Garcia, Dr. Hector Perez

Dr. Hector Perez Garcia (1914-1996) was an advocate for Hispanic-American rights during the Chicano movement. He was the first Mexican-American member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission and was awarded the Medal of Freedom. In 1948, he founded the American GI Forum in Corpus Christi, Texas, to assist veterans and their families with educational, health, employment, and civil rights issues. Today, the forum has 150,000 members and chapters in a number of states.




Biographical Highlights

Dr. Hector Perez Garcia (1914-1996) was a passionate advocate for Hispanic-American rights in the United States. He was described by Commander Rudy Escalante (2003) as a "devoted father of a fine and accomplished family, a concerned citizen, dedicated physician, beloved humanitarian, and the most prominent Mexican-American civil rights leader to emerge in the United States immediately after World War II."

Upon his return after serving voluntarily in the Army during WWII, Dr. Garcia provided medical assistance to those who could not afford it or to those who were denied treatment. He founded the American GI Forum in March 1948 in Corpus Christi, Texas, in response to the many acts of discrimination he and his fellow Mexican Americans suffered. It was also an avenue to encourage Mexican Americans to keep their children in school.

Dr. Garcia was instrumental in several presidential campaigns and has often been compared to Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for his dedication to his people. His many relationships with presidents, senators, ambassadors and civic leaders were not always considered friendly. Nevertheless, he was a well-respected leader among all who interacted with him.


Historic Roots

Hector Perez Garcia was born in Llera, Tamaulipas state, Mexico on January 17, 1914, to Jose and Faustina Perez Garcia. He was one of seven children. When Perez was only four years old, his parents legally immigrated to Mercedes, Texas, in the Rio Grande Valley. Their sudden departure was prompted by an attack on their village during the Mexican Revolution.

Jose Garcia, Hector's father, attempted to continue his education but his credentials were unacceptable in the U.S. The family settled in Mercedes with family and helped run a dry goods store. In spite of the obstacles, Jose Garcia was adamant about his children receiving the best education possible. He and his wife dedicated their time to educating their children at home and stressing the importance of a good education in order to succeed in life.

During a period of time when Mexican Americans typically dropped out of school by third grade, Dr. Garcia graduated as valedictorian of his high school class, graduated with honors from the University of Texas in 1936, and was admitted into the University of Texas medical school in Galveston. He graduated with his M.D. degree in 1940.

In 1942, Dr. Garcia volunteered for Army duty during WWII. He served as an infantry officer and a combat engineer officer. Though unable to practice medicine for a while in the Army, he finally served as a medical corps officer before being discharged in 1946 as a major. He was awarded a Bronze Star with six battle stars for his service on the battlefields of North Africa and Italy.

It was in Italy that he met Wanda Fusillo, who would later become his wife. They had their first child shortly after getting married and moved to Texas immediately after he was discharged from the Army. Mrs. Garcia was quoted in a historical document by Carl Allsup: "In Italy and many European countries that I have visited, the word 'America' was always associated with liberty, equality and freedom of opportunity.I was dumbfounded at the attitudes displayed towards the Mexican people" ("Dr. Hector P. Garcia" 2000).

Upon his return to Texas, Garcia opened a clinic next door to the United States Veteran's Administration office in Corpus Christi. Most of his patients were Hispanic veterans who had been denied medical treatment. The Veteran's Administration offered him $3 per patient that he signed up in his clinic. This was considered a great accomplishment during this time considering the many displays of discrimination Hispanics experienced at the time.

Through treating soldiers and other poor Mexican-American families, Dr. Garcia became aware of the intolerable discrimination his people suffered. He described his times as having discrimination everywhere. His people had to pay to vote, went to segregated schools, were not allowed to enjoy public places and were not allowed to buy land outside of the "barrio." In March 1948, he officially organized his first meeting of the American G.I. Forum with the participation of hundreds of Hispanic-American veterans. Even though Wanda Garcia did not know Spanish, she demonstrated her support by accompanying her husband to several organizing rallies for the American G.I. Forum. She helped by passing out literature to the attendees. Within months, branches of the A.G.I.F. opened throughout Texas.

One incident that helped increase the significance of the A.G.I.F. was the unfair treatment of Private Felix Longoria. He was a soldier who had been killed while in combat in the Philippines. His family approached Dr. Garcia for assistance with Longoria's burial in his hometown of Three Rivers, Texas, after the owner of the only mortuary in town would not allow a Mexican American to have chapel services. Dr.

Garcia quickly set out to right this wrong by reporting the mortuary owner's statement to the media and sending telegrams to congressmen, the governor and senators, including Senator Lyndon Johnson. The injustice became a national story which prompted a quick response from Senator Johnson who offered to have Private Longoria buried with full military honors in Arlington National Cemetery. Longoria's family accepted.

The Longoria Incident resulted in the expansion of G.I. Forum chapters to New Mexico and Colorado. By 1954, the organization began holding national conventions. Dr. Garcia never hesitated in his advocacy efforts. He led A.G.I.F. in battles against school segregation, equality and fairness in court proceedings, and supporting presidential candidates. Even during his last days, he met with community leaders from his bed to discuss strategies for A.G.I.F. chapters. Dr. Hector P. Garcia died a highly-respected Hispanic leader in July 1996 in Corpus Christi, Texas.


Importance

The American G.I. Forum became an advocate for all Hispanics and broadened its activities throughout the states to promote civic affairs. Dr. Garcia was recognized by the nation for his work in service to America in being presented the country's highest civilian award, the Medal of Freedom by President Ronald Reagan. He was honored further by having his pioneer work for veterans and public affairs recognized by the United States Treasury - a new series of savings bonds was issued with the $75 bond bearing Dr. Garcia's portrait.

