’s article about Pvt. Felix Longoria got into my hands, probably a colleague who knew I was teaching Chicano Literature, a new course in the English department.

     At the time, I was working on my own Vietnam manuscript, Shifting Loyalties. Charley Trujillo had just published Soldados, which would go to win the 1991 National Award Book. I assigned Charley’s book to my students, and Charley was gracias enough to come by and speak to my class, a real an eye-opener for eighteen and nineteen-year-old students, a mixture of all ethnicities, who had already forgotten the war, actually, forgotten all wars.

     I’ll always remember one female Vietnamese American student saying shyly, “I didn’t know Chicanos had fought in Vietnam.” I was happy she understood the concept of Chicano and Chicana, but shocked by her comment. When I was in Vietnam, I saw more Chicanos than I’d ever seen in my life. If she didn’t know this, how many other Americans didn’t know, or didn’t care? We were the unknown, or at least, unseen soldiers, marines, sailors, and air men.

     As Sanchez wrote in his article, it was our responsibility to teach Longoria’s story, and the story of others who sacrificed so much for this country.

     I’ve got to admit. At the time, with the Middle East heating up, I was hesitant to even teach books about war in my class, especially Vietnam, fearing students, especially Latino students, susceptible to military recruiters on campus, might glorify combat, join the military, and forego college. Yet, Felix Zepeda Longoria's story had to be told, passed on to next generation. So, I copied the article, had students read and discuss it. Most couldn't believe Longoria's story, and some didn't want to.

     On June 15, 1945, Pvt. Felix Z. Longoria, “…after volunteering to flush out retreating Japanese in the Philippines,” was killed, barely two months before Truman announced the end of the war. It took three years for Pvt. Longoria’s remains to come home to Three Rivers, Texas, a small town between Corpus Christi and San Antonio. When Longoria’s distraught wife, Beatrice, went to make arrangements for a chapel service at the local funeral home, the owner-director, Tom Kennedy said no, he couldn't do it, “The whites wouldn’t like it.”

     Beatrice’s sister, Sara, and later, Dr. Hector Garcia, a Corpus Christi physician and veteran-activist, tried to intercede. Kennedy told them the same thing, to have the viewing at their home because he didn't want to "offend the whites." Supposedly, he feared their retribution, the audacity to conduct a funeral for a Mexican. So, what if he was killed in combat? I guess the logical conclusion to draw is: Longoria, veteran, husband and father, is still a Mexican.

    Dr. Garcia, who found "Mexican American veterans routinely being denied VA benefits," took the story to the newspapers. He sent letters everywhere, even to congress. The fledgling Mexican American veteran advocacy group the GI Forum took up the cause. Longoria’s story garnered national attention, embarrassing many politicians in Texas. The story “horrified” Americans throughout the country. Famed journalist, Walter Winchell, said on national television, “The state of Texas, which looms so large on the map, looks mighty small tonight.”

     Mexicans and Americans rallied around the Longoria family. A young senator from Texas, Lyndon Johnson, embarrassed by the racial indignity, stepped in, and though he had no authorization over the Rice Funeral Home in Three Rivers, lobbied to have Felix Longoria buried, with full military honors, at Arlington National Cemetery, many notable citizens present, where he still rests today.

     In his letter to Senator Johnson, Dr. Garcia, wrote that funeral director Kennedy’s refusal to honor the Longoria family’s request is “a direct contradiction of those same principles for which this American soldier made the supreme sacrifice in giving his life.” Johnson replied, in part, “I deeply regret to learn that the prejudice of some individuals extends even beyond this life.”

     The Texas legislature investigated the incident and concluded no discrimination occurred. It’s ironic that they “conducted the investigation in a building next door to a barbershop that did not serve Mexican Americans.” At the time, Jim Crow laws were vigorously enforced, even for returning veterans, some who had seen the worst fighting in Europe and the Pacific. It wouldn’t be long before they began challenging the system, Longoria's death playing a role.

     In an article in the "L.A. Progressive," “Saying I’m not Racist,” Steven Hochstadt writes, “Throughout the first half of the 20th century American scientists, philanthropists and political leaders agreed that people of any color but white were inferior and that their lives were not worthless but worth less.” Hochstadt calls this the “racist consensus” and argues, it, “was visible in every public space in America. Every major newspaper, every radio and, later, TV station, every legislative body, every private club, and every classroom taught, repeated, and reinforced the racial rankings that had developed.”

     This was certainly true in Three Rivers, Texas in 1945, and though Pvt. Longoria rests among the country’s great Americans in Virginia, overlooking the Potomac into D.C., Longoria’s sister-in-law, Sara, put everything into perspective the last time she visited the site. She stated, “This is so sad, that he had to come and rest so many miles away from home because of ignorant people.”

     No doubt, it was an honor to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery, but at the same time, wasn’t it a dishonor, a humiliation, a slap in the face, and maybe a message, not just to the Longoria's but to all Mexicans, this refusal of a small space of land in your own town, among friends and family, especially after making, what so many call, the ultimate sacrifice? Particularly insulting to families like the Longoria’s, who, as Sanchez writes, “…traced their family back a century or more to the time Texas still belonged to Mexico, it had an unusual effect. The Mexicans of Texas, though they were U.S. citizens, thought of themselves as Mexicans. Their Anglo neighbors thought so, too.”


