Mexican American Soldiers in World War II
Images of soldiers returning home being greeted with parades and homecoming ceremonies reflect the joyous end to World War II. However, many soldiers faced uncertain futures because they had entered the military from a country experiencing an economic depression. They did not know if they would find jobs or be able to start or support families. In addition, African Americans and Hispanic Americans continued to experience continued discrimination. A group of Hispanic American soldiers in Emporia described some of the challenges of discrimination they faced.
Ambrose Lopez, Sylvester Rodriguez, Bennie Gomez, and Louis Silva, all of Emporia, were working for the Santa Fe Railway when Pearl Harbor was bombed December 7, 1941. Antonio Tabares, an Emporia native, was working for Bethlehem Steel in Chicago at the time. Nearly 65 years later, these five Emporia men and other Kansans were interviewed as part of the Kansas Veterans of World War II Oral History Project funded by the Kansas Legislature in 2005. The veterans told stories of their lives before, during, and after the war.
The men from Emporia recall a climate of racial prejudice prior to and after the war. “We weren't allowed to go to a certain part of the movie houses,” Lopez recalled. “We had to sit in a certain part ... apart from the white people.”
“When it came to Emporia,” Silva said, “there was a lot of prejudice. You couldn't go to a lot of places to eat, and if you liked to go to a bar, you had to go in the back, you know, and drink a beer in the back part of the bar. You couldn’t sit in front.”
Once they began their military service, the men said they experienced little racial discrimination. Each said that they were the only Hispanic men in their unit.
Tabares was a private first class in the Army Air Corps when he and other men were waiting for a train in El Paso. The station had segregated restrooms. “... I had to go to the bathroom, and I went into the black one. And before I entered a guy was right there and said, ‘Where in the hell are you going?’ I said, ‘I have to go to the bathroom.’ He said, ‘You can't go in there.’ I said, ‘Why? It says black. Where am I supposed to go?’ He said, ‘Up there.’ But that was white. I said, ‘Have you got one for brown?’ ‘Oh, don't be so silly, get in there!’” Tabares, who was eventually promoted to staff sergeant, supervised mechanics in the 524th Fighter Squadron until he left the service in 1945.
Rodriguez served from 1946 until 1948 in the 35th Constabulary Squadron and 42nd Construction Squadron. He said that when he returned to Emporia after the war, there were few positions available for minorities. “There weren’t any jobs,” Rodriguez said. “The only ones there were was Santa Fe and the packing house and that’s it.” He added, “Things started changing in the 1960s when they were having all these civil rights marches.”
Gomez was married with children when he enlisted in the Navy in 1944. He said coming home presented a challenge for him and his family. “Just getting back on track after you’ve been in the Navy, doing things different. It takes a while to get back into a routine.”
In addition to the challenges every veteran had to face when returning home, Lopez experienced discrimination. “We couldn’t go into restaurants,” he said. “When I got out of the service we couldn’t join the VFW or the American Legion ... they had some guy in Wichita who started a forum, a Mexican GI Forum they called it. We had one here in Emporia for awhile.”
The American GI Forum was established in 1948 to address the concerns of Hispanic American veterans like those profiled here, who did not receive the same benefits as non-minority veterans. Most of the men in this story joined the VFW and American Legion after membership was opened to minority veterans.
Entry: Mexican American Soldiers in World War II
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: January 2010
Date Modified: May 2012
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