Documentary Recounts Anti-Mexican Racism In The South

The documentary "The Longoria Affair" tells the story of Mexican-American Felix Longoria, who died while fighting in World War II and his family was denied use of their south Texas town's only funeral parlor because “the whites wouldn’t like it.” His widow contacted Hector P. Garcia, a local doctor and activist. He, in turn, contacted a newly-elected Texas senator, Lyndon B. Johnson, for help. Host Michel Martin speaks with the documentary's writer and director John Valadez for a preview.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

Next, to a story you heard before. A story that's part of the fabric of this country. There is an indignity, something people may have tolerated for decades, even generations. But then one person says, no more and others follow - and a movement is born and the country changes. The Montgomery bus boycott was one of those moments when Rosa Parks refused to sit in the colored section of the city bus.

The Longoria Affair was another and we suspect it is not as widely known. But to many Americans it is just as significant. And it's the subject of a new documentary titled "The Longoria Affair," which captures this pivotal moment in American history. The documentary will be broadcast nationally tonight on PBS. To hear more about the story, we've called John Valadez. He is the writer and director of "The Longoria Affair." Welcome. Thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. JOHN VALADEZ (Writer and Director, "The Longoria Affair"): Hey, thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So Private Felix Longoria was a soldier serving in the United States Army. He was killed in battle fighting the Japanese during World War II. And then his remains were sent home to Three Rivers, Texas. What happened then?

Mr. VALADEZ: Well, his widow went to the only funeral home in town, in fact, the only funeral home in the county and the white funeral home owner refused to let her family use the funeral chapel there to hold a wake because in Tom Kennedy, the funeral home owner's words, the whites wouldn't like it.

MARTIN: And I think that for some it will be a revelation that segregation involving Mexican-Americans was as significant and as profound as it was. And I'm just going to play a short clip from the film that describes the level of segregation in that town, Three Rivers, Texas. Here it is.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The Longoria Affair")

Unidentified Woman: The Anglos just claimed that everybody was lovey-dovey, but they had signs that said, No Mexicans. We lived on one side of the tracks and the Anglos lived on the other side of the tracks.

Unidentified Man: You could not sell your house to a Mexican. They didn't even use the term Mexican-American.

MARTIN: So, tell me about the town at that time. It was segregated in the same way that people think about, you know, Mississippi or Alabama, having been profoundly segregated between blacks and whites. So tell us a little bit more about that.

Mr. VALADEZ: I think for many white folks in south Texas and in Three Rivers in particular, there's a lot of denial about the discrimination and the pain that was inflicted upon Mexican-Americans. And if you go to Three Rivers today, there will be many white folks who tell you there was never any discrimination against Mexican-Americans in our town. But if you talk to Mexican-Americans, they will tell you a very different story.

Three Rivers, Texas, back in the 19, you know, '30s and '40s, was like most towns in south Texas. Remember, Texas was a slave state; it was part of the Confederacy. And many of the people who moved there came from the Deep South and they brought segregation with them. However, the minority, the dominant minority population was Mexican-Americans instead of African-Americans. And so Mexican-Americans couldn't use public facilities. They had separate schools for Mexicans. In every way it was a segregated community.

MARTIN: So the funeral parlor owner, Tom Kennedy, was used to arranging wakes for Mexican-Americans in their homes, and then whites could come to the chapel. And so he just said, well, that's not, you know, how we do these things here. So, what happened next when he refused to hold the wake at the chapel? What happened after that?

Mr. VALADEZ: Beatrice Longoria, who had lost her husband, was absolutely devastated. And her sister had known this doctor in Corpus Christi who had been getting a name for himself as a civil rights advocate. His name was Hector Garcia. And he was also a returning veteran. Garcia was not a man to be messed with. He was very serious, very focused. He began notifying the press. He called Tom Kennedy to confirm the story. And when it checked out and Kennedy wouldn't back down, he sent off telegrams to people all over the country.

He sent a telegram to Harry Truman, the president of the United States. And he also sent one to the junior senator from Texas, a guy named Lyndon Baines Johnson, who then became deeply involved in what would become the Longoria Affair.

MARTIN: And then what did Lyndon Johnson decide to do?

Mr. VALADEZ: You see, Lyndon Johnson had grown up in Texas. And earlier in his life he had been a teacher of a segregated Mexican school in Katula, which was only 60 miles down the road from Three Rivers. And there he saw a horrible discrimination, how the teachers neglected the kids. And he was deeply, deeply moved by what he saw. And so he responded by telling Dr. Garcia and the Longoria family that if they wanted, he would arrange to have Felix Longoria buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. And so that's what they did.

MARTIN: Well, before we get to sort of the broader impact of this, tell me about Tom Kennedy. One of the interesting things, the points that the film makes is that he wasn't a Texas native. Tom Kennedy being the owner of the funeral home, he was from Pennsylvania originally. What was his story?

Mr. VALADEZ: Well, by all accounts, Tom Kennedy was just the nicest guy you ever met. Even Beatrice Longoria remarked that he was, you know, such a wonderful gentleman in every respect except for the denial.

MARTIN: Tom Kennedy was a very complicated man himself. This is a very difficult situation for him. I just want to play a short clip from an interview you did with his daughter.

(Soundbite of documentary, "The Longoria Affair")

Ms. SUSAN ZAMZOW: They said my daddy was a monster, but he wasn't. Mother always said that he was thoughtful and considerate of the families that came in. He didn't care if you were black, white, purple or green. If you needed his service, he would help you.

Mr. VALADEZ: What Tom Kennedy said was that, you know, he had nothing against Mexican-Americans, but that his patrons in town were predominantly the white folks and he didn't want to alienate them and end up destroying his own business. And so he was just trying to go with what was normal in that town, in that social milieu and he suffered greatly for living a normal segregated life as it were.

MARTIN: Well, what happened?

Mr. VALADEZ: Well, what happened was, Dr. Garcia notified the press. He sent out these 17 telegrams to people in all levels of government and all of the sudden it was front page news across the country. And so Tom Kennedy started getting all of this hate mail, all of this pressure, not only from Mexican-Americans, but from people across the country and it really led to his life falling apart. He, you know, had feelings - he was wracked with guilt. He began suffering horrible, horrible headaches and basically became addicted to codeine and began taking drugs. It was terrible.

MARTIN: Wow. If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're talking about the new documentary, "The Longoria Affair," with its writer and director, John Valadez.

How did the Longoria Affair become not just about this particular individual and a particular thing, but the Longoria Affair that some say did spark the civil rights movement for Mexican-Americans and for other Latinos, how did that happen?

Mr. VALADEZ: You know, Mexican-Americans had returned from World War II. And you have to understand that they had sacrificed disproportionately on the field of battle during that war. And when they returned, they were not going to endure the indignity of discrimination any longer. And so when this incident happened, it became a catalyst. Mexican-Americans couldn't get access to the same GI bill benefits that Anglos were getting.

And so, what Garcia did is he began to mobilize. And in a very, very short period of time, he had chapters in 25 states. He had created the largest Latino politico organization in the country and he began to mobilize people and register them to vote. So that by the time you get to the 1960 presidential election with John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson on the ticket, Mexican-Americans were poised to be a critical factor in pushing Kennedy to the White House.

Remember, that 1960 election was the closest election of the 20th century and it all came down to two states, Texas and Illinois, states where the GI forum and this new organization that Garcia was also behind, called the Viva Kennedy clubs, were the strongest.

MARTIN: Well, I'm not going to give it all away, but I do want to ask you why you think this event is not better known. If you don't mind my making the observation, that I don't think it is as well known as the Montgomery bus boycott. And it clearly was a very pivotal, historical moment. And I'm wondering why you think that is.

Mr. VALADEZ: For the larger, dominant society, they've never seen Mexican-Americans as being particularly important. We're not seen as real Americans, we're seen as some cultural hybrid that's not really part of the dominant society. And we're not seen as active agents in building the destiny of this nation. And so I think we've always been marginalized and minimized and basically ignored.

You know, and I hope that the film makes a strong argument for why the contributions of Mexican-Americans are meaningful and profound and have benefited everybody because civil rights is for everybody.

MARTIN: John Valadez is the writer and director of "The Longoria Affair." The documentary will broadcast on PBS tonight. You will want to check your local listings for exact times. And John Valadez was kind enough to join us from our bureau in New York. Thank you so much.

Mr. VALADEZ: Thank you, Michel.

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