the UCLA Chicano Studies Research Center,
the Arhoolie Foundation,
and the UCLA Digital Library
Mexican-Americans have always felt a patriotic pride in performing military service to their adopted homeland. But they’ve had to fight on another front, too: getting due credit for doing their duty.
Ten years ago, filmmaker Ken Burns came under fire for ignoring the contributions of Latino soldiers in his World War II documentary, The War. After activists intensely lobbied PBS, which aired the documentary, the filmmaker begrudgingly amended his film to represent the 300,000 Latinos who fought in that war.
As a documentarian, Burns would have done well to consult the Frontera Collection, repository of many recordings about immigrants going to war. Historically, many of these wartime tracks serve as the sole primary source for this immigrant demographic of fighting-age men. In the absence of access to other media, records became a popular way for Mexican-Americans to express their feelings about serving their country and coming home, sometimes to an indifferent nation.
These songs capture, among other things, the patriotic fervor of the Mexican-American community. A few refer to World War II. But there’s a whole trove of songs dealing with the thousands of Chicano warriors who fought in Korea and Vietnam. More recent recordings focus on Desert Storm and the war in Iraq.
Today, as anti-immigrant sentiment swells, the issue is in the news once again. A battle is waging over the rights of Latinos and other immigrants who fulfilled their military service and expected to gain U.S. citizenship in return. Or at least, they believed their service would protect them from being deported. Yet, hundreds of veterans have been deported to Mexico, and thousands more are living in a state of bureaucratic limbo as their special, fast-tracked citizenship petitions have stalled.
There’s one song in the collection that most clearly expresses the sense of betrayal felt by Mexican Americans when the U.S. fails to honor their service, and the outrage when they continue to be treated as second-class citizens after they come home, dead or alive. The song is a corrido that tells the story of a Felix Longoria Jr., a soldier killed during World War II who was denied a wake by his hometown mortuary because, as his widow was told, “the Anglo people would not stand for it.”
The case gained national attention and became known as “The Longoria Affair.” Pvt. Longoria was born in Three Rivers, Texas, a tiny town located between San Antonio and Corpus Christi. He worked as a truck driver until he was drafted in 1944. He was killed seven months later when his unit was ambushed in the Philippines. But his remains were not returned to the U.S. for another four years, though it would take even longer for him be laid to rest.
The controversy over his memorial services deeply divided the town, which had a separate cemetery for Mexican Americans. Local community activists – especially Dr. Hector P. García, a physician and WW II veteran who had just founded the G. I. Forum – finally got the attention of a freshman senator who took up the cause. His name was Lyndon Baines Johnson. The future president allowed for Longoria to be buried with honors at Arlington National Cemetery, in the nation’s capital.
The 1948 case is considered a milestone in the battle for Mexican-American civil rights, and it helped launch the G.I. Forum as a major national organization. The case was also the subject of a 2010 PBS documentary by filmmaker John. J. Valadez.
The story of Felix Longoria is also detailed in the eight verses of the song entitled “Discriminación a un Mártir” (The Discrimination of a Martyr), performed by Conjunto Tamaulipas on Oro Records, a tiny label based in McAllen, Texas. Like a true corrido, the lyrics, by composer Willie López, cleave closely to the facts of the case while editorial opinion fuels the narrative.
En Tres Ríos sucedió, en los tiempos de la guerra:
Félix Longoria murió peleando por esta tierra.
En Filipinas murió este valiente soldado;
pero nunca imaginó que iba a ser discriminado.
Cuando el cuerpo del soldado llegó con sus familiares,
la mortuoria de su pueblo le negó sus funerales.
Esa es discriminación para el pobre ser humano;
ni siquiera en el panteón admiten al mejicano.
Johnson siendo senador por el estado de Texas,
se le ablando el corazón al escuchar nuestras quejas.
Y pidió a la capital los restos de este soldado;
y en el panteón nacional, Félix quedó sepultado.
Murió en la segunda guerra por defender su nación,
Hoy lo cubre la tierra del mas famoso panteón
En el panteón nacional descansa Félix Longoria,
donde descansan los héroes, que Dios lo tenga en La Gloria.
There is another corrido about World War II that is worth a listen. Titled “Hundimiento del Potrero del Llano,” it’s a rousing recounting of the sinking of a Mexican oil tanker which was torpedoed by a German U-boat off the Florida coast on May 13, 1942. The incident cost the lives of 14 Mexican sailors and motivated Mexico to declare war on Germany.
The peppy song, recorded by Ray y Laurita and released by RCA Victor Mexicana, uses the tragedy to inspire an infectious loyalty at all levels of society in defense of Mexico. Written by Antonio Allegre, it carries a subtitle that describes its purpose: “Corrido a la memoria de sus victimas.”
Another song about that same incident, El Corrido del Potrero del Llano, written by Manuel Esquivel and performed by a different duo, Martin y Eloisa, is included in a full album of songs about World War II from a Mexican perspective. The album is appropriately entitled La Segunda Guerra Mundial - Su Musica, and also includes a song in solidarity with all the countries of the American continent, “America Unida” by Julio Flores.
I found these and hundreds of other songs using the topic tags associated with every entry in the collection. I searched the terms “war” and ”soldier” to begin with and, of course, got huge lists of songs that touch on those topics. A great many of them are corridos about the Mexican Revolution and its heroes, which is a topic for another day. But two classic corridos about revolutionary soldiers are worth a mention for now: “La Adelita” about the iconic female fighter, and “El Soldado Razo” (also spelled “raso” in error) about the lowly grunt who proudly accepts his conscription into combat.
A few items from my search proved extraneous, such as the instrumental tune “Hawaiian War Chant,” by Cuba’s mambo king Perez Prado. I also came across a cover version of the soul hit “Why Can’t We Be Friends” by the band WAR, translated as “Vamos a Tratar” (Let’s Try) by Tex-Mex singer Steve Jordan.
I then narrowed my list manually, selecting songs about Mexican-Americans and the U.S. wars in which they participated. The sentiments expressed in these songs range from gung-ho nationalism to the sadness of a resigned recruit facing an unknown future. Many songs are personal. A few deal with the trauma of soldiers in war zones getting “Dear John” letters from their wives or girlfriends. Many, many others follow the theme of “El Soldado Razo” by invoking the soldier’s mother – saying goodbye, worrying about her welfare, or hoping for a happy reunion. And finally, there are songs about soldiers coming back from war to fight for their civil rights at home.
In next week’s blog, I’ll explore some of these wartime tunes about Mexican-Americans who fought in Vietnam, Korea and Iraq.