Latino Veterans Fight for Victory

By Joe V.  Aldaz Jr.
Program Manager, Onward to Opportunity (O2O)  – Colorado / Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF)

In the profound words of Cesar Chavez, “Si Se Puede,” (meaning: “Yes We Can”) rings boldly true about Latino veterans and America’s rise to greatness, our way of life, and our freedom to live, work and raise our families as we please. Throughout history, Latinos have come from places that have longed valued a tradition of military service. Politically, most Latinos by conquest soon shifted their allegiance to the United States, a pattern that has prevailed among successive generations of immigrants from Cuba, Mexico, and, more recently, the countries of Central America. Latinos have taken tremendous pride in their record of military service and have used their status as veterans to advance the equal treatment and integration of Latinos within our society. Through their dedicated military service, Latino veterans have worked tirelessly to promote Latino equality denoting that Latinos have fought in every U.S. conflict from the American Revolution to the current conflict in Afghanistan.

From the time of our American Revolution to the counter-terrorism fight in Afghanistan, Latino veterans have played a significant role in our military victories. Latino warriors have contributed in the deserts of Iraq, off the coast of Libya, and in the mountains of Afghanistan. Yet, despite their heroics, Latinos have not always received their just due. Thankfully, because of organizations like the League of United Latin American (LULAC), the American G.I. Forum and The Society of Hispanic Veterans, the Latinos of yesteryear and today are finally receiving the distinction they so justly deserve – not least of which 60 who have earned our nation’s highest military award – the Medal of Honor.  According to the Congressional Research Service in 2017, of those killed in Iraq, 450 were Latino and 52 killed in Afghanistan were Latino.  That is 10.6% of the casualties in Iraq were Latino and 7.9% in Afghanistan were Latino.  On July 8, 2004, President George W. Bush declared “Some 85,000 Latinos have served in Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. More than 100 have given their lives. Over 400 have been injured in combat. Our nation will never forget their service and their sacrifice to our security and to our freedom.”

Admittedly, no matter the conflict, Latinos have been the “First Ones In and Last Ones Out” to preserve our constitutional republic and our way of life.  As an example, the earliest Latino military hero, Don Bernardo de Galvez y Madrid the Spanish governor of Louisiana, earned accolades on exactly these grounds. Even before Spain declared war on its imperial rival in 1779, Gálvez, a native of the Spanish province of Málaga, demonstrated his personal sympathy to the goals of the American independence by preventing British smuggling through the port of New Orleans but looking the other way as American shipments of arms and supplies traveled up the MississippiOnce officially at war, Gálvez raised a multiracial, multiethnic army that included troops from Mexico, Cuba, and Puerto Rico. These troops dislodged British forces from forts along the Mississippi River and then east all the way to Pensacola, Florida, in an unrelentingly successful military campaign. At a time when the British were blockading Atlantic seaports, the campaign kept open critical supply lines through the Caribbean. The final sea and land battle at Pensacola, then the capital of British Florida, also allowed Gálvez to display his intrepid nature. For daring to breach the entrance to Pensacola Bay at a time when other Spanish commanders were more hesitant, Gálvez received permission from the Spanish king to emblazon the words, “Yo solo (I alone),” on his family coat of arms. (1)

In a naval career that stretched from the War of 1812 to the Civil War, Admiral David Glasgow Farragut earned a similar daring reputation. The son of a Minorcan sea merchant who had settled in South Carolina just in time to join the fight for American independence, the younger Farragut joined the U.S. Navy at the age of nine. At the age of 12, he brought a captured British ship to port. More training and assignments in the Caribbean followed. By 1854, Farragut was in California, apparently using both English and Spanish to establish Mare Island Navy Yard in the northern portion of the state. Despite being southern-born and raised, he remained loyal to the Union when the Civil War erupted the following decade. During the Battle of Mobile Bay, Farragut famously urged Union ships forward in waters infested with mines (called torpedoes at the time). Navy lore attributes to him the saying, “Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!” As a result of his tremendous service, he became the navy’s first Rear Admiral, first Vice Admiral, and, finally, first Admiral, all ranks created especially for him. While Farragut’s Hispanic heritage was more attenuated than Gálvez’s, he remained proud of it, making it a point to visit Spain and its Mediterranean islands on a goodwill tour before he died. (2)

More immediately, the Civil War proved how closely Latinos identified with the broader American culture, both North and South, which surrounded them. In fact, from Texas to California, Latinos fought valiantly for both the Confederate and Union armies. The efforts of Spanish-speaking Nuevo Mexicanos, however, stand out for permanently stymieing Confederate plans to control the entire Southwest. One estimate is that Nuevo Mexicanos accounted for as many as 2,500 of the 3,800 New Mexicans volunteers who joined the Union Army of the West. (3) Though rarely professionally trained, many of these Spanish-speakers hailed from isolated, rural areas, where they had spent years on horseback protecting their home villages from Native American incursions. Both familiarity with the terrain and tested fighting skills proved useful in the grueling Battle of Glorieta Pass when Spanish-speaking New Mexicans helped crush Confederate supply lines in northern New Mexico Territory. Afterward, however, at least some Spanish-speakers nursed the disappointment that, rather than be rewarded for their efforts, they endured an onslaught of unscrupulous speculators and tendentious court decisions that together separated them from most of their landholdings. (4) Although the memory of land loss lingered, this population continued to serve the U.S. with great valor in the wars that followed.

