Featured: Dr. Héctor P. García (1914 – 1996), advisor to three U.S. presidents, the first Mexican American to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which is the nation’s highest civilian honor, and was a recipient of the Bronze Star and six battle stars for his military service in World War II. In 2009, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, designated the third Wednesday in September as Dr. Héctor P. García Day through Senate Bill 495. The bill authorized the observance of the day by schools and state agencies to honor García and teach all Americans about his legacy.
Photograph Courtesy PBS/Independent Lens
Dr. Héctor P. García Day, which honors Hispanic civil rights champion, to be observed Wednesday, September 16, 2020, throughout Texas, Sen. Hinojosa announces
Dr. Héctor P. García Day, which honors the Hispanic civil rights champion (1914 – 1996), will be observed on Wednesday, September 16, 2020, throughout Texas, Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, D-McAllen, has announced.
In 2009, Hinojosa designated the third Wednesday in September as Dr. Héctor P. García Day through Senate Bill 495. The bill authorized the observance of the day by schools and state agencies to honor García and teach all Americans about his legacy.
Hinojosa, who served as a U.S. Marine combat squad leader in Vietnam, also passed a resolution naming a portion of State Highway 286 the Héctor P. García Memorial Highway in Corpus Christi, where he lived most of his life.
“All Texans should remember Héctor P. García, an extraordinary man who dedicated his life to public service and the equal treatment of all. Dr. García courageously fought for the civil rights of veterans and Hispanics, breaking down the barriers they faced to education, health care, fair labor practices, and housing,” said Hinojosa. “He demonstrated leadership and sacrifice in his fight to protect our liberties and ensure that all Americans are treated with dignity and respect.”
Hinojosa, as the primary author of Senate Bill 495, is the legislator who filed the bill and guided it through the legislative process.
García was the first Mexican-American to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor and was a recipient of a Bronze Star and six battle stars for his military service in World War II. He served as an advisor to Presidents John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, and Jimmy Carter and served as the first Hispanic on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.
García founded the American G.I. Forum and fought for the rights of Hispanics in the United States.
The American G.I. Forum, a Congressionally chartered Hispanic veterans and civil rights organization, was established in 1948, and operates chapters throughout the United States, with a focus on veterans’ issues, education, and civil rights. Its motto is “Education is Our Freedom and Freedom should be Everybody’s Business”.
García was a well-known surgeon/physician who fought for the rights of Hispanics and veterans who were denied educational, medical, and housing opportunities. He also was a champion for labor rights, voting rights, and justice system reform. He served and supported and defended the most vulnerable and underserved people in Texas.
“Dr. García embodies the spirit of selflessness and public service. As a private American citizen, he exercised his constitutional rights to elevate awareness about the plight of neglected Americans,” Hinojosa said. “As a physician, he provided access to medical care to underserved communities. As a soldier, he demonstrated valor and sacrifice as he fought to protect our liberties. Dr. Héctor P. García never wavered in his commitment to the United States Constitution and equality for all.”
In 1932, García entered the University of Texas at Austin, graduating with a degree in zoology. He was one of the top five of his class. He went on to study at the University of Texas at Galveston, earning his doctorate in medicine in 1940. He accomplished his residency at St. Joseph’s Hospital at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska in 1942.
Upon completing his internship in 1942, García was called to active duty in the army, as the United States had entered World War II. He was placed in command of a company of infantry. Later, he commanded a company of combat engineers before being transferred to the medical corps. He was stationed in Europe and eventually rose to the rank of major. He earned the Bronze Star Medal, the European African Middle Eastern Medal with six bronze stars, and the World War II Victory Medal. While in Italy, he met and fell in love with Wanda Fusillo of Naples, whom he married in 1945.
When Hinojosa’s Senate Bill 495 went before the Texas Legislature in 2009, there was overwhelming support to establishing Dr. Héctor P. García Day. No lawmaker voted against it, and Gov. Rick Perry signed the bill into law on Saturday, May 30, 2009.
Rep. Abel Herrero, D-Robstown, was the main sponsor of Senate Bill 495.
The sponsor is the legislator who guides a bill through the legislative process after the bill has passed the originating chamber. The sponsor is a member of the opposite chamber of the one in which the bill was filed.
Texans from throughout South Texas showed up in support of Senate Bill 495 when it went before the Senate Committee on Administration, which held a public hearing on the measure on Tuesday, April 14, 2009.
Among the individuals who testified or registered in support of House Bill 495 were:
Cecilia García Akers; Patrick Birmingham, Corpus Christi Caller-Times; Barbara Canales, for Dr. Héctor P. García family; Scott Elliff; Paul Herrera, Joe Ortiz, The American GI Forum of Corpus Christi; John Maline; Elizabeth Protas; Gil Rodríguez, American GI Forum; Patricia M. Vázquez-Cortéz; (Registered, but did not testify:: Hugo Berlanga; Elizabeth C. García; Rudy Garza, City of Corpus Christi; Vilma Luna; and Samuel L. Neal Jr., Nueces County Commissioners Court.
García, in seeking justice for Mexican American soldier refused chapel service, helped Latinos become a national political force for the first time in American history
According to the website of the PBS series Independent Lens:
In the south Texas town of Three Rivers, segregation between the Anglo and Mexican American communities had long been a way of life. But with the onset of World War II, men and women from both communities joined together to support the war effort.
One of them was a young Mexican-American husband and father named Félix Longoria.
Private Longoria was killed in battle fighting the Japanese during World War II. But when his body was sent home to Three Rivers, the town’s only funeral parlor refused to allow his family to use their chapel because “the whites wouldn’t like it.”
The incident sparked national outrage and brought together two savvy political leaders, U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson, D-Texas, and García.
It would also propel John Kennedy to the White House, and lead President Johnson to sign the most important civil rights legislation of the twentieth century.
The complex, sometimes contentious relationship between Johnson and García would help Latinos become a national political force for the first time in American history.
After Kennedy’s death, Johnson would bring more Mexican-Americans into the federal government than any President in history. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 desegregated public accommodations throughout the country — making it illegal for a funeral home owner to deny services based on race.
The 1965 Voting Rights Act ended the Poll Tax and finally gave Mexican Americans and others the legal tools to challenge discriminatory voting practices.
Sixteen years after the Longoria Affair, Latinos would be elected to local school boards and city councils. They would become mayors, legislators, governors, and judges in record numbers. For García, it was a triumph.
A decorated soldier, Longoria was killed in battle in the Philippines. When his remains were returned, his widow Beatrice wanted him to be honored in his hometown. She was devastated when the funeral home owner denied her family the use of the chapel.
The funeral homeowner would later tell a reporter, “We never let Latins use the chapel and we don’t intend to start now.”
Beatrice sought help from García, a physician from Corpus Christi who was making a name for himself as a hard-edged civil rights advocate.
During the war, García had been a surgeon and commander of a field hospital near the front lines in Europe. After the war, he returned to South Texas where thousands of Mexican Americans desperately needed medical care.
Many of García’s patients were veterans but were unable to get care from the Veterans Administration. They told him that they couldn’t get money to go to school or start businesses — benefits white veterans were receiving as part of the GI Bill.
García began to mobilize, creating an organization to fight for their rights called the American GI Forum.
Incensed by Mrs. Longoria’s plight, García called the local paper and fired off telegrams to elected officials demanding justice. One telegram went to the newly elected junior U.S. Senator from Texas, Lyndon Baines Johnson.
Twenty years earlier, Johnson had been principal of the segregated Mexican American school in Cotulla, just 60 miles west of Three Rivers. He never forgot the poverty and racism he witnessed there.
Johnson immediately responded, offering to have Private Longoria buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. The family accepted and today Longoria’s body rests on a hill overlooking the Washington Monument.
Dr. Héctor P. García Memorial Foundation
Additional information about García is provided by the Dr. Héctor P. García Memorial Foundation, including the following material:
The Dr. Héctor P. García Memorial Foundation was created to expand awareness of his legacy and the continued relevance of his fight for equal rights for all.
García grew up in a time when discrimination against minorities was not only common, it was expected. Blacks and Hispanics were denied equal access under the law. Schools, hospitals, and even graveyards were segregated.
As a leader in LULAC and the American GI Forum, García helped to end segregation in schools, hospitals, and public facilities in Texas and nationally. He organized an effort that defeated the oppressive poll tax and led the way to a Hispanic voting majority in South Texas.
He fought for fair wages and better working conditions and to bring resources to the colonias, which are areas along the U.S.-Mexico border that lacked basic services.
By organizing the Hispanic vote and voice he brought political power and consequently justice to his people.
García believed in the promise of America and spent a lifetime making the Constitution a living document for every American no matter what their race, ethnicity, or economic status.
The Dr. Héctor P. García Foundation has been established to continue this work. Its mission includes raising money to provide scholarships to students at the post-secondary level, the promotion of civil liberties, the development of effective public service, the advancement of the health and social welfare of the community, and the education and training of leadership that serves the people.
Black and Hispanic Americans still lag in graduation rates from both high school and college. They have higher teenage birth rates, infant mortality rates, and shorter life spans. They are incarcerated and live in poverty at higher rates.
Not only has the dream of overcoming racism and discrimination not yet been achieved, but there are also those who actively support a return to the institutionalization of new forms of economic segregation and discrimination that denies many citizens of their rights.
Some would say that García’s mission has been accomplished, but unfortunately, we know that is not true.
The Dr. Héctor P. García Foundation will honor the legacy of Dr. Garcia by supporting people, projects, and actions that will protect the rights of all through the funding of scholarships, educational grants, and community building efforts.
The Dr. Héctor P. García Foundation, as did the man which it honors, will also promote the fair treatment, support, and honoring of those who have served our country in the armed forces.
For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (TitansoftheTexasLegislature.com).