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"The War," Ken Burns' seven-part documentary about World War II begins tonight on PBS. And NPR continues its series about the war this week.

Today's story focuses on how the Second World War profoundly changed America's Latinos. Hundreds of thousands of Latinos, mostly Mexican-American served in the war. And as NPR's Richard Gonzales reports, they came home to start a new movement.

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RICHARD GONZALES: Another member of the greatest generation passed away earlier this month.

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In a sun-drenched church in Orange County, California, friends and family paid their last respects to Raymond Juarez.

Judge FREDERICK AGUIRRE (Superior Court, Orange County, California): A native son of Polarton(ph), a World War II veteran, a civil rights trail blazer, successful businessman, a patriot, and a family man.

GONZALES: The eulogy is delivered by Frederick Aguirre whose father grew up with Juarez. That was in the 1920s, long before southern California became a place of crossing tracks and strip malls.

Judge AGUIRRE: It was very bucolic in those days. We had orange groves all over the county, rural area and that's what Ray grew up in.

GONZALES: Growing up, Ray Juarez also had to contend with Jim Crow.

Judge AGUIRRE: Mexicans weren't allowed in certain movie theaters. They weren't allowed to play in certain parts.

GONZALES: On the night before his father's funeral, 56-year-old Michael Juarez talks about his dad's life.

Mr. MICHAEL JUAREZ (Son of Raymond Juarez): During the summertime when it was so hot that they went to play in the community public pools. They let the Mexicans in and fought in - were only after all the whites had already left. They let the Mexicans in when the water was just about ready to be cleaned.

GONZALES: Discrimination and segregation were the order of the day for most Mexican-Americans throughout the southwest. The attack on Pearl Harbor would begin to change that.

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President FRANKLIN D. ROOSEVELT: Yesterday, December 7th, 1941 - a date which will live in infamy.

GONZALES: Raymond Juarez and his two brothers answered President Roosevelt's call to war. Raymond was stationed stateside as a military policeman guarding POWs. His brother, Maurice, a tank commander, was killed in Germany. His other brother, Joe, was seriously wounded fighting in the Philippines.

Today, Joe Juarez, a short man, dark skin and soft eyes doesn't like talking about the war, but he will say that upon his return, he realized that he had changed in ways he never could have anticipated.

Mr. JOE JUAREZ (Brother of Raymond Juarez): It did change me. Because of the war also, you know, I became a fighter, I was a winner and because of that I became a better man.

GONZALES: A dozen Mexican-American World War II veterans interviewed for this report tells similar stories. They talk about how their self-perceptions changed, how the war was their first experience participating in mainstream America.

Mr. BEN DE LEON(ph) (World War II Veteran): Do you see how worn out this book is? This is the original history of the division.

GONZALES: Eighty-seven-year old Ben De Leon of Santa Ana, California thumbs through a dog-eared book detailing the history of the 104th Infantry Division, also known as the Timberwolf Division. Unlike African-Americans, most Latinos fought in integrated units.

Mr. DE LEON: See, Simon Mendoza(ph), Jose Martinez(ph), Georgio Martin(ph), Nicolas Lopez(ph) - you can look at all Latino names, but you can't distinguish. They all pay the price - all.

GONZALES: De Leon acknowledges he was an insecure draftee.

Mr. DE LEON: Oh, I had bought the cultural problem. The cultural ideas that if you were black hair, brown eyes and so forth that you couldn't do certain things.

GONZALES: De Leon was a private when his unit landed in France in September, 1944. Within a few months of fighting, his gallantry earned him a battlefield commission as a second lieutenant. Yet at war's end, De Leon says, he was eager to look to the future.

Mr. DE LEON: I came out of the service a different person. When I came out of the service, I had more self-confidence. I had no limits.

GONZALES: But when De Leon returned home to California, he discovered there were limits.

Mr. DE LEON: The reality was that we thought we were citizen soldiers, we were Americans, and so forth. I came back and the first thing I know, I can't buy a house.

GONZALES: Discrimination also greeted Army veteran Alfred Aguirre of Placentia, California. He earned a bronze star for bravery fighting in Okinawa. Upon his return home, he worked in construction and found that the local schools were still segregated.

Mr. ALFRED AGUIRRE (World War II Veteran; Founder, Veterans and Citizen of Placentia): I was in the service and I was never discriminated on. We were all together. We live together. We fight together. There were everybody - everybody was there - Italians and Jews, whatever. We got along fine. And I said, well this is stupid to come home where I was born and be separated. And I said I'm not going to have my child go to school and be separated like that.

GONZALES: Aguirre's son Frederick is now a Superior Court judge in Orange County. Frederick Aguirre's avocation is to preserve the stories of Latino war veterans such as those who rallied to challenge school segregation after the war.

Judge AGUIRRE: And that was the famous Mendez versus West Minster School District case that was the first federal court decision that declared that separate schools were inherently unequal. And that busted up the Mexican-American schools here in Orange County and it set the precedent seven years later for Brown versus Board of Education in 1954.

GONZALES: Around the same time, says Aguirre, another incident in Texas accelerated the Latino struggle for civil rights.

Judge AGUIRRE: You know, there was a fellow by a name Felix Longoria. He was from Three Rivers, Texas killed in action in the Pacific. In 1948, his family wanted him buried in their hometown of Three Rivers, Texas.

GONZALES: But the local funeral director refused to allow the Longoria family to use his chapel because he said the town's whites wouldn't like it. Felix Longoria was eventually buried in Arlington National Cemetery, thanks to the intervention of a young Texas senator, Lyndon Johnson. But the incident received national attention and energized protesting Latino veterans.

Mario Garcia teaches history at the University of California at Santa Barbara, and he says this generation of Latino World War II veterans pressed for civil rights not as it brought national movement, but at the grass roots.

Professor MARIO GARCIA (History, University of California, Santa Barbara): And so one of the struggles with the Mexican-American generation at the local level was - began to run Mexican-American candidates. Many of these are - were veterans, who came back and who ran for local offices on city councils, on school boards, on county boards of supervisors. These are incremental changes.

GONZALES: Veteran Alfred Aguirre was one of those grassroots leaders. He founded a group called Veterans and Citizens of Placentia, and he was eventually elected to the Placentia City Council.

Mr. AGUIRRE: I was hassling them - going from door to door and talking to the guys, all the guys who went to the war, and we had about 50 of them. Then we start having meetings and then we have decided that, hey, we're veterans. We fought for this country.

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GONZALES: One of the veterans who joined Alfred Aguirre back then was Raymond Juarez. On the day of his burial, his family remembered how, in 1946, he went to work in the Parks Department as the first Mexican-American hired by the City of Fullerton. Later in life, he opened a successful restaurant. And in his spare time, Juarez led the local American Legion Color Guard to honor scores and scores of veterans at funerals like his own.

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Richard Gonzales, NPR News.

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