Memorial Day Mexican American Heritage

Memorial Day-Celebrating the Contributions of Mexican Americans to the U.S.

Since the founding years of this country, immigrants have moved to the United States for a variety of reasons, including the pursuit of freedom, the desire to live in a safe nation of laws, and the hope to make an easier way for the next generation. Across the centuries, immigrants have left trails of their first impressions of America in the immigrant press.

La Opinion emerged as part of the Spanish press that flourished to meet the needs of Mexican immigration in the southwest, and to protect a community abroad while staying connected to Mexican local news. Part of its original vision was to preserve and defend Mexican cultural, religious and moral attitudes in the southwest. As the Mexican population increased, so did the relevance of the press to address the community’s daily challenges and celebrations.  Tracing its news content, editorials, columns and advertisements, reveals that the paper acted as a resource and counselor to the community becoming a product and an asset to Mexican migration. La Opinion addressed migrants through a pedagogy of ethnic consciousness, stressing the relevance of immigrant law and the value of comportment as catalysts to discrimination.

During World War II, the press focused on the portrayal of Mexico as the good neighbor, and Mexican Americans in California as valiant and sacrificial men and women eager to prove they belonged in the country by enlisting to serve in the United States.

On August 19, 1944, La Opinion published the story of a patriotic Mexican-American family. Mr. and Mrs. Navarez were photographed looking out the window of their Los Angeles home waiting for the mail to be delivered. Mrs. Navarez was photographed with an expectant smile. She awaited the arrival of the mailman while working on a homemade tapestry of the American flag.

The patriotic Mexican-American mother had sewn 7 starts onto the flag, each representing a Navarez son serving in the United States Armed Forces. The enlistment of her brave sons, six of them into the U.S. Army, and one into the Marines, had created an anxious afternoon routine for the family. La Opinion’s article featuring the Navarez family’s story reached the United States Secretary of the Navy who sent the family a letter:

“Let us thank you for the commendable way in which your seven children have responded to the national call for enlistment. Their actions reflect a sense of loyalty and patriotism that they undoubtedly learned in your home. The courage and sacrifice of you and your sons are typical of the spirit that will lead our cause to triumph.”

As Mexican Americans joined the ranks of the U.S. military during World War II, La Opinion praised the Mexican response to the call for the enlistment of soldiers and volunteers to support the war effort. La Opinion endorsed Mexican military enlistment, praising it as “the kind of action that can help to build pride in the Mexican American community.”

 

Soldiers of the 65th Infantry training in Salinas, Puerto Rico, 1941. Photo: National Park Service.

 

Two years earlier, on April 26, 1942, La Opinion celebrated the sacrifices of Mexicans in California who had joined the armed reserves. As the need arose for California to increase its local state defense, Colonel Jack Hastie Jr., Chief of the State Guard of Southern California, visited La Opinion’s headquarters to enlist the newspaper’s help in promoting recruitment “among all the leaders in the Spanish community of Southern California.”

La Opinion gave the story front page coverage, encouraging Mexicans in the Southwest to join the reserves.

“When it comes to the cooperation in the preservation of local defense, citizenship status [will] not matter,”  La Opinion quoted Colonel Hastie Jr.’s persuasive call.

The Spanish press supported the Colonel’s efforts and reinforced its support for the U.S enlistment agenda by publishing a photograph of Melvin Espinoza and Robert Montalvo, two smiling Mexican reserves serving in the Naval Infantry who briefly paused from their drills in Camp Pendleton, California, to pose for La Opinion’s photographers.

 

Voces Oral History. Photo source, Google Arts and Culture.

 

Colonel Hastie, Jr. thanked La Opinion for helping the defense interests of the United States. The enlistment efforts published in the Spanish press proved fruitful.

Following La Opinion’s call for enlistment, the press reported:

“A regiment made of Mexican natives, many of whom are volunteers, showed up in Los Angeles headquarters to request admission into the reserves.”

 

FDR and Eleanor Roosevelt visited Monterrey, Mexico to meet with President Manuel Avila Camacho in April 1943. Photo Credit: National Park Service.

 

Thanking the over 1,000 Mexican men who volunteered, Colonel Hastie, Jr. emphasized the importance of guarding the California coast.

 

Elsie Martinez. Photo source, America Comes Alive.

 

“No one community should rest and wait for another one to step up. The enemy could come to our soil at any moment.”

The newly enlisted Mexican reserves, ages eighteen to sixty-five, reportedly received sixty dollars a month for their service. La Opinion played a role in mobilizing the Mexican community on behalf of the United States security and defense goals.

 

Mexican Americans in World War II. Photo: ThoughtCo.

 

Mexican American enlistment in the reserves had preceded World War II with many soldiers signing up during times of peace. Pedro Aguilar of Los Angeles was the first Angelino to be drafted from the ranks of the reserves on October 29, 1941. A couple of months later, the National Guard would emerge as a federalized institution.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, many civilian who initially signed up to serve in the National Guard as volunteers, found themselves stepping into the role of full time soldiers. The National Guard set up draft boards in places like Los Angeles, Nogales, Albuquerque, and San Antonio, volunteers were identified and channeled into the various branches of the armed forces. Soldiers included “alien non-citizens” living in the United States, and local rural youths.

 

Photo credits, The Heritage Foundation.

 

They were drafted immediately, leading ranchers and farmers to protest against the recruitment of Mexicans with the local draft boards, as recruitment left farmers without workers. Mexican soldiers and volunteers were recruited in farms, large cities, small villages, backwoods, from all parts of the United States and from Mexico.

Volunteers included High School youth who signed up upon high school graduation, and sometimes even sooner, when parents could be talked into granting the adolescents permission to serve in the United States military before the age of eighteen.

When Mexico joined other Latin American countries in declaring war on the Axis in June 1942, a wave of young Mexican citizens crossed the border to volunteer for service in the United States military. Some were American-born of Mexican parents. Born and raised in the United States but clinging to Mexican traditions. Their speech was more Spanish than English, sometimes a mix of both. Some were born and raised in Mexico.

 

President Manuel Avila Camacho of Mexico left and President Roosevelt on U.S. president’s arrival in Mexico, Photo: Getty Images.

 

The largest group were born in the United States whose ancestry ran back to original settlers and early immigrants to the Southwest. This group included Spanish-Americans from New Mexico and Colorado, Tejanos from Texas, Pochos from California. They enjoyed Spanish songs, Latin rhythms and Mexican mariachis, but also American songs. Most had been raised in predominantly Mexican surroundings along the border towns. Over 300,000 Mexican Americans volunteered or were drafted into the military, serving with distinction in both the European and Pacific theaters. Mexican American soldiers and Marines won the most Congressional Medals of Honor of all minority groups.

 


Soledad Quartucci | Latina Republic

Dr. Soledad Quartucci is the founder and CEO of Latina Republic, a 501(C)3 California-based nonprofit organization. Latina Republic is a reporting, research, advocacy and charitable organization advancing human rights in the Americas. We fill the void in coverage of urgent social, political, human rights, economic and gender inequalities affecting the Americas. Through our allies in Latin America, we highlight contributions, heritage, history, leadership and innovation. Latina Republic reports on stories that integrate local strategies to the betterment of the region. We make space for and empower unheard voices and celebrate the rich histories of Latin America.