And so on through the Spanish-American War, Boxer Rebellion and finally to World War I, Latinos continued to distinguish themselves on the battlefield.  At the outbreak of World War I, Hispanics were eager to serve in the U.S. Armed Forces. At that time, the U.S. Army numbered on 200,000. Yet when Congress declared war, they asked for an Army of 3.8 million men. During this period, about one third of the U.S population were recent immigrants. Most Latinos were from Spain, Mexico, and Latin America … few spoke English. Still, they fought bravely. One young Hispanic soldier, Nicolas Lucero, a 19-year old from Albuquerque, New Mexico received the French Cross of War for his action destroying two German machine-gun emplacements. Another Latino patriot, Frederico Molina, was awarded the Medal of Honor.  However, these heroic acts did not prevent the United States from adopting a repressive, anti-immigration policy against Mexicans. Occurring during the Great Depression, the United States government used mass deportation to expel over 1 million Mexicans. To fight this initiative, Manuel C. Gonzalez of San Antonio, Texas asked after the war, “In time of peace, are the good people of our country to receive us as Americans, or are we to step back into the role of an alien?” So, he and other World War I veterans founded LULAC to battle segregation directed against Mexican Americans.  Today, it remains the largest Latino civil rights advocacy group.

But even this backlash did not discourage Latinos from signing up for the next major engagement, World War II.  Thus, there were an estimated 250 to 500,000 Hispanics in the United States Army in World War II. They fought bravely, especially Private Cleto Rodriguez who received the Medal of Honor for personally killing 82 enemy soldiers in the Philippines. More broadly, a notable military combat unit was the 141st Infantry Regiment that had a very high concentration of Hispanics. It has evolved from the original 2nd Texas Volunteers Unit. The 141st fought through 361 days of action in the Mediterranean Campaign. They suffered 6,000 casualties, including 1,126 citations for valor and courage, including three Medals of Honor, 31 Distinguished Services Crosses, 12 Legions of Merit, 492 Silver Stars, 11 Soldier’s Medals and 1,685 Bronze Stars. Not to mention, Sgt. First Class Augustin Ramos Calero, nicknamed a “One-Many Army” by his comrades. Ramos singlehandedly killed 11 Germans and captured another 21 in a World War II battle in France. The Boricua, one of 500,000 Hispanics to serve in World War II, was wounded five times during the war and received 22 medals, including the Silver Star and a Purple Heart.  That made him the most decorated Latino in World War II.

The massive mobilization effort that World War II required, ensured widespread participation from non-combatants. Numerous Latinas joined the Women’s Army Corps and the Navy’s Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service. For example, Maria Sally Salazar of Laredo, Texas at the age of 19 was so eager to join the Women’s Army Corps that she borrowed her sister’s birth certificate so that she could pass for 21, the minimum age requirement for women. After basic training, she spent 18 months in the Philippine jungle working out of an administrative building but also tending the wounded when needed. (5) In addition, thousands of Mexican American men and women found jobs in defense industries, an opportunity potentially denied to them because anti-Mexican prejudice remained so high. Although President Franklin Roosevelt had issued an executive order in 1941 banning discrimination in defense industry hiring, the war’s seemingly ceaseless demand for labor soon proved more effective in trouncing employer reluctance to hire Latino workers. The result was wartime sacrifice often was a family affair. A perfect example is the Sanchez family, who transplanted from Bernalillo, New Mexico to Southern California prior to the war. Supporting the military was a family affair as three sisters became a “Rosita the Riveter,” while all five brothers served: three in the Army, one a Navy Seabee, and one a civil defense air-raid warden. The Sanchez family’s commitment to the war effort saw one brother fighting in the Battle of the Bulge while another brother paid the ultimate sacrifice in combat in the Philippines. (6)

Yet, once gain upon returning to America, Latino patriots were mistreated. In 1945, one famous case involved Private Felix Longoria of Three Rivers, Texas who was killed in combat. After the war, Longoria’s remains were shipped home. However, the local funeral home refused to let the family use their chapel for the wake. The funeral home director was quoted as saying, “We’ve never made it a practice to let Mexican Americans use the chapel and we don’t intend to start now.” The case eventually reached the desk of a junior senator from Texas, Lyndon Johnson who arranged for Longoria to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery. These abuses helped launch the American G.I. Forum which joined LULAC to challenge segregation against Mexican Americans.

And so, it went into the Korean War and beyond to the jungles of Vietnam. Living proof was Master Sgt. Roy Benavidez awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during a vicious firefight. When his reconnaissance team’s position was overrun by Viet Cong and despite severe injuries, he carried many of his wounded comrades to the first rescue chopper.  When the enemy destroyed the chopper, Benavidez stepped forward again, saving the lives of eight other soldiers. All this despite his nearly mortal wounds.  Sadly in 2001, America lost this hero and Latino patriot. Through his tribute to his Mexican heritage, Benavidez’s call sign was “Tango Mike Mike” which has he told it stood for “That Means Mexican.”  A quote from his autobiography epitomizes the Latino call to duty. “I believe there is no greater calling for a man or woman than to serve in the military of a free nation.  I believe it is a calling that transcends all others, because it is embedded deep in the soul of every free man and woman and was earned by our ancestors.  Now, every generation must re-learn this lesson.  And only through the transfer of this basic knowledge, do free men survive.”

