Hector Perez Garcia has been described as "a man who in the space of one week delivers 20 babies, 20 speeches, and 20 thousand votes. He understands delivery systems in this country," ("Justice for My People: The Dr. Hector P. Garcia Story"). Trained as a physician, Hector P. Garcia became the "medical doctor to the barrios," ("Justice for My People: The Dr. Hector P. Garcia Story"). He also served in the United States Army, stationed in North Africa and Italy during the Second World War. For his service as infantry officer, combat engineer officer, Medical Corps officer, and Medical Corps surgeon, Garcia received six battle stars and a Bronze Star. As a highly decorated veteran of a war that should have united the country against its common enemies, Garcia might have expected that Hispanic-Americans like him would enjoy equal rights and social justice. He was wrong. Fed up with discrimination and institutionalized racism, Garcia embarked on a lifelong campaign for civil rights that resulted in his founding a key veterans' rights institutions that still exists today. Yet Garcia's name is not a household word, and his efforts have largely gone unsung by the dominant white patriarchal culture. The purpose of this paper is to honor Hector Perez Garcia, showing how he transformed Chicano culture in America.
As Kells notes, Hector Perez Garcia was born to be different. His family background is testimony to his alternative ways of thinking, and his ability to dream big and succeed at meeting his goals. Hector is of course named after the Greek hero of the Iliad; his other brothers were named after Aztec kings (Kells). None of the Garcia children were given the Catholic saint names that were most common in Mexico, where the family had resided for centuries.
The Garcias were no strangers to social injustice, racism, and discrimination. Jose, Hector's father, was a descendant of Sephardic Jews and the early colonists of Mexico fleeing the Inquisition. Yet when these early Jewish settlers arrived in the New World, they encountered rampant anti-Semitism in the areas that are now Texas and Mexico. A dominant white Catholic Spanish elite discriminated not just against the indigenous people of Mexico but also the Jews. The Garcia family experienced a "recurring narrative of displacement and repatriation" that undoubtedly came to influence Hector when he was born in 1914 (37).
Resisting oppression, the Garcia family exhibited tremendous resilience. They remained highly educated and knowledgeable about worldly affairs up to, throughout, and after the Mexican Revolution. Hector's father Jose was an attorney, and his mother Faustina was a teacher. When Hector was born on January 17, 1914, the family lived in Llera, Tamaulipas state, Mexico. Three years later, the Revolution was in full force and an attack on Llera forced the Garcias to flee. In 1918, the Garcia family immigrated to Texas and settled in Mercedes.
Jose and Faustina Perez Garcia encouraged all seven of their children, regardless of their gender, to pursue a higher education and especially a career in medicine (Kells). Six of the Garcia children, including two daughters, ultimately did receive medical degrees. Hector's undergraduate degree was from the University of Texas, Austin but due to a quota system against Latin Americans in universities, Hector was the only Latin American admitted to the University of Texas Medical School in Galveston and the only Latin American to graduate in 1940 (Rozeff). Discrimination -- and unequal access to the means by which to achieve upward social mobility -- was the norm for non-whites as well as women throughout much of the 20th century. It was these systematic forms of racism that inspired Hector Perez Garcia to political action.
Along with his distinguished medical degree, Hector also served in the American military, certain that serving his country and becoming a naturalized citizen would mean that he enjoyed equal protection and consideration among his countrymen. While stationed in Italy, Hector met his future wife Wanda Fusillo of Naples and married in 1945. Wanda Fusillo was also highly educated.
After returning from the war, Hector Perez Garcia opened a private medical practice with his brother while also becoming involved in local politics. By 1947, Garcia was elected president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC). The LULAC presidency enabled Hector Perez Garcia to advocate on behalf of the Chicano community in Texas. School segregation was one of the primary targets of LULAC activism.
Garcia also became involved with the American G.I. Forum. In 1948, a mortuary in Three Rivers, Texas refused to inter -- a man named Felix Longoria. The overtly racist decision caught Garcia's eye. Longoria was a war veteran who had been killed serving his country in the Philippines. Garcia advocated on behalf ot he Longoria family, writing a letter to the then-Senator of Texas, Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson listened, and "offered the Longoria family a burial with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia," (Rozeff). The Longoria case earned much media publicity. Dr. Garcia and his family received insults and threats from white supremacists in Texas because of it, too (Saavedra). Garcia even received death threats because his political activism dealt a serious blow to Texan white supremacy ("Justice for My People: The Dr. Hector P. Garcia Story").
Success in advocacy caused Hector Perez Garcia to spearhead local chapters of the American G.I. Forum (AGIF). The AGIF "initially…sought to inform Mexican-American veterans about their rights under the GI Bill; it then expanded its services to inform the community about available government services," (Meier and Feliciano 206). What began as the Longoria incident expanded into an ambitious civil rights campaign that increased awareness about institutionalized racism in general and discrimination against Chicanos in particular. Issues that Garcia and the AGIF championed were not limited to veterans affairs. The AGIF also "sought to develop Chicano leadership and to reach raza goals through intensive participation in political, civic, and community affairs," (Meier and Feliciano 206). Specific issues included "education, farm labor, jury selection, desegregation of schools, hospitals, and public swimming pools, poll tax reform, and more," (Rozeff). The United States Supreme Court decision in Hernandez v. State of Texas eliminated discrimination in jury selections, directly impacted by advocacy on the part of the AGIF (Rozeff). Garcia and the AGIF, which had amassed thousands of local protestors and political activists, represented "the new postwar style of Mexican-American leadership," (Meier and Feliciano 206).
Although Hector Perez Garcia might have enjoyed the privilege of being male, he never ceased to advocate on behalf of the socially oppressed in Texas. "Like a child mailing letters to the North Pole, Garcia sent off his wish lists to the presidents of the United States with an unwavering confidence that his words were worthwhile and welcome," (Kells 36). Garcia's determination to help the Latin American community and eliminate institutionalized racism paid off. As Kells puts it, "over the course of the next two decades, Garcia's deep identification with the office of president became a kind of self-fulfilling prophesy as presidents turned to him for guidance and support," (36). Garcia had been a key national leader in the VIVA Kennedy-VIVA Johnson campaign to elect the president in 1960. His actions caused Kennedy to appoint Garcia in several ambassadorial positions, and also to the United States Commission on Civil Rights. Even President Reagan recognized Hector Perez Garcia, by offering him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1984.
Hector Perez Garcia was a remarkable figure in American history and one that deserves to be remembered. It is unfortunate that Garcia's name is only given a few lines, if that, in American history textbooks. While the Chicano community in the Southwest might be familiar with his life and activism, the fact remains that a white male hegemony controls educational curricula and pedagogy.