Modern Activism and start of the G.I. Forum

     Was Felix Longoria’s sacrifice made in vain? I don’t think so. It might carry more importance than he, or his family, ever could have imagined.

     Dr. Garcia said, “It changed the whole situation for our people.” Educators, like Professor Ricardo Romo, UT Austin, stated, “I think it [the Longoria story] was the catalyst for the development and emergence of the civil-rights movement in the Mexican American community.” Historian, Carl Alsup, said about Mexican American returning from war during WWII, “They returned to a situation in which all the old barriers are still in place.” Yet, he concluded, after the Longoria story broke, “For the first time, the national public took notice of the Mexican American condition.”

     You can understand my excitement when Ken Burns, famed documentarian, released his long-awaited history of the Vietnam War, yet, by the conclusion, Latinos, particularly Chicanos, were non-existent. Just like in Tom Brokaw’s bestselling book on, The Greatest Generation, profiling WWII veterans, and again, for the most part, Mexicans, awarded more Congressional Medals of Honor than any other ethnic group, were absent.

     Just three nights ago, I sat down to watch PBS series on the American veteran, but for a brief, 15 second appearance of a veteran named Ayon, no other Latinos, Chicanos, or Latinas and Chicanas, who now serve in large numbers, appeared. Still, there is Raul Morin's "must read book, "Among the Valiant," and a handful of books published by Chicano veterans at small university presses the public knows nothing about. 

     Isn’t this lack of representation, especially when we, and our families, have sacrificed so much during times of war, just another way of saying, “Sorry, we can’t offer you services here, it might offend the whites? When, throughout history, nobody has worried about offending us.


jmu said...

Daniel, I am troubled that you refer to the appearance of Ayon (who is Cheyenne, BTW) in the "American Veteran" series as "15 seconds." He appears throughout the series (so far I've seen him in the three episodes available). And right after him, Angela Salinas (Major General, USMC, Retired) came on and she too has been in the the three episodes so far. She is from Alice, Texas, and belongs to an original tejano family. Maybe she is not Chicana, but she is no different than Longoria.

Also, I do know that Burns' series on WWII ("The War") did not include anyone of Mexican or Native American descent until he got beat over it and included two Mexicans from East LA and one Native American. I know one was William Lansford but I don't remember the names of the other two (and I can't find their names in google, can you believe it?) Did he do the same burrada with his series on Vietnam? (No, I have not watched it yet.)

BTW, yes, the "official" reason for denying Longoria's family the use of the cemetery chapel was because "the whites would not like it." But the "reason" was, according to Michael A. Olivas, that "a previous Latino funeral had been said to be disruptive." So the prim gringos were unhappy about all that crying and screaming by "those Mexicans.' Not because Longoria was a Mexican, but because of the wailing. Ain't that something? Kennedy could not get it into his head this was the burial of a military veteran. To him, all Meskins were the same.

Hope you enjoy reading the rest of the paper.

jmu said...

Hey, Daniel, I found their names: Pete Arias and Bill Lansford were the Mexicans. Both of them were Carlson's Raiders and both of them were in Iwo Jima in different units after the Raiders were disbanded. Surely you know that the Raiders were known for their "Gung Ho" motto ("Work Together" in Chinese). Of course, the movie ("Gung Ho") did not include any Meskins. You can see an excerpt with Lansford and Arias describing their experience at Iwo Jima at

The Native American was Joseph Medicine Crow, "the last Crow Indian to become a war chief."

On account of the poor response from KCET's management to the initial oversight, I stopped being a member. Later on they included the pieces on these three but at the end of the series, as a coda because the clamor could not be ignored. Much later, they were incorporated to series and were no longer an afterthought.

David Raul Morín said...

Even now, 76 years after the death of Felix Longoria, there is still discrimination against Chicanos, just as there is against black, asians, and other people who are "non-white." Things are getting better but we need to remind others that all of us are Americans and deserve equal justice.
David Morín

Daniel Cano said...

Manuel, that's why I mentioned, of my disappointment about lack of Latino/Chicano participation in the documentary American Veteran, only the name Ayon. I didn't know his ethnicity but assumed the name was close enough, still came across as a "token," whether native American or Latino. I didn't miss Salinas, but by the time she appeared, my disappointment was more a reaction to the collective work, books, documentaries and films related to war or the military and the lack, to the complete absence, of raza, except as stereotypes. In Soldados, Charley Trujillo documents the type of fighting Chicanos experienced in Vietnam. In the documentary Los Mineros, we also hear and see the vicious combat Chicanos/Latinos experienced in WWII. I thought "American Veteran", for sure, after the Burns' fiasco, would describe the kind of sacrifice Chicanos/Latinos(as) had made during combat, or the difficulties of assimilating back into society after the war, but no. I didn't see any of that, the reason for my disappointment, and not just me, I'm sure, but many American veterans of Mexican ancestry, who saw the horrors of combat and are still dealing with the effects, as the documentary showed with other veterans.