To this day, the legacy of Latino patriots has carried forward into Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan with some 20,000 Latino servicemen and women serving in Operation Desert Storm with 26 Hispanic heroes paying the ultimate sacrifice.

Despite the over 200 years of Latino patriotism and 16% of active-duty force being Latino, Latinos continue to not be represented amongst the highest-ranking officers in the military. (7) Department of Defense data shows out of the 37 highest-ranking officers in the military – four-star generals in the Army, Air Force and Marine Corps, and admirals in the Navy there are 32 white men, two white women, two African-American men and one Asian-American. Further, three-star generals and vice admirals, the next-highest rank shows out of 144 officers although slightly more diverse only one Hispanic has reached this pinnacle. This lack of presence at the highest-ranking roles in the military unfortunately can be attributed to the Latino culture of avoiding self-promotion and warrior mentality. According to Edward Cabrera, President of Casaba and a manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, “If we were more vocal, we’d have twice the amount of generals and admirals.”(8)   As Latinos, we need to push forward and have the courage to sound off on our record of superior military performance to change the complexion of our military, especially at the highest ranks.  We have to see it to believe it, but that will take “ganas” for those Latinos serving in our military to see the change.

The Latino veterans’ long and patriotic record of military service has been clear throughout United States history. Patriotism lays no claim to race because it is inherent in the spirit and soul of all Americans.  Yet, patriotism takes many forms in the fight for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Our Latino veterans are living examples of what it means to be good citizens. They have given us a lifetime of service and our country has been enriched by their contributions, both in and out of uniform.

  1. Lorena Orepeza, Fighting on Two Fronts: Latinos in the Military; John Walton Caughey and Jack D. L. Holmes, Bernardo de Gálvez in Louisiana 1776-1783Gretna, LA: Firebird Press, 1999). Also see Thomas Chávez, Spain, and the Independence of the United States: An Intrinsic Gift(Albuquerque: University of New Mexico, 2002).
  2. Lorena Orepeza, Fighting on Two Fronts: Latinos in the Military; Farragut’s son, Loyall, wrote the most extensive overview of his father’s life, The Life of David Glasgow Farragut(New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1879). A focus on Farragut’s naval career can be found in the more contemporary work by James P. Duffy, Lincoln’s Admiral: The Civil War Campaigns of David Farragut (New York: Wiley, 1997). For a debate about Farragut’s Hispanic background, see Raoul Lowery Contreras, Jalapeño Chiles, Mexican Americans, and Other Hot Stuff (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2003), 24-25, 42-44. A 2010 U.S. Navy pamphlet, Hispanics in the U.S. Navy (Washington, DC: Navy Diversity Directorate, Chief of Naval Personnel, 2010), claims that Farragut used both English and Spanish on the job. The pdf can be found online as well at www.history.navy.mil/diversity/brochures/HispanicsInUSN_Final.pdf, accessed August 21, 2012.
  3. Lorena Orepeza, Fighting on Two Fronts: Latinos in the Military; For the numbers of Nuevo Mexicano volunteers as well as a general overview, seeNational Park Service, Hispanics, and the Civil War: From Battlefield to Homefront (Washington, DC: Department of the Interior, 2011). It is available for purchase at http://www.eparks.com/store/product/93205/Hispanics-and-the-Civil-War%3A-From-Battlefield-to-Homefront/.
  4. Lorena Orepeza, Fighting on Two Fronts: Latinos in the Military; Mike Scarborough, Trespassers On Our Own Land: Structured as an Oral History of the Juan P. Valdez familyand the land grants of Northern New Mexico (Indianapolis, IN: Dog Ear Publishing, 2011), 47.
  5. Lorena Orepeza, Fighting on Two Fronts: Latinos in the Military; For Salazar’s recollection, see Therese Glenn, “Maria Sally Salazar,” part of the U.S. Latino & Latina WWII Oral History Project, Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection, University of Texas at Austin, at http://www.lib.utexas.edu/voces/template-stories-indiv.html?work_urn=urn%3Autlol%3Awwlatin.411&work_title=Salazar+%2C+Maria+Sally, accessed August 21, 2012.
  6. Lorena Orepeza, Fighting on Two Fronts: Latinos in the Military; Rita Sanchez, “The Five Sanchez Brothers in World War II: Remembrance and Discovery,” in Rivas-Rodriguez, ed., Mexican Americans & World War II, 1-40.
  7. Department of Defense (DoD). 2018 Demographics: Profile of the Military Community. Retrieved from https://download.militaryonesource.mil/12038/MOS/Reports/2018-demographics-report.pdf
  8. The Hill, Rafael Bernal, “Latinos aren’t reaching top military positions, study shows
Back to top.