He forged alliances with instrumental civic leaders and elected officials throughout his life. An example of his dedication and talent were illustrated by his ability to mobilize voters during the 1960 presidential election. He formed the "Viva Kennedy Clubs" and helped deliver the Hispanic vote for the Democratic nominee, John F. Kennedy.

His passion for justice extended into wiping out the blight of poor housing, providing job opportunities and speaking to anyone who would listen about the importance of an education. He was highly respected by many in his community and in the political world for his ability to articulate his values and passion for equality. Dr. Garcia served as a delegate to the United Nations with ambassadorial rank and was the first Mexican-American member of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission. In spite of all the political activities in which he participated, he always considered himself "a doctor and a humanitarian" (Justice for My People 2003).


Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Dr. Garcia's philosophy was very simple. All Americans deserve the same access to freedom and opportunity. His beliefs were not always openly welcomed, though, most often, they were respected. Many community leaders, humanitarians and political superiors were in support of Dr. Garcia's passion for equality. He was able to achieve much of his work through A.G.I.F.'s membership fees from individuals who joined its many chapters. The organization's viability and need are evident today as its membership numbers almost 150,000. Fundraisers still present a primary goal of assisting families and veterans in need. Notably, government grants are a large source of income for the organization.


Key Related Ideas

Chicano Movement - Consisted of a large grass-roots effort to raise public awareness and equality for Mexicans and Hispanics in the United States. A number of organizations, including A.G.I.F., focused public attention on a variety of issues related to the opportunities, treatment and working conditions of these peoples.

"Education is our Freedom, and Freedom should be Everybody's Business" - This was Dr. Garcia's motto ("Dr. Hector P. Garcia" 2000). Public appearances and interviews included this statement as the one that represented his reason for being involved in this cause.

Equality - Achieving equality for his fellow veterans was the primary purpose for Dr. Garcia's crusade. In turn, equality among students and Mexican Americans became the driving force for the A.G.I.F.

Justice - Dr. Garcia also became involved in ensuring that the justice system treated Mexican Americans equally.

La Raza - A term used to describe individuals of Hispanic descent. It was also used significantly during the Chicano Movement.


Important People Related to the Topic

President Jimmy Carter - Served as 39th president; appointed Dr. Garcia as a member of U.S. Circuit Judge Nominating Commission and the White House Conference on Balanced National Growth and Economic Development.

Edna Ferber - Pulitzer Prize winning author who wrote a book in 1952 entitled Giant which was made into a movie in 1956. The book included two Dr. Garcia-inspired incidents (Felix Longoria case and his wife being refused service in a café).

Dr. Cleo Garcia - Longtime Corpus Christi physician, community advocate, and younger sister of Dr. Hector P. Garcia. Dr. Clotilde P. Garcia is also well-known for her leading role in promoting Hispanic genealogy and history.

President Lyndon B. Johnson - Served as thirty-sixth president; appointed Dr. Garcia as a delegate to the United Nations with the rank of ambassador.

President John F. Kennedy - Served as thirty-fifth president. Dr. Garcia was instrumental for the Kennedy campaign during the election by coordinating the "Viva Kennedy Clubs." As a result, Kennedy received 85% of the Mexican-American vote.

President Ronald Reagan - Served as fortieth president; awarded Dr. Garcia with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.


Related Nonprofit Organizations

American G.I. Forum - Organization founded by Dr. Garcia in 1948 to assist veterans and their families with housing, employment and support services. The Forum's motto is: "Education is Freedom and Freedom should be Everybody's Business." This concept is the basis for two of its largest programs: the Veterans Outreach Program (VOP) and Ser-Jobs for Progress (SER).

League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) - Modeled after civic organizations in the United States. LULAC promoted the idea that Mexican Americans should establish roots in the United States and mix with the dominant society in all aspects of life. The League's current mission is to advance the economic condition, educational attainment, political influence, health and civil rights of the Hispanic population of the United States.



Related Web Sites

American G.I. Forum Web site , at http://www.agif.org , provides a history of Dr. Garcia, (its founder) and Private Longoria, as well as information relevant to Hispanic G.I.s: association news, scholarships, a veteran's outreach program, an award program, a link to recent legislation affecting veterans, memorial benefits, and more.

League of United Latin American Citizens Web site , at http://www.lulac.org , provides information for the public and the organization's members, including a history, League events, programs, publications, internship and employment opportunities, and congressional policy issues.



Bibliography

n.a. "Dr. Hector P. Garcia, A Mexican-American Fighter for Equality and Justice," La Voz de Aztlan I (14 February 2000): 4.

Averyt, Libby. "President Clinton Mourns Garcia," Corpus Christi Coastal Bend South Texas News , 22 January 2002.

Escalante, Rudy. "Commander's Report, April 1998." American GI Forum Orange County Rudy Escalante Chapter/Larry Amaya Chapter Web site. [cited 7 April 2003]. Available from http://www.angelfire.com/ca/Chicanoveterans/REPORT.HTM

Estrada, Richard. "Garcia Sought Equality Via Inclusiveness," The Dallas Morning News , August 1996.

Justice for My People. Dr. Hector P. Garcia . [updated 2002; cited 25 January 2003]. Available from http://www.justiceformypeople.org .

Perez, Toni. Dr. Hector Perez Garcia: Founder of the American GI Forum . [updated January 2002; cited 27 January 2003]. Available from http://www.inficad.com/~1stbooks/forum1.htm